William H. Sylvis

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William Sylvis (1828-1869), American labor leader.

William H. Sylvis (1828–1869) was a pioneer American trade union leader. Sylvis is best remembered as a founder of the Iron Molders' International Union and the National Labor Union, the latter being one of the first American union federations attempting to unite workers of various crafts into a single national organization.


Early years[edit]

William H. Sylvis was born in 1828 in the borough of Armagh, Pennsylvania, the second son of Nicholas and Maria Mott Sylvis, native-born Americans of Irish extraction who each traced their American ancestry back to the pre-revolutionary period.[1] Nicholas' father was a maker of canal boats and repairman of wagons who found great difficulty earning enough money to support his family.[2] During the Panic of 1837 the family's financial situation became particularly grave and young William was sent to live on the homestead of a prosperous neighbor named Pawling,[3] earning his keep there by helping with chores around the farm.[2]

The change of family setting proved beneficial for Sylvis from an educational standpoint, who was taught to read and write by his new employer.[3] Sylvis attended school for the first time at age of 11.[2] He proved to be a voracious reader and took full advantage of the library at the farm estate, owned as it was by a man who had been elected to the Pennsylvania State Assembly.[2]

Iron molder[edit]

In 1846 the 18-year-old Sylvis left the farmstead to learn the trade of iron molding — fabricating products by pouring molten metal into wooden patterns.[4]

In 1851 the 23-year-old Sylvis married 15-year-old Amelia A. Thomas.[4] The union ultimately produced three sons, who were named after contemporary heroes — Henry Clay Sylvis, Oliver Perry Sylvis, and Lewis Clark Sylvis.[4] Following his wife's death in 1865, Sylvis remarried; he ultimately fathered a total of five children.[5]

Sylvis found his way to Philadelphia where he became active in the local trade union movement, serving as secretary of the Philadelphia molders' union.[6] A spontaneous October 1857 strike over a proposed wage cut in the shop at which he was working was the precipitating event in Sylvis' entry into the labor movement.[7] The shop's workers met and chose William Sylvis as their Secretary, from which sprung the organization which later became Iron-Moulders Union no. 1.[7]

In this capacity Sylvis communicated with other local iron molders' unions with a view to establishing a national organization that could obtain higher wages for molders nationwide.[6] Upon receiving positive feedback, Sylvis circulated a formal convention call to establish such a national organization, with the founding gathering held in Philadelphia on July 5, 1859.[8]

A provisional federation of local molders unions followed, culminating in 1860 with the establishment of the National Union of Iron Molders.[8]

During the American Civil War Sylvis aided the Union forces, despite having supported Stephen A. Douglas in the Presidential election of 1860.[9] Early in the conflict Sylvis recruited a regiment on behalf of the Union Army, although he himself declined the offer of a commission as a 1st Lieutenant due to his wife's vehement objection.[10] Several months later he established a militia company composed of Philadelphia iron molders, serving as a Sergeant with the group for several months.[10]

In 1863 Sylvis was elected President of the flagging National Union of Iron Molders,[11] a group which had virtually gone extinct during the wartime years. He subsequently traveled over 10,000 miles on behalf of the union, giving public speeches and organizing union locals.[11] Sylvis persuaded the locals that he visited to bring their often disparate by-laws into conformity with a single national constitution, helping to unite the loose federation of local groups into a more centralized organization, which had changed its name to the Iron Molders' International Union at its 1863 conclave.[12] During the course of his 1863 travels, Sylvis single-handedly formed 19 new molders' locals, reorganized 16 others which had fallen by the wayside after the outbreak of the war in 1861, and helped to solidify 12 more locals.[13] In recognition of his service Sylvis was re-elected head of the union in 1864.[13]

Under Sylvis the Molders' Union reworked its financial system, selling union cards and charters and collecting national dues — actions which managed to place the struggling union on a firm financial basis for the first time.[12] Sylvis also created the union's first national strike fund, generated by a compulsory tax upon the membership.[14]

Organizing the National Labor Union[edit]

In February 1866 Sylvis set his sights on the establishment of an organization that was broader still — a federation of unions which would be able to bring workers of different crafts together under a single organizational umbrella. Sylvis joined William Harding, president of the Coach Makers' International Union and Jonathan Fincher, head of the Machinists and Blacksmiths Union at a Philadelphia meeting to discuss the organization of such a national labor federation.[15]

The trio resolved to hold another planning session in New York City, to which would be invited other prominent trade union leaders. This March 26, 1866 session was attended by a group of 11 delegates, who set in motion preparations for an August convention to be held in Baltimore, Maryland under the auspices of the Baltimore Trades Assembly.[15] The end result of this preparatory period was the establishment of a new national federation, the National Labor Union (NLU).[15]

The founding convention of the NLU opened on August 20, 1866. It was attended by 60 delegates, representing 43 local trade unions, 11 trade assemblies, 4 Eight-hour Leagues, and two national or international unions.[15] Ironically, William Sylvis, arguably the founding father of the organization, was unable to attend the gathering due to illness.[16] While Sylvis carefully followed the work of the five-day convention, he was critical of its work, declaring that it had built a "splendid track, placed upon it a locomotive complete in all its parts; provided an engineer and numerous assistants, placed them upon the footboard, told them to go ahead and then suddenly adjourned without providing wood or water to get up steam..."[17]

During this interval Sylvis did not work as a trade union functionary, instead entering the world of journalism as co-editor of the Chicago broadsheet Workingman's Advocate, regarded as the most influential labor newspaper of the day.[18] Thinking broadly about prospects for the labor movement as a vehicle to drive political policy, Sylvis came to see the NLU as a potential vehicle for social and economic reform, including the establishment of producer cooperatives, the 8-hour work day, and currency reform.[5]

Sylvis was elected president of the NLU at its third convention, held in New York City in August 1868.[7] He also authored the organization's platform adopted at that gathering.[7] By this juncture Sylvis had become an advocate of international organization of the working class through the vehicle of the International Workingmen's Association, the so-called "First International."[7] He also declared that neither of the old political parties truly represented the interests of the working class and sought to transform the NLU into a workingmen's political party.[5]

Death at an early age intervened, however, and Sylvis's vision of a broad and powerful National Labor Union and its associated National Reform Party ultimately came to naught.

Death and legacy[edit]

William Sylvis died in 1869. He was just 41 years old at the time of his death.

In 1990 the state of Pennsylvania honored Sylvis with the dedication of a historical marker at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pennsylvania.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ David Montgomery, "William H. Sylvis and the Search for Working-Class Citizenship," in Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine (eds.), Labor Leaders in America. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987; pg. 3.
  2. ^ a b c d Montgomery, "William H. Sylvis and the Search for Working-Class Citizenship," pg. 4.
  3. ^ a b Morris Hillquit, History of Socialism in the United States. Revised and enlarged 5th Edition. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1910; pg. 166.
  4. ^ a b c Montgomery, "William H. Sylvis and the Search for Working-Class Citizenship," pg. 5.
  5. ^ a b c Donald G. Sofchalk, "William H. Sylvis," in Gary M. Fink (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. Second edition. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984; pg. 541.
  6. ^ a b Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor. New York: International Publishers, 1947; pp. 236-237.
  7. ^ a b c d e Tim Davenport, "Organizational History of the 'International Working Men's Association,'" Early American Marxism website, www.marxisthistory.org/
  8. ^ a b Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, pg. 237.
  9. ^ Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, pg. 295.
  10. ^ a b Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, pg. 309.
  11. ^ a b c "William H. Sylvis Historical Marker," Explore PA History, explorepahistory.com/
  12. ^ a b Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, pg. 346.
  13. ^ a b Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, pg. 348.
  14. ^ Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, pp. 346-347.
  15. ^ a b c d Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, pg. 371.
  16. ^ Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, pg. 375.
  17. ^ James C. Sylvis (ed.), The Life, Speeches, Labors and Essays of William H. Sylvis: Late President of the Iron-Moulders' International Union; and also of the National Labor Union. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 1872; pg. 7. Quoted in Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 1, pg. 375.
  18. ^ Montgomery, "William H. Sylvis and the Search for Working-Class Citizenship," pg. 13.


Further reading[edit]

  • Gerald G. Eggert, The Iron Industry in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1994.
  • Jonathan P. Grossman, William Sylvis, Pioneer of American Labor: A Study of the Labor Movement during the Era of the Civil War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.
  • Reed C. Richardson, Labor Leaders, 1860's. Ithaca: New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, 1955.
  • Charlotte Todes, William H. Sylvis and the National Labor Union. New York: International Publishers, 1942.