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Matthew Maguire, Father of Labor Day?

Paterson NJ Machinist the real "Father of Labor Day"?

Files at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark show that Matthew Maguire of Paterson, New Jersey, [1855-1917], was not only a man to be reckoned with in the beginning days of the American labor union movement, but was very probably the man behind the creation of Labor Day.

Maguire's passion was the improvement of working conditions and he led his first strike for a shorter work day in the 1870s. In 1882 Maguire, who by then was secretary of Paterson Local 344 of the Machinists and Blacksmiths Union, became one of the organizers of the Central Labor Union of New York and he became secretary of this organization too.

The first Labor Day Parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882 under the aegis of the Central Labor Union. (The first parade was on a Tuesday, not a Monday.) Matthew Maguire sent out the invitations and according to his grandson Matthew Feeney, Maguire and his wife rode in the first carriage at the head of the parade. The Maguires shared the carriage with Henry Ward Beecher, the famous social reformer, abolitionist preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The number of people who marched in this parade (and went to a picnic afterwards), is unclear. Different sources give different numbers, but it seems the parade was at least 10,000 strong and could have had as many as 25,000 participants. Even 10,000 people is an enormous number for that time, when they didn't have today's instant communication...no broadcast emails in 1882! And Labor Day was not yet a holiday, so many of those attending gave up a day's pay to participate.

If Matthew Maguire was so instrumental in the establishment of Labor Day, why haven't we heard about him before this?

A couple of reasons.

For years another Maguire, Peter McGuire, was credited with the establishment of Labor Day. There is of course, the similarity of names. Peter McGuire was also active in the formation of New York's Central Labor Council and in 1897 he claimed to be the founder of Labor Day, but it seems possible that Matthew Maguire's politics might have been at the root of his relative public obscurity.

Matthew Maguire's interest in social reform extended to active socialist politics as well as labor unions. He served for a number of years as an Alderman in Paterson and ran for Vice-President in 1896 on the National Socialist Labor Party ticket.

Ted Watts of Silver Spring, Maryland, author of a booklet, The First Labor Day Parade, feels Maguire's radical politics were unacceptable to the mainstream of American Labor and in particular to Samuel Gompers and his American Federation of Labor. Mr. Watts suggests that Matthew Maguire's involvement in the establishment of the first Labor Day was essentially swept under the rug to give labor a more moderate, non-political public face.

New Jersey was one of the first five states in 1887 to pass legislation making Labor Day a state holiday. A number of other states passed similar legislation and on June 28, 1894 Congress passed a bill designating the first Monday in September both as national Labor Day and as a national holiday.

President Cleveland announced he was giving the pen with which he signed the bill to Samuel Gompers of the A F of L. The Paterson (N.J.) Morning Call wanted to set the record straight and In a July 2, 1894 editorial, "Honor to Whom Honor is Due", stated "the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday". This editorial also referred to Maguire as the "Father of the Labor Day holiday".

Other early sources which give the credit for Labor Day to Matthew Maguire include a note in William S. Walsh's 1898 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". In 1912 B.E. and E.B. Stevenson wrote of the "History of Labor Day" in their book Days and Deeds. "To Matthew Maguire, Secretary of the Central Labor Council of New York City belongs the credit for first actually putting the idea into execution".

Peter McGuire was a speaker that first Labor Day and he was an active member of the Central Labor Union of New York, but it looks as though Matthew Maguire of Paterson, New Jersey just really might be the true "Father of Labor Day"!

Grace-Ellen McCrann
Special Collections Librarian
The New Jersey Historical Society
23 August 2000

 

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