Probably the most tedious aspect of American political discourse is the lengths that it goes to emphasize the very idea of it being American. For instance, how many times during this season’s healthcare “debate” having talking heads expressed not only the desire but the necessity of a “uniquely American solution”? If subjected long enough to last summer’s town-hall shouting matches one would have heard even the shouts of feebs spewing academic jargon like ‘American Exceptionalism’. In fact Marco Rubio, ultraconservative contender for Florida’s Senate seat, was quoted at a rally declaring, seemingly in reference to the public healthcare option and an alleged slide toward socialism, “If we become like every other country, we will no longer be exceptional. And our children will ask us why did you let this happen?”
Of course it’s not just conservatives who bend their minds over such high standards. Liberal slogans in recent years have featured such banalities as ‘Dissent is Patriotic’ and ‘My America has no tolerance for torture’, which while not being outright silly are vain attempts to seize the same flag of American identity from the hands of conservative populism.
For all of that, however, a thorough enough search through American history will uncover some themes that actually fit the bill, including a lot that lands outside of any official American Exceptionalism mythology. Or perhaps it’s better to say that they stand as the dark side of the mythology, the most touted of which are usually a general anti-statist, individualism that allegedly filters throughout American society. Seymour Martin Lipset, author of American Exceptionalism: a Double-Edged Sword, posits that it can be subsumed in five words: anti-statism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism. If that’s the case it’s not at all difficult to see some absurd contradictions, particularly regarding the latter two’s relationship to the first three. Yet the contradictions have gone way beyond the comical. One of the largely unmentioned flipsides, as pointed out by historian Richard Hofstader, is that even with a relatively small amount of radical activity and ideological class struggle, the United States has experienced a maximum of industrial violence that includes 160 instances in which state troops intervened in strikes, and at least 700 labor disputes where deaths were recorded (Hofstader added his mark to all this by writing: “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.”)
It is equally inevitable that such conflicts will also produce exceptional figures worthy of their own mythology. Such is certainly the case when it comes to those who went bravely to the gallows on this date in 1887 in the aftermath of the most dramatic incident and trial in America’s bloody labor history. It was a year and half before their execution at a rally on May 4th 1886 (three days after the world’s first May Day) in Chicago’s Haymarket Square protesting police violence, particularly the killing of six striking workers at McCormick Reaper Works the day before, when an unidentified figure tossed a bomb into a detachment of approaching policemen setting off chaos that left numerous protestors and cops dead (in the case of the cops from friendly fire after the initial explosion). Soon afterward seven anarchist organizers were rounded up for direct and indirect connection with the rally. These included German immigrants August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, and Michael Schwab, as well as Samuel Fielden and Oscar Neebe. Another man originally escaped arrest by fleeing to Wisconsin before gamely deciding to turn himself in as an act of solidarity with his comrades. His name was Albert Parsons. Judging by the contradictory criteria there may not be a figure as deserving the label quintessential American.
Born in Montgomery, Alabama in the fitting year of 1848, his parents both originally from north of the Mason Dixon line, Albert was raised after their deaths by a black slave whom he called Aunt Ester until an older brother, William Parsons, a wealthy land owner and Colonel in the Texas Cavalry, brought him to the Long Horn state. It was there that Parsons developed a love for the adventurous, learning to ride and shoot from the saddle. He also attended school in Waco and Galveston where he apprenticed in a newspaper office.
At the age of 15, with the Civil War raging, Parsons joined his brother’s Cavalry unit, getting a taste of action in some of the final battles against the Union army along the Mississippi. After the war he returned to Texas, traded a mule for 40 acres of corn, hired two freed slaves to bring in the harvest (paying them their first ever wage), enrolled in college, then found a job as a printer for a local newspaper.
Amid the chaos of post-war reconstruction and white terror, Parsons started his own newspaper he named The Spectator which, according to his autobiography, he used, no doubt to the shock of many who knew him, to support “the political rights of the colored people”. Apparently this awakening was spurred by the memory of the slave woman who raised him and it earned him the wrath of his former comrades. Nonetheless Parsons relentlessly campaigned in support of federal reconstruction, even going so far as becoming a militiaman; a stint that included a standoff where he led twenty-five men in defense of black men’s voting rights (the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in Tennessee in 1865, had by then spread terror out all over the South). All of this would lead to the closing of The Spectator and Parsons hitting the road as a traveling reporter for a Houston newspaper.
It was on one of his long road trips when Parsons met the woman who would become his wife. Lucy Parsons’ background is hazy. While she described herself as a mix of Creek Indian and Mexican, more likely she, like the woman who raised Parsons, was a black slave, possibly even the daughter of a slave owner. Whatever the case, Lucy proved to be the perfect companion, as determined and fearless as her husband. It wasn’t long before Parsons’ hard work was rewarded with a federal appointment as a revenue inspector. However, by the summer of 1873 the Reconstruction regime in Texas collapsed to the Democrats by way of guns and intimidation. The Parsons were soon on their way to burgeoning Chicago.
Shortly after arriving, Parsons landed a job as a writer for the Chicago Times, an arrangement that wasn’t to last long given his outspoken support for socialism and workers’ rights. In fact, in the midst of the great labor uprising of 1877, initiated in West Virginia by engineers on the B&O railroad protesting a wage cut the uprising spread out to Pittsburgh and Baltimore before reaching Chicago (dozens of workers were killed nationwide), Parsons was informed in a blunt tone by the city’s Police Superintendent that his life was in danger and he should consider leaving Chicago. Not only did Parsons not heed the Superintendent’s advice, several months later he headlined the Workingmen’s Party ticket for county office and got a respectable 8000 votes. Yet a succession of rigged elections convinced Parsons that the emancipation of the working class would not be coming through the ballot box. He went on to form, along with George Schilling, the first Chicago assembly of the Knights of Labor (the “old 400”) and focused his energy on the eight-hour-day campaign.
It eventually led him Haymarket Square. On that infamous evening Parsons, along with Lucy and their two children, arrived at the protest after dark. He climbed onto the speaker’s wagon faced the crowd at what turned out to be his final rally. As always he passionately spoke about the condition of the world’s working class, describing “compulsory idleness and starvation wages and how these things drove workingmen to desperation- to commit acts for which they ought not be held responsible” (quote found in James Green’s Death in the Haymarket). In the end he called for free citizens to arm themselves lest their rights be trampled by police and state militia under the pay of robber barons. Parsons was having a beer in a near-by tavern when the bomb was thrown at the police marching into the square to disperse the crowd.
After a flawed trial, featuring an enormous amount of sensational press coverage, that Parsons gamely faced by turning himself in, Parsons and six of the other men tried were sentenced to death (two of them, Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab, got their sentences reduced to life imprisonment). In his final letter to Lucy, who continued on to assist in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World among other things, Parsons again demonstrated his great passion and sincerity for posterity. From his jail cell he wrote:
‘Our verdict this morning cheers the hearts of tyrants throughout the world, and the result will be celebrated by King Capitol in its drunken feast of flowing wine from Chicago to St. Petersburg…The oppressed of earth are writhing in their legal chains. The giant Labor is awakening. The masses, aroused from their stupor, will snap their petty chains like reeds in the whirlwind…
You I bequeath to the people, a woman of the people. I have one request to make of you: Commit no rash act to yourself when I am gone, but take up the great cause of Socialism where I am compelled to lay it down.
My children- well, their father had better die in the endeavor to secure their liberty and happiness than live contented in a society which condemns nine-tenths of its children to a life of wage-slavery and poverty…
Ah, wife, living or dead, we are as one. For you my affection is everlasting. For the people, humanity I cry out again and again in the doomed victim’s cell: Liberty! Justice! Equality!’
It’s difficult to find words with written with more purity. So there you have it: brought up by a black slave, married to an emancipated one, a Confederate Cavalryman, radical republican, militiaman, socialist political candidate, labor organizer, Albert Parsons- American by any standard.
JOSEPH GROSSO is a writer and librarian in New York City.