McGuire or Maguire: Who Fathered Labor Day?

McGuire or Maguire? Peter or Matthew? New York or New Jersey?

New York carpenter Peter J. McGuire (left) and New Jersey machinist Matthew Maguire (right).

Could it be that even good old Labor Day, a time for parades and picnics was just an elaborate excuse for another good old struggle for power?

Not working on holidays – but getting paid for it.

Working on holidays but not getting paid enough.

Working to earn money to be spent when not working.

Working hard to find work that gives the most time off from work.

And workers leaving countries where they get weeks of vacation time coming to work here.

There’s so much irony and paradox about work in the United States that nobody wants to think about it on Labor Day.

It’s even more of a headache thinking about Labor Day on Labor Day, the alleged facts of its founding being in a state of perpetual conflict.

Peter McGuire – did he really start it?

Credit for the holiday was almost always given to the New York carpenter Peter J. McGuire, born in 1852, one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor.

It’s no coincidence, however, that the person who first and most persistently gave Peter McGuire credit was the famous union leader Samuel Gompers – the other founder of the American Federation of Labor.

The other side of the story is that New Jersey machinist Matthew Maguire, head of the Central Labor Union was the name everyone knew for having organized the very first time the annual holiday honored the nation’s skilled and manual laborers.

To some, recent evidence reveals that the first Labor Day, held in New York on September 5, 1882, was an elaborate ruse for a secret meeting of socialists and that the parade was really a demonstration against capitalism and the massive picnic in a park which followed gave operatives the chance to pontificate over beers and bratwursts, the whole day intended to appear to the gullible press and public as a festival, when in fact it distracted them from minding the details of a plot to overthrow capitalism.

Or was it Matthew Maguire?

To others, it was a rare day off which gathered hard-working Americans together to carry out their freedom of expression in a peaceful, honest manner, simply asking for fairness and enjoying the nice weather together.

There’s not disputing the fact that Peter McGuire was one of the most famous labor union leaders in the country and one of the most important speakers at the first Labor Day.

There’s also no disputing the fact that Matthew Maguire had signed and sent out the invitation to other smaller labor unions to get their members out for the big day. What most people didn’t realize was that his group, the Central Labor Union, was aligned, off-the-record, with the feared Noble Order of the Knights of Labor.

A Knights of Labor declaration.

The Knights had originated as a group of tailors from Philadelphia, in 1869, and it was widely believed that in their determination to empower exploited factory and other manual laborers were willing to mount the sort of massive protests that would not stop at violence if necessary. Many of the Knights were also avowed socialists, which advocated that the wealthy captains of industry should share their profits and spread their wealth gained by the dangerous toil of workers. To the most alarmed of capitalists, Socialism was a direct threat to Democracy. Because of this, the Knights kept their membership and activities secret, fearing infiltration by spies or others seeking to undermine and even outlaw the group.

By today’s standards, it hardly seems rationale that the great danger posed to capitalists by the Central Labor Union and the Knights was simply to limit the work day to eight hours – instead of the ten and twelve hour days that workers were required to put it, or face being fired. The massive immigration that had already begun in American cities, however, had given factory owners the advantage of cheap and readily available labor: since there were so many people in search of work, they could fire employees or let them be injured on the job without any repercussions.

The Labor Day Parade. (www.ashp.cuny.edu)

In his booklet The First Labor Day Parade, author Ted Watts further revealed that Matthew Maguire specifically chose September fifth as the day to invite labor union leaders and their thousands of members to march in New York because a secret meeting of Knights had already been scheduled at the same time. By taking advantage of the large amount of workers already planning to be in New York coming to it, the massive turnout would give the public and politicians a showing of just how powerful organized labor had become.

Carrying the nation, so to speak: a 1918 parade.

To further guarantee large numbers, the Central Labor Union had even required its members to march with banners identifying their trades and unified demand for an eight-hour workday.

That first Labor Day proved successful, some 10,000 labor union member going from City Hall to Union Square in a “parade” or “demonstration march” – depending on the perspective of who was characterizing the event.

Rochester New York crowds waiting for the 1917 Labor Day parade.

Having organized the event, Matthew Maguire sat back to enjoy it a bit, leading the parade while seated with his wife Martha in an open carriage. Even then, there was a celebrity involved: the fiery preacher and national lecturer Henry Ward Beecher was crammed into the carriage with Matt and Martha.

The parade of union delegations carried banners, a few of which some fretting industrials might fear to be subversive of capitalism, like “We Must Crush Monopolies Lest They Crush Us,” and “Labor Creates All Wealth,” but most were reasonable, along the lines of “A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work” and “Labor Will Be United.”

The brewery union in the 1919 Rochester Labor Day parade.

There was no hiding the primary objective of negotiating an eight-hour work day. One prominent band that played and marched in the parade was composed entirely of an African-American labor union led by Wendell Phillips.

A Labor Day postcard of the early 2oth century.

The parade snaked past a grandstand, crammed full of almost fifty important labor union leaders, most of whom had something important to say.

As speakers droned on into the band music without any sound amplification, few people heard or listened to anything subversive of democracy. Most of the folks there were happy just to take the day off – even without pay, and bring along their wife and kids to relax. In the park there were game booths and a ferris wheel, dancing and a fireworks display.

The majority of those in attendance were either immigrants or children of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and France, and flags of those nations were hung, intertwined with the U.S.A.’s red-white-and-blue.

It’s clear that Peter McGuire did speak that day, either from the grandstand or in the park to the post-parade crowd, by then relaxing with a beer, bratwurst or cigar – a good percentage of whom did not speak English. Wherever it was, in later years he stated that he had declared then and there that Labor Day must be an annual event and celebrated throughout the nation.

A contemporary Labor Day card – a rarity.

And it was. The next two Labor Day celebrations took place on the specific date of September fifth, even though it didn’t fall on a Monday those years. Finally, on the third such annual celebration, it was scheduled for the first Monday in September and the Central Labor Union implored all unions to coordinate this “workingmen’s holiday” on the same day.

One by one, each state made it a legal holiday until 1894 when Congress fixed the holiday permanently on the first Monday in September and it went to President Grover Cleveland for his signature.

Grover Cleveland shakes hands with kids and adults in the East Room.

Declaring a national holiday, however, was easier than forcing big business to enact humane practices towards it workers. The Labor Day bill on his desk gave President Cleveland a way of looking better in the eyes of labor unions, having notoriously ordered the famous attack on striking Pullman railroad car workers. Determined to separate American labor from aligning with the global worker-rights movement which used the first of May as their rallying day, he kept the date for the holiday fixed on the first Monday in September.

After making Labor Day official, however, the President declared that he’d give the pen he used to sign the bill to the biggest celebrity labor leader of the day, the media-savvy co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers.

Gompers who tried to rewrite the history of Labor Day.

And so began the disputed paternity of Labor Day.

The first salvo was fired in a July 2, 1894 editorial by Matthew Maguire hometown New Jersey paper, The Paterson Morning Call under the headline, “Honor to Whom Honor is Due.” The editorial unequivocally declared that “the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.”

Not only didn’t Matthew Maguire become America’s first Socialist Vice President but his candidacy likely cost him the credit for Labor Day.

Without realizing the public relations consequence of his running as the Socialist Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1896, Matthew Maguire was soon being edged out of the solidifying history of Labor Day by none other than Samuel Gompers.

Having helped guide the American Federation of Labor to becoming the most powerful of union organizations, its co-founder Samuel Gompers had made inroads into the political and business establishment. He was protective of the AFL’s growing prestige and bi-partisanship. The last thing he wanted was to alarm the money and power crowd that the AFL was a secret socialist organization.

It was an era when the global rage of oppressed workers had begun to find an outlet among those more radical who now called themselves “anarchists” and carried out a systematic assassination of world leaders. By 1896, the American Federation of Labor had not only begun to succeed in getting many industrialists to agree to the eight-hour work day, but the humane goals of labor unions had gained sympathy among Americans.

Gompers affirmed credit to his friend Peter McGuire.

Fearing that Matthew Maguire’s running for President as a Socialist would now lead to Americans perceiving Labor Day as a Socialist protest day and make the ignorant but likely presumption that unions were vaguely linked to anarchists, Samuel Gompers got more than the pen which made Labor Day a national holiday. He got to work, exploiting the odd coincidence that both men in question shared the same last name – and giving credit to his old friend and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor.

In a September 2, 1896 news wire service story that hit most American newspapers, Gompers stated plainly that, “Undoubtedly the first suggestion of setting apart a day in each year to be observed as Labor Day” had come from Peter McGuire.

A proud striker parades, 1910.

Two years after the Gompers testimony, however, the Maguire forces scored big, getting author William S. Walsh to credit Matt in the more permanent print of a book, Curiosities of Popular Customs:

“In 1882 Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union in that city [New York], with the approval of the Union, corresponded with the various Labor organizations in the State with a view to setting aside one day in the year as their own holiday…Maguire was made chairman of the committee to arrange for the first labor day celebration in that year.”

A Labor Day gathering in Virginia, in the 1890s.

Finally, four years later in 1906 and just months before he died at age 54, the terminally-ill Peter McGuire (or more likely a eloquent ghostwriter) provided a benevolently uplifting quote for the “official” version crediting him in the union publication American Federationist:

“Pagan feast and Christian observance have come down to us through the long ages. But it was reserved for this country, and for the American people, to give birth to Labor Day. In this they honor the toilers of the earth, and pay homage to those who from rude nature have delved and carved all the comfort and grandeur we behold. More than all, the thought, the conception, yes, the very inspiration of this holiday came from men in the ranks of the working people, men active in uplifting their fellows and leading them to better conditions. It came from a little group in New York City, the Central Labor Union, which had just been formed, and which in later years attained widespread influence.”

Laying a wreath at Peter McGuire’s grave on Labor Day.

To ensure Peter McGuire with credit, the rest of the article provided great details – a full twenty years after the fact:

“On May 8, 1882, the writer [Peter McGuire] made the proposition. He urged the propriety of setting aside one day in the year to be designated as ‘Labor Day,’ and to be established as a general holiday for the laboring classes. He advised the day should first be celebrated by a street parade, which would publicly show the strength and esprit du corps of the trade and labor organizations. Next the parade should be followed by a picnic of a festival in some grove the proceeds of the same to be divided on this semi-co-operative plan. It was further argued Labor Day should be observed as one festal day in the year for public tribute to the genius of the American industry. There were other worthy holidays representative of the religions, civil and military spirit. But non representative of the industrial spirit, the great vital force of every nation. He suggested the first Monday in September of every year for such a holiday, as it would come at the most pleasant season of the year nearly midway between the fourth of July and Thanksgiving and would fill a wide gap in the chronology of legal holidays. Many were the cogent reasons he advanced and at once the idea was enthusiastically embraced.”

As time went on, elaborations only further displaced Maguire (who died in 1917) even figuratively throwing from the carriage leading the parade, replaced by printer William McCabe as the grand marshal.

Marilyn Sweerus holds a photo of her grandfather, Matthew Maguire , whom she says was responsible for Labor Day.

So who deserves to be called Father of Labor Day?

Peter the carpenter or Matt the machinist?

They might share credit, Maguire for initiating the event and McGuire for urging it be annually repeated.

Terence Powderly.

There’s only two little hitches to that. Although Matthew Maguire signed and sent out the invitation to the first Labor Day, at the very same time he was using his name publicly for initiatives actually instigated by his friend and leader Terence Powderly, head of the secretive Knights of Labor.

And while Peter McGuire claimed that he wanted Labor Day to be celebrated each year after experiencing the first one in New York, three months before that he’d said the very same thing after a post-parade picnic of labor union members.

In Canada.


Categories: Diversity, History, Holidays, Labor Day

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3 replies »

  1. Your labor of love in writing has been rewarding to read in this article!
    It is truly fascinating to read and learn a historical view of this holiday.
    I personally have been calling Labor day… Labor-less day, from now on since reading this article, I will add to my pun an explanation of the history.
    Truly I believe the Knights of Labor where mostly responsible for the initiation, but living in the shadows of others, that is the price you pay.
    Great article, Thank-you Carl.

    • Thank you, this one was a lot of work, a lot of info to be processed and still has a few “bugs” to work out. I totally agree about the Knights of Labor losing proper credit because they were do secretive.

    • I thought I had responded to this via smartphone but then again it often does stupid things, so I don’t see my first response here – sorry for that. And yes, that was a hell of a long article to write and I think it still has a “bug” or too in it which needs fixing on getting some dates straightened out. That said, I also agree with you about the Knights – they were the likely instigators of the holiday but waited too long to seek credit for it. Thanks again for your upbeat response. I was determined to get that damned story out if it killed me – and it really almost did.

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