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Becoming Union Square: Struggles for legitimacy in nineteenth-century New York

Michael D Shapiro, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation argues that even though Americans have had the freedom to assemble since the ratification of the Bill of Rights, it was not until the late nineteenth century that political leaders viewed the holding of public rallies by working-class men, organized as labor unions, as a legitimate form of political expression. Even then there were limitations on who could gather and when. I show that New York’s Union Square played a pivotal role in this transition from elite republican politics to mass democracy by providing a venue for governmental institutions, political parties, and eventually labor unions to present arguments justifying their legitimacy. I argue that physical spaces are historical characters just like the people that inhabit them, showing how Union Square’s location, geography, and cultural identity influenced the gatherings that occurred there, and vice versa. Many books on New York City include information about Union Square —one of the rare open spaces to be designated a National Historic Landmark—but this dissertation throughly examines the history of the space. The area where New York City’s Common Council first developed Union Square in the 1830s was called the Fork in the Roads, since it was where the city’s two main thoroughfares, the Boston Post Road and the Albany Post Road, intersected. Like those roads, this dissertation tells two separate stories that become one in Union Square. One describes how Union Square transformed from an elite residential square with a gated park in its center to the city’s primary gathering space for political expression. The other details how working-class New Yorkers struggled for political legitimacy. The stories converge when the Central Labor Union organized the nation’s first Labor Day parade through Union Square in 1882. In the wake of that and subsequent Labor Day parades in cities and towns around the nations, state legislatures and eventually the federal government came to declare Labor Day an official holiday, suggesting that politicians were finally taking labor seriously. Meanwhile, Union Square had become the most important space for political expression in New York City, and continues in that role today.

Subject Area

American history|Political science

Recommended Citation

Shapiro, Michael D, "Becoming Union Square: Struggles for legitimacy in nineteenth-century New York" (2010). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3409655.