Committee of Safety (New York)

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The "Committee of Safety" was a labor protest group active in New York City during the 1870s.


New York Herald

From "The Communists of New York--Their Secret Meetings and Movements," New York Herald, Sunday, January 18, 1874. p. 6.

These dangerous conspirators against society are not confined to New York nor to Paris; they are spread the world over. They declare, as one of the prisoners arrested on Tuesday last did, that the red flag is their only flag; that they spit upon all other flags; that they demand equal rights in all things, the equalization of property, the apportionment of "good things," and "free love," as it is commonly known, in its broadest sense. They have no religion and no respect for person or station. In New York the body is controlled in a mysterious manner by an unseen so-called "Committee of Safety," only a few of whom have appeared upon the surface. The movements of this committee are as secret and mystical as those of any known secret organization. Their leaders attempt to cover their own peculiar objects and schemes by advocating--nay, "demanding"--the employment of laborers upon the public works. These laborers, it is known, are mostly Irish Catholics, and if by their demands they succeed in securing employment for this class of people they take all the credit therefor, and hope thereby to win the Catholic laboring element to their side and obtain their assistance in their machinations.
It may be asked, where does all the money come from to support the extraordinary operations of these men--men who work like machines, or as an engineer moves his locomotive, with people's passions for tramways? They must have money, though professedly poor and starving, for if allowed to appear in procession they are ready to make a gorgeous display of banners and legends, of regalia, gold shields and other paraphenalia that must have cost thousands of dollars. At their meetings, which are seldom held twice in the same place or at the same hour when the places are changed, they have a free lunch at which many a poor fellow, out of work and out of money, is glad to get the wherewith to appease the pangs of hunger. These cost money, and it is the best possible way for them to spend it. The leaders--the engineers of the "Committee of Safety"--do not seem to be very impecunious, one of them (if not of this, of some other similar, if not so radical an organization) exhibiting in his shirt bosom on a certain occasion a thousand dollar breastpin while shrieking for "bread or blood." The money to support all these things, we say, must come from some source, or may it not be here already? May not the booty of the plundered churches of Paris be now furnishing the material aid to carry on these nefarious projects--projects so menacing to the peace and safety of this whole community?

From "The Communists. Meeting to Arouse the Second Assembly District," in the New York Herald, Sunday, January 18, 1874, p. 10.

The Communists, it would seem, are moving and organizing in reality, and, judging from the speeches delivered at the meeting which took place last evening at Cosmopolitan Hall, corner of Catharine street and East Broadway, are determined upon asserting their rights to assemble in the public parks of the city. ...

Citizen Burke’s Speech

Gentlemen—I am thankful to you for having elected me to this position. It is not the first time that I have held similar positions among workingmen. I am sorry to state that last evening one of our meetings was broken up by the police, and several of those present were “pulled.” I am happy to be able to announce to you that every district in the city is undergoing a thorough organization. This district, however, is more behind than any other, and we must endeavor to protect our organization here also. The police have endeavored again to infringe upon our rights, for to-day, hearing of our proposed meeting this evening, they were sent around to dissuade the workingmen from putting in an appearance. I understand that at this very moment policement in citizens’ clothes are placed around the building to watch us, and that detectives are also in our very midst prepared to note down every word we may give utterance to. The Committee of Safety desire, for the purpose of perfecting our organization, that every one present this evening step forward and transcribe his name upon the roll. At this juncture one of the audience requested information of the speaker as to whether or not the police of New York city had been empowered to amend the constitution of the United States so as to prevent the right of free speech. This remark was received with applause by the entire assemblage.
Having concluded his remarks, Citizen Burke then introduced

Citizen Elliott.

Citizen Elliott announced the fact that the German wards were already thoroughly organized and that the only thing which remained to secure a thorough and effective organization was the enrolment of the English speaking wards. The proper manner of procedure, the speaker stated, for those in sympathy with the movement now on foot to redeem the workingmen was to perfect district and ward organizations throughout the entire city, the same as is done previous to the holding of the political elections. Rumors had gone abroad that the Committee of Safety had determined to resign their trust, but such was not the case. The

Committee of Safety

would always remain in active existence. The members of that committee had pledged themselves to remain true to the principles which led to their organization. They would never relax their efforts, but would work night and day to promote the great cause of the workingmen. Not one of them sought any office, and they were all pledged never to accept any. The Committee of Safety have, moreover, determined to carry the cases of the men now in custody who were arrested for participation in the meeting on Tuesday last before the State courts, and no labor nor expense would be spared to free them from bondage.

From "The Communists. Meeting to Arouse the Second Assembly District," in the New York Herald, Sunday, January 18, 1874, p. 10.

Citizen Samuels, of the Committee of Safety, then addressed the meeting, and was followed by Citizen Leander Thompson, chairman of the Committee of Safety, and Citizen McGuire. Subsequent to the speech of Citizen McGuire, Citizen Elliot offered and read the following resolutions, which were unanimously adopted:—


Whereas we are passing through a great financial crisis which has thrown us suddenly out of employment; and whereas there is no destruction of the real wealth of the country, but speculation in gold, stocks and the people’s lands, sanctioned by the government, has been the sole cause of the panic; and whereas we are industrious, law-abiding citizens, who wish to avoid all outrage on person or property, and deprecate violence or injustice in any form; and whereas we desire only the means of obtaining the necessities of life, not as objects of charity, but as law-abiding citizens, whose right it is to demand work of the government which we have always protected and supported; therefore, we are
Resolved. That we will not eat the bread of idleness nor starve in the midst of plenty; but that we demand work, and pay for that work, now and without delay.
Resolved. That we demand the rigid enforcement of the eight-hour system on all private as well as public work, and the instant and entire abolition of the whole government contract system.
Resolved. That if the government will not furnish work for the unemployed, we, through our Committee of Safety, will in this our time of need supply ourselves and our families with proper food, shelter and clothing and will send all our bills for the same to the City Treasury to be liquidated, until such times as we shall obtain work and pay.
Resolved. That we demand an immediate and permanent reduction of twenty-five per cent on all house rents until the 1st of May to the unemployed of all classes.
Resolved. That, in the furtherance of the objects set down in the above resolutions, we will enroll our names and organize, not in the interest of any political party, but in the interest of all the people who are suffering from the present condition of affairs.
Resolved. That we will appoint from this mass meeting a committee of twelve workingmen, residents of the ward, to organize the working classes of the ward and co-operate with the German ward organizations.
Resolved. That we will support and sustain the Committee of Safety in its work of securing the above objects.


After a somewhat lengthy address from Mr. McMicken, of the Committee of Safety, the meeting adjourned.

New York Times

New York Times, January 14, 1874

From "Defeat of the Communists: The Mass Meeting and Parade Broken Up," in The New York Times, January 14, 1874.

The Mayor arrived at his office at noon. When he had taken his seat, his Secretary handed him a card containing the request, "Mr. Leander Thompson would like to have an interview with his Honor." The Mayor recognized the name as that of a member of the "Working Men's Committee of Safety," who had previously called upon him as a representative of the labor movement, and at whose request he had promised to address the laborers at Union square. The Mayor told his Secretary to admit Mr. Thompson, and the latter, accompanied by Messrs. John McMichael, George Buck, John Halbert, and Luceen Saniel, entered the office. Gen. Duryee, the Police Commissioner, was in an adjoining chamber, and, the moment Thompson entered, the Mayor called him to his side.
"Well, gentlemen," said the Mayor, "I am ready to hear what you have to say."
Mr. Thompson, in response, said the deputation represented the Committee of Safety, and they had called to escort his Honor to [Tompkins square][] where, they hoped, he would address the people.
Mayor Havemeyer--I have heard what occurred this morning, and I do not desire to address crazy or excited people, who might be anxious to send brickbats flying.
Mr. Thompson--The people would like to hear your views. We will take you in a carriage. The working men are a peaceable and orderly class. They made an attempt to meet and express their views and were forcibly ejected by the Police, who clubbed and trampled upon them.
Mr. McMichael here stepped forward and said, "Mr. Mayor, I hope you will come with us. We promised the people that you would speak to them, and they will be much disappointed if you do not. The meeting this morning was intended to be peaceable and orderly, but the Police interfered and clubbed every one they met. there were 20,000 persons in the square and its vicinity, and they were driven back without cause. I believe that it is absolutely necessary for you to come up and speak to the working men. They are very much excited about the treatment they have received from the Police, and consequences which we would wish to avert may follow if they are not spoken to."
Gen. Duryee interposed here. He said that all law-abiding citizens would act peaceably, and that he did not believe there would be any further trouble. "But," resumed Mr. McMichael, "the Police treated the meeting most mercilessly. Without a moment's warning they clubbed them off the ground."
Gen. Duryea [sic], (warmly)--No, Sir; the Police did not act until a man came forward and struck a Sergeant on the head with a heavy hammer, which he had "rigged" so completely that it was taken from him with difficulty. Then an attack was made upon a Captain, so that it was time to disperse the crowd.
Mr. Thompson--The Park Commissioners gave us a permit to meet in Tompkins square, and they rescinded it last night, so that we had no time to tell the people to keep away.
Mr. McMichael--The meeting was intended to be peaceable: we promised the people that you would address them, and it is necessary for something to be done to allay the feeling that exists.
Mayor Havemeyer--I would have addressed the working men to-day if they carried out the programme they submitted to me. They agreed to march from Tompkins to [Wikipedia:Union Square (New York City)|Union square]], and I told you that I would speak to them before they were dismissed at the latter place. Instead of doing what they agreed to do, they held a mass-meeting at Tompkins square without authority.
One of the deputation here remarked that the programme was changed on the previous night, so as to enable the working men to hear addresses.
Mr. Thompson--Our original intention was to march down to the City Hall, so as to see the authorities about getting employment.
Commissioner Duryee--But the Police Commissioners had to forbid that, because a large procession would interfere with business in the crowded thoroughfares below Canal street.
Mr. Halbert--This is a diversion. We desire to know if your Honor will come with us to address the working men.
Mayor Havemeyer--I must leave the matter to Commissioner Duryee.
Commissioner Duryee--I think it would be unadvisable for you to go. Let these gentlemen come again, and I am sure that all that can be done for the unemployed will be done by the City.
Mr. McMichael--We have been denounced by the press without cause. We have been called Communists, and our objects have been misrepresented. All we want is work.
Mayor Havemeyer--Well, there is one difficulty in the way. The market in this City is glutted with labor, and men will not work unless they can get the price they ask. I believe that there is work enough for everybody, but not at the wages demanded. (To Mr. McMichael.) What is your business?
Mr. McMichael--I am a painter.
Mayor Havemeyer--Well, many a man who can't, at the present rates, get his house painted for less than $300 would willingly give $200 to have it done. But, as he has got money, he can afford to wait until he can have the painting done at the sum he wishes to pay for it.
Mr. McMichael--It is necessary to get good prices to live now.
Mr. Thompson--The working men can't demand employment from private parties, so they must demand it from the Government.
Mayor Havemeyer--It is not the purpose or object of the City Government to furnish work to the industrious poor. That system belongs to other countries, not to ours. We can't tear down the City Hall so as to furnish work to the unemployed. We have to open streets and proceed with other works such as are rquired, and it takes time to authorize these according to law.
Mr. Thompson--But is it not the duty of the Government to furnish rations to starving men and their families?
Mayor Havemeyer--I agree with you that rations should be furnished to those who need them, and I am ready to advance a movement of that kind to the full extent of my power. The people of this City are too large-hearted to allow any person to suffer from starvation.
Mr. Thompson--Well, perhaps it's better for your Honor not to come with us to-day; so we shall not urge you. But we must see the people, lest they should blame us for not bringing you to Tompkins square. Will you (turning to Commissioner Duryee) give us a letter to the other Commissioners, so that we may procure a pass to enter [Wikipedia:Tompkins Square Park|Tompkins square]]. If we don't get a pass, we'll get clubbed by the Police.
Commissioner Duryee--There is no necessity for a note. See Commissioner Smith. You can easily see him.
The deputation then left. Immediately after they had retired, the Mayor said: "I am in favor of raising subscriptions from merchants and others, so as to alleviate any suffering that may exist among working men and their families. Money would be soon forthcoming for the purpose, and a hall could be hierd and a clerk engaged to serve out rations of all kinds to the hungry. Money could also be advanced to those who were unable to pay their rent."

New York Times, January 23, 1874

From "The Commune in New-York. Its Several Organizations," in the New York Times, January 23, 1874.

The organization represented by the “Committee of Safety” is next in order of consideration, because it is the most recently developed, having been brought particularly into notice by the mass-meeting held under its auspices at the Cooper Institute, Dec. 11. and by the late labor émeute. Its most prominent members in New-York are Dr. F. A. Palmer and Geo. R. Allen, of No. 23 West Twenty-seventh street; Theodore S. Banks of No. 4 Ninth avenue; J. J. McGuire, George Buck, Lucien Sanival, and some others, representing American, German, and French elements, and most of these are members of the Committee of Safety. The Committee of Safety was appointed by the mass-meeting, and originally comprised fifty members, of whom about one-half were Americans, Englishmen, and Irishmen; one-third Germans, and one-sixth Frenchmen. It is not possible to ascertain who is at the "back" of the movement, but its leaders in New-York aver that they are supported by influential men throughout the country, and that capital is not altogether lacking when required to aid the cause. They certainly draw no inconsiderable portion of their strength from the Internationals, and it is claimed that the movement was planned and founded three years ago. It is not confined to New-York City, however, but has ramifications, of what strength cannot be ascertained, in Chicago, Toledo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Boston, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Louisville, besides some smaller cities. In general terms, the “United Party,” as it was styled, claimed to address itself to the complete amelioration of the condition of the industrial classes first by relieving the temporary or immediate necessities of the unemployed working people, and then by a systematic reconstruction of society and political government. Just how this last Herculean result was to be achieved did not appear in detail at the time the Committee of Arrangements issued its call for the Cooper Institute meeting. Circulars were printed and forwarded to most of the labor organizations in other cities, and they were invited to assemble in mass-meetings simultaneously with that to be held in New-York. Quite a number of cities responded and held meetings on that same 11th of December evening.
Among the means, however, by which the united party proposed to realize its theories, were the absorption and operation by the Government of all railways, so as to prevent the immense system of gambling now carried on in their stock and capital funds, by which financial stringency is so often created; also, the limitation of the acquirement of wealth, by an increased rate of taxation upon all capital, over and above a certain fixed sum, in the hands of any one individual. And, lastly, that to prevent the evils of corrupt and special legislation, the referendum be instituted, by virtue of which all laws shall be framed and proposed by the Legislature, and be subject to ratification or rejection by vote of the people, before going into effect as laws. Coming at the particular time that this proclamation was issued, when there were so many thousands of people out of employment and the panic among financiers had made money extremely scarce in all hands, it was no wonder that a large crowd of people assembled at Cooper Institute. As a meeting it was a success, but the press and public descried the cloven foot of Communism in some of the principles enunciated in the platform, and charged the entire affair to the machinations of Communists and Internationals. The Committee of Safety there appointed called subsequently on the public authorities to demand relief and employment, and were, as they claim, slighted, and the result was that the hungry and unemployed developed systems of distrust in the committee, first, because they were unsuccessful, and next, because they felt that by adhering to them they were in danger of being charged with Communistic proclivities. Of course others stood ready to foist themselves into favor by championing the working man, and denounced the committee as “a lot of diamond -studdied demagogues who were trying to use the poor working man for their own ends,” and so forth. Of course, these last demagogues claim to be the real Simon pure friend of “the honest toiler,” and have got the honest toiler in hand just now; but it does not appear that his condition has been bettered by the interference of any of them up to the present. Nor does it seem likely that any men or set of men can, either by magic resolves or by paper theories, give relief to the unemployed.
It was generally supposed that John H. Keyser had been a heavy financial "backer" of the movement in the hands of the united party, as it was known that he had paid some proportion, if not all, of the Cooper Institute meeting expenses. The reporter called upon Mr. Keyser last night to ascertain the facts, and was informed by him that he had never contributed but $25 to the affair, which was for the defrayal of the gass bill. The hall, he understood, was given free for a "working men’s" mass-meeting. Prior to that time, Mr. Keyser had contributed to the Howard Relief Association for the relief of the unemployed, and had also instituted a free service of food and soups at his own house for such as chose to partake. This latter patronage grew, in five weeks, from about twenty persons per day to 1,000 at a single meal, and he finally gave up the project of feeding them. The Committee of Safety had subsequently applied to him for funds, and he incontinently rejected the application.
Nothing could be learned as to the future movements or intentions of the united party. A mass-meeting to be held at an early date, if at all, is under consideration, and they intend also to defend, by every means in their power, the persons now in arrest who were captured at the [Wikipedia:Tompkins Square Riot (1874)|Tompkins square troubles]]. They claim that these persons were entrapped, with the thousands of others who were assembled there, by the authorities as a means of ridding themselves of the demands of the working men by putting their demonstration in a criminal light. They maintain also that the Police rescinded the permission they had given for the meeting at so late an hour of the preceding evening that it was impossible to notify the ward organizations not to assemble: that the right of peaceable public assemblage is a constitutional right, as is also the right of free speech, and that the violence which resulted was wholly initiated by the Police. They say they will exhaust all legal means in their future efforts to exercise those rights, and that—well, if these fail, the people will see to it that they shall have and enjoy these rights and privileges.
Nothing definite could be learned as to the numerical strength of the following of the united party, but the replies from various persons connected with the movement led to the conclusion that in times of thrift, when labor is plentiful, Internationalism, Communism, and the united party would all be likely to lack followers. When working men are in distress they will run after any bell that jingles.

Gotham Center for New York City History

From Before "Occupy Wall Street": Notes on Prior New York City Protests Against Economic Crises (retrieved 2 May 2012):

The Workingmen's Central Council announced plans for a mass meeting to demand "Work or Bread". J.P. McDonnell, an Irish Fenian and socialist, argued in the New York Sun that to make "wealthy citizens and law-makers" listen, labor should mount the "greatest demonstration ever held in New York." Leading trade unionists endorsed the idea. So did German socialists, currency reformers, and neighborhood mass meetings around the city (including one by 1500 French workers and refugees from the Paris Commune). Wagons paraded through the streets with placards announcing the December 11 gathering at Cooper Institute. On the appointed day 4000 crammed their way in, leaving thousands more outside, as speakers analyzed the nature of the depression (in German and English) and how to respond to it.
Socialists at the Cooper meeting offered similar prescriptions, and added some novel ones, including suspension of evictions for non payment of rent during the coming winter, and dispensation of a week's supply of food or money to distressed families. Peter J. McGuire, a young socialist carpenter, later endorsed the meeting's no-violence pledge but argued that if relief was not forthcoming, then "a provisional committee" in each ward should "take food" to keep people from starving and "send the bills to the city for collection."
The Cooper meeting appointed a fifty-man Committee of Safety -- nomenclature borrowed from the Commune -- and selected German, French, Irish and American representatives. The Committee organized ward clubs of the unemployed throughout the city and called for a meeting with city authorities. When Mayor Havemeyer did get together with a delegation of workers it became clear that they inhabited different universes. Havemeyer expressed concern for the men's plight but suggested, none too subtly, it was their own fault for not having prepared themselves for such contingencies. "I know that it is hard for you to be out of employment," he said, "but don't you think that workingmen should lay up something for a rainy day?" "Yes, sir," a delegate replied, "that's all very well, but workingmen can't save much out of their wages. Rents are so high; and then many of us can only work four or five days out of a week." The Mayor responded with homilies: "Men who get rich, gentlemen, are men who save. When a man has $100 in a bank he becomes a capitalist." His father (an extremely wealthy sugar manufacturer), Havemeyer remarked pointedly, "didn't go to the beer shops and theaters every night." Besides, public works meant higher taxes and the "confiscation" of property, and so were out of the question.
"Things" got rapidly worse. Unemployment rose as the thermometer dropped, and the Committee of Safety issued a call to all "in sympathy with the suffering poor" to rally in Tompkins Square on January 13, 1874, and then march on City Hall to demand a municipal contribution of $100,000 to a Labor Relief Bureau for the unemployed.
The press, badly alarmed, insisted the meeting be suppressed as a "communist agitation". The Committee of Safety was adopting the "favorite tactics of the worst class of European socialists" and on behalf of the unemployed -- a "thriftless and improvident" lot. More hysterically (or cynically), it was asserted that leaders of the defeated Commune had smuggled diamonds -- stolen from the churches of Paris -- into the city to buy ammunition and bombs to launch a revolution. The Department of Parks had already given permission to use the Square, but the Police Board, composed of wealthy entrepreneurs and powerful politicians, forced them to renege at the last minute.