Made in Paterson: The Life and Legacy of U.S. Senator William Hughes

Made in Paterson: The Life and Legacy of U.S. Senator William Hughes

By Hank Bitten, Executive Director, New Jersey Council for the Social Studies

The story of America is in the lives of the ordinary people whose voices and actions make a difference in the trajectory of historical events. The life of William Hughes, Irish immigrant who came to Paterson, New Jersey from Ireland, is one example of how an ordinary retail merchant changed the lives of workers in Paterson and influenced national legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The names of New York Governor and Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes and N. J. Congressman from the Second District, William J. Hughes (1975-1995), are likely more recognizable to students and the public than William Hughes. After reading the book, Made in Paterson, I learned a new perspective about the importance of passion for causes by politicians, lawyers, and activists.

Daniel Willever, history educator, captures the spirit of the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century in Made in Paterson: The Life and Legacy of U.S. Senator William Hughes.  The spirit of reform is captured through the narrative of the experiences of workers in Little Dublin.

“Paterson by this time had been a major industrial center for more than half a century, particularly in the production of silk since John Ryle introduced the practice in the 1840s, and Little Dublin was surrounded by the factories that were a primary source of employment for its residents. What made the Dublin neighborhood such a major draw for Irish immigrants was its geographic location sandwiched between the large flax mills of the Barbour Linen Thread Company.” (pp. 13,14)

There are two different threads throughout this book which should capture the imagination of both general readers and individuals who read books with an historical lens. The first thread is how people traveled and enjoyed social activities in an era before automobiles, highways, and suspension bridges. In reading the first three chapters, one can visualize the importance of trolleys and trains. Although William Hughes moved to Paterson at the age of eight in 1880, he likely walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883. He arrived in Paterson on the Erie Railroad and traveled to Greenwood Lake to enjoy the scenic Ramapough Mountains by train and horse-drawn carriages.  The destinations of holiday vacations at the beginning of the 20th century were likely at hotels near lakes and the Jersey shore communities, which may have been demolished over the past century and replaced by strip malls or big box stores. By 1874, nearly 500,000 passengers a year were coming to Atlantic City by rail. At the turn of the century, 27,000 people lived year-round in Atlantic City, a dramatic gain from the estimated 250 before the Civil War.  Through the life of William Hughes, the reader travels through time and explores the continuity of human activities and the changes that occurred because of industrial progress.

The social scene is also fascinating as Dan Willever introduces us to visits to Lambert Castle, the Barbour mansion in East Paterson, (present day Fair Lawn) and the Hughes’ bungalow in Sterling Forest on the shores of Greenwood Lake.  This was an era where destination gatherings were in backyards, public parks, and local pubs. This was the era of baseball games at Elysian Fields, in Hoboken, football games at the Polo Grounds, and boxing matches at Greenwood Lake. The Great Auditorium was built in 1894 in Ocean Grove with a seating capacity of 10,000 with a landmark pipe organ made New Jersey a national landmark for social ministry to the immigrants. As one reads the pages of Made in Paterson, our eyes focus on a panoramic view of New Jersey, urban life, and the contributions of ordinary people in American history.

The second thread is revealed in the last two chapters of the book, Made in Paterson: The Life and Legacy of U.S. Senator William Hughes takes place in the halls of government in Washington, D.C.  The important story of labor is only partially evident in the curriculum standards in most states. The New Jersey Learning Standard for high school students below prompts inquiring questions and engages students in reflective thinking about the role of government in the lives of its citizens.

6.1.12.CivicsPR.6.a: Use a variety of sources from multiple perspectives to evaluate the effectiveness of Progressive reforms in preventing unfair business practices and political corruption and in promoting social justice.

In our 21st century view of Congress and our federal system of government, we are more familiar with the legislative battles over gender identity, abortion rights, guns, crime, environment, and civil rights than labor issues. The legislative battles with the tobacco lobbyists and labor unions are often given minimal attention or forgotten.  However, the lessons of history of how a competitive democracy is designed to function are clearly and concisely presented in the quiet activities of William Hughes in the House and Senate in investigating abuses of industrial power, lobbying for an eight-hour day, protecting children from exploitation, and winning the battle for a lower tariff that is both fair to the worker who is paid hourly and keeps America competitive in a global economy.

“The foreign-born Representative argued the position of the American Federation of Labor that workers did not need protection from foreign manufacturing, but that Congress should act to “protect [American workers] against the direct competition of the pauper laborers themselves, who are crowding into this country by the thousand. It matters little that the goods are shut out if our ports are thrown open to those who make the goods.” Paterson’s congressman was speaking about many who recently came to the city, and expressing the same angst that older immigrants and native-born Americans commonly felt about competing with this fresh and abundant supply of labor. On December 5, Hughes was appointed to the House Labor Committee, and within just weeks of starting his first term, he made it clear that his political views aligned closely with those of the American Federation of Labor—a distinction which would pay political dividends in the future.” (pp. 45,46)

As a novice member of Congress in 1902, Hughes attempted to settle the coal strike by listening to union leaders and miners. His benevolent strategy was crushed by the dominant Republican leaders who supported management. But the tapestry of Hughes quiet and often unnoticed efforts put him in a position as an influential leader in shaping the structure of the U.S. Commission on Labor Relations in handling labor unrest, a financial expert who understood how protective tariff rates harmed laborers more than helping them, and organizing bipartisan efforts on the eight-hour day and other progressive reforms. William Hughes was respected by the powerful icons in the Senate and government that high school students are familiar with – Senator William Borah, Congressman and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and Woodrow Wilson. The voice of William Hughes was kept silent for too long and Made in Paterson allows us to hear his words by reading them and experiencing his legacy. The problems of exploitation, inequality of wages, gender inequality, discrimination, displacement of workers from technology and artificial intelligence may be different from the experiences of silk workers in the 20th century but the effect on employees is strikingly similar.

The research for this book provides a framework for the historiography of the labor movement with copious references to notable labor and immigrant historians, namely Philip Foner, James Kerney, Julie Greene, Steven Golin, and Bruce E. Kaufman. These economists and historians are from the University of Maryland, University of Texas, Georgia State University to name a few. In addition, the numerous references to the local papers of The Morning Call and The Paterson Evening News provide a prolific local history of New Jersey.  The primary sources in the Samuel Gompers Papers and the Woodrow Wilson Papers are excellent for students who want to explore the turning point of the 20th century further.

“As Philip Foner and Julie Greene have separately examined in great detail, the late 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century marked a turning point for America’s largest labor union. In 1898, AFL President Samuel Gompers signaled that the organization’s means of pursuing change at the state level was limited by the habit of federal courts to strike down those laws, and that future success hinged on influencing national legislation. This endeavor began as a congressional lobbying campaign but soon pushed further: “We want legislation in the interest of labor; we want legislation executed by labor men; we want trade unionists in Congress,” proclaimed Gompers. Hughes’s election in 1902 and his embrace of the AFL’s platform was an early indication that this policy held promise if the number of “labor men” in Congress could be multiplied.” (p. 46)

If you enjoy the Progressive Reform era, read this book! If you enjoy New Jersey history, read this book! If you are a student in a Teacher Education program, read this book!  If you are a high school history or economics teacher, read this book! If you are a high school student who enjoys history, read this book! If you enjoy stories of how people made a difference in our historical narrative, read this book!

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