Colonial American Seaport

Chapter 2: Varieties of Worker Resistance and the Emergence of the First Unions – Labor In America by Melvyn Dubofsky and Joseph A. McCartin

Response / Thought Quotes

  • “Because the conditions for slaves were more salubrious in the southern states than in the Caribbean islands and South America, Louisiana’s sugar plantations being the exception, the bound population steadily reproduced itself. And not only did African slaves in the United States reproduce themselves, but an internal slave market redistributed slaves from the depleted soils of Virginia and the Chesapeake to the more fertile and productive lands of the new cotton kingdom. Slave labor made cotton the most profitable good produced in the United States, and the South the wealthiest region in the nation.”
  • “To share in the fruits of economic growth and not become wage slaves to the new capitalist masters of the loom, lash, and vault, workers resorted to collective forms of action.”
  • “Throughout the vast republic,” the Albany Working Men’s Advocate stated shortly afterwards, “the farmers, mechanics and workingmen are assembling…to impart to its laws and administration those principles of liberty and equality unfolded in the Declaration of Independence.”
  • “What distinguishes the present from every other struggle in which the human race has been engaged,” she wrote in the Free Enquirer, “is, that the present is, evidently, openly and acknowledgedly, a war of class.…It is the ridden people of the earth who are struggling to throw from their backs the ‘booted and spurred’ riders whose legitimate title to starve as well as work them to death will no longer pass current; it is labour rising up against idleness, industry against money; justice against law and against privilege.”
  • “The rise of workingmen’s parties did not presage Marxian socialism, but it did signify a realization by many workers that capitalism bore down on them unfairly, and it did place in question society’s dominant property relations. It added to the political agenda many demands associated with the labor theory of value.”

Thought Questions

  • React and Respond: “Economic growth in turn increased the demand for labor, especially the skilled variety”
  • Explain and Expand: “Slave labor, then, underwrote economic expansion, the rise of capitalist markets, and embryonic industrial growth while creating a wealthy and powerful class of plantation lords, bankers, merchants, and industrialists.”
  • React and Respond: “What the workers of the country basically sought was to prevent the emerging capitalist class from monopolizing for itself the seemingly boundless opportunities of the growing national economy.”
  • In what ways did the transportation revolution impact Early America?
  • What were “popular parties ” and “Workingmen’s Parties” and how did they evolve from Revolutionary America into the early republic?
  • In what ways did merchants and the “middling sort” partner with the working class in Revolutionary America against British officials and colonial aristocrats?
  • In what ways did mechanics, artisans, and small tradesmen voice a more radical agenda in support of colonial liberties?
  • What motivated African slaves to join the British cause?
  • How did Irish immigrants fit into the American labor market?
  • What role did the development of short-staple cotton agriculture impact free and slave labor in the Early Republic?
  • What were the causes of the depression of 1819 and how did the American labor market react and recover? 
  • Explain and Expand: “King Cotton”
  • Describe the impact of the widespread growth of labor newspapers
  • Why did workingman’s parties eventually decline and fail?
  • How did the development of a stable two party system impact the efforts of labor to advocate for reform?
  • Compare and Contrast the approaches of Robert Dale Owen. Frances ‘Fanny’ Wright, George Henry Evans and Thomas Skidmore to labor reform
  • Describe the motivations and goals for educational reform among labor
  • Describe the motivations and goals for the abolition of imprisonment for debt by labor reformers
  • Explain and Expand: “Unlike their contemporaries in Europe, American workers did not have to unite behind radical or socialist leaderships to obtain the vote.”

Primary Sources

Articles and Resources

Further Reading

Labor in America: A History by Melvyn Dubofsky and Joseph A. McCartin :: Chapter 1 (Part 2): Workers, Politics, and Revolution

Response / Thought Quotes

  • “Although the first protests against British taxation came largely from the merchant class, which provided the original leadership in organizing the Sons of Liberty, the mechanics, artisans, and small tradesmen voiced the more radical demands in support of colonial liberties and kept up their agitation when the merchants were willing to compromise.”
  • “The mobs of great cities,” Jefferson wrote in fearful contemplation of what he felt was happening in Europe, “add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” 
  • “On such a pittance,” the late nineteenth-century historian John Bach McMaster has written, “it was only by the strictest economy that a mechanic kept his children from starvation and himself from jail. In the low and dingy rooms which he called his home were wanting many Articles of adornment and of use now to be found in the dwellings of the poorest of his class. Sand sprinkled on the floor did duty as a carpet. There was no glass on his table, there was no china in his cupboard, there were no prints on his walls…[H]is wife cooked up a rude meal and served it in pewter dishes. He rarely tasted fresh meat as often as once in a week.” 

Thought Questions

  • What basic political rights did working American lack in the Early Republic and Colonial / Territorial period?
  • In what ways did working class Americans impact the development and course of the American Revolution?
  • How did the development of an urban labor force facilitate working class political activity?
  • Compare and Contrast the views of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on the development of an American working class to facilitate capitalism and urban growth?
  • How did African slaves participate in the American Revolution?
  • What motivations did African slaves have to support the American Revolution?

Further Reading

Labor in America: A History by Melvyn Dubofsky and Joseph A. McCartin :: Chapter 1 (Part 1): Conditions of Labor in Colonial America

Response / Thought Quotes

  • “This reality encouraged farmers, artisans, and ordinary workers to assert their own independence and equality,” 
  • “When you send again,” he wrote home emphatically, “I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, masons, and diggers of trees’ roots, well provided, than a thousand such as we have.” 
  • “appointed one hundred Children out of the swarms that swarme in the place, to be sent to Virginia to be bound as apprentices for certain yeares.” 
  • “imprison, punish and dispose of any of those children upon any disorder by them committed, as cause shall require; and so to Shipp them out for Virginia, with as much expedition as may stand for convenience.”
  • “What is a little Housebreaking, Shoplifting, or Highway-robbing; what is a son now and then corrupted and hanged, a Daughter debauched, or Pox’d, a wife stabbed, a Husband’s throat cut, or a child’s brains beat out with an Axe, compared with this Improvement and Well peopling of the Colonies?” 
  • “there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of seasickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply-salted food and meat, also from the very bad and foul water, so that many die miserable.…Add to this want of provisions, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, anxiety, want, afflictions, and lamentations, together with other trouble, as e.g., the lice abound so frightfully, especially on sick people, that they can be scraped off the body. The misery reaches a climax when a gale rages for two or three nights so that everyone believes that the ship will go to the bottom with all human beings on board. In such a visitation the people cry and pray most piteously.”
  • “We declare our utter detestation and dislike,” this edict read, “that men and women of mean condition should take upon themselves the garb of gentlemen.” The ban included “wearing gold or silver lace or buttons, or points at their knees, or to walk in boots, or women of the same rank to wear silk or tiffany scarfs, which though allowable to persons of greater estates, or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge it intolerable in persons in such like conditions.”
  • “but likewise productive of very evil Consequences to the great Detriment of the public Service and grievous Oppression of Individuals.” 
  • “The mobs of great cities,” Jefferson wrote in fearful contemplation of what he felt was happening in Europe, “add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.”
  • “On such a pittance,” the late nineteenth-century historian John Bach McMaster has written, “it was only by the strictest economy that a mechanic kept his children from starvation and himself from jail. In the low and dingy rooms which he called his home were wanting many Articles of adornment and of use now to be found in the dwellings of the poorest of his class. Sand sprinkled on the floor did duty as a carpet. There was no glass on his table, there was no china in his cupboard, there were no prints on his walls…[H]is wife cooked up a rude meal and served it in pewter dishes. He rarely tasted fresh meat as often as once in a week.” 

Thought Questions

  • Describe the diversity of occupations for free laborers in Colonial America
  • How did the development of “urban” centers in Colonial America impact the diversity of labor?
  • Compare and Contrast the impact of local consumption crops on labor with the development of cash crops on labor
  • In what ways were indentured servants introduced and used in Colonial America?
  • How and Why did chattel slavery begin to replace indentured servants?
  • Compare and Contrast the lives of indentured servants and the lives of chattel slaves
  • How did the colonial upper class desire to emulate English feudal patterns impact labor?
  • Compare and Contrast free and bound labor in the Chesapeake and New England. How did labor impact colonial beginnings in these two regions?
  • What role did child labor play in early Colonial America?
  • What role did convict labor play in early Colonial America?
  • What role did English poor relief play in early Colonial America? 
  • Describe the difference between voluntary and involuntary transportation in Colonial America
  • Explain and Expand: “The first African slaves arrived in Virginia not long after the founding of the colony.”
  • Why and How did lawmakers begin to distinguish between the statuses of indentured servants and slaves?
  • Describe the Virginia slave codes of 1705 
  • Compare and Contrast the “Middle Passage” for free laborers and slaves 
  • In what ways were slaves’ ability to negotiate aspects of their oppression differed across regions?
  • What was(is) the underlying basis of slavery?
  • What forms of resistance among slaves manifested themselves and what circumstance impacted forms of resistance?
  • How were form of resistance among slaves reacted to by masters, free white labor and free black labor?
  • Describe the purpose and impact of maximum wages and price control in Colonial America on labor
  • Explain and Expand: “Bouts of intense toil alternated with long periods of idleness.”
  • Describe the beginning of manufacture on a larger scale in Colonial America
  • In what ways did labor management impact the America Revolution?
  • Why did African slaves joined the British cause in the American Revolution?

Primary Sources

Further Reading