The Emergence of American Labor
By Richard B. Morris
On August 5, 1774, just a month before the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, the ship Needham landed in New York from Newry, England, Captain William Cunningham, master. The ship's cargo was white indentured servants. On arrival they protested to the authorities that they had been kidnapped in Ireland and had suffered "bad usage" on the voyage across the Atlantic. Whereupon the city fathers ordered them discharged. The servants had gained their freedom, but Cunningham nursed a grudge, and later, as the notorious provost marshal of the British army in America, he confined captured Patriots to atrocious prison ships and jails. The incident of the Needham's cargo dramatizes how the early American labor market was supplied. It also reveals that certain aspects of the old labor system were repugnant to that free society the American inhabitants sought to create for themselves.
That society was based upon farming, fishing, maritime activities, and a sprinkling of small industries. Even as late as 1789 America was a nation of farmers. The first census (1790) revealed that only 202,000 persons out of a population of 3,929,000 lived in towns of 2,500 or more persons. Recruitment of a labor force, then, was essential to satisfy the needs of farmers and to a lesser degree of the maritime trades, the furnace and workshop industries, and the highly skilled crafts.
Utilizing few if any hired hands or servants, the small family farm quickly established itself in New England, a region favoring Indian corn since it could be cultivated by hand labor, but one where diversified crops were also raised. In contrast to New England's subsistence farming, the area stretching between the Hudson and Potomac needed a somewhat larger labor force (much of it recruited from Europe) for its commercial farms, which specialized in the production of wheat and other cereals. In the South the planter soon turned to raising a specialized crop for export--tobacco in Maryland and Virginia, rice and indigo in South Carolina. The size of the plantations and the requirements for cultivating such crops necessitated a substantial labor force of both white bound labor and black slaves.
Small-scale industry required skilled and semiskilled workers. Depending on the availability of natural resources, the colonies established glass industries, brick and tile yards, and potters' kilns; bog ores proved suitable for making castings and hollow ware, and rock ores fed furnace and forge industries. A flourishing lumber industry supported related activities such as shipbuilding and the production of naval stores and potash. New England's white pine provided masts, yards, and spars for the Royal Navy; the white oak of the Middle Colonies supplied valuable stock for the cooperage industry, and other hard woods of that area were used in the cabinetmaker's trade; in the South, yellow pine was the principal source of tar, pitch, and turpentine. Fishing and whaling required substantial fleets and thousands of sailors.
Potentially, America was a land of Eden. Labor was in demand to build homes, cultivate the earth, exploit the natural resources of the North Atlantic coast and the interior of the continent, sail the ships, and fish the seas. The colonists quickly discovered that the Indians, the native Americans who had settled the continent centuries before the Europeans, would not make compliant workers confined to settled abodes. The alternatives for labor power were to be found in the British Isles, the European continent, and along the west coast of Africa. Convinced that England was overpopulated, the government encouraged the emigration to America of the unemployed poor and vagrant class and permitted skilled workers to go to the colonies. Gradually, with England's rise to commercial and industrial primacy by the end of the seventeenth century, the official attitude changed, culminating in the enactment by Parliament in 1765 of a law forbidding the emigration of skilled workers. This was followed in turn by statutes of 1774, 1781, and 1782 forbidding the exportation of textile machinery, plans, or models. Toward the poor, the untrained, the vagrants, and the criminal class the government felt no such inhibitions; they were encouraged to immigrate to the colonies if someone, somewhere, would foot the bill for the passage.
Official obstructions notwithstanding, the importation of skilled artisans continued virtually unabated throughout the colonial years. Nor was the source confined to England. Swedes came to the Delaware, Walloons and Dutch to settle New Amsterdam. To Virginia came Polish workers for the naval stores industry, French to cultivate vineyards, Italians to set up glassworks, and Dutch to erect sawmills. Georgia recruited Italians for silk culture; emigrants from the Germanies shipped out in large numbers to become farm workers and ultimately owners, to labor in the burgeoning iron industry, and to produce naval stores. Irish flax workers developed the linen industry in New England as well as on Maryland's Eastern shore. The Scotch Irish worked the far reaches of Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley. In the lower South, sizable forces of Greeks, Italians, and Minorcans were transported to British-controlled East Florida.
Attracted by higher wages and the opportunity to set tip an independent business or to acquire a homestead, skilled workers continued streaming into the colonies, down to the moment of war with Britain. In the postwar years, as immigration resumed, American agents scoured English towns to induce trained mechanics to emigrate in large numbers. Tench Coxe, who was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Alexander Hamilton, reported in 1790 that "a large proportion of the most skillful manufacturers in the United States are persons who were journeymen and in a few instances were foremen in the workshops and manufactories of Europe."
Regardless of the lures offered to working men and women to emigrate to the New World, free labor remained in short supply throughout the colonial period. As a consequence, the English settlers innovated several forms of bound labor for white Europeans and adopted a long-established coercive labor system for black Africans. One form of bound labor, indentured servitude, included all persons bound to labor for periods of years as determined either by a written agreement or by the custom of the respective colony. The bulk of indentured servants comprised contract labor. White immigrants, called redemptioners or "freewillers," in return for their passage to America bound themselves as servants for varying periods, four years being the average length of service. This amounted to a system for underwriting the transportation of prospective emigrants.
It has been estimated that the redemptioners comprised almost eighty per cent of the total British and continental immigration to America down to the coming of the Revolution. Virginia and Maryland planters who assumed transportation charges received a head right or land grant for each immigrant. In the main, though, the business was carried on by merchants specializing in the sale of servants' indentures. Recruiting agents called "Crimps" in England and "Newlanders" on the continent were employed by these merchants. They hired drummers to go through inland towns in England or along the war-devastated Rhineland areas crying the voyage to America; with the help of a piper to draw crowds, they distributed promotional literature at fairs.
On the positive side, it should be said that the redemptioner system provided the bulk of the white labor force in the colonies. On the negative side, it must be acknowledged that it was riddled with fraudulent practices and that prospective servants were lured to detention houses to be held for shipment overseas through coercive procedures which often gave rise to charges of kidnapping. The redemptioners were packed like herring in unsanitary ships; the mortality rate could run in excess of fifty percent for a typical voyage. The survivors, served inadequate rations, generally arrived in a seriously weakened condition. Once, ashore, families might be broken up. Husbands and wives could be sold to different masters, and parents not infrequently were forced to sell their children. The latter could be bound out for longer terms of service than adults, even though they were shipped at half fare. Girls, ostensibly bound out for trades or housework, were at times exploited for immoral purposes.
The transportation of convicts provided another source of bound labor in the colonies. This practice, stepped up in the latter half of the seventeenth century, was spelled out by a Parliamentary act in 1718 authorizing seven-year terms of servitude for those convicted of lesser crimes and fourteen years for those guilty of offenses punishable by death. An estimated 10,000 convicts were sent from Old Bailey alone between 1717 and 1775, with double that number entering the single province of Maryland. Other convicts were shipped to Virginia and the West Indies.
Benjamin Franklin charged that the British practice of "emptying their jails into our settlements is, an insult and contempt, the cruellest, that ever one people offered to another." Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, remarked that the early settlers brought with them "a collection of peasants and servants remarkable for their profligacy." Although the colonies placed prohibitive duties on imported convicts or required ship captains to give bond for their good behavior, the contractors of convicts back in England saw to it that the home government would void such laws. In the colonies, however, employers, finding the purchase of convict labor less expensive than acquiring redemptioners or slaves, were responsible for the continuation of the traffic.
The laws of the colonies added still another source to meet the large demand for labor. Persons committing larceny, a felony punishable by death in the mother country, were customarily sentenced in colonial courts to corporal punishment and multiple restitution. If unable to make restitution, the prisoner was normally bound out to service by the court. A second substantial addition to the labor market came from the practice of the courts, which penalized absentee or runaway servants by requiring them to serve as many as ten days for every day's unauthorized leave. That harsh law made no distinction whatsoever between runaway indentured servants and absentee free workers under contract, placing the wage earner and the hired laborer in the same category.
Finally, the debtor was an important source of bound labor in the American colonies. Unlike England, the colonies considered imprisonment a waste of labor. Hence, laws were enacted, releasing the debtor from prison to serve the creditor for a period of time sufficient to satisfy the debt. The Pennsylvania Council defended this practice on humane grounds, deeming it "highly reasonable that people fitt for Labour, or Performing any Service by which they can earn Money, should by the same Method make Satisfaction for their just Debts."
Another method, the apprenticeship program inherited from England, had the twofold objective of supplying the labor market and providing training in a trade. The apprenticing, or binding out, could be "voluntary" by consent of parents or guardians, or involuntary, where local officials did the binding out. To get apprenticed to a highly skilled trade was a status reserved for those whose parents could pay the masters a stiff fee. Benjamin Franklin's father was unable to apprentice the lad to the cutler's trade because of the high premium demanded. Children were normally apprenticed at around fourteen years of age and bound until twenty-one.
Under the terms of apprenticeship, the master was obliged to teach the "mysteries" of the trade to the apprentice, who promised not to reveal the master's trade secrets. Colonial apprenticeship indentures generally imposed obligations upon the master considerably beyond those found in English apprenticeship articles. In addition to the common requirement of reading, writing and ciphering, colonial articles normally required the master to provide the apprentice with schooling for at least the first three years. As that paternal-filial relationship between master and apprentice, gradually eroded under the emerging ethos of commercialism, masters preferred to send their apprentices to evening schools to get a general education rather than to assume that burden themselves. Other provisions, like those for clothing, were increasingly converted to money payments.
The white bound laborer dwelt in that shadowland that exists between freedom and slavery. Mobility, freedom of occupational choice, and certain personal liberties were curbed for the term of the indenture. The master had a property interest in the laborer, and except in the case of an apprentice, could sell or reassign him or her for the remainder of the term.
For black Africans a very special system of bound labor evolved. Slavery, it must be remembered, was not invented in the English colonies. For nearly two centuries before the settlement of Virginia, a trade in slaves had been carried on along the West African coast. As the English empire expanded to the New World, slave traders grabbed at the chance to make huge profits from this sordid business. Slave traffic became an integral part of a pattern of commerce, known as the "triangular trade," which operated between New England, Africa, and the West Indies or the Southern colonies. New England rum, guns, gunpowder, utensils, textiles, and food were bartered for slaves provided by West African chiefs. The human cargo was packed aboard ship, chained together by twos, with hardly any room to stand, lie, or sit down. During voyages that sometimes lasted as long as fourteen weeks, epidemics took an alarming death toll.
When the first blacks came to Virginia in 1619, they were treated as bound servants and were freed when their terms expired. In all, there were probably not more than a few hundred such cases. Sometime in the 1640s, the practice began of selling imported blacks as servants for life. In short, this form of de facto slavery preceded legalized slavery. In the 1660s and 1670s statutes in Virginia and Maryland gave slavery its formal distinguishing features, an inheritable status of servitude for life. Soon restrictions on slave mobility, along with a harsh system of discipline, were written into the "Black Codes" of all the Southern colonies.
For the South, this decision to deny blacks the status of white servants was largely grounded in prejudice based on racial difference. Those who justified slavery on the ground that growers of such plantation crops as tobacco, rice, and indigo needed a stable supply of labor ignored the fact that the need could have been supplied equally well by a system of bound servitude. Once established, the "peculiar institution," as slavery came to be called, became self perpetuating. It was an economic system, a system of human relations, and a system of power. Southerners came to regard slavery as essential to their culture, political influence, and economic well-being.
By 1775 the stepped-up slave trade, along with a natural increase of population, had brought the total number of blacks in America to half a million. More than three-fifths lived in Virginia and the Carolinas. In South Carolina slaves comprised the majority of the population. Some colonies imposed prohibitive restrictions on the slave trade, not from humanitarian considerations but out of fear of a huge, unmanageable black population, a fear kept alive by occasional not more than a few hundred such cases. Sometime in the 1640s, the practice began, of selling imported blacks as servants for life. In short, this form of de facto slavery preceded legalized slavery. In the 1660s and 1670s statutes in Virginia and Maryland gave slavery its formal distinguishing features, an inheritable status of servitude for life. Soon restrictions on slave mobility, along with a harsh system of discipline, were written into the "Black Codes" of all the Southern colonies.
Bound laborers, white or black, received no wages. However, at the end of their term, white servants were given freedom dues, which could include clothing, a gun, and a hoe. Slaves were often allowed their own garden patches and in some cases received incentive payments for exceptional work.
Free laborers operated under a system of wage payments as today. In addition to money wages, the employment contract often included food and rum, particularly in out-of-doors trades. An alternative towage payments was a piece-wage system. Piecework was more effective among skilled workers such as carpenters, coopers, sawyers, smiths, tanners, shoe makers, hatters, sail makers, and weavers. Wage earners contracted for employment seasonally or annually, as in domestic service and farming; artisans were usually hired by the day or month. Collectively, these workers were called mechanics, a catchall term covering any one who worked with his hands.
From the beginning, labor was a seller's market. All contemporary authorities agree on the relatively high wages prevailing in the colonies. Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts relates the story of one master who had to sell a pair of oxen to pay the employee's wages. Having done so, he informed the worker that he could no Ionger afford his services. "Sell more cattle," the worker advised.
"What shall I do when they are gone? " the master asked.
"You can serve me and get them back," was the reply.
The age-old refrain that if the high rate of wages were to continue, "the servants will be masters and the masters servants," was voiced by an entrepreneur in frontier Maine back in 1639. Samuel Sewall, noted both for his role as a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials and for his early advocacy of the abolition of slavery, sought to solve his household problem by paying court to a likely prospect. Even in the year 1687, his diary notes, it was "hard to find a good one." Help-wanted advertisements in colonial newspapers offered journeymen (free workers who worked by the day) "good," "generous," or "great wages" and "constant employ."
The labor scarcity was intensified by the lure of available land. The paradox of the high wage scale was noted by the author of American Husbandry, an eighteenth-century book on farm methods. "Nothing but a high price will induce men to labor at all," he asserted, "and at the same time it presently puts a conclusion to it by so soon enabling them to take a piece of waste land."
In 1767 a colonial official reported to the Board of Trade: "... the genius of the People in a Country where every one can have Land to work upon leads them so naturally into Agriculture, that it prevails over every other occupation. There can be no stronger Instances of this, than in the servants Imported from Europe of different Trades; as soon as the Time stipulated in their Indentures is expired, they immediately quit their Masters, and get a small tract of Land, in settling which for the first three or four years they lead miserable lives, and in the most abject Poverty; but all this is patiently bourne and submitted to with the greatest cheerfulness, the Satisfaction of being Land holders smooths every difficulty, and makes them prefer this manner of living to that comfortable subsistence which they could procure for themselves and their families by working at the Trades in which they were brought up."
Thus employers found it difficult to hold free workers to their contracts, as they would turn to farming at the first chance. French statesman Talleyrand noted this condition prevailing long after the American Revolution. He observed that as long as farming "calls to it the offspring of large families it will obtain preference over industrial labor. It requires less assiduity, it promises greater independence, it offers to the imagination at least a more advantageous prospect, it has in its favor priority of habits." Therefore, the opportunity of acquiring good land in freehold tenure was, to many immigrants, a better attraction than higher wages in the towns. This attitude pleased agrarian champions like Thomas Jefferson, who considered agriculture superior to manufacturing as a base on which to build a social and political order. "Let our workshops remain in Europe," he declared.
They didn't, of course, and neither did skilled workers. Nevertheless there continued to be a scarcity of 1abor. As a result, wages throughout the colonial period stood at a considerably higher level than rates prevailing either in England or on the Continent. In 1700 an unskilled workman in England was getting 1s. 2d. a day, a craftsman 2s. In the colonies the minimum cash wage would be double that. All commentators attest to the relative lack of poverty in America in colonial times and the higher standard of living enjoyed by American workers as compared with their European contemporaries.
Needless to say, the scarcity of labor combined with prevailing high wages gave no pleasure to the employers. However, colonial governments were much more responsive to employers than to labor, and instituted various controls and approved varieties of compulsory labor. Such labor controls had evolved in England under the Tudors and even earlier. The Elizabethan statutes laid down the principle of compulsory labor for able-bodied persons in designated categories and saw to it that those living "without a calling" were compelled to work or were punished as common criminals. In the colonies labor could be impressed for a variety of public works projects, including, first and foremost, road and highway construction and repair. The inhabitants might also be impressed to work on bridges or fortifications, on repairing dams, weirs, and dikes, on clearing a commons, deepening or, broadening a river's channel, and building a meeting house. The wages for such work were set by the local authorities. In the eighteenth century, workhouses were introduced in such colonial towns as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Thereafter, short-term labor sentences were frequently imposed for minor offenses which previously had been punished by whipping.
To keep down both living costs and wages the colonies experimented with wage and price regulation. To the transplanted English who introduced them, there was nothing new about this. Medieval statutes had fixed maximum wage scales. The Statute of Artificers of 1563 had authorized the justices of the peace to fix wages according "to the plenty or scarcity of the time."
With the English precedents in mind and the need of employers uppermost, the colonies had a different set of priorities than Americans have today. Unlike the modern Fair Labor Standards Act, which minimum wages for labor, the colonies put a ceiling on wages and set a floor on hours of employment. Such regulations were initiated in Virginia and England. While the experiments in Virginia in the 1620s were soon discontinued, the Massachusetts General Court, which almost from the beginning set maximum wages, turned wage regulation over to the town in 1636. The Court, never explicitly abdicating its authority in this field, lamented in 1670 "the excessive dearness of labor by artificers, laborers, and servants, contrary to reason and equity, to the great prejudice of many householders and their families, and tending to their utter ruin and undoing." That body denounced the workers for spending their money on clothing which was "altogether unbecoming their place and rank" and "in taverns and alehouses where they idled away their time." Indeed, the colonial legislators supported a set of sumptuary laws, which curbed conspicuous spending, denouncing expensive apparel for workers and extravagant fashions for the wealthy. In 1679 a church synod censured high wages along with Sabbath-breaking, intemperance, gaming, and "mixed dancing."
Neither laws nor church discipline could keep wages down, and wage and price fixing on a broad basis gradually disintegrated in the colonies in the eighteenth century. To have been effective, such controls would have had to be intercolonial in scope; otherwise, workers and products would move to the dearer market. By the eve of the American Revolution only the monopolistic trades--those trades which operated under a license--remained to be regulated. Authorities continued to set the fees or wages for ministers, schoolteachers., chimneysweeps, porters, and such established the rates innkeepers could charge, and fixed the weight of a loaf of bread.
In the eighteenth century something approximating permanent labor organizations or trade unions were beginning to emerge from the industrialization of Great Britain. But in colonial America, as a general rule, the laborer procured the terms desired without having to combine with others. When American workers did take concerted action, it was invariably for a specific grievance and did not result in a permanent organization. The cases where master carpenters set up price scales for their trade are the exception. In certain trades, master workers combined to secure or maintain a monopoly of business operations and to prevent others from entering their trades, but such restraints were rapidly diminishing as the eighteenth century advanced. In the licensed trades, those who acted in concert were generally the employers. They combined with others in the same trade to secure better fees or prices, which were customarily regulated by local authority for the public interest. Today such combinations would be subject to antitrust laws.
At times bound servants went on strike, deserted, or broke the contract of employment. Such incidents were by no means uncommon in the tobacco provinces, particularly in the seventeenth century. An example of this was Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, a broad based uprising in 1676 to unseat an unpopular royal governor and his administration. Almost invariably such actions were ruthlessly put down by the authorities. Concerted action taken by slaves would be viewed as an insurrection, even though it might be a form of labor protest. Sporadic examples of such uprisings in New York in 1712 and 1741 and in South Carolina in 1739 were crushed with savage reprisals.
Throughout the colonies white mechanics joined forces to protest against black competition, but the problem seems to have been especially critical in Charleston, South Carolina. There, in 1744, the shipwrights complained that they were reduced to poverty owing to black competition. Their protest, supported by white mechanics in other trades, persuaded the town authorities to enact an ordinance forbidding the inhabitants from keeping more than two slaves "to work out for hire as porters, labourers, fishermen or handicraftsmen." This resentment on the part of white mechanics was also evident in most Northern towns. But in the long run the interests of the slave owners, not the free white mechanics, prevailed.
Strikes of white journeymen to better their working conditions, while rare and sporadic, can be found in almost all periods of colonial history, beginning with a strike among fishermen on the Maine coast in 1636. In England, following a 1731 judicial decision based on dubious precedents, strikers could be prosecuted under the common law of criminal conspiracy. However, there are few instances in the colonies where authorities challenged the right to strike. In one case the New York employing bakers went on strike in 1741 and appear to have been indicted but never brought to trial. When a number of Savannah carpenters struck in 1746, the trustees of Georgia back in England decided that an act of Parliament outlawed the action, but there seems to have been no follow-through. The experience would be different in the case of strikers in the licensed trades. Such venturesome workmen could have their licenses revoked or might even be prosecuted for contempt. But, in most cases, masters and journeymen who combined were unmolested by the law, although concerted action by white bound servants was suppressed.
In the late colonial period numerous organizations of master craftsmen sprang up, particularly among house carpenters, to fix prices and wages in the building trades. In addition, so-called "friendly" societies were organized by labor for social and philanthropic ends. In the mother country these "box clubs," as they were called, were suspected of harboring conspiratorial labor groups, but the issue was never raised in colonial America. Many of the leaders of these ostensibly philanthropic organizations were to become avid proponents of American political rights in the struggle against England.
The American Revolution diverted labor from seeking economic ends to securing more immediate political gains. In such a program workers were often allied with their employers. There was no clear employer worker conflict evident either in the Revolution's preliminaries or during its long and intense course. While a substantial portion of the laboring class supported the Patriot cause, many workers were Loyalists. To understand why there were divisions even among working people, in what proved to be both a civil war and an anticolonial war for independence, one must recognize that there is no simple economic explanation for the American Revolution. It was not an uprising of the proletariat against a privileged class. Excluding half a million black slaves, there was not a significant segment of the population that could be considered either hopelessly deprived or condemned to poverty. On the other band, business conditions were not highly favorable. The close of the Seven Years' War brought on a depression, culminating in unemployment and an increase in welfare payments. Commercial boycotts, initiated after the Stamp Act in 1765, the Townsend Act of 1767, and by the first Continental Congress in 1774, hit the shipping and importing trades hard. The closing of the port of Boston in 1774 created acute economic distress.
Despite the economic setbacks, there was rising prosperity in the years between 1770 and 1775. Real wages, particularly for unskilled labor, still remained far above scales prevailing either in England or Europe, and trade figures showed continuing expansion. By comparable European standards the position of the pre-Revolutionary artisan, small shopkeeper, laborer, and small farmer had definitely advanced in the course of the eighteenth century.
Numerous combinations of mechanics and laborers, master and journeymen took concerted action in the years following the passage of the Sugar and Stamp acts. Although formed primarily for political purposes, they were in many instances motivated by economic considerations. The bulk of the mechanics and laborers were either initially involved in pre-Revolutionary agitation or were swept along in its wake and became stout Patriots. Workers in the maritime trades, for example, were recruited by affluent radical leaders like John Hancock in Boston, the Browns in Providence, and Henry Laurens in Charleston to burn customs cutters and provoke serious disturbances.
Even before the protests triggered by the Stamp Act, seamen had engaged in numerous demonstrations and riots against impressment . Captains attempting to impress seamen on the North American mainland were mobbed and on occasion even imprisoned and held on high bail pending trial. It is not surprising that a group of radical seamen and maritime workers in New York City organized as the Sons of Neptune. They apparently antedate the Sons of Liberty and may well have suggested the latter's pattern of organization. General Thomas Gage, commander of the Royal Navy in America, reported that the "insurrection" of November, 1765, in New York was participated in by "great numbers of sailors headed by captains of privateers and other ships." Shortly thereafter he referred to the sailors as "the only People who may be properly Stiled Mob," and charged that they were "entirely at the Command of the Merchants who employ them."
The leadership of the American Revolution was elitist in character. It continued to sound a strong note of legitimacy even while exploiting or condoning riots, mobs, tarring and feathering, and vigilantism. Sons of Liberty made their appearance almost simultaneously, in New York and New England, but they were soon emulated in virtually every colonial town. In Boston a secret group the Loyal Nine (including a printer, a jeweler, two distillers, two braziers, and a master mariner--all employer mechanics) and another known as the Caucus, from which Samuel Adams soon emerged as the dominant figure, joined forces with those of Ebenezer Mackintosh and Benjamin Starr, shoemakers, and Isaac Bowman Apthorp, a leather dresser. They, along with a sizable contingent of maritime workers, demonstrated against unpopular British measures and intimidated officials who ventured to enforce them. In Charleston the mechanics' leadership allied with wealthy merchants like Christopher Gadsden. In New York prosperous merchant shippers Isaac "King" Scars, John Lamb, and Alexander McDougall kept in the forefront of radical activity; but the tasks were performed by the workers themselves--men like furniture-maker Marinus Willett, by ship carpenters, and a sizable force of seamen.
Significantly, in all three cities, the protesting merchants and shipowners formed a close working alliance with the maritime workers and seamen. Their grievances stemmed from the impressment practices of the Royal Navy. Rootless in many cases and accustomed to settling matters by brawn rather than brain, the seamen proved to be the hard core of the muscular radicals so cleverly manipulated by wealthy businessmen and shrewd lawyers.
Mechanics joined the seamen in protesting British practices. They resented the new tax measures imposed by the British government and desired a larger voice in domestic politics in order to put a checkrein on the politics of deference which governed most colonies. The mechanics, from silversmiths to laborers, were a significant force in colonial towns. According to one estimate they and their families comprised about one-half the population of Boston, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as a majority in the smaller towns. As late as 1774 the mechanics in New York cooperated with other protest groups, including the merchants. Thereafter, with the organization of the General Committee of Mechanics, they functioned independently tinder the leadership of sail makers and coopers.
The demonstrations conducted by these groups transcended mere lawless rioting and assumed a moral and political dimension. They had precise targets for their vengeance and were highly disciplined. They did not commit indiscriminate arson or looting. For example, there were definite political reasons for burning the home of the Boston collector of customs Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, detested symbol of royal authority and nepotism. Their successors, the "Mohawk braves," hurled the 342 chests of tea into Boston harbor. More disciplined than the Hutchinson rioters, they did not steal any of the detested cargo. The acts were either of a symbolic character, as with the raising of the liberty pole in New York City, or were designed to strike terror in those charged with the enforcement of the law. Mobs seized sugar and rum that had been impounded by customs officials, ventured to attack or burn revenue cutters, and pulled down the houses of a stamp collector and an obnoxious British officer who had threatened to "cram the stamps" down the people's "throats with the end of his sword." The demonstrations cannot be dismissed as mindless acts of a mischief-bent riffraff. They must be viewed as discriminating protests designed to publicize a political position or to intimidate authorities who insisted on enforcing laws deemed unconstitutional or inequitable.
Since employer and worker had a common political bond which temporarily transcended economic antagonisms, strikes were infrequent during the Revolution. However, economic grievances could trigger protests. This was perhaps best illustrated by the circumstances surrounding the Boston Massacre. Tension was already high as a result of a series of running fights between workers in the Boston ropewalks and British privates quartered in Boston. These interlopers, who accepted low wages for spare-time employment, were bitterly resented. Sam Gray, who had engaged in a fistfight with British privates at a ropewalk, was one of those fatally shot in the so-called "massacre" of March 5, 1770. Killroy, a soldier identified as firing at the crowd, was known to have participated in the fight, as was Warren, another soldier.
The pre-Revolutionary years witnessed a number of occasions when mariners and town artificers struck in protest against British military preparations. When, in 1774, General Thomas Gage sought artificers to work on the fortifications of Boston, not only did the workers of that town refuse to work for the British officer, but New York labor fully cooperated with the striking Bostonians. Then committees of correspondence of thirteen towns adjacent to Boston adopted joint resolutions deeming as "most inveterate enemies" any inhabitant of Massachusetts or the neighboring provinces who should provide labor or materials to the British troops at Boston. Gage was forced to send to Nova Scotia for fifty carpenters and a few bricklayers, and he obtained additional workers from New Hampshire. Early in the spring of '75, mass meetings were held in New York City to protest the exportation of supplies for the use of the British garrison at Boston. The supply ship was seized by the committee and the crew forbidden to proceed on the voyage.
The relative docility of American workers in pressing their economic demands contrasted with the militancy of workers in England. Writing in 1768, Benjamin Franklin graphically described the lawless scenes prevailing in London, where coal heavers and porters attacked the homes of coal merchants, sawyers destroyed sawmills, watermen damaged private boats, and sailors would not permit ships to leave port unless their pay was raised.
When the American Revolution broke out it was reported that Great Britain had few ships for transport purposes as a result of combinations of workers and sailors demanding higher wages. Strikers slowed down or disrupted production of English firms making clothing for the British army in America; at the same time merchants were accused by the authorities of combing to raise prices of provisions for the army of occupation. Every condition seemed at hand for a coordinated attack by labor on both sides of the Atlantic against war measures of the British government. Such an alarming possibility was implied by General Gage, who reported that "the News of the Tumults and Insurrections which have happened in London and Dublin ... is received by the Factions in America, as Events favorable to their Designs of Independency." English working-class unrest, however, never effectively grew into antiwar activism.
In the conduct of the war in America the British army employed civilian workers and also called upon enlisted men for labor services. When workers struck, the commanding generals refrained from prosecuting them for mutiny. As General John Campbell put it on the occasion of such a strike of artificers at Pensacola in 1779, such "punishment would not answer to the forwarding of the Public Works." The general agreed to overlook the strikers' "present Unmilitary Behavior" and to forward their wage demands to Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief. On these terms the artificers resumed work immediately. Major General Pattison, Commandant of the Garrison of New York, asserted that the existing wage scale induced no one to join the labor force: "We are now in great Want of more Artificers, but none will enter on the present Wages, and nothing prevents those we have from leaving the Service, but the Fear of being tried by Martial Law, as Deserters, which they are threatened with in case they Abscond." And so, on the basis of expediency rather than principle, the British generals in America were forced to waive military discipline and to bargain with their workers over wages.
On the Patriot side, one of the central issues involving labor in the Revolutionary period was the control of prices and wages. When delegates from the New England states met at Providence, Rhode Island, at the close of 1776, they recommended a series of sweeping controls. At the end of January the Providence Convention's proceedings were laid before Congress with a recommendation for endorsement. In the spirited debate that ensued, radical leaders like Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee defended the measures as "promoting Liberty and happiness." Their opponents, capitalizing on popular objections to a revival of mercantilist controls, charged the New England states with usurping the powers of Congress. Congress did not explicitly endorse the Providence program but urged upon the other states the propriety of adopting similar measures. In fact, Congress went so far as to call a meeting of commissioners from the Middle States and the lower South. In response to this summons, a convention held at York, Pennsylvania, considered a recommendation that "the price of labor and of manufacture" be "proportionate to each other," and that prices bear the same relation to wages as they did before the conflict. Opponents of controls argued they would be "productive of the most fatal consequences." Hopelessly divided, the convention contented itself with sending copies of the proceedings to Congress and the states represented.
The failure to agree on a program did not deter delegates from holding another regional convention, this time at New Haven in 1777. Here the Northern and Middle colonies agreed on a three-zone price and wage schedule. Proponents of continued wage and price controls charged the opposition with "an idle refinement of civil rights," while their adversaries resorted to constitutional principles, insisting that any law limiting a person in the purchase or sale of his property infringed "those principles of liberty for which we are gloriously fighting."
Laboring people played a significant role in the support of Revolutionary wage and price controls. Quarter sessions courts in the respective states occasionally enforced these controls, but more often it was up to the people, organized through committees of correspondence, safety, inspection, or special town committees. These quasi-official popular groups might at times mete out rather severe punishments, such as expulsion from Patriot lines, whipping, or fines. However, they rarely used these tactics; instead, they relied upon the effectiveness of publicity. They would post in conspicuous places or publish in the newspapers the names of persons found guilty of breaches of the wage and price schedules.
It was a time when speculators and boarders were linked in the public mind with Tories. To the populace these "monopolizes" were considered the equivalent of a "canker worm , vermin," "rat," or "a worse enemy to the country than Burgoyne." In Boston, Joyce junior, a working-class quasi-mythical figure, was described by Abigail Adams as leading a procession of five hundred people, "mounted on horseback, with a red coat, a white wig, and a drawn sword, with drum and fife following," bringing fear to the hearts of monopolizers and profiteers. Violent tactics were used elsewhere when public censorship did not bring about a reformation of conduct. In Philadelphia, a mob, seeking enforcement of a new price schedule and the disciplining of noncomplying merchants and financiers, attacked the residence of James Wilson, the Patriot lawyer who had defended merchants before price-control committees. A number of merchants, war speculators, and kindred souls sought refuge from the mob in Wilson's house, which was then dubbed "Fort Wilson." As one contemporary account tells it, the "labouring part of the City had become desperate from the high price of the necessaries of life." Armed with iron bars and sledge hammers, they almost succeeded in forcing the house. The mob had actually brought up a fieldpiece and placed it within firing range, when a light-horse contingent belatedly appeared.
Neither the British nor the Patriots effectively mobilized the available labor force for civilian as well as military tasks during the American Revolution. In fact, the impressment of property, particularly of supplies, provisions, and transportation facilities, was resorted to far more frequently than the impressment of labor. The Continental authorities trod gingerly so far as conscripting labor was concerned, preferring to rely upon the voluntary enlistment of mechanics and laborers in artificers companies. In Virginia the State Council refused to endorse Governor Thomas Jefferson's request that tailors and shoemakers be ordered to make shoes for soldiers. They justified their action by contending that they had "not by the Laws of this State any power to call a freeman to labor even for the public without his consent, nor a Slave without that of his Master."
For both the Continental army and the state militia it was common to advertise for forgemen, nailers, iron, and steelworkers, smiths, armorers and carpenters, and carters and wagoners, or to transfer artificers among enlisted men from regular duty to work at their own trades, with extra compensation. The working conditions, wages, and hours of laborers performing such tasks were not infrequently regulated by the military authorities. Such workmen were subject to court-martial for absenteeism or refractory conduct. Artificers in the armed services were paid lower wages than those prevailing in the open market. "Grating comparisons" were inevitably drawn by the privates in the regiment of artificers.
Less directly the army exercised control over laborers working for contractors engaged in the production of military supplies. Contracts with private manufacturers might stipulate the rate of wages to be paid to artisans. Another method of producing military stores was by the states or Congress setting up agencies to engage in manufacturing. The most famous of these operations was the arsenal set up by the Continental authorities at Springfield, Massachusetts. Other military factories were set up in Philadelphia, Trenton, and Lancaster. To help them out, Congress or the states exempted particular workers from military service or detached regular troops for work in war-connected industries. Prisoners of war were also farmed out to war contractors, a practice the British protested as contrary to the terms of the Saratoga Convention.
Although the American Revolution was not fought for the explicit purpose of improving the lot of workers, labor was indeed a principal beneficiary of that contest. The war offered the free white male a fabulous opportunity for upward social mobility. First, he had a chance to pick up confiscated Tory lands. While those in urban areas went more immediately to Whig speculators, a good part of the rural estates of Tories was divided up according to laws recognizing tenant preemption rights. Second, there were the vast new lands wrested at the peace table, which provided veterans of the Revolution with an opportunity to secure homesteads. The new towns formed in the 1780s and 1790s were typically pioneered by war veterans and their families.
The American Revolution, which was chary about property rights of employers, did very little to mitigate or end the practice of white servitude. True, bound servants might win their freedom by enlisting in the Patriot army, but often over the vehement protest of their masters. The attitude of Patriot employers towards the Revolutionary fervor of their workers is revealed in a May, 1777, memorial by a county committee of Cumberland, Pennsylvania. It condemns the enlistment of servants without the consent of their masters on the grounds that "all apprentices and servants are the property of their masters and mistresses, and every mode of depriving such masters and mistresses of their property is a violation of the rights of mankind, contrary to the . . . Continental Congress, and an offense against the peace of the good people of this State."
The redemptioner traffic, which enjoyed boom years up to the very eve of the Revolution, came to a complete halt during the war itself. At war's end, however, it took a new lease on life, as immigration from Europe once again surged. What could be done about the redemptioner trade and other forms of debt servitude? Since imprisonment for debt was the law, with the option to the debtor of working off his debt by labor, white bondage in one form or another would survive and in periods of an economic downturn even expand. But the Declaration of Independence seems to have evoked at least one spontaneous response in this area. A New York newspaper reported that within less than a week of its adoption the state's debtors had been released from prison. That impulsive if generous action was not buttressed by liberative legislation.
So long as debt imprisonment survived, it was possible to enforce a personal contract of labor service, and its complete abolition did not take place in the states until Jackson's administration. Thus, it was not until the 1830s that one could confidently find an end to white servitude.
Freedom may have been the ultimate prospect for all white workers, but that status was not within the expectation of most blacks. Slavery darkened the Revolutionary skies as a great, brooding omnipresence. Would a revolution overtly dedicated to the principles of equality end this greatest of all inequalities? Some Southerners, like the contentious Carolina planter and ex-slave trader Henry Laurens, asserted their readiness to take positive steps. They would apply the ideals of the Declaration to the slaves on their estates in the face of opposition from "great powers," as Laurens expressed it, as well as by "the laws and customs of my country, my own and the avarice of my countrymen." Other southern Patriots, like Patrick Henry, regarded slavery as a "lamentable evil" and looked forward to the time when it would be abolished. Jefferson tried repeatedly to restrict slavery and even to bar it from all the territories, but he could not overcome sectional opposition to so drastic a social revolution. By the end of the war, slavery already was attaining the dimension of a great divisive issue. Five of the original Thirteen States, all from the North, in addition to Vermont, initiated programs of emancipation before the Federal Convention of 1787; two others followed soon thereafter. These notable actions reflected the strong antislavery impulse fostered by the American Revolution. However, even in the North the leadership seemed unable to plan effectively for the black population after emancipation, while the white laboring classes were less than receptive to the prospect of competition from skilled black workers.
These post-Revolutionary years saw the spread of the factory, the transition from custom work to wholesale order work, and the concentration of workers in certain expanding industries. In part this rationalization of industry was a tribute to tough British competition. Manufactured goods from England dumped on the American market forced employers to improvise such cost-cutting devices as increasing sharply the ratio of apprentices (now called "greenhands") to skilled journeymen and to substitute the factory for the old domestic or putting-out system. Factories required greater capital outlays than did craft shops or home manufactures. As a result, the vast majority of workers came to abandon hope of ever acquiring the means to advance into the ranks of the employer class. They now turned increasingly to the strike as the most potent economic weapon to further their interests and to the trade union as the most suitable form of organization. Typical was a three-week-long shoemakers strike in New York in 1785, followed the next year by a strike of journeymen printers of Philadelphia to protest a reduction of wages. The same year the bakers of Charleston struck to protest a City Council ordinance setting the price of bread.
Labor resorted increasingly to concerted action. Master mechanics formed combinations of their own to deal with striking journeymen in order to secure political backing for business, especially for manufactures, and for broad philanthropic and educational ends. True, no permanent trade union can legitimately trace its founding to the years before 1789. Nonetheless, the frequency of incidents of concerted action taken by labor in the post-Revolutionary period was within a few years to be institutionalized in a permanent trade-union movement.
In each of the major American cities the mechanics emerged from the American Revolution as a significant and well-organized group. In their efforts to strengthen the federal government and to obtain protection of native manufacturers from the severe competition of British imports, labor found natural allies among the merchants. All over America a mercantile labor alliance was formed in the Confederation years. Their supreme effort in combination was to secure the ratification of the Federal Constitution, which promised so much to each group.
In every city of the nation labor turned out en masse to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution by the required nine states. Such a celebration took place in New York City on July 23, 1788. According to a local newspaper account, some four thousand mechanics of that city representing over fifty crafts participated in a giant parade. Heading labor's delegation were some hundred masters, journeymen, and apprentice bakers carrying "the federal loaf, ten feet long, twenty-seven inches in breadth, and eight inches in height," under "a flag representing the declension of trade under the old Confederation." The blacksmiths marched, followed by the brewers, and in turn the shipowners transported a float on which rested a ship bearing the motto: "This federal ship will our commerce revive, and merchants and shipwrights and joiners shall thrive." Following, in turn, were the coopers, the carpenters, the skinners, breeches makers, and glovers, and the cartmen. The tailors climaxed the procession bearing a banner with a unity slogan: "And they sewed fig leaves together."
Under such harmonious auspices was launched the new federal ship of state. Such unity proved short lived, however. Labor and capital would part company along political lines by the middle of the 1790s, and a series of notable strikes in the following decade would signalize the start of a trade union movement fashioned to meet the changing conditions of labor in an emerging industrial society.