Chapter 2 Builders of the Young Republic By Edward Pessen
In 1789 the British consul in America reported to London that "a series of centuries" would have to elapse before a people "possessing [so] strong a natural disposition" to agriculture as the Americans would undertake manufacturing on a large scale. His estimate proved wrong. In less than half a century the young republic emerged as a leading industrial nation, second only to England. About one out of six working Americans in 1800 were engaged in nonagricultural labor; by 1850 the proportion had risen to almost half. The second quarter of the nineteenth century saw canals, steamboats, and railroads carrying the products of American labor, opening up new markets and expanding old ones. A factory system spread from New England to New York, Pennsylvania, and the newly emerging states beyond. Banks were created by the hundreds over the next forty years. America's abundant resources, expanding territory, and growing population lured capital from both here and abroad, often spurring reckless speculation and runaway inflation.
A labor movement sprang into being in most cities, largely because workers hoped through concerted action to maintain their earlier standard of living in the face of rising prices. The labor movement was an urban phenomenon. Old eastern seaboard cities experienced quantum leaps in wealth and population. Western cities, abetted by the transportation revolution, technological advance, and massive immigration, were built overnight.
While urban life was stimulating and exciting, it also bred social tensions and economic polarization. And urban racial, ethnic, and religious heterogeneity produced suspicion and discord. White workers scorned black. Protestants of both races viewed Irish Catholic immigrants with contempt. In Philadelphia in the 1840s, where private fire-fighting companies were organized along ethnic lines, native Protestant workers often fought Irish Catholics at the scene of fires. Bitter riots and the emergence of anti-Catholic political parties disfigured urban life in the decades before the Civil War.
The nation turned increasingly democratic in the early nineteenth century. Labor benefited from the abolition of property requirements for voting and the increase in the number of elective, rather than appointive, public offices. The second quarter of the century became known as the "Era of the Common Man" because Alexis de Tocqueville and other visitors concluded that American democracy was ruled by rural and urban workers of little or no property. Labor's possession of the suffrage was a significant achievement, unknown elsewhere in the world at that time, yet it provided no real assurance that politicians would devote themselves to securing labors interests.
Labor ardently supported the Federalist party. Workers, convinced that "importations were highly unfavorable to mechanic improvement," backed the Federalist protective tariff policy. But by the end of George Washington's second term in 1796 labor increasingly aligned with the Jeffersonians. "Substantial mechanics"--many of whom were small-scale employers as well as workers--remained loyal to the Federalists, while the "middling and poorer classes" moved toward the new party. Not that the Jeffersonian Republicans were a "labor party," either in their leadership or their policies. But their antibanking, anti-British, and pro-French Revolution policies won the support of many, particularly hatters, tanners, and other craftsmen who felt in need of protection against British manufacturers. The Jeffersonians, sympathetic to newer immigrants, attracted the support of Irish and French newcomers. By 1800 most people who worked with their hands preferred the party of Jefferson and James Madison to the party of Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, workers were differentiated by skill, income, type of workplace, living conditions, property ownership, freedom as against servitude, and relative opportunities for advance. Most were not paid in wages but in goods, crops, meals, and free living quarters as well as money. Nor were such forms of payment confined to rural communities. In the textile mills of New England, weavers typically received only about a quarter of their reward in cash, with the rest of their payment in yarn or storegoods.
The unskilled fared poorly. Laborers, canal and railroad workers, stevedores, and seamstresses, who constituted perhaps forty percent of the urban working class, received one dollar or less per day at the turn of the century. Statistical evidence for Philadelphia and other cities indicates that these rates remained stable over the next three decades. Seamen received similar money wages at the start of the period but only about half as much thirty years later.
While the dollar of 1800 was worth at least seven or eight times our own, the wages of unskilled labor were too low to maintain even a minimal standard of decent living. Price rises only aggravated the problem. According to a New York City physician, the laboring poor in the 1790s lived in "little decayed wooden huts" inhabited by several families, dismal abodes set on muddy alleys and permeated by the stench from "putrefying excrement."
Skilled workers--variously known as craftsmen, artisans, or mechanics--received from seventy-five to one hundred percent higher wages than the unskilled. Some skilled artisans owned homes, modest dwellings to be sure, yet sufficient to contain work area, kitchen, living quarters for the family and in some cases for servants or apprentices.
The tools they owned and their proficiency in using them gave skilled workers marketable assets which enhanced their sense of worth. Working independently or with others as journeymen in small shops directed by master craftsmen, they could realistically anticipate becoming masters someday. In the fashion of the time a master craftsman supervised the production of goods for a custom or "bespoke" market.
In 1810 President Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, reported that "by far the greater part of goods made of cotton, flax, or wool are manufactured in private families, mostly for their own use, and partly for sale." Gallatin estimated that "about two-thirds of the clothing . . . worn and used by the inhabitants of the United States who do not reside in cities, is the product of family manufactures." At the time of his report more than ninety percent of the population did not reside in cities.
A contemporary account describes the extent to which the system of home manufacture had penetrated Ridgefield, Connecticut, a "typical New England town" of about 200 farm families. Few products were bought outside the home by Ridgefield's inhabitants. They made their own soap and candles as well as carpets and linen. Slaughtering was done by a butcher who went from house to house. Tanners, tailors, weavers, and shoemakers were also itinerant craftsmen. Thus, "upon due notice the circulating shoemaker came with his bench, lapstone, and awl, converted some room into a shop until the house was duly shod, the leather used being that sent back from the tanner from the hides of the cows and calves that the family had killed for meat." Hats and furniture were characteristically made by craftsmen in their own shops, often in exchange for the raw material required in their crafts. The system continued throughout the period ending in the Civil War, but by 1830 it had lost most of its vitality, weakened by the urban and transportation revolutions.
Organizations of skilled workers began to emerge in northeastern cities, particularly among printers, carpenters, and shoemakers or "cordwainers" as they were they, called. Some of these groups were confined to masters or employers, charging a high initiation fee and stiff dues that clearly priced out all but employers from their benefits. Journeymen's organizations at first followed similar practices.
These were not so much trade unions in the modern sense as benevolent organizations. The pioneer historian of American labor, John R. Commons, described both the masters' and the journeymen's associations of the Jefferson era as "mutual aid societies." They were concerned with providing death benefits to widows, assisting members who were ill or unemployed, offering loans and credits, maintaining libraries, perpetuating high standards of craftsmanship, and settling disputes among members. Some journeymen s societies had objectives that went beyond "benevolence," prefiguring the spirit of trade unionism that was to sweep across the country a generation later. Journeymen cordwainers in New York and printers in Philadelphia appear to have organized, not simply to provide themselves fraternal benefits but because they had lost faith in their old dream of becoming masters. Increasingly journeymen realized that they were likely to remain journeymen in the future. Spokesmen for the Journeymen Cordwainers Society of Philadelphia contended that they organized in 1794 in self-defense against the masters, whose own society organized five years earlier was allegedly "a league to reduce the wages of their journeymen." Increasingly journeymen's societies supplemented broad mutual aid programs with the down to earth economic demands of wage workers.
They insisted on a minimum wage, either a flat rate per day's work or a minimum rate for each task or piece of work completed, and demanded the equivalent of a closed shop (the term was not then in usage). Organized journeymen compelled employers to hire and retain society members only, and insisted that outsiders be made to join if they hoped to work. Nonsociety journeymen were held in scorn as "scabs." A Philadelphia cordwainer, during a court trial in 1806, defined a scab as "a shelter for lice!"
The growing militancy of skilled workers was demonstrated by "turn-outs" as they were called. These early strikes typically lasted from several hours to several days and were unorganized. The "organized" strikes conducted by the journeymen's societies were usually peaceful. But not always. In an 1806 turn-out that led to a suit against the Philadelphia cordwainers, scabs were beaten and employers intimidated by demonstrations and the breaking of windows. That strike was called to uphold the closed shop. Most strikes of the time, however, demanded higher wages. In 1791, in the first recorded strike in the building trades, journeymen carpenters protested against wages "which are, and have been for a long time too low [and] are meanly attempted to be reduced to a still lower ebb." They demanded additional pay for overtime work and a reduction in working hours.
The working day in urban shops paralleled the traditional working day on American farms--sunup to sundown. The carpenters complained that they had "heretofore been obliged to toil through the course of the longest summer's day," swearing "by the sacred ties of honour" that in the "future a day's work amongst us shall be deemed to commence at 6 o'clock in the morning and terminate at 6 in the evening of each day." The ten or even eleven hour working day, however, was an idea whose time had not yet come.
The right of journeymen to organize and strike did not go uncontested. Commencing in Philadelphia in 1806 and continuing there and in other cities, journeymen were hauled into court about two dozen times during the first half of the nineteenth century. Employers, merchants, and their friends--more often than not, staunch Federalists--resisted what they called "coercive" and "artificial" interference with the natural operations of the free market. In other words, they opposed wage increases. United action by skilled artisans, said one judge, is "pregnant with public mischief and private injury." Strikes, if successful, supposedly would not only harm employers but would jeopardize the welfare of the entire community. A closed shop, according to its critics, was an intolerable interference with the freedom of artisans who chose not to join journeymen's societies.
The legal weapon with which employers challenged organized journeymen was the old English doctrine of conspiracy. English courts treated labor combinations as illegal conspiracies largely on the basis of what Richard B. Morris has called an "ambiguous statement founded on precedents of dubious value, published in 1716," to the effect that "all confederacies whatsoever, wrongfully to prejudice a third person are highly criminal at common law." Employers, their attorneys, and judges and juries in America usually agreed that strikes by journeymen's societies were therefore illegal. Although English common law had no formal standing here, prosecuting lawyers spiced their arguments with references to English precedents. Defense attorneys retaliated, as in the 1806 trial of the cordwainers, when they demanded, "Where is the evidence of this common law? Is it founded on practice or usage? None can be proved! Is it founded on any legal decision? None can be produced!" And four years later, the Republican lawyer, William Sampson, arguing in behalf of the embattled New York City cordwainers, ridiculed reliance on nonapplicable English precedents, asking, "How long shall this superstitious idolatry endure?"
To judge from the actions of most juries, the appeal to English common law continued to have force in the United States. Relatively mild punishments were meted out in labor conspiracy trials. The Philadelphia cordwainers were in 1806 fined eight dollars each and the costs of the suit. Nine years later Pittsburgh journeymen, found guilty of "unlawful conspiracy" for "unjustly and iniquitously raising the price of their wages" and "corruptly conspiring"' not to work for any person "who had in his employment any journeyman who did not belong to their said society," were fined one dollar each and costs. In an 1809 case involving a general strike called by the journeymen Cordwainers Society of Baltimore only one defendant out of thirty-nine was found guilty, and there is no record that the judge imposed a sentence.
A decision by judge DeWitt Clinton in 1810 initiated a trend toward narrowing or limiting the application of the English conspiracy doctrine. In the case of New York journeymen, Clinton described the alleged conspirators as "members useful in the community" who had erred not willfully but out of a mistaken view of the law. He assured journeymen that they had the "right to meet and regulate their concerns, and to ask for [higher] wages, and to work or to refuse to work." All that was required of them in pursuit of these ends was that "the means they used [not be] too arbitrary and coercive," as ostensibly they were in the case before him. The fine of one dollar each and costs, he assured the defendants, was meant as admonition rather than punishment. "Shall all others, except only the industrious mechanics, be allowed to meet and plot and yet these poor men be indicted for combining against starvation?" the defense had asked. Increasingly, courts and juries answered in the negative, while continuing to insist that journeymen confine themselves to "noncoercive" practices. Until 1842, courts commonly held that journeymen's unions and strikes were precisely such condemned behavior.
The technological, economic, and social changes that overtook the United States early in the nineteenth century had a marked impact on American workers. Improvements in turnpikes or toll roads gave way to a "canal fever," accompanied and followed by the appearance of steamboats and, in the 1830s and 1840s, railroads. The resulting sharp reduction in transportation costs enabled sellers to compete successfully in. distant markets, opening up great profit making opportunities to efficient large-scale manufacturers. Limited custom order and local trade gave way to a massive national market, inevitably affecting the conditions of the workers who produced for this market. It became easier, for example, to break a strike: In 1833 newspapers in Philadelphia ran advertisements for 200 workers to replace cordwainers striking in New Brunswick.
Merchant capitalists increasingly assumed control not only over the sale of goods but over their production. Their possession of substantial capital and easy access to credit enabled them to contract for massive orders all over the country. The size of their operations enabled them to cut prices below those fixed by masters and journeymen whose shops were in effect taken over by the capitalists.
On the surface little seemed to have changed. In the typical shop the master was still the chief, and the craftsmen he presided over still owned their tools. Their style of work in many cases differed little from what it had been in the eighteenth century. But the merchant capitalist supplied the raw materials and owned and marketed the finished product made in the shop. In Common's words, the "masters now became small contractors employed by the merchant capitalist and, in turn, employing one to a dozen journeymen." Since the profits of masters came "solely out of wages and work," they sought to "lessen dependence on skill and to increase speed of output. They played the less skilled against the most skilled and reduced wages while enhancing exertion."
To increase profits, masters introduced the "sweating system," demanding greater productivity from skilled workers. By resorting to cheaper labor--prisoners, women, children, the unskilled--the apprentice system broke down as employers placed decreasing reliance on skill. In printing, as in other trades, control passed from the profession itself into the hands of outsiders. As labor historian Norman Ware observed, the employment of "two-thirders" or partially trained journeymen and children reduced the status of printers from "men with a profession to wage earners." A mechanics' newspaper complained that "the capitalists have taken to bossing all the mechanical trades, while the practical mechanic has become a journeyman, subject to be discharged at every pretended 'miff' of his purse-proud employer."
The cheapest labor, however, was factory labor. Unlike urban shops employing a few skilled craftsmen using their own tools, factories employed large numbers of semiskilled and unskilled workers operating machines own by the companies. Two distinctive types of factories emerged. The first was the Lowell or Waltham system, named after the Boston suburbs in which it flourished. Its unique feature was its reliance on a female labor force quartered in boarding houses controlled by the factory owners. The second, the Fall River system, like the factory system in England, employed children and male adults as well as women and made no special provisions for housing. This system proved to be the most durable, but the Lowell system excited more interest.
A sharp controversy arose over the conditions of work and the quality of life enjoyed by the mill girls. A contemporary admirer described the founders of the system as "those wise and patriotic men [who] foresaw and guarded against the evils of social degradation" characteristic of the English factory system, "by the erection of boarding houses [under] matrons of tried character" for a supply of "proud and respectable girls." Charles Dickens and Harriet Martineau were charmed by what they described as clean housing and well lighted rooms, the excellent supervision given happy and healthy young women, and the attractive conditions of work they found in the mills. At a time when the system had come under much criticism, members of an investigating committee of the Massachusetts State legislature in 1845 praised the "neatness, cleanness, good lighting, comfortable temperature, and the cheerful presence of plants on the window sills" of the boarding houses, as well as the appearance of the "healthy, robust" girls who lived in them. The Lowell Offering, a newspaper edited by the young women themselves, gave an impression of contented workers with much leisure time for wholesome and uplifting diversions.
Other contemporaries, however, saw a very different picture. "It is enough to make one's heart ache," wrote New England labor reformer Charles Douglas, "to behold these degraded females now dragging out a life of slavery and wretchedness" in Lowell, to observe them "as they pass out of the factory--to mark their woestricken appearance." The editor of the Boston Daily Times wrote on July 13, 1839, that "the young girls are compelled to work in unhealthy confinement for too many hours every day . . . their food is both unhealthy and scanty . . . they are not allowed sufficient time to eat ... they are crowded together in ill ventilated apartments . . . and in consequence they become pale, feeble, and finally broken in constitution" and in some cases, "debauched." Some young workers complained about overcrowding, "14 hours of toil" per day, unhealthy apartments, bad air, insufficient exercise and leisure--a regimen which hastened them "on through pain, disease, and privation, down to a premature grave." Militant journals such as the Factory Girl's Friend and the Voice of Industry concurred in the indictment.
Is the truth somewhere in between? It may be helpful to think of the Lowell system--which prevailed also in Lawrence, Chicopee, and Lancaster, Massachusetts, and many towns in Maine and New Hampshire--as having gone through several phases. The Boston founders of the system were, of course, interested in making great profits; that is why they sought female labor. But they also understood that to maintain the approval and respect of the larger community they would have to provide decent housing, strict moral supervision, and relatively attractive working conditions. Hours may have been long and wages low, yet they doubtless appealed to young people used to long hours of work on the family farm for no pay whatever. According to historian Hannah Josephson, what drew the young girls to Lowell and other Mill towns "primarily of course was the high wages" or what they thought were high wages.
Wages, however, were never high . Women in the boarding house mills earned approximately $2.50 per week in 1830, although, as a factory agent reported, it was "almost impossible to ascertain the wages paid by his competitors to their female operatives." They typically worked more than twelve hours per day, and minor infractions such as a few minutes lateness were punished severely. One-sided contracts gave them no power over conditions and no rewards for work. The Fall River system was even harsher.
The search for cheap factory labor inevitably led to heavy reliance on child labor. The famous mill of Almy and Brown early in the century employed one hundred children between the ages of four and ten! In the 1820s and 1830s children under sixteen constituted from one-third to one-half the labor force of New England. Their wages hovered around thirty-three cents per week, with fifty cents the average in Rhode Island. No wonder a cotton mill in that state in 1828 put up the following notice: "Wanted. Four families with not less than four children each to work in the mill." Children made up about one-fifth of the Pennsylvania labor force, averaging between seventy-five cents and two dollars per week. In that state, conditions of all factory workers deteriorated in the years before 1840. Wages declined, hours of work were lengthened, penalties were imposed for violations of "arbitrary regulations of lopsided labor contracts." Long hours typically meant more than twelve hours. In several New Hampshire factories managers even made the clock run slow at night in order to get an extra half-hour out of the workers.
In the South the industrial sector thrived on slave labor. A Northerner visiting the antebellum South served that slaves were "trained to every kind of manual labor. The blacksmith, cabinetmaker, carpenter, builder, wheel-right-all have one or more slaves laboring at their trades." Blacks worked as metal mechanics, machinists, shoemakers, bakers, printers, papermakers, textile workers, in every kind of processing, whether of sugar or rice, as lumber and turpentine workers, salt boilers, as steamboat deck hands, firemen, engineers, occasionally as pilots, and as bridge builders. Slavery was particularly important in the South's substantial iron industry. In the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, the nation's third largest iron company, slaves constituted about one-half the labor force of 1,000. They were engaged in every phase of production, whether as founders, colliers, miners, teamsters, or woodchoppers. At blast furnaces blacks were employed together with a "handful of skilled laborers, usually but not always white," under the direction of a white manager.
Some white workers bitterly resented the hiring of blacks as skilled or semiskilled mechanics. In 1847 striking white workers at the Tredegar company threatened not to return unless recently employed blacks were removed from specified furnaces and mills of the company. Their strike was unsuccessful.
White employers insisted on hiring black labor, not only for its cheapness but for its skill. A white foreman in a southern textile plant observed that blacks did "fully as much work [as whites]" and were "much more attentive to the condition of their looms." An Alabama mine owner reported that " every day's experience confirms my opinion that it is next to impossible to prosecute my mining interest successfully with free white labor. It was unruly, unreliable, and expensive." He concluded: "I must have a Negro force or give up my business." Although industrial slaves fared better than their brothers and sisters in the fields, they were subjected to hard work and long hours. In Louisiana sugar refineries, many worked an eighteen hour day. They had to accommodate themselves to the whims of their masters and occasionally suffered the "brutality that was an integral part of bondage." The fact remains, as Morris showed, that in Virginia, skilled slaves who were hired out received wages, held property, and possessed "some measure of mobility and free choice that compared favorably with the lot of the unskilled."
Living conditions of black workers in the South, according to historian Charles B. Dew, improved modestly. Workers used their pay for "overwork" to buy goods, achieving a degree of material competence unknown to most slaves. While Dew found instances of whipping and cruelty, these were the exception. Iron men sought profit, not the joys of sadism, and treated the skilled labor upon which profit depended accordingly. Instead of degrading the workers, industrial slavery "in some ways . . . provided an environment in which they could develop some sense of personal dignity and individual initiative in spite of the psychological and physical confines of their bondage." The system functioned "more through mutual accommodation than outright oppression."
The situation of black labor in the antebellum South is better understood when viewed in the context of the situation for all labor in that section. Numerous whites, particularly poor laborers, were reduced to a "bound" or semifree status. Many white seamen in the section were treated more brutally than were slaves. Imprisonment for debt may have been abolished in most of the North during the Jacksonian era but not in the South.
Workers in the early nineteenth century, whether factory operatives or skilled mechanics, did not live to work. They loved leisure; plant breakdowns or delays in transporting raw materials were often regarded as offering a splendid opportunity for diversion. An "elderly tailor" in Philadelphia corrected an onlooker's impression that the artisan and his fellows were headed toward a field because they had been laid off. "Not at all, we are only enjoying the Tailor's Vacation," the worker explained. "Pressure is well enough to be sure, as I can testify when the last dollar is about to be pressed out of me; but Vacation is capital. It tickles one's fancy with the notion of choice, 'Nothing on compulsion' is my motto."
Workers enjoyed fun and games outside of work and insisted on introducing them into workshop and mill as well. Required to do compulsory militia service, many artisans turned the occasions into "scenes of riot and disorder," scandalizing the champions of industrial discipline who regarded them as "disgusting and harmful." Philadelphia's artisans, no doubt like those in other cities, delighted in cockfights, roulette, circuses, shooting matches, hunting, and foot racing. Herbert G. Gutman has disclosed that "hunting, harvesting, wedding parties, frequent 'frolicking' that sometimes lasted for days, and uproarious Election and Independence Day celebrations plagued mill operators."
The modern coffeebreak is a pale replica of an old institution. After finishing a difficult job, cabinetmakers in New York City sent out an apprentice who "speedily returned laden with wine, brandy, biscuits, and cheese." In shipyards in the same city, all work ceased several times a day as "every man and boy" in the yard was supplied with "cake or crullers, doughnuts, gingerbread, turnovers, a variety of sweet cookies," and liquid refreshments.
The American worker loved to drink, insisting that liquor be brought in during working hours. That a shipbuilder in Medford, Massachusetts, who refused his men "grog privileges" managed nevertheless to have work completed on a ship has been called a remarkable achievement. Philadelphia artisans insisted on their late afternoon drink, passing a jug around. Not that they abstained earlier. A journeyman there reported that "young apprentices learned to drink while they learned a trade." The youths made periodic trips to the local pub to fill the flasks journeymen brought with them to work. Before returning to the shop the apprentice would "rob the mail"--help himself to a drink. In Lynn's shoemaking shops, historian Paul Faler has found that "no working man would labor unless his employer provided a half pint of liquor per day as part of his wages." Cordwainers drank their daily pint of "white eye," some even "going the whole quart." In the morning and afternoon an apprentice was sent out for "black stop," a concoction made of rum and molasses. The person who made the best shoe was expected to treat, while "the botch who made the worst one also paid the 'scot.'" On coming of age, a worker was expected to provide the "choicest liquors for visiting well wishers."
To an avowed socialist like William Haighton, organizer of the Philadelphia trade union movement in 1827, drinking, "gaming and frolicking" were a snare and a delusion that workers would have been wise to put aside. Interestingly, the line that American workers should turn from intoxicating beverages and "idle pastimes" to sobriety, education, and discipline was advocated by labor radicals, moralistic Protestants, social conservatives, and many employers.
Ideas also intoxicated workers. Beginning in Philadelphia in 1828, a labor movement spread throughout the country during the early 1830s. It consisted of unions and political organizations known as Workingmen's parties. Historian John R. Commons described these groups as America's pioneer labor movement because, for the first time, journeymen's societies in different crafts combined to form one union of the trades--or "'trades' union" as it was then known--in most of the cities of the country. The members of these organizations generally were skilled artisans or mechanics rather than laborers or factory workers. The latter did organize from time to time but most of their attempts failed. The fear that the spread of the factory system would jeopardize the status of skilled artisans impelled many of them to unite. Another reason for organizing was that incomes, insufficient to begin with, were threatened both by inflation and employer pressure to cut wages.
Living conditions even of skilled mechanics were yet another source of irritation. Working-class housing was typically crowded, noisy, and marked by inadequate sanitation and rubbish removal. The era's urban improvements, whether in water supply, street paving, lighting, or safety were characteristically introduced first to the quarters of the well to do. The streets and wards or districts of antebellum cities were clearly differentiated by wealth and class. The rich lived in elegant mansions in exclusive enclaves, leaving the mass of urban inhabitants to the "working class wards." This pattern prevailed for old seaboard cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, and newer western cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Natchez. Wealth was grossly maldistributed in antebellum towns and cities. The working people who made up the majority of the urban population owned a pitifully small portion--about five percent or less--of urban wealth.
A contributor to a Philadelphia newspaper in 1831 cheerfully advised that "with few exceptions, frugal industrious journeymen, unencumbered with families, may save so much of their wages, as in a few years to be enabled to commence business on their own account." A few years later a judge in New York City, at the same time that he branded striking unions as illegal combinations that allegedly were "mainly upheld by foreigners," assured mechanics that in this "land of law and liberty, the road to advancement is open to all and the journeymen may by their skill and industry, and moral worth, soon become flourishing master mechanics" or employers. The men who flocked to the labor organizations showed their disbelief in such comforting promises.
A number of the workingmen's parties were "workingmen" in name only. Yet most of the organizations were authentic. Their memberships were typically small, but that was due in large part to the savage attacks levelled at them by a hostile press. The Boston manufacturer Amos Lawrence, snorting that "we are literally all working men," charged that "the attempt to get up a 'Working Men's party' is a libel upon the whole population, as it implies that there are among us large numbers who are not working men." A more characteristic attack on the new parties took the form of name-calling. They were denounced as "agrarians" or anarchists, "levellers," a "mob," a "rabble" the "dirty-shirt party," "tag, rag, and bobtail," and "ring-streaked speckled rabble."
The Philadelphia party arose out of a decision by the city's Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations to enter into politics in order to promote "the interests and enlightenment of the working classes." This union consisted of societies of painters, glaziers, bricklayers, typographers, and journeymen of a dozen other trades. The Philadelphia party, like so many others, was led by or nominated to office men who were themselves not workers. Stephen Simpson, political candidate of the party, was the well-to-do son of an officer in the great Girard Bank. Robert Dale Owen, a leader of the Workingmen's party in New York City, was the son of a factory owner and had known comfort, even luxury, from childhood. Simpson and Owen, embracing radical social principles that were in some respects socialistic, believed that labor created all wealth and that inequality and social distress were caused by private property.
The many dozen parties in the towns and cities of the country made no attempt to form a national organization, and each went its own way. Yet the program championed by their party journals was amazingly similar. The Philadelphia Mechanic's Free Press, the New York Working Man's Advocate, and the Indianapolis Union and Mechanics' and Working Man's Advocate all listed similar demands. Some of these associations called for an equal distribution of property, others for state-run boarding schools to instill new ideas in the young of the next generation. There was almost universal support for trade unions and mechanics' lien laws to assure that workers had first call on their employers' payrolls; abolition of imprisonment for debt; a tax-supported public school system free of a degrading paupers' oath requirement; reform of a militia system that permitted those able to afford it to avoid service; simplification of the legal system, as well as making it less expensive; and abolition of the system whereby state legislatures enacted special laws conferring monopolistic charters on favored bank directors and other entrepreneurs.
The Workingmen's parties were characteristically disdainful of the major parties. They might on occasion support one or another of them on a given issue, such as backing the Democratic "war" against the second Bank of the United States. In that famous affair, President Andrew Jackson and his party tried to give the impression that they opposed the rechartering of the bank because it allegedly oppressed labor and the poor. Actually, the needs and welfare of labor had nothing to do with the issue. For all his reputation as a champion of have-nots, Jackson paid little attention to labor. He was in fact the first presidential strikebreaker, sending in federal troops to crush a strike of workers against a canal company directed by his friend John Eaton.
The cornerstone of the labor movement, however, was not ephemeral political organizations but trade unions. The first trades' union--or merging of separate journeymen's societies--took place in New York City on August 14, 1833. Realizing that individual societies could not cope singlehandedly with employers, artisans all over the country quickly followed the lead of the New Yorkers. Carpenters, bakers, soap makers, printers, cabinetmakers, masons, bookbinders, house painters, combmakers, brush makers, tailors, hat makers, weavers, jewelers, blacksmiths, machinists, rope makers, sailmakers, carvers, gilders, cordwainers, chairmakers, and artisans in dozens of other occupations formed new societies or flocked to old ones. Unions sprang up in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Newark, New Brunswick, Albany, Schenectady, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and most other urban areas.
The new unions were led by idealistic radicals, many of whom denounced private property and the wage system as the root causes of poverty and injustice. Union journals show that every variety of social, economic, political, and judicial reform attracted them and evoked their sympathy. The unions' actions, however, make clear that broad reforms were peripheral. The central interest was wages and hours, the characteristic activity the strike.
Strikes for the ten-hour day were often unsuccessful. In Boston in 1825 the journeymen house carpenters had struck against the sunup to sundown working day they found so "derogatory to the principles of justice and humanity." The master carpenters on the other hand had defended the long working day as "that which has been customary from time immemorial." Backed by merchant capitalists who denounced the strike as a nefarious scheme allegedly put forward by foreign agitators and a press controlled by these merchants, the masters and their influential allies defeated the strike. In 1832, when the house carpenters were joined by journeymen ship carpenters, masons, painters, and sailmakers from Boston and nearby suburbs, a ten-hour strike was again crushed by thc powerful alliance of masters, capitalists, and press.
By the mid-1830s, however, the movement was doing better, at least outside of Boston. In Philadelphia, the achievement of the ten-hour day in 1835 was hailed by unionists as the accomplishment of labor's "bloodless revolution." The national government implemented it first in the Navy Yard in 1836 and for all public works four years later.
Workers had a sense of solidarity that at times transcended the boundaries of their union, but the era's union movement was essentially an intra-urban phenomenon. Although on occasion unionists in one city helped their beleaguered colleagues in another, the central preoccupation of the membership was with conditions in their own community. Significant attempts at creating a national organization were made not by the unions of the different cities but rather by individual crafts. Journeymen house carpenters, handloom weavers, combmakers, cordwainers, and printers took steps to create national societies that would cut across the boundaries of the city and its trades unions. The New York City union journal The Man claimed that the unions had 200,000 members. While most crafts in most towns and cities had societies that in turn belonged to unions, these largely successful organizations did not last long. What did them in was the depression that followed the panics of 1837 and 1839.
Labor suffered for almost a decade in some communities after the debacle of 1837. Lynn, Massachusetts, shoe workers had to forage in the woods for fuel, eat dandelions, and obtain other food by bartering with nearby farmers and fishermen. The New York Tribune in July, 1845, estimated that close to one-third the adult male population remained unemployed. A well-to-do Philadelphian, in a diary entry in 1842, observed that the city's streets were deserted, business was at a standstill, sheriffs' sales were commonplace, and the "injuries of poverty are felt by both rich and poor." Most unions and their member societies disappeared in a time when workers found it impossible to maintain dues payments.
Nonpayment of dues figured in the landmark decision of 1842 handed down by Lemuel Shaw, Chief justice of the highest court of Massachusetts, in the case of Commonwealth v. Hunt. It turned on the refusal of members of the Boston journeymen Bootmakers Society to continue working in a shop that would employ a nonmember. In the case, suit was brought by the nonmember, Jeremiah Horne, when his employer at the society's behest fined Horne for his delinquent dues payments to the union. Shaw's decision held that "the common law in regard to conspiracy in this Commonwealth is in force," thus catering to conservative opinion's reverence for "tradition." Shaw divided conspiracy into two parts: There had to be either "some criminal or unlawful purpose, or to accomplish some purpose, not in itself criminal or unlawful ... criminal or unlawful means." When Shaw declared that the society's purpose of inducing "all those engaged in the same occupation to become members of it" was not unlawful, he provided the first affirmative legal sanction to unionism and the closed shop. Almost anticlimactic was his finding that the means used to withhold labor were also not unlawful.
Unionism did not leap forward as a result of this decision. Nor did conspiracy trials cease altogether. Yet there can be little doubt that the legal recognition of the rights of unions played an important part in abetting their later growth.
Industrial production soared after the early 1840s. In the space of five years, iron production increased by more than 300 percent, anthracite by 1,000 percent, and ship tonnage by about 250 percent. Although factories expanded, relatively small shops accounted for most of the labor force. Philadelphia's textile factories, which after the consolidation act of 1854 numbered 260, continued to have their weaving done by weavers working handlooms in their own homes.
In the 1850s a number of large foundry owners Pennsylvania, eager to corner the national market, sought to destroy their competitors by a ruthless attack on the wages and conditions of skilled molders. Piecework became the rule, performed by poorly trained and poorly paid helpers and apprentices. Skilled workers were now forced to buy their own tools, purchase their necessities in company stores, waive their rights to damages for injuries suffered at work, and submit to withholding of part of their pay until work season's end as an assurance of their good behavior! As for conditions in foundries, an observer whose report appeared in the Atlantic Monthly described a ghastly scene of "masses of men with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground . . . begrimed with smoke and ashes, stooping all night over boiling cauldrons of metal."
A new development in the factory system in some areas was the decreasing reliance on child labor. The change was occasioned by the introduction of heavier, more difficult machinery requiring adult workers. In much of New England, these were increasingly Irish immigrants. Factory workers were not held in high regard. A foreman told a visitor to Fall River in 1855, "I regard my work people just as I regard my machinery ... When my machines get old and useless, I reject them and get new, and these people are part of my machinery."
Evidence indicates that workers did not do well during the prosperity that ostensibly returned in the mid-1840s. The chronically desperate plight of the unskilled, such as female needlework's, was a function of their wages of less than a dollar per week. Between 1837 and 1858 the wages of skilled iron workers in Pennsylvania were reduced by one-third to one half. On May 27, 1851, Horace Greeley's Tribune itemized a "Budget for a Family of 5 for one week." Their expenses came to $10.37 for goods and services that were confined to. the bare necessities. For as Greeley asked in an accompanying editorial, "Where is the money to pay for amusement, for ice cream puddings, trips on Sunday . . . in order to get some fresh air, to pay the doctor or apothecary , . . to purchase books?" It has been estimated that at the time, shoemakers, printers, hatters, cabinetmakers, and most others were averaging roughly one-half the necessary wage--a wage itself found "inadequate to maintain the worker's family at anything like decent comfort standard." The head of the Journeymen House Carpenters of Philadelphia wrote that costs of a decent house with a bathroom, cellar, furniture, bedding, clothing, and amusements left workers without sufficient income to adequately feed their families.
Workers were disheartened too by impersonal relationships in shop and factory. A machinists' blacksmiths' leader, recalling an earlier time when "every worker knew his employer," observed that now "men and masters became estranged and the gulf could only be healed by a strike."
Few workers appear to have responded to the call by some of their leaders that labor adopt one or another variety of socialism. The National Typographical Society in 1850 attacked the wage system, urging labor to "become its own employer, to own and enjoy itself the fruits" of its work. But few workers outside the society listened. A more typical response was the strike. An "epidemic" of strikes swept over the country in the 1840s as business boomed, prices soared, and wages lagged. Some of these were staged by labor "protective associations," but many were spontaneous. Another wave of strikes in the 1850s was almost entirely organized by trade unions.
The nation's second great surge of unionism occurred at mid-century as journeymen once more combined. Influenced at first by the earlier benevolent societies which had included masters in their membership, the new unions quickly moved to oust all but wage workers. Stripped of what Commons called "universal and glowing ideals," skilled mechanics "settled down to the cold business of getting more pay for themselves." These unions concentrated on the closed shop, rules of apprenticeship, wages and methods of payment, strike and members' benefits. They published no journals, substituting strikes for grandiose proclamations. In 1853-1854 alone they staged about 400 strikes, mostly for higher wages.
These strikes did not follow negotiations as we know them. Instead, unions would decide on their objectives and then issue notices such as the following: "On Wednesday evening September 4 the Bricklayers and Plasterers by an unanimous vote declared that they would not work after Wed. the 11th inst. for a sum less than $2.00 per day, on and after that day." If the employer accepted these terms a "trade agreement" was concluded. Such agreements were sought not only from individual employers but [also] from employers' associations, in order to establish uniform wages and other conditions in a craft. Strikes were often directed against recalcitrant or non-association employers.
Once again several unions attempted to organize nationally. The results were not very much more impressive than they had been twenty years earlier, since only three of the dozen or so national unions created in the 1850s managed to survive the depression that followed the Panic of 1857. These were the National Typographical Union, the Machinists' and Blacksmiths' International Union, and the Iron Molders' International Union. While impersonal factors, such as the maturing of a national market, obviously had much to do with the emergence of national unions, the efforts of dynamic individuals such as William Sylvis of the molders cannot be discounted.
One of the most inspirational figures in the history of the labor movement, Sylvis's experiences as a worker reflect the changes that transformed both the economy and the situation of labor in the decades before the Civil War. Sylvis's father was a wagon maker so poor that during the post-1837 depression he had to "place" the youngster with a well-to-do family as an apprentice. On completing his five-year term, Sylvis was given the traditional "freedom suit" of broadcloth, white shirt, woollen hose, calfskin boots, and high silk hat. A leader of the molders' organization in Philadelphia, Sylvis played the decisive part in creating a national molders' union in 1859. Four years later he became the president of the organization, after journeying to shops and foundries ii the United States and Canada, listening to workers grievances, disregarding employer threats, and building the union. He lived from hand to mouth during this ordeal. Sylvis always lived on the brink of poverty, even during the years of his presidency of the international union. When he suddenly died in 1869, he only had one hundred dollars and his family could not meet the costs of burial.
Whether national or local, most unions were destroyed in the wake of the Panic of 1857. On the eve of the Civil War, spokesmen for organized labor cast their lot with the conciliators who would avoid bloodshed at almost all costs. At a workers' meeting, in Louisville on December 28, 1860, friends of William Sylvis, while pledging allegiance to the Constitution and the Union, denounced the "politicians" who had allegedly brought the nation to the brink of an unnecessary war. Labor meetings early the following year were held Newark, Reading, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Norfolk and Richmond, supporting the Crittendon Compromise, which would have legitimized slavery in the territories south of the 36 degree 30' line. Sylvis chaired a meeting in Philadelphia on February 22, 1861, that adopted resolutions in support of the Crittendon plan and the "equal rights of the South in the territories," while denouncing all measures likely to result in war.
The attack on Fort Sumter changed all that. Sylvis himself assisted in recruiting a volunteer company of molders, as he and most other northern leaders rallied to the cause. It has been estimated that mechanics and laborers constituted forty-two percent of the Union army, while skilled artisans were enthusiastic volunteers. Their patriotism had the effect of decimating trade union ranks. Thus one Philadelphia union closed up shop for the duration, resolving "to enlist with Uncle Sam," adjourning "until either the [Federal] Union is safe or we are whipped." Foreign-born workers as well as native-born demonstrated a devotion to the Union that, according to historian David Montgomery, was "rooted in the intense nationalism of the working class." As the war continued, some workers opposed particular governmental policies, such as emancipation or a draft which discriminated against the poor. But their general support of the Union cause did not flag: they accepted emancipation when it came and opposed the draft riots.
The war had mixed consequences for labor. Inflation and mounting taxes hurt workers. Several western states passed antistrike laws, and eastern states gave serious consideration to such measures. Nor did the national government display much sympathy for labor. Workers in the great federal workshops in. Nashville were defrauded of what they believed to be their rightful wages. They were not given the promised time and a half for overtime and were deprived of part of their wages if they quit. In the Brooklyn Navy Yard the back pay of striking molders was confiscated.
Military force was used against striking workers. Leaders in the strike at the famous Parrott gun works in Cold Springs, New York, were imprisoned without trial. In Louisville, General Burbridge drove strikers back to work at the point of bayonets, while in St. Louis General Rosecrans charged picket lines and strike meetings. Soldiers in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, arrested the striking miners' leaders, forcing the rank. and file to surrender to the owners under the threat of starvation.
Strikes not only persisted, however; they multiplied swiftly. They were reactions to a sharp rise in the cost of living that was not matched by wage increases for the great army of unskilled workers.
Trade unions experienced a renaissance during the war, the number of locals increasing by 350 percent between December, 1863, and December, 1864. Unlike the movement of the previous decade, Civil War unions were most articulate, publishing many prolabor journals. These unions consisted primarily of urban artisans, some of whom--like the iron molders--spoke for the unskilled workers in their shops and factories. The trades' assemblies of different unions in a city, similar to the "Unions of the Trades" of the 1830s, was a significant development. Between 1861 and 1865 there emerged more than a dozen national unions, ranging from miners, locomotive engineers, and cigar makers to plasterers, tailors, bricklayers, and printers. Owing much to technological and commercial changes that rendered more parochial unionism obsolete, these unions arose not so much because of the Civil War as in spite of it.
The great war was a disaster to most workers. Certainly it brought no economic salvation to American labor. A New York Times survey in 1869 reported that only one-eighth of the working classes earned sufficient income to afford the "comforts of life." A group of similar size could manage all the necessities. But three-quarter of the workers were found to earn "a meager subsistence. . . their families crowded [together in] slum apartments and boarding house," their standard of living far short of a decent minimum.
During the three-quarters of a century between 1790 and 1865, American workers had helped make the United States one of the two leading industrial nations in the world. For all their signal contribution to America's welfare, however, most workers enjoyed neither influence nor well-being. At the war's end American society was about to experience the dislocations the would accompany the nation's leap into a mature industrialism. Their experience in concerted action helped fortify American workers in meeting the shocks that awaited them.