HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
THE FIRST LABOR MOVEMENT - 1824-1836
THE introduction of even the beginnings of the factory system, displacing craftsmen and tools by the wageworker and the machine, and the consequent gathering of large bodies of workers dealing with a single employer -in short, the rise of an exploited proletariat -was certain to create organized resistance to exploitation by that proletariat. There had been loose associations of workingmen for many years who sometimes "walked out" to secure better conditions. Such a "walk-out" had taken place among journeymen bakers in New York in 1741. It was not until 1825, however, that labor unions were generally established throughout the northeastern portion of the United States. By 1833 we find the following trades participating in a parade organized by the "Central Trade Union" of New York City "Typographical Union, Journeymen House Carpenters, Book Binders, Leather Dressers, Coopers, Carvers and Gilders, Bakers, Cabinet Makers, Cordwainers (men), Cordwainers (women), Tailors, Silk Hatters, Stone Cutters, Tin-Plate and Sheet Iron Workers, Type Founders, Hat Finishers, Willow-Basket Makers, Chair Makers and Gliders, Sail Makers, and Block and Pump Makers." Sixteen unions joined to found the "General Trade Union" of Boston in 1834. In this same year a writer in The Workingman's Advocate of New York esti
mated the number of members in the labor unions of New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, and Newark at 26,250, an exceedingly high proportion of the number of wage-earners in those cities.
The first trade union journal in the world was the Mechanics' Free Press, published in Philadelphia from 1828 to 1831, antedating by two years any similar English periodical. There is also a dispute as to whether the first genuine trade union existed in this country or in England.1 It is certain that the movement under discussion was taking place at the same time as the first important union movement in Great Britain, and that it is impossible for either country to claim either the blame or the credit for having originated this inevitable spontaneous resistance of Labor.
Between seventy-five and one hundred periodicals devoted to Labor appeared in the northeastern states about this time, a number scarcely exceeded in the same territory three quarters of a century later. Two daily papers, The Man and The Daily Sentinel, were maintained during a part of this period to present the cause of the workers. Considering the restricted numbers of the wageworkers, the undeveloped stage of printing and paper manufacture, and consequent difficulties in the road of periodical publication, this record is seen to be little short of marvelous.
These unions had benefit funds for the sick and out of work and those on strike.
They had their union scales, and conducted strikes and declared boycotts to
maintain them, and signed contracts with the employers when
1 " Documentary History of American Industrial Society," Vol. V, pp. 21-22.
victorious. They had their pickets who were accused of " slugging scabs "; and in some cases at least the "union shop" was demanded and secured. Wages were increased in many trades, and the condition of Labor was bettered in many ways. Their most general demand on the economic field was for the ten-hour day, to secure which many strikes were conducted. They succeeded in securing this standard in a large number of trades; and finally, as a result of their agitation, President Van Buren announced the introduction of the ten-hour day in all government work.
Every economic movement has some sort of a political expression. This early labor movement was no exception. Workingmen's tickets were placed in nomination in New York, Rochester, Philadelphia, and several smaller cities, and a number of minor offices were captured. Legislative nominations were made in New York and Pennsylvania. In the former state Ebenezer Ford was elected to the Assembly upon the Workingman's ticket in 1829, polling a vote of 6166.
It is when we study the programs, platforms, and principles of this early labor movement and its political expression that its real importance as a factor in the evolution of American society appears. The things for which it fought, and many of which it secured directly, are just the features of our society of which Americans are most inclined to boast.
The one dominant feature of every section of this labor movement was the almost fanatical insistence upon the paramount importance of education. In political platforms, in resolutions of public meetings, and in the labor press the statement is repeated over and over, that
the fundamental demand of Labor is for an adequate system of education. A workingmen's meeting held in New York, March 20, 1830 adopted this resolution:
Resolved, that next to life and liberty we consider education the greatest
blessing bestowed upon mankind.
A writer in the Mechanics' Free Press of Philadelphia, August 12, 1829, in reply to the question, "What do the workingmen expect? what do they wish?" said " I have attended their late meetings in the city generally, and obtained the sentiments of a number of such as take an active part in their business, and find the great and primary object to be, a general system of education on an independent principle." The Pennsylvania system of education was particularly pernicious. It provided free schools only for those who were willing to declare themselves paupers. The rich sent their children to private institutions. There was no provision whatever for the children of those who were neither paupers nor wealthy.2Again and again this cry for education is reiterated.3 Nor were the workers content with merely protesting and
1. Free Enquirer, Mar. 20, 1830.
2. McMaster, "History of the People of the United States," Vol. V, pp. 360-362.
3. Free Enquirer, Feb. 4, 1829; Aug. 12, 1829; Sept. 30, 1820; Farmers', Mechanics' and Workingmen's Advocate, Apr. 3, 1830; Mechanics' Free Press, Sept. 19, 1829.
resoluting. They were far in advance of their age in their knowledge of educational methods. One of the most remarkable documents of this time is a report prepared by a committee of Philadelphia workingmen who were appointed to study the educational situation.1 This report is not only an extremely keen and scholarly criticism of the existing system, but outlines a scheme of education, embracing kindergartens, and a combination of manual training with education. They support their arguments for such a system by illustrations drawn from similar educational establishments in Switzerland, France, Prussia, and Great Britain.
There were undoubtedly other influences making for education at this time. The factory system requires a certain amount of trained intelligence for its operatives, and has always been accompanied by some form of popular education. Yet when this period is examined in detail there is no other single force making for education that can be compared with the working-class movement, and there is no escape from the conclusion that to this movement, more than to any other single cause, if not more than to all other causes combined, is due the common school system of the United States.In all directions this movement was laying the foundation of democratic institutions. The far-sightedness and comprehensively progressive character of its program is remarkable. The chairman of a convention of workingmen held in Boston in 1833 gives the following summary of the measures advocated: - " The operatives and producers are generally agreed that the abolition of all licensed monopolies and im
1. Published in The Workingman's Advocate, Mar. 6, 1830.
prisonment for debt, a revision of our present militia and law systems, equal
taxation of property, an effective lien law, a district system of elections, the
number of legislators reduced to the proportion of territory and population, a
transfer of a greater part of the appointing power from the executive to the
people, the credit and banking systems, mortgages, salaries, rotation in office,
small districts for the recording of land titles, and the settlement of estates,
the third article, the poll-tax, and, above all, an universal and useful
education, afford subjects for their vigilant enquiry and severe investigation."
Measured by success in the attainment of its objects, this first American labor
movement has but few equals in the history of the world. A study of the list of
the things for which it worked is a study of the establishment of what is best in
present society.1 The platforms of the
1. The platform upon which Ebenezer Ford was elected to the New York legislature read as follows : -
Resolved, In the opinion of this meeting, the first appropriation of the soil of this state to private and exclusive possession was eminently and barbarously unjust.
A far more typical platform than this is the one submitted by a committee of fifty to a great workingmen's meeting held in Military Hall, New York, Dec. 29, 1829, and reported in the Free Enquirer for March 20, 1830. The following extracts are taken from this report: -
We take the opportunity solemnly to aver . . . that we have no desire or intention of disturbing the rights of property in individuals or the public. . .
labor parties of this time are new Declarations of Independence, throwing off old shackles and drafting the lines
along which progress was to be made for the next generation and more. There was little that was fantastic in their program. There was little of the populistic reaction that has so generally characterized the pioneers in their attacks upon a creditor class.
When the movement died out in 1835 to 1837, the face of society had been largely transformed. Imprisonment for debt was no more. A mechanics' lien law was in existence in nearly every state in the Union, and the principle that the producer has the first claim upon his product had become a fundamental principle in American jurisprudence. The credit system, as applied to the tariff, which, as was pointed out by the laborers,
granted immense loans to a few favored shippers, and was the means of building up some of the greatest fortunes in America,1 was abolished. Horace Mann was leading the "educational revival," and the common school was an established institution in nearly every state.2 The grotesque militia system had been abolished. Important reforms in land tenure were under way in New York State that were to wipe out the last of the feudal privileges of the land barons. The war upon the Bank had been taken up by Jackson and his frontier followers, and the present subtreasury system was being prepared to take its place. Payment for jurors and witnesses had become a part of American court practice, and other important reforms tending to democratize the courts had taken place. The first blow had been struck at the spoils system in office, and while little effect was produced at this time, because of the presence of forces that will be discussed in the next chapter, these early achievements stand as guideposts pointing the road that would be traveled many years later. Presidential electors were being elected by popular vote, and members of the legislature chosen by districts. Property qualifications for voting and for office had almost completely disappeared, and American politics took on the form of democracy for the first time.It would be foolish to say that all of these changes were brought about directly by the working-class movement. But the organized workers were the only ones that were publicly and energetically demanding these
1 Gustavus Myers, "Great American Fortunes," Vol. I, pp. 79-80.
2 Edwin G. Dexter, "History of Education in the United States," pp. 98-100.
steps. They were strong enough to exert a great influence. No other force can begin to compete with the labor movement as a direct cause of these important steps. Is it, then, too much to say that this movement of the workers, measured by the impress it left, was the most important event in American history?
This labor movement had its philosophical as well as its political expression. Three writers at this time sought to express Labor's attitude toward the economic problems with which it was confronted. Thomas Skidmore wrote "Rights of Man to Property" in 1829. He was an active organizer of the New York Labor Party in the beginning, but was finally forced out of the organization in an internal dissension, and afterwards ran for office on an independent ticket. L. Byllesby wrote "Sources and Effects of Unequal Wealth" in 1826, and Stephen Simpson published his "Workingman's Manual" in 1831. It was to be nearly thirty years before another volume worthy of notice should be added to the literature of labor in the United States.
In these works we find attempts to construct a political economy based upon social relations as seen through the eyes of workers. It cannot be said that the attempt was a success, although the work of these writers compares fairly well with contemporaneous works on the same subject in other countries.
All three are based upon a more or less clear presentation of the labor value theory, and it is easy to find germs of a theory of exploitation based upon the principle of ownership. But an economic philosophy is not developed in so short a period as the life of this movement.
In the discussion of practical tactics much more was accomplished. The doctrine of the "class struggle, " based upon contending economic interests, was clearly expressed. When Karl Marx was a boy of thirteen, Simpson was writing a paragraph that contains much of the germ of the Communist Manifesto. Simpson says, after a discussion of what he calls "personal parties":1
Parties of interest . . . are less noxious, because one party may be brought to check or control another, as the party of stockholders and capitalists may be met and counteracted by the party of the producers; which is a real party of general interest, whose ascendency could not fail to shed a genial and prosperous beam upon the whole society. Such a party would merely exhibit the interests of society, concentrating for the true fulfillment of the original terms of the social compact, the happiness and the comfort of the whole. This we now behold in those parties of the workingmen, who . . . steadily follow in the path of science and justice, under the banner of - labor the source of all wealth, and industry the arbiter of its distribution" (italics in original).
The question of "pure and simple" trade unionism vs. political activity was
debated at this period, with much the same arguments that are used to-day.
We search this period in vain, however, to find any general acceptation of the
principles of collectivism. Not even when Robert Owen addressed great
1 "The Workingman's Manual" (1831), p. 23. See also The Man, May 30, 1834, communication by "Boston Mechanic"; Resolution in Mechanics' Free Press, Aug. 16, 1828; ibid., Sept. 20, 1828; Free Enquirer, Feb. 4, 1829, for expressions on class struggle, and The National Laborer, June 24 and July 6, 1836, on political action.
of the workers and took a part in formulating their resolutions 1 was he able
to impress his ideas upon this early labor movement. The factory system was not
sufficiently ripe for a collectivist labor movement. Collectivism in all its
forms was still a utopian scheme of dreamers in other classes of society. The
rampant individualism of young competitive capitalism determined the Zeitgeist of
the period, and that spirit made its influence felt even upon the labor movement
that fought that capitalism.
1 Meeting reported in Workingman's Advocate, Oct. 31, 1829.