The Forgotten Advocate of Labor
By Miles S. Richards
Pedestrians traversing West Park near the Pittsburgh Aviary on the "Near North Side," probably have noted a ten-foot granite statue which honors Thomas A. Armstrong, a late nineteenth-century labor leader. Upon the monument's base is inscribed: "An Advocate of the Rights of Labor. Erected by the Workingmen of the United States. Brave Soldier and Upright Man. Equality and Justice to All." But few persons actually know much about this man.
Thomas Aaron Armstrong was born on August 15, 1840 in Steubenville, Ohio, the third son of John and Mary Thomas Armstrong. About 1854, to aid with his parents' precarious finances young Armstrong became an apprentice to a prominent Steubenville printer. Upon completing his apprenticeship, he relocated to Pittsburgh to pursue his chosen craft. He was hired in 1857 as a typographer with the Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph. A year later his immediate family moved to Allegheny City (North Side of Pittsburgh), where they established permanent residence within a house at 212 Lacock Street.
Armstrong belonged to a craft that had been organized in Western Pennsylvania for over twenty years. By 1859, he was a full member of the National Typographical Union Local No. 7. Furthermore, during his three decades of membership, Armstrong served his local in a variety of official capacities.
With the majority of northern craft unionists in 1861, Armstrong strongly opposed the secession of the southern states from the Federal Union. Accordingly, on August 11, 1862 he enlisted with the 139th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment. His solid military performance eventually earned him a field promotion to the rank of sergeant. During the Battle of Cedar Creek fought in Virginia, on October 19, 1864, he received a severe chest wound which permanently damaged his health. Upon being mustered out of official service in August 1865, Armstrong returned to Allegheny City.
Resuming his old position at the Chronicle-Telegraph, he soon got involved with local labor activities. He was appointed to Local No. 7's executive committee in April 1867. Three years later he belonged to an ad hoc committee of twelve which oversaw the temporary dissolution of their local. This ploy enabled union printers seeking work within non-union shops to attest honestly that Local No. 7 had been broken up.
Armstrong was interested in working within the national labor movement as well. Representing the Allegheny City Trades Assembly, in August 1866, he was quite prominent at the National Labor Union's founding convention in Baltimore, Maryland. During the next several years Armstrong was one of that organization's three regional organizers for Western Pennsylvania. He remained consistently loyal to the National Labor Union until it officially disbanded in 1873.
Meanwhile, in October 1872, Local No. 7 initiated a long-delayed strike against the major newspapers within Pittsburgh's metropolitan area. This work stoppage proved to be lengthy in duration, as well as bitter in tone. When the strike finally was broken in June 1873, the printers had gained few tangible concessions. Moreover, Armstrong and the other ringleaders were blacklisted permanently throughout Pennsylvania.
Consequently, Armstrong joined with other blacklisted associates to form a consortium. They were seeking to establish an independent newspaper, meant to serve the general benefit of the American labor movement. Upon purchasing printing equipment, they moved into downtown offices at the corner of Third and Market Streets in Pittsburgh. On November 21, 1873 the National Labor Tribune began selling to the public for a penny per copy. In the initial issue Armstrong promised readers: "We will make our appearance with no pretensions. We will guarantee one thing . . . a fair, honest, and upright vindication of labor."
Within six months eight members of the original consortium had sold their shares to the Armstrong family. Accordingly, operational decisions were divided between Armstrong and Henry Palmer, an independently wealthy Allegheny City resident. Armstrong and Palmer also collaborated in establishing a consistent editorial policy. When Palmer severed all ties with the paper in March 1875, he was replaced by veteran labor activist John M. Davis. When Davis subsequently withdrew in June 1877, Thomas Telford became a full managing partner. This partnership remained in place until Armstrong's death.
Throughout this period Armstrong was active within the National Typographical Union. He also became a loyal member of the Knights of Labor, the major mass labor organization in North America. Additionally, he was instrumental in organizing the Machinery Molders Assembly, a Knights of Labor affiliate, in Western Pennsylvania. Due to Armstrong's consistent editorial support, in 1877 the National Labor Tribune became the official organ of the Miners' National Association.
The great national labor strike of July 1877 proved to be the catalyst for a major alteration in political loyalties by many labor activists, including Armstrong. Prior to this event Armstrong had been a Republican Party partisan. On July 19, railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia had initiated a strike to oppose recent sharp wage reductions. As the work stoppage spread westward to Pittsburgh, it quickly became a popular uprising against the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Appalled by the death and destruction caused by rioting, Armstrong willingly served upon a committee of safety organized by Mayor William C. McCarthy of Pittsburgh. Three years earlier Armstrong had organized labor support for McCarthy's successful electoral effort. The strike's ultimate suppression by both the Pennsylvania and Federal authorities, convinced Armstrong that independent political action by labor was necessary. Accordingly, Armstrong switched his support to a new political organization, the Greenback Labor Party.
Domestic monetary reformers since 1865 had been arguing that the paper currency (greenback dollars), printed during the Civil War, should be used primarily as national legal tender. They argued that the reintroduction of these "greenbacks" would be instrumental in alleviating the severe economic depression of the 1870s. Not surprisingly, these inflationary advocates gained the common sobriquet of "Greenbackers." Throughout August 1877 various public conclaves were convened around Allegheny County, where the participants began building a viable organization for the Greenback Labor Party. Since Armstrong was prominent at many of these meetings, his newspaper became the Greenback Labor's official organ within Pennsylvania. He belonged to the Greenback Labor Party's state executive committee as well.
At the state convention held in Philadelphia in June 1878, the trade unionist contingent attempted to nominate Armstrong as the party's gubernatorial candidate for Pennsylvania. The delegate majority, however, believed his labor activism made him anathema to many voters. Consequently, on the second convention ballot, Armstrong lost by a substantial margin to Samuel R. Mason, a veteran Greenback activist from Mercer County. In any case, the Greenback Labor Party did poorly in the general elections that autumn.
Over the next four years Armstrong's supporters worked ceaselessly to secure for him the party's next gubernatorial nomination. Consequently, in May 1882, the Greenback Labor Party, again meeting in Philadelphia, unanimously selected Armstrong on the first ballot. Several days later, a pensive Armstrong observed to Terence V. Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, "I expect to begin my pilgrimage of -- or over -- the State in July. Pity me!" Armstrong actually began his statewide "pilgrimage" on August 15 with a mass rally at Dietrich Hall in Allegheny City. Moreover, he mounted a vigorous campaign, purportedly unmatched by any of his electoral rivals. Unfortunately, the final election results proved to be disappointing. The popular tally was 355,471 votes for Robert E. Pattison (Democrat), 315,589 votes for James A. Beaver (Republican), while Armstrong gained a paltry 33,978 votes. Furthermore, the exhausting campaign had affected severely Armstrong's general health. As a result, he withdrew largely from further leadership of routine activities within the Greenback Labor Party.
During his final years Armstrong began developing other interests as well. He was active within the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the primary Federal veterans group. He also aided in the establishment of the Pittsburgh Press Club in 1885. In fact, Armstrong's signature is upon the club's original charter.
On September 10, 1887 Armstrong carried the war colors of the 139th Pennsylvania VeteranVolunteers for two miles in a parade in Braddock. Two days later he suffered a severe heart attack while working in his office. The editor was taken promptly to his home on Lacock Street, where for the next three weeks he sought a recovery. Around 7:00 P. M., on October 1, he died suddenly after experiencing another coronary. His partner, Thomas Telford, attributed Armstrong's demise "to fatigue and the lingering effects of his war wounds."
Armstrong's funeral was held on October 6 at the First Methodist Episcopal Church on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh. He had been a member of that congregation for three decades. Following the service his remains were conveyed by train to Steubenville for final internment. Two weeks later the National Labor Tribune announced the formation of the "Thomas A. Armstrong Monument Association." This organization was seeking to raise funds to construct a commemorative statue within West Park in Allegheny City. By June 1889, $10,000 had been raised from many of Armstrong's old labor associates. The firm of A. E. Windsor & Company of Indianapolis, Indiana created the granite statue which was placed in the park near the nexus of West Ohio Street and Sherman Avenue. At 2:00 P.M., on November 28, 1889 (Thanksgiving Day), the monument was dedicated formally, with nearly 2500 persons in attendance.
This memorial remained at the original location until an evening in June 1969, when an automobile speeding through West Park collided with the statue, toppling the figure from its base. Subsequently, city workers deposited the damaged sculpture within a storage lot behind the Pittsburgh Aviary. However, in 1975, Robert Gabriel, an artist with the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center restored the figure to its original appearance. This refurbished memorial also was placed in a small parklet, situated at the junction of the North Commons with Federal Street. During the last decade Armstrong's statue was placed at the current site, which is in close proximity to the original location.
Meanwhile, Armstrong's place as a key figure within the Western Pennsylvania labor movement is assured. Through his National Labor Tribune editorials, he fought hard for the workers' general interests. His unsuccessful bids for electoral office should not overshadow his devotion to labor reform, which brought him neither lasting fame nor personal fortune. He should be recalled as a loyal organizer and propagandist who defined a practical framework for labor during its crucial, formative period in the late nineteenth century.
Evert, Marilyn & Gay, Vernon. Discovering Pittsburgh's Sculpture. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983).
French, John D. "Reaping the Whirlwind: The Origins of the Allegheny County Greenback Labor Party in 1877," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 64 (April 1981).
100 Years as a Chartered Union: History of Pittsburgh Typographical Union No. 7. (Pittsburgh, 1952).
"Thomas A. Armstrong: A Forgotten Advocate of Labor," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 67 (October 1984).
Miles S. Richards is on the history faculty of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. He has contributed to various historical journals and historical encyclopedias.