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This Day in Labor History: March 20, 1854

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On March 20, 1854, the Republican Party was founded at a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin. Ideas of labor, both free and slave, were central to Republican Party ideology and would have massive implications for decades, not only with the end of slavery during the Civil War, but for white labor through the Gilded Age.

When Republicans organized in the wake of the Whig Party’s collapse (This was not a third party. It was filling a vacuum created by the decline of the period’s second party), it was building off of common ideas about labor in the antebellum period. Labor was seen broadly as the work done by anyone outside of the financial sector or lawyers, making most people “workers” whether they employed people or were employed. The industrial system was supposed to work for all these people, allowing them to rise and fall according to their merits, but ultimately helping most people advance. This would lead to a broadly middle-class life of individual farmers, small employers, and entrepreneurs without great wealth. All labor was noble in this ideology. What made Republicans different than Democrats was the desire to use the power of the state to create policies that would advance this goal, such as high tariffs, government support of transportation networks, etc.

This idea of intertwined personal and national advancement was at the heart of the Republican critique of the South. Most Republicans certainly did not think of black people as equals. But they did see slavery undermining American progress. They saw a North of manufacturing, of railroads, of canals and they saw a rapidly growing nation of progress. They saw a Southern elite of landed wealth who did no work for themselves, who had militaristic values and a violent culture. They saw undemocratic politics with entrenched poverty of the region’s poor whites and they indicted the entire system as a anchor upon the advancement of the union as demonstrated by northern capital investment and industrialization. The threat of slavery was its expansion because the institution only grew more powerful through the 1840s and 1850s. From not being a major part of the American political landscape, the nation had fought a war to allow its expansion by stealing half of Mexico. This threat had to be dealt with for the future of white landholders and entrepreneurs because slavery threatened the white republic. Blacks themselves were more the objects of concern than the subjects. It’s not that black labor didn’t matter. But most Republicans assumed the proper role for black labor was toiling on plantations for white overseers, as in fact we would see at the end of the Civil War when northerners would reorganize the plantation system despite ex-slaves wanting to end it entirely.

Free labor ideology was a very individualistic system and free labor ideology was from the outset strongly anti-union. Even though Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens argued that it was bad to blame the poor for their own poverty, the idea that labor would combine against capital was anathema to Republicans. Horace Greeley referred to strikes as “industrial war” as early as 1853. Instead, Republicans believed the poor should simply move west to the safety valve of the frontier. Free labor ideology struggled to adapt to the reality of wage labor after the Civil War. The ideology assumed the natural harmony between labor and capital and when capital exploitation of labor during the early years of the Gilded Age, particularly in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873, Republican leaders assumed the problem was workers breaking this natural state. Thus when George Pullman created his company town outside of Chicago, he used free labor language to justify his paternalism and control over workers.

Although among regular people, the early Republican distrust of corporations did not go away, for those who had access to the money and power within this new system, it definitely did as the great potential for wealth under Republican rule during the Civil War became ever more apparent. The individualistic side of free labor ideology could lead to great greed, especially when combined whit the self-justification of the pseudo social Darwinism of its early days. It was no great turn for the same people we laud for their role in ending slavery to attack the white working class with a vengeance, both as businessmen and as politicians. If Jay Gould became incredibly wealthy off of cheating people, he could justify it through the language at the core of the ideology.

Leading Republicans began to fear by the 1870s that both southern blacks and northern whites were agents of disorder that threatened the smooth relations between labor and capital. They saw blacks demanding labor rights and believed they were a class that threatened the social fabric of the republic. Demands for federal assistance were just as threatening as northern white labor’s demand for the right to strike. Both white and black labor made leading Republicans fear the Paris Commune coming to the U.S., a theme Horace Greeley and others wrote about as they talked of anarchy reaching American shores every time American black or white labor complained about anything after 1871. This helps explain how Republicans were willing to end Reconstruction and condemn black labor to exploitation. In the end, for most Republicans anti-slavery politics was not about anti-racism, it was about ending a particularly institution they saw holding back the nation. Wage exploitation, that was fine. Ideal even.

The consummation of Republican free labor ideology toward unions became apparent in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when newly elected Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes used U.S. troops to crush the strikers. It wasn’t just Hayes–most leading Republicans wanted them crushed. The shock to the populace would lead to a number of social and labor movements intended to get things right again. The Populists, Single Taxers, Bellamyites, Chinese Exclusionists, 8 hour day organizers, unemployment marchers, Knights of Labor–all of these movements would be heavily influenced by the idea of making capitalism doing what everyone thought it was supposed to do–support the free, hardworking white male citizen who wanted to support himself. It would not be until the influx of new immigrants after 1880 that had no connection to free labor ideology that the American working class would move more realistic cures for what ailed it.

The question everyone wants to know is whether Lincoln would have been as anti-white organized labor as other Republicans. This is of course a counterfactual–who knows! And counterfactuals’ primary value come during drunken conversations. People like to cite a couple of Lincoln quotes about the primacy of labor to capital. But this ignores the context–Republicans said things like this all the time and then a few years later were calling for military intervention to crush strikes. The quote lacks the context of what Republicans meant by labor and capital. Lincoln was the consummate moderate Republican on pretty much every policy issue, including slavery. I think, like other Republicans, Lincoln could have easily reconciled his earlier statements with a later support of monopoly capitalism and fears of the dangers of unions. Sure, I’d like to think otherwise, but a few quotes from the early 1860s isn’t a lot of evidence when placed in context of Lincoln’s relationship with the ideology of his party and how that party changed over time.

The key book on Republican free labor ideology is Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. You should all read it. On the changing views of Republicans toward black labor after emancipation, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901.

This is the 100th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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