Uriah Stephens

Uriah Stephens (1821-1882), American labor leader prominent in founding the Knights of Labor, remained its leader for a decade.

Uriah Stephens was born in Cape May, N.J., on Aug. 3, 1821. He studied to be a Baptist preacher, but financial problems forced him to become apprenticed to a tailor. He apparently continued to study in his spare time but in 1845 moved to Philadelphia and practiced his trade full time.

In 1855 Stephens journeyed through the West Indies, Mexico, and Central America, settling in California. In 1858 he returned to Philadelphia. An antislavery Republican, Stephens supported the Union after hostilities began.

Stephens early joined the trade union movement. He helped organize the Garment Cutters' Association of Philadelphia (1862) and was active in its affairs. Late in 1869, however, having fallen on bad times, the union disbanded. Stephens and eight others, seeking to maintain a workers' organization, soon founded the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor.

Stephens influenced the Knights' peculiar character. A religious mysticism led him to emphasize the fraternal solidarity of labor. Thus he eschewed craft divisions and advocated admission to and equality in the Knights of all workers, regardless of religion, political affiliation, or race.

The Knights' characteristic ritual and secrecy were due to Stephens. An active Freemason, Odd Fellow, and Knight of Pythias, Stephens concluded that the stability of these long-lived organizations lay in their ritual and secrecy. He devised a ceremony for the Knights based largely on the Masonic tradition and insisted that the union keep even its name secret from nonmembers. There were practical reasons for these policies, too. Secrecy was a necessity in an age when unions were weak and employers inclined to use violent retaliation to break them up.

Stephens maintained his policies as the union grew from 9 members in 1869 to 9,000 in 1878. In 1878 he was elected the first grand master workman of the union. But by now Stephens was distracted by politics and spent much of his time running for Congress on the Greenback party ticket. He resigned as head of the union, but the Knights reelected him. After another year he resigned anew and was succeeded by Terence V. Powderly.

Powderly and Stephens quarreled immediately because Powderly had pushed modification of the Knights' ritual and abandonment of its secrecy in order to placate the Catholic Church. Stephens remained an inactive member until his death on Feb. 13, 1882. He had pioneered in many workable and successful labor union policies.


Further Reading on Uriah Stephens

Information on Stephens is in the standard histories of the labor movement during this period. The most comprehensive is Norman J. Ware, The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860-1895 (1929), still the definitive work on Stephens's Knights of Labor. Foster Rhea Dulles, Labor in America (1949; 3d ed. 1966), is informative, as, to a lesser extent, are Henry Pelling, American Labor (1960), and Thomas R. Brooks, Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor (1964).