HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
CONDITION OF THE WORKERS
IN THE CHILDHOOD OF CAPITALISM
SOCIAL evolution in America has always moved with accelerated speed, and frequently with syncopated measure as compared with its typical form in western Europe. These features were especially noticeable in the introduction of the factory system. In England the progress of industry was from the "household" stage, in which each family produced for its own consumption, to the "domestic" stage, where the family was still the productive unit and the home the only factory, but where production was for the market.
The "domestic" stage was never general in the United States. The transition was almost direct from the "household" to the factory system.
In still another direction American development displays its accelerated tempo. In the first stage of the factory system in the English cotton trade, only the spinning was done by machinery. Weaving was still done in the homes, even at the time the factory system was gaining a foothold in the United States. This transitional stage, combining the old and the new, never existed here. The first establishment in the world to apply the factory system to the entire process of manufacturing cotton cloth, and to perform all the processes by machinery under one roof, was the factory erected
by Francis C. Lowell at Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1815.1
There was a lack of hampering tradition in the working out of the factory system on this side the Atlantic. Steam power was early made use of, although the influence of water power in locating the early cotton factories in New England should not be overlooked. Improvements in the application of steam began to be made by American inventors about this time, indicating that industry in this country was henceforth to have an independent evolution.2
From the very beginning of the factory system in America, it was based upon the
existence of a body of propertyless wageworkers. By 1820 there was a large
1 C. D. Wright, "Industrial Evolution in the United States," p. 131.
2 In 1816, Oliver Evans appeals to Congress for an extension of his patents on steam engines, and makes this remarkable and prophetic plea : "What will the annual amount of the benefits be when my Columbian engines shall be applied to work many thousands of mills, manufactories, carriages on railways or smooth roads, boats on the great Atlantic and Western waters, raising the value of western lands 50 per cent, by lessening the time of going to market, tantamount to shortening the distance: can any one calculate within one million of dollars?" A writer in Niles' Register for the same year (p. 219), commenting on an engine by David Heath, Jr., of New Jersey says : "An engine of four horse power, charged with fuel, may be comprised in the space appointed to the baggage of a stage, and may be lifted on and off the carriage with greatest ease; which carriage he can drive by experiment at the rate of fifteen miles an hour on the bare road, without the use of railways, being regulated to ascend and descend hills with uniform velocity and the greatest safety." On the same page with this remarkable description is to be found an item telling of a marvelous rotary engine said to be "in operation in Messrs. A. & N. Brown's saw-mill, at Manhattan Island." The large number of such items appearing at this time in a single periodical is indicative of the great interest in mechanical progress and the inventive activity of the country.
class of wage laborers employed in weaving, shipbuilding, shoemaking, iron and steel making, printing, rope and sail manufacturing, the building trades, and the construction of turnpikes and canals.
The misery of early English factory workers has become the classic illustration of vicarious suffering in the cause of social evolution. The similar sufferings of American workers at the same stage are less familiar. In both countries the cradle and the home were robbed to secure victims for the natal sacrifice of newborn capitalism.
A member from New York expressed his gratification upon the floor of Congress in 1816 that "Arkwright's machinery has produced a revolution in the manufacture of cotton ; the invention is so excellent, the effect in saving labor so immense, that five or six men are sufficient for the management of a factory of 2000 spindles, spinning 100,000 pounds of twist yarn yearly; the other hands are mere children, whose labor is of little use in any other branch of industry."1
A Congressional committee in the same year estimated that of the 100,000 persons
then employed in the cloth industry, only 10.000 were men, while 66,000 were
"women and female children," and 23,000 were boys. Matthew Carey waxes
enthusiastic over the opportunities the factory owners offered to young girls. Of
one neighborhood he tells us that the girls were "before the establishment of the
factory in a state of idleness, barefooted and living in wretched hovels. But
since that period they are comfortably fed and clothed - their habits and manners
and dwellings greatly improved -
1. Benton's "Abridgements of the Debates of Congress," Vol. V, p. 638.
and they have become useful members of society. . . . Judging from the state of other establishments, it is fair to presume that more than half of the whole number were probably young females who, but for the factory, would have been without employment, and spending their time perniciously - a burden to their parents and society - trained up to vicious courses - but thus happily preserved from idleness and its attendant vices and crimes -and whose wages probably average $1.50 a week."1
A committee that investigated the manufactures of Philadelphia prepared a table showing the wages paid for various classes of work. These varied from $11.54 a week for the highest paid workers, who were engaged in making iron castings, to those who received but $2.70 a week for paper hanging and the making of playing cards.2
There is perhaps no better summary of the general conditions of the workers of this period than that given by Matthew Carey in his essay on "The Public Charities of Philadelphia," in which he says : -
Thousands of our laboring people travel hundreds of miles in quest of employment on canals at 62 1/2, 75, and 872 cents per day, paying $1.50 to $2 a week for board, leaving families behind, depending upon them for support. They labor frequently in marshy grounds, where they inhale pestiferous miasmata, which destroy their health, often irrecoverably. They return to their poor families broken-hearted, and with ruined constitu
1. Matthew Carey, "Essays on Political Economy," Address to the Farmers of the United States, pp. 458-459.
2. Niles' Register, Oct. 23, 1819, p. 117.
tions, with a sorry pittance, most laboriously earned, and take to their beds sick and unable to work. Hundreds are swept off annually, many of them leaving numerous and helpless families. Notwithstanding their wretched fate, their places are quickly supplied by others, although death stares them in the face. Hundreds are most laboriously employed on turnpikes, working from morning to night at from half a dollar to three-quarters a day, exposed to the broiling sun in summer, and all the inclemency of our severe winters. There is always a redundancy of wood-pilers in our cities, whose wages are so low that their utmost efforts do not enable them to earn more than thirty-five to fifty cents per day. . . .
As is always the case, the minimum of wages was accompanied by the maximum of hours. From the regulations of a Paterson, New Jersey, mill we learn that their rules required "the women and children to be at their work at half-past four in the morning. They are allowed half an hour for breakfast and three-quarters of an hour for dinner, and then work as long as they can see."1
The spokesmen of the ruling class at this time were
1 Seth Luther, "Address to the Workingmen of New England" (1836), PP. 42-43. Further information on the condition of labor at this time will be found in McMaster, "A Century of Social Betterment," in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. LXXIX, p. 22; "History of the People of the United States," Vol. V, p. 121; Michael Chevalier, "The United States," PP. 137-144; Niles' Register, May 8, 1819, Oct. 5, 1816, Dec. 2, 1815.
continually complaining that wages were "too high." The defenders of a protective tariff insisted that manufactures could not exist with such high wages without protection. The opponents of the tariff declared that these unreasonably high wages would always make manufacturing impossible, and that their existence was an insuperable obstacle to factories. Both sides agreed that wages were too high. President Monroe, in one of his annual messages, congratulated the manufacturers on the "fall in the price of labor, apparently so favorable to the success of domestic manufactures."
Perhaps public officials would not have been so frank to approve of low wages had the working class not been politically helpless. There was some sort of property qualification for voting in every state, and a still higher test for office holding. The governor of Massachusetts was required to be "a Christian worth 1000 pounds," while he who would aspire to the governorship of Georgia must be the possessor of 500 acres of land and 4000 pounds.
Indirect voting was the rule. Governors were commonly elected by the legislatures. Presidential candidates were selected by Congressional caucuses, composed of the members of Congress of each political party. The presidential electors were then chosen by the legislatures, and a property qualification was generally required of voters for members of the legislatures.
There was a nominal, universal, compulsory military service, with a farcical "training day" when every able-bodied man was required to report for drill under the direction of a petty popinjay with shoulder straps.
There is much complaint of class legislation and administration of justice to-day, but we have traveled a
long way from the state of things in the early twenties. The laborer had no lien upon his product, and, in consequence, was frequently defrauded of his meager wages. On the other hand, he could be robbed of his utmost farthing by a creditor, as the principle of exemption of a certain minimum of wages and property from seizure for debts had not yet been established.
It was not alone that the debtor with too little property to secure the benefit of the newly enacted bankruptcy law could be stripped of every possession. If these failed to satisfy the debt, his person could be seized. The laborer who was thus unable either to discharge his debt or to secure relief through bankruptcy was subject to imprisonment. No matter how small the sum, he was sentenced to remain in jail until the debt was paid. Since the imprisonment effectually prevented the earning of any money with which to meet his obligations, it was no very infrequent thing for a man to be imprisoned for years or even for life because of a debt of a few shillings. Once in jail, the state made no provision for his food, clothing, or fuel.
The report of the Prison Discipline Society for 1829 estimated that more than 75,000 were imprisoned for debt annually in the United States, and that of these more than one half owed less than twenty dollars. Owing to the lack of any public provision for the most essential needs, the debtors' prisons became veritable chambers of horrors. There was no distinction made as to sex, age, or character. All were driven together into a common room. Even as far north as New York there was not always a shelter from the elements. With what appears to us now as grim irony, charitable societies
were formed, not to abolish imprisonment for debt, or to pay the debts and secure the liberty of the victims, but to furnish sufficient food, clothing, and fuel to prolong the agony of the suffering prisoners.
The educational facilities of the United States were at their very lowest ebb in the years from 1814 to 1828.1 The old social order had lost its strength. The new one had not had the time to develop an educational expression. The most efficient schools were the private academies of New England. The public schools, the only ones accessible to the wageworkers, were less efficient than at any period before or since. The management of the schools had been subdivided in response to the individualistic, competitive, separatist spirit of early capitalism until the little school districts were almost autonomous.2 Religious education had declined with the overthrow of the theocracy, and the multitude of seceding sects had not yet built up educational institutions. Massachusetts, then, as throughout American history, at the head in educational matters, was expending but $2.75 per pupil annually in education. She spends more than ten times as much to-day, and the poorest equipped Southern state, where educational facilities are least, does more than did the Old Bay State at the close of the first quarter of the last century.3
The great outlet for such of the workers as were crushed beyond endurance as wage
earners was the pioneer life in the Ohio Valley. Without the existence
1 Edwin G. Dexter, "History of Education in the United States," pp. 99-98; Frank T. Carlton, "Economic Influences upon Educational Progress in the United States," Bulletin Univ. of Wisconsin, pp. 22-28. 2 Carlton, loc. cit., p. 20.
3 Dexter, loc. cit., p. 98.
of this "free land," the condition of labor would have been far worse. This fact was noted by all European observers. Michael Chevalier, who was sent to this country in 1834 by Thiers, then Minister of the Interior of France, makes this comparison between America and Europe:1
While the Americans have the vast domain of the West, a common fund from which, by industry, each may draw for himself and by himself an ample heritage, an extreme fall of wages is not to be apprehended. . . . In Europe a coalition of workmen can only signify one of these two things : raise our wages or we shall die of hunger with our wives and children, which is an absurdity; or raise our wages, if you do not, we shall take up arms, which is civil war. In Europe there is no other possible construction to be placed upon it. But in America, on the contrary, such a coalition means, raise our wages or we go to the West.
Out of this West a democratic breeze was blowing, that was to grow into a small
storm before the end of the thirties. The equality of the pioneer struggle
against the wilderness was finding expression in political democracy. The new
states were coming into the Union on a basis of universal manhood suffrage. But
not all of the workers who felt the goad of oppression were being driven to the
West. Some were inclined to turn and fight that oppression. That fight was to
introduce a new force into those that formulate American institutions. It was to
give rise to the first real American labor movement.
1 Michael Chevalier, "The United States," p. 144.