Could Mark Twain have become mayor of Hartford? Apparently, the Knights of Labor thought so. This 19th century labor union considered running “Mayor Clemens” in March of 1886. The notion gripped the imaginations of many; even as a rumor it was talked about as far away as Boston.
The possibility of a Twain campaign was not just idle speculation. The Knights of Labor may have started as a secret society like the Masons, but by 1886 they grew into a powerful labor union and an effective political force as well. The union’s goal was to free workers from the bondage of wage slavery. The Knights opposed the nation’s growing financial and industrial system that controlled so many resources and left families in poverty. The union’s vision was a cooperative commonwealth, not cutthroat capitalism that treated the worker like a replaceable machine.
Between 1885 and 1889, the Knights successfully formed political tickets in fifteen Connecticut cities and towns. As many as thirty-seven Knights ran for the state legislature and won during that period, including Thomas Kehoe, a carpenter, Thomas O’Rourke, a Danbury hatter, and Adolphus Hunie who, in 1889 got the Connecticut legislature to mark Labor Day as a state holiday (it became a federal holiday five years later).
By 1886, the peak of the Knights nationwide, Connecticut could boast 118 local assemblies in 62 towns. They successfully worked to pass workplace safety and child labor laws. During this period, Mark Twain was living in Hartford. As the union grew, Twain took note.
It was no secret that Twain was a big fan of the labor movement– he had belonged to both the Western Boatmen’s Benevolent Association as a Mississippi riverboat pilot and the Typographical union in New York. He became especially fond of the Knights, which, as a progressive fighting organization, had won major labor railroad strikes against the robber baron Jay Gould even as it was organizing union drives in Connecticut.
Mark Twain lectured on the Knights of Labor on March 22, 1886 at his Monday Evening Club, a circle of friends who were mostly the city’s upper crust. In that talk Twain described the organization of men and women workers, skilled and unskilled, into “one big union:”
When all the bricklayers, and all the machinists, and all the miners, and blacksmiths, and printers, and hod-carriers, and stevedores, and house-painters, and brakemen, and engineers, and conductors, and factory hands, and horse-car drivers, and all the shop-girls, and all the sewing-women, and all the telegraph operators; in a word all the myriads of toilers in whom is slumbering the reality of that thing which you call Power … when these rise, call the vast spectacle by any deluding name that will please your ear, but the fact remains a Nation has risen.
Workers were not a special interest group, he reasoned. When united by an organization such as the Knights, the working class was the essence of a powerful nation. Despite all the talk about Mark Twain being a “failed capitalist” (an automatic typesetter invention lost him a load of money), in truth he was a member of the working class.
Mark Twain declined the offer to run. Hartford’s workers had to find another man to represent their interests, and eventually they did: Ignatius A. Sullivan. When Mark Twain moved to Hartford, Sullivan was only four years old. By the time he was ten, he was working in a paper mill. Originally from Massachusetts, Sullivan moved to Hartford and became a retail clerk, a union organizer, and a card-carrying member of the Knights of Labor.
Like many other Irish Catholics, Ignatius Sullivan needed more than faith in his church and the Democratic Party to improve the lot of his community. Despite the hold that the anti-Irish, anti-worker Republicans had on Hartford politics, Sullivan ran for Mayor in 1902 and won on a third-party ticket, the Economic League. The League shared many of the same goals as the Knights, including the eight-hour day and an end to child labor.
Mark Twain never became mayor, and that was just as well. Most likely he agreed with one Connecticut Knight’s cynical assessment of electoral politics. Working people, the union man complained, were “heartily sick of demagogues of the old parties who pass as labor reformers and then sink the labor interests.”
Mark Twain would have approved. After all, it was Twain who noted that “politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”