Historians have often depicted late 19th-century American business elites as agents of progress at a time of rapid economic and social change. Through their work organizing groups like the Ku Klux Klan, many of them could also be called “terrorists.”

An undated engraving depicting Ku Klux Klan vigilantes in Kansas. (Bettmann via Getty Images)

Excerpt from Capital’s Terrorists: Klansmen, Lawmen, and Employers in the Long Nineteenth Century (University of North Carolina Press, November 2022)

Few writers have called the Second Industrial Revolution’s organized elites, including large, medium, and small business owners and managers, “terrorists.” Though hardly uncritical, most business historians have portrayed them as culturally sophisticated, restrained, and hardheaded men responsible for establishing and promoting modern management methods on a growing and vibrant economy.

This is undoubtedly true. After all, they oversaw the construction of workplaces, created jobs, offered employees benefits, developed useful patents, and introduced consumers to a dizzying array of products. These men generally conducted their business and social activities from the comforts of spacious offices, fancy restaurants, and exclusive clubs.

But many of these same people also had a dark side, which became obvious in the context of labor struggles, broadly defined. Many resorted to violence to achieve their core goals: control over labor and the establishment of what they called “law and order.” With these objectives in mind, they formed and joined various secretive and brutal organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1860s and early 1870s, numerous Law and Order Leagues in the 1880s and 1890s, and an assortment of employers’ associations and Citizens’ Alliances during the “Progressive Era.” Like other terrorists, they shared an underlying assumption that extralegal methods — kidnappings, drive-out operations, whippings, lynchings, and shootings — were warranted to solve their problems.

These terrorists generally enjoyed help from well-positioned figures from the public sector. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, police officers, judges, politicians, National Guardsmen, and even federal troops were far more inclined to punish rebellious workers than to discipline thuggish elites. And in some cases, public sector officials joined with employers and other elites in assisting in the processes of anti-labor activities.

We can identify examples of joint private-public crackdowns from the 1877 railroad strike to the 1917 Bisbee, Arizona, deportation of over a thousand mine workers and their supporters. Of course, there were important exceptions, including the federal government’s clampdown on US history’s most notorious employers’ association, the Ku Klux Klan, in the early 1870s. Yet scholars have shown that authorities secured very few convictions, and the organization’s many top leaders evaded legal accountability.

Few will disagree with the claim that the hypersecretive Klan was a terrorist organization. The large, mostly decentralized employers’ association, led mainly by downwardly mobile planters, merchants, lawyers, and newspaper owners, used different forms of terrorism to control and exploit the black masses while challenging all forms of outside interference. Klansmen burned black schoolhouses and books and chased numerous teachers from communities. In many cases, their run-out campaigns were intimidating but not physically violent. Hooded men greeted teachers at their residences, where they provided stark ultimatums. Threatening visitors usually demanded that their targets leave by a certain time.

Klan members beat and killed thousands of African Americans. They did so for two basic reasons: to discipline the “violators” and to send an unmistakable message to others. Demonstrating total intolerance for any acts of dissent, Klansmen whipped black men and women for idleness, for seeking to vote, for participating in post–Civil War Union Leagues, or simply for leaving farms and plantations. They also kidnapped. While they snatched outside educators to expel them from communities, Klansmen sometimes abducted former slaves to return them to farms and kitchens. And Klansmen murdered rebellious African Americans if they believed these targets were excessively defiant.

The thousands of terrorist actions initiated by Klansmen and similar organizations helped to empower the region’s ruling class, establishing what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “counter-revolution of property.” Many others practiced Klan-like tactics during encounters with disruptive workers. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, no set of private sector organizations were more thuggish and effective than the Law and Order Leagues, the businessmen-led organizations that battled protesters during strikes and expelled socialists and anarchists from communities. Emerging in both modest-size communities and large cities in Kansas and Missouri during the massive strike against Jay Gould’s railroad empire in the spring of 1886, the leagues quickly spread to regions in the West and South.

In these communities, business owners, managers, lawyers, and politicians met secretly in safe houses, took up arms, bullied unionists and leftists, and accompanied scabs across picket lines. These organizations were critical in crushing strikers, creating the conditions that led to resumed commerce and the restoration of “law and order” in numerous communities.

League members also practiced less aggressive but nevertheless terrifying methods of repression, including terminating labor activists and sharing blacklists of these people with one another. The blacklisting process, which involved the participation of those responsible for dismissing workers as well as employers and journalists elsewhere, traumatized and disciplined both the direct victims and those who held on to their jobs. Employers openly badmouthed rebellious workers and shared actual lists with one another.

This information was often picked up by the press, causing serious reputational damage to the desperate jobseekers. Many of those who remained on worksites lived in fear, anticipating gloomy futures defined by economic precarity. In a study of industrial conditions published in 1891, Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling recognized that many industrial workers feared “the terrors of the black list.”

These self-appointed law and order champions also employed lethal forms of terrorism. In Thibodaux, Louisiana, “law and order” advocates slaughtered at least thirty black sugar strikers and drove out many other Knights of Labor members in 1887. Spokespersons for this joint public-private alliance referred to themselves as the Peace and Order Committee.

A supporter of this mass killing celebrated the outcome as both a class and racial victory: “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the n—– or the white man, for the next fifty years.” If members of Thibodaux’s violent ruling class weren’t “terrorists,” no one is.

Old Wine in a New Bottle

Responding to the public’s increasing uneasiness with outbreaks of crass union-busting practices, employers and their allies shifted their approach in the early twentieth century when they organized hundreds of Citizens’ Alliances, perhaps the era’s first phony populist movement. Members of these organizations, consisting partially of aging men who had served in earlier terrorist formations like the Montana Vigilantes, the Klan, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and the Law and Order Leagues, fought labor unions and built open-shop workplaces because, as spokespersons put it, they wanted to protect “the common people” — nonunionists ostensibly uninterested in joining unions.

While members presented themselves as the common people’s champions, they continued old-fashioned thuggish practices. Consider how members of Tampa’s Citizens’ Committee behaved during a 1901 cigar workers’ strike: about a hundred armed men kidnapped thirteen strike leaders in the late hours of the night, held them until the next day, and then placed them on a boat bound for Honduras, where they deserted the unionists before returning to Tampa. One raid victim, Luis Barcia, according to a report, “was forcibly torn from beside the sickbed of his wife.” The brand-new mother “died from the terror and anxiety.”

The thirteen survivors eventually returned to Tampa, where they demanded that the William McKinley administration intervene on their behalf. In response, US District Attorney J. N. Stripling investigated and concluded that “I was unable to obtain any evidence of violations of the laws of the United States.” The kidnapping was widely reported. Stripling — who, in addition to his role as a lawyer, was an active member of the Jacksonville Board of Trade — was more sympathetic to Tampa’s terrorist-businessmen than to the multiethnic strikers.

Shortly after this kidnapping, Citizens’ Alliance members in Colorado launched their own rounds of abductions, though they did not take the audacious step of expelling their victims from the country. In 1903 and 1904, with assistance from National Guardsmen and nodding approval from the governor, they rounded up dozens of members of the Western Federation of Miners, forced them onto outbound trains, and demanded that they not return.

Clear-eyed observers understood that such actions amounted to terrorism. Max S. Hayes, writing in International Socialism in 1904, noted that these Citizens’ Alliance–led assaults constituted “a reign of terror.” “Every unionist and every sympathizer,” Hayes grumbled, “was hunted down by the soldiers, armed deputies, and the Citizens’ Alliance ‘law and order’ guardians, thrown into ‘bullpens,’ and later deported into Kansas and New Mexico.” Colorado’s Citizens’ Alliance apparently grew to thirty thousand members after crushing these workers.

These men, and numerous others, employed terrorist techniques because these methods worked. We must recognize the relationship between economic development and employer violence.

Take the words of J. West Goodwin, who was a Law and Order League head in the 1880s and leading Citizens’ Alliances organizer during the turn of the century. In 1903, writing on behalf of the country’s diverse set of employers in American Industries, the National Association of Manufacturers’ monthly publication, Goodwin proudly proclaimed that organizing and directly confronting disobedient workers was necessary to ensure “the permanent and continuous prosperity of the employing industries, which has made this country famous.” Indeed, the United States earned fame both for becoming the world’s leading economic powerhouse and for its high level of repression — more repressive than other industrialized countries. Employer-generated violence was profitable, and the men behind these activities were “terrorists.”

Today, think tanks, mainstream journalists, and politicians have had the exclusive privilege of defining the word “terrorism,” reserving it mostly for bearded Muslim men from Middle Eastern countries in the twenty-first century. An honest reckoning with the distant and recent past requires that we apply this term to labor-fighting bosses and their allies, those who actually terrorized rather than protected “the common people”: freed people and Republican educators in the Reconstruction period and labor unionists in past decades. Sadly, instances of employer and right-wing terrorism, expressed by the intimidating methods of union-avoidance lawyers, tyrannical bosses, brutal cops, and angry drivers willing to plow over protesters, have not disappeared.

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