- "Powerful—Very Powerful Is the Parental Feeling"Fatherhood, Domestic Politics, and the New York City Working Men's Party
Formed in 1829 as one of the nation's first prolabor political parties, the New York City Working Men's Party (WMP) quickly established its position as a lightning rod for public discussion of social issues.1 Although it existed as a viable electoral force for less then two years, the party inspired intense debate on wide-ranging topics from land inheritance to education to birth control. However, the WMP hardly presented a unified ideological front; strong disagreements eventually tore the movement apart. Throughout 1830 and especially in the months before the November election, factionalism within the party peaked as three separate groups, each claiming to truly represent the working men of the city, took turns hurling abuse at one another.
In the midst of the mudslinging, Thomas Skidmore, the leader of the agrarian faction, published "rights of children" in his newspaper, The Friend of Equal Rights. Skidmore noticed that "Paine and others have written in behalf of the rights of men. Miss Wolstoncraft and others in favour of the Rights of Women; but few or none have said any thing in behalf of the rights of Children. Political writers, in their theories, and governments in their practice, [End Page 192] have considered them as scarcely having any rights at all."2 After he detailed children's natural right to food, shelter, clothing, and mental and physical education, he contrasted these rights with what philanthropic charity provided them. Like the vast majority of Working Men, Skidmore was a father and grounded his political ideology in the concerns of fatherhood and ensuring the welfare of future generations.3 Far from divorcing the political arena from the domestic arena, Working Men developed a party platform saturated with domestic issues. This essay argues that competing visions of fatherhood and the question of how best to provide for children guided the Working Men's Party in New York between 1829 and 1831.
First, this essay quickly narrates the factional drama that consumed both the WMP and those who have studied it. While detailing the machinations of this factional debate is necessary for analyzing the WMP, this process has often overwhelmed attempts to interpret the events of these chaotic few years. This analysis is not concerned with determining whether any of the three factions embodied an "authentic" and "radical" Working Men's (or Workies') agenda.4 Second, I show that the WMP movement developed through specific gendered terms, demonstrating how issues of masculine identity came to the forefront of this political endeavor. I argue that the three factions embodied three discrete interpretations of what it meant to be a proper working father and that their conflict stemmed from their competing visions of how best to govern children. Third, I analyze the party's short life through four of its most important and contentious platform concerns: agrarianism, education, worker morality, and birth control. When one steps back from the day-to-day wrangling of the WMP, a very different picture emerges of the party, one in which the relationship between fathers and children took center stage and accounted for the factional division that eventually led to the WMP's demise. [End Page 193]
The rise and fall of the Working Men's Party is an oft-told tale. Its first histories appeared less than a decade after the party's collapse, and it has been a topic of frequent study and speculation ever since.5 Following a bitterly cold and economically sluggish winter, journeymen artisans met in April 1829 in reaction to their employers' anticipated move to impose an eleven-hour workday in the building trades.6 The meetings convened a Committee of Fifty, which worked to produce a report and plan of action over the summer, even though the issue of longer workdays seems to have resolved itself quickly. Meanwhile, Robert Dale Owen, who had moved to New York in June from his father's planned community at New Harmony, followed a summer of writing in support of the Committee of Fifty with the creation of the "Association for the Protection of Industry...