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Powderly, Terence

in: People

Terence V. Powderly (1849-1924): Union Leader, Politician, Machinist, Lawyer

By: Michael Barga

Introduction: Terence V. Powderly was a man who captured the public eye as a politician and labor organizer at the turn of the 20th century, particularly as three-term mayor of Scranton, PA and member of the

Some observers felt that Powderly, pictured above, looked more like a college professor than a representative of strong, working-class men.
Some observers felt that Powderly, pictured above, looked more like a college professor than a representative of strong, working-class men.

Knights of Labor leadership.  Throughout his career, he hesitated to call for strikes and more dramatic labor activities, feeling they were unproductive and made enemies with law, police, and media.  Instead, Powderly saw the labor movement not as a revolution but a cooperative brotherhood of workers.  As a Catholic, his ideas lined up in many ways with the teaching of the time, yet many clergy rejected the Knights of Labor, the labor organization with which he is most associated.

Education and Career: Terence V. Powderly had a rudimentary education of about six years and began working at age 13.  By age 17, he became an apprentice machinist and eventually found work in Scranton, PA, joining the International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths five years later in 1871.  Even at his young age, he was recognized for his writing and speaking abilities and became local Grandmaster Workman and Corresponding Secretary of the union a year later.  In 1873, he lost his job and was only able to secure employment as a machinist again in 1875, leaving the field for good in 1877.

After this early working experience, his career became focused mainly on Pennsylvania politics and the Knights of Labor.  He held the position of Mayor in Scranton, PA from 1878-1884.  Powderly progressed from member to Master Workman of Scranton, then Corresponding Secretary of District Assembly, and eventually Grand Master Workman in the Knights of Labor from 1874-1893.  Always one who held varied interests, he would also study law and become a practicing lawyer, serve as a county health officer, and become part owner and manager of a grocery store.  Finally, he ended his career working for the federal government in immigration policy, enforcement, and inspection.

Terence V. Powderly was born to Terence and Madge (Walsh) Powderly in the industrial community of Carbondale, PA, where his father had established his own coal mine.  Young Terry was a near-sighted child who got ill often and was deaf in one ear due to yellow fever.  Incompetent in sports and often wearing hand-me-downs, the young Powderly had to fend for himself against local bullies.  He believes that being part of a large Irish family, seven brothers and four sisters, helped alleviate his childhood difficulties, as well as his avid reading habits.  While it is unclear how Powderly’s Catholic faith affected his early life, he reportedly learned tolerance and sympathy for those in need from his close relationship to his mother, an abolitionist.

During his early years of employment, Terence V. Powderly developed a great deal of confidence and took his wit and charm into social circles.  While he enjoyed playing cards and attending saloons, Powderly restricted himself to harmless mischief, avoided bad company, and was uninterested in alcohol.1 It was here in Scranton that he met Hannah Dever, daughter of a Scranton mine worker, and her brothers Johnny and Ed.  Hannah and Terence married on September 19, 1872 and would be together until her death in 1907, while Johnny and Ed would become Powderly’s friends during this period of young adulthood and beyond.

The Depression of 1873 hit the U.S. economy very hard, and Powderly was one of the countless workers laid off that year.  He resolved to travel and get a job, but Powderly had become president of the local Machinists and Blacksmiths International Union shortly after he joined in 1871.  He was unsuccessful in making any money since his name was blacklisted, and he became depressed as his wife endured extended periods of separation and a move from their own apartment to her mother’s place.  His demoralized return to Scranton was followed by a personal tragedy; Hannah nearly passed away delivering who would be their only child, a baby girl who died a few days later.

In 1876, Terence V. Powderly joined the Knights of Labor in Scranton.  Like with his previous union experience, Powderly quickly raised in the ranks to the position of local Master Workman and was in close coordination with the Philadelphia Knights.  Many of his fellow workers saw the decentralized nature of the organization as an asset compared to the factional and declining Machinists and Blacksmiths International Union, which Powderly ultimately left in 1877.  On the other hand, many found the rituals and initiation rites of the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor difficult.  In addition, the brotherhood was challenged by internal religious and ethnic prejudice.  In fact, these divisions led Powderly to resign briefly from his position as Master Workman until his leadership as a member exposed the bigotry through repeated calls for unity, at which point he was reinstated.

Just a year after he joined, Powderly quit his job as a machinist and became a full-time organizer for the Knights, a pay cut of $110 a month.  His commitment to the organization was matched by a vision of establishing worker collectives achieved through avoiding strikes when possible and violent action at all times.  When a set of significant Pennsylvania strikes occurred in the summer of 1877, Powderly set himself to more constructive tasks, such as raising funds for the families of the dead men, boycotting merchants who opposed the continuing miners’ strike, establishing a cooperative grocery store to assist the strikers, organizing the outraged into local assemblies, and, above all, setting the wheels in motion to defeat employers and their political henchmen during the next elections.1 Such tactics, especially the boycott, were his hope for the future role of Knights across the country.

Stemming from the 1877 incidents, many realized the depth of the state-corporation alliance and held a new-found enthusiasm for a third party in politics.  The Knights lifted their ban of political discussion by creating a Committee on Progress meeting to be held immediately after the assembly’s regular meeting.  Powderly coordinated the first meeting of the “Greenback-Labor party” soon after political discussion by the Knights began.  He invited each local chapter of the Knights of Labor to send a representative of the Committee on Progress.  The gathering set a platform whose message deemed the two predominant parties deplorable for wage workers to support, and they also decided on candidates for the party.

Powderly led various efforts of outreach to constituents and “poll-watching” to ensure election accuracy, and the party secured victory in all five offices for which they ran in county elections.  In response to his efforts and his local influence, Powderly was chosen by the party as Scranton’s mayoral candidate for the Greenback-Labor party.  Running a campaign which promised reduction of debt and government efficiency, Powderly was simultaneously considered a working-class challenger to the status quo.  His opponents joined forces and took part in reprehensible efforts to undermine his credibility.  Some highlighted his Catholicism as a threat, while others emphasized how the Catholic Church did not approve of the Knights of Labor.  Their negative campaigning efforts were unsuccessful, and Terence V. Powderly was elected mayor of Scranton in February of 1878, joined by a significant Greenback-Labor presence in the city council and other offices.

Upon taking office, Mayor Powderly immediately set out his plan to create a modern city: a board of health, an investigation of fraud, the building of an adequate sewage system, and paved roads.  Despite never having a majority in the city council, many of his initiatives were passed by the city councils by the end of his three terms.  Within 6 months of taking office, he overhauled law enforcement and chose men of integrity to serve, mostly from the Greenback-Labor party or the Knights of Labor.  The Scranton Newspaper, Daily Times, later referred to the city as the model of order.2 His final act in 1878 was establishing a system of inspecting food that included stiff enforcement and severe penalties.

In 1879, Powderly set a proper fire-fighting force on the agenda, while his ever-increasing recognition as a labor politician outside of Scranton finally caught up to him.  The successful introduction of politics into the Knights had occurred in a number of locations, but Powderly was the clearest example.  When it was decided to create a national organization for the union, Powderly was first elected Grand Worthy Foreman, second-in-command, then assumed the top position of Grand Master Workman after the resignation of Uriah Stephens.  He was re-elected to this highest position of union leadership for ten consecutive terms, and most observers interpreted his every utterance on the problems of the day as labor’s official position, as they read his articles and listened to his speeches.2

After a narrow election victory of ninety-nine votes over his Republican challenger, Powderly’s work as mayor continued in the early 1880’s with three major pieces of legislation.  First, a board of appeals was set up for those who disagreed with tax assessment.  The second legislation continued his work on the sewer system, and the third established licenses for merchants and businesses in Scranton which is seen as a small step towards more equitable distribution of wealth.  As re-election season came, his greatest asset was the credit received for his health reforms.  Local newspapers did reports on how measures he had enacted limited the outbreak of diseases like smallpox, yet the Democratic Party had absorbed or defeated most of the Greenback-Labor party by 1882

Powderly brokered a deal to accept the Democratic nomination out of political expediency which was successful in winning him the election, despite opponents’ high criticism of the move.  In his last term, he continued to work on government efficiency, especially regarding tax assessment, and he made constructive proposals like building a hospital and a public building for the future.  He spent a considerable amount of energy in a losing effort for the Democratic nomination in 1884 against a career politician, which critical historians are quick to point out in lieu of his responsibilities as leader of the Knights of Labor.

Critiques and supporters of Powderly’s leadership role in the Knights of Labor have called him idealist, reformer, humanitarian, windbag, renegade, crook, imposter, agitator, introvert, self-seeker, charlatan, cheap politician, turncoat, rabble rouser, and drippy sentimentalist.3 Others have said that the qualities which made him a great mayor were the same that made him an inept labor union leader, mainly his unwillingness to delegate responsibility.  In any case, Terence V. Powderly was recognized nationally by many as the voice of labor during his time, as mentioned previously.  In addition, the Knights of Labor became the premier union during his era growing to 700,000 members in 1886 from a mere 9,300 members when Powderly took the reins in 1879.

Factors other than Powderly are important to consider in judging the success of the Knights of Labor, most notably the end of the Depression and a local Knights of Labor victory against notorious robber baron Jay Gould.  Still, Powderly provided meticulous administrative attention to detail as a leader.  He also continued to discourage the Knights of Labor from unnecessary involvement in strikes or violent action and avoid a dominant school of thought in the union, limiting with some success the damaging perception of the union as an anarchist, socialist, and radical group during the period when it grew the most.  At his prime, workers were naming their children after Terence V. Powderly and cheering his arrival.

While he limited negative perceptions, Powderly simultaneously worked hard to accommodate working people from almost every conceivable background; he was a charismatic endorser of solidarity.1 He encouraged inter-racial and inter-gender assemblies while suggesting separate assemblies if the obstacles were too great to integrate different groups.  Powderly’s approach of keeping the Knights of Labor with a high degree of local autonomy is another element of his leadership looked upon favorably, which is a structure rarely used in labor unions since the 1930’s.

In 1886, Frank J. Ferrell, black delegate of district assembly no. 49, introduced Grand Master Workman Powderly to the convention. Many in the southern crowd of Richmond, VA were not pleased.
In 1886, Frank J. Ferrell, black delegate of district assembly no. 49, introduced Grand Master Workman Powderly to the convention. Many in the southern crowd of Richmond, VA were not pleased.

The year 1886, particularly after the Haymarket Affair incident in Chicago, marks a turning point for the Knights of Labor and Powderly’s leadership.  Anarchists were unjustly convicted in relation to an explosion that happened at the Haymarket demonstration, but Powderly hesitated to call the organization into more strikes or speak out fervently against this injustice.  With the arrival of the Great Upheaval in 1886 and worse economic conditions, the Knights’ newer members took actions that were poorly planned and funded, especially large-scale strikes.  The Grand Master Workman hoped to establish greater oversight to avoid overextending the Knights, but employers took advantage of these conflicts and eradicated the Knights from their industries before such changes could be made.

The solidarity which Terence V. Powderly spent years building was now falling apart and defecting to other organizations, especially skilled workers to the American Federation of Labor.  Historians suggest a number of explanations.  One is that the local structure and de-centralized decision-making put too much faith in workers to determine when there was no other option but a strike available to them; this structure did not work in times of economic crisis when there always seemed to be no other option than a strike.

Within a decade of the Great Upheaval, the Knights of Labor’s membership dropped down to 20,000.  Internal and external rivals to Powderly’s leadership in the labor movement brought out the worst and most suspicious inclinations in him, and the previous democratic and tolerant undertones of the movement were increasingly absent in Powderly’s leadership.  This second period of serving as Grand Master Workman, which ended in 1893 with the succession of internal opponent John Hayes, was marked with only one bright spot.  In 1888, Powderly worked with Cardinal Gibbons to ease tensions between the Catholic Church and the Knights of Labor, including Papal approval for Catholics to join the union.

One writer identified four specific characteristics of the Knights that made the Catholic hierarchy suspicious and even formally denounce the organization in certain regions before 1888: its oath bound secrecy, Masonic aspects, its resemblance to the Molly Maguires, and its apparent socialistic or radical character.  The church recognized workers’ rights to self-organize, but the oath to absolute secrecy and ritualistic nature of the Knights of Labor could not be accepted and seemed to require a quasi-religious commitment to the union.   The Molly Maguires and radical elements of the group Powderly suggested were due to its decentralized nature, yet most clerics misunderstood the organization, some until its eventual collapse.

Once Terence V. Powderly lost his position in the Knights, he moved on to studying law and was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1894, later arguing before both the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and the United States.  He strongly felt the justice system was bias and overly technical.  In 1896, he came back to politics and was appointed Commissioner General of Immigration by President William McKinley, for whom he had helped campaign.  Powderly investigated Ellis Island which led to numerous firings; however, these former employees used slander to get him fired when Theodore Roosevelt stepped into the presidency in 1902.  Within a few years, Powderly was reinstated as Special Immigration Inspector, then Chief of the Immigration bureau’s Division of Information from 1907-1921, and finally Commissioner of Conciliation of the U.S. Labor Department.  He died on June 24, 1924 in Washington, D.C.

“Mother” Jones and Terence V. Powderly in Washington, D.C. (1909) These labor leaders from different schools of thought were lifelong friends.
“Mother” Jones and Terence V. Powderly in Washington, D.C. (1909) These labor leaders from different schools of thought were lifelong friends.

Terence V. Powderly’s final years were spent with friends, like frequent house guest Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and John B. White.  Many of these friends he would join in the United States Department of Labor’s Hall of Fame, to which he was given the honor of membership in 1999.  His autobiography was posthumously released, The Path I Trod.  While a number of critiques about Powderly have already been mentioned, one which is generally accepted is his view that immigration should be closed to Chinese individuals and other Asians which was a widely accepted view for his time.  While officially there was a ban on discrimination by color, some scholars suggest the Knights of Labor were not as inter-racially progressive as they appeared to be and practiced disguised discrimination and/or desired social control of potential black strike-breakers.

While treated harshly and dismissed as insignificant by many historians, Terence V. Powderly has more recently received greater attention, even by those who consider the Knights of Labor a failed experiment or missed opportunity of the labor movement.  As Grand Workman, he exhibited the way solidarity and a decentralized approach can work in a labor union given the right conditions.  He planted seeds for greater acceptance of the labor movement by the Catholic Church, setting the stage for other Catholics like Dorothy Day.  Finally, Terence V. Powderly provided an example of how a politician can achieve broad appeal by campaigning on a mix of labor and other policy positions, like fiscal responsibility. Terence V. Powderly was a talented and charismatic man who earned the national spotlight in the American labor movement of the late 19th century and left a legacy to debate for historians.

Powderly is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery nearby the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C. where he lived in his later years.
Powderly is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery nearby the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C. where he lived in his later years.

Sources: 1. Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor by Craig Phelan, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000: pp. 14, 27, 271. 2.  “Terence V. Powderly: Politician and Progressive Mayor of Scranton, 1878-1884,” Vincent J. Falzone, Pennsylvania History, Vol. 41, No. 3 (July, 1974): p. 294.  3.  “Terence Vincent Powderly—An Appraisal” by Harry J. Carman, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (May, 1941): pp. 83-87.  The Catholic University Archives Website, . Labor in America, Fourth Edition, Foster Rhea Dulles & Melvyn Dubofsky, Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1984.  “Terence V. Powderly and Disguised Discrimination by Herman D. Bloch, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 33, No. 2 (April 1974): pp. 145-160.

Photo Sources:

Powderly in earlier years –

Ferrell Introduces Powderly –

Powderly and Jones – (The Catholic University Archives)

Powderly’s tombstone –

For More Information: Visit the American Catholic History Classroom online at or Contact the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at or Phone: 202-319-5065

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2012). Terence V. Powderly (1849-1924): Union leader, politician, machinist, lawyer. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

Powderly is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery nearby the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C. where he lived in his later years.

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