Knights of Labor Constitution, 1885


Preamble of the Constitution of the Knights of Labor, 1885

The Knights of Labor constitution sets forth the broad aims and rules for governance of the organization on the general, district, and local assembly levels. The document's eighty-one pages explain procedures for admission of new members, the duties of officers, as well as practicalities like doling out insurance benefits to members. Its rules and language reflect the institutional practices and currents of thought among laborers in the late nineteenth century. A clear hierarchy of officers and distinct responsibilities is clearly outlined, as are meeting and election protocols. The Knights of Labor put more than their rules for governance into their constitution, however. The document is steeped in the urgency and confidence with which the Knights went about organizing to promote higher wages, shorter work days, equal pay for equal work, and other labor reforms.

Nowhere is this sense of purpose and determination to promote their rights more in evidence than in the constitution's preamble, which is reproduced here. The preamble was largely written by a veteran of earlier union movements, Robert Schilling. Schilling penned the preamble for the Industrial Congress, an organization formed in 1873 to succeed the National Labor Union. Before he became the leader of the Knights of Labor, Terence Powderly helped organize workers in his home state of Pennsylvania for the Industrial Congress. Working to organize for the Industrial Congress inspired Powderly.

He especially admired the Congress' goal of organizing by industry, rather than by particular trade, and its emphasis on making "industrial, moral and social worth-not wealth-the true standard of individual and national greatness," as the Congress' preamble stated. Schilling became involved in the Knights of Labor too, and with Powderly, headed the Knights' committee on the constitution. When the two men presented the preamble and platform of Industrial Congress to the first General Assembly of the Knights in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1878, it was accepted almost intact.



As you read the document, reflect on the following questions:

  • What development among "capitalists and corporations" will continue if the Knights do not take action to end it?
  • What do the Knights believe they must do in order to "enjoy the full blessings of life"?
  • What do you think the Knights mean when they say that "industrial and moral worth," and "not wealth" should be the "true standard of individual and national greatness"?
  • Name one demand the Knights hope to achieve "at the hands of the State."
  • Name one demand the Knights hope to achieve "at the hands of the Congress."