Home / General / This Day in Labor History: March 20, 1854

This Day in Labor History: March 20, 1854


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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  • witless chum

    The free labor ideology stuff is fascinating. Just from my very ignorant perspective, it’s interesting how much its sort of Eden of small businessmen and laborers reminds me both of Jefferson’s ideals on the subject and with the sort of small town and rural idealization you still see today. When whomever that was decides to advertise their trucks with Paul Harvey poems, nobody ever works for ADM or Cargill, after all.

  • Rob in CT

    I’ve read that book of Foner’s. Some might find it a dry read, but it really is excellent. And oooooh man, does it resonate today.

    I think there’s a reason Thaddeus Stevens died believing he had failed.

  • Rob in CT

    As for Lincoln… like you say, it’s a counterfactual. I can argue this one either way:

    The argument that he’d be with the GOP concensus (anti-labor) would be: a) he was a moderate, and the center of the party was/became anti-labor; b) he’d been a lawyer for RR companies before; and c) he was not a Saint.

    The argument that he’d be at least mildly pro-labor would be: a) he was a moderate whose positions tended to evolve over time (and, to me, they evolved pretty clearly in the right direction); and b) he actually did make some statements that indicate he may have thought that labor actually had some rights.

    One of the key beliefs at the time was that labor and capital were symboitic. They were partners. One shouldn’t dominate the other. You start out a worker. You work hard, you save, you become an owner (of some small business). For a brief time, I think it was possible to believe this honestly. But as the decades wore on, it became increasingly obvious that capital was dominating labor and that this idea of just about everyone being able to work their way up was ridiculous. How would Lincoln have reacted to that? Also, too: would it have mattered? He’d be an ex-President. A beloved one, sure, but what power would he have wielded?

    • Again, almost all Republicans made statements that they thought labor had rights. In 1863 that meant something very different than 1877. And he was a moderate whose positions evolved over time, but if anything that suggests he would have evolved toward where the Republicans were heading on labor issues. Just because one was right on enslaved black labor doesn’t mean they would be right on free black labor or white labor.

      But you’re right, by the time these questions really matter, Lincoln is retired so it’s probably irrelevant. But I do have a problem with people using those quotes from Lincoln to mean what they want it to mean, not what Lincoln actually meant.

      • Rob in CT

        I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m just saying it’s possible. Either is possible, IMO. He could have moved with the general GOP concensus. Or he could have reacted to the facts on the ground… especially since he’d be out of power and thus it would be less important for him personally to stay in the middle.

        As for what the quotes “really meant”… do we actually know that? How sure are you that when Lincoln said that labor is prior to capital and thus deserves the higher consideration that he really meant “work for peanuts and LIKE IT!” ;)

      • witless chum

        Erik, can you lay about a little more specifically what Lincoln meant by “labor” and “capital” in that statement?

        Based on the Free Labor ideal that you explicate in the post of wanting a nation of workers and small businessmen, I’d guess he was saying something like “Our economic system should reward hard work and ingenuity at the expense of wealth.” So you can run around saying Lincoln supports a bigger estate tax! In what ways am I wrong there?

        • For early Republicans “labor” was basically the work done by all free whites outside of the financial industry and lawyers. It was very broadly defined. So all work was dignified–but that could be the work of John D. Rockefeller, if not Jay Gould. What it was not was the idea of the working class in a Marxist or even modern unionist sense. But it did have legs as the Knights of Labor would use a very similar formulation in its expansive appeal to American “workers” which could certainly include small business owners. “Capital” expressed the early Republican discomfort with large conglomerates that were becoming corporations, but while that was a common sentiment in the early 1860s, by even the late 1860s, that critique of corporation was rapidly dying among the political class as Jay Gould’s bags of cash proved pretty persuasive.

          • witless chum

            Cool, thanks much.

      • Joshua

        Had Lincoln not been assassinated, he would have left office in 1868 (most likely). So, really, how much would his opinion have mattered?

        • Probably not too much, except that his leadership over the party would have been profound even in retirement.

  • Karen

    A more creative person than I am could write a really good novel about a world where Lincoln is remembered as much for crushing strikes in hi second term as he is for the Emancipation Proclamation. Set in the 1890’s within a much more radical American labor movement.

    • rea

      You can also imagine Lincoln’s sympathy for blacks clashing with the early labor movement, which on occasion was highly pro-segregation.

      • Perhaps, but again, Republicans sympathy for blacks had its limits and those limits were blacks actually demanding labor rights. So I’m skeptical.

  • DrDick

    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

    Some things never change.

  • joe from Lowell

    Congratulations on your 100th, Erik, and not a place-holder among them!

    I really like the way you treat American slavery as a labor issue. It seems so obvious to do so, but it’s not a connection you see in most treatments of the subject.

    • rea

      Needs to be a book . . .

    • SV

      Yes, as a foreigner I have nothing to contribute to these posts but usually find them interesting and read them. Thanks and congratulations.

  • jon

    Congratulations on your 100th post. This is a great, rather important series. This clarification of early Republican attitudes towards labor is especially helpful.

    As to Lincoln, it doesn’t really matter. He died, so we can only imagine what he might have done. Lincoln had done his own hard labor, and then become a lawyer and politician, so he surely identified with advancement and labor mobility. But he was not ignorant that the Civil War had been won with the aid of steel mills, railroads, ship builders, textile mills, and all of the other growing industries of the North. I don’t recall Lincoln ever critiquing those industries, outside of some mild reproofs over the quality of goods and price gouging. More importantly, Lincoln was foremost amongst Republicans and the government, but he did not entirely control policy. Lincoln had to craft his legislative majorities, cajoling and convincing, and not always carrying the day. His power would also have diminished after the Civil War.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think Lincoln’s attitude towards labor is important because even in an alternative timeline where he completes two terms, he would be out of office a few years before labor became a really big issue.

  • shah8

    /me blinks…

    Wait now, hold up…

    In more recent times, the fundamental motivation for civil rights and a more progressive Southern politics in general in no order were:

    1) Boll Weevil
    2) Geopolitical Liability during decolonial era
    3) Northern fed-up-ness at tolerating the low efficiency of Southern practices during New Deal/WWII era
    4) Labor flight to Northern and Western manufactoring centers
    5) Southern political figures (and populists) that saw all that money in the North and pushed for the more tolerant regime to attract corporations south. Greater access to telecom probably figures in this.

    At the end, leadership doesn’t care about labor rights at best, and actively hostile at worst. Goes double for black laborers. So saying that Lincoln would be like all the other early Republicans is somewhat misdirecting. What you *should* ask is what climate would Lincoln have fostered, and how *tolerant* Lincoln would have been towards labor demands.

    Towards that effect, I think that the disruption caused by Lincoln’s assassination had a great deal to do with how the Republican Party evolved in the immediate tradition. Had Lincoln remained in office, the attention towards actual economic development and infrastructure project would have competed for the social attention against the “ex-slave problem” (and also competed for the labor needed for cotton fields, wood cutting, mining, etc). Coherent anti-domestic terrorist policies would have enacted far earlier than they were. Far more attention would have been paid towards building southern support, especially in majority white areas, with less emphasis on sending settlers west or high-falutin’ imperial aquisitions. Thus the eventual end to Reconstruction probably would have been less disastrous in terms of creating the police-state South, and the South would probably have developed more of a liberal business and tolerant social climate as could be under white supremacy.

    Even afterwards, had Lincoln survived, his post-presidential career would have meant his domination of the Republican party, whether in front or in the shadows, and he would have wanted to protect his heritage. He also probably would have either had puppets or, in the other direction, forced up the caliber of Republican Party hopefuls. Obviously though, Democratic party members both North and South would have continued to gun for him, out of romantic spite. However, with less of a Solid South, and a less meaningful Tilden Compromise, the populist turn would have happened *much* earlier and with much more force and sophistication (since it probably would have turned on Old!Lincoln’s hypocrisy to Young!Lincoln’s ideals) than it did. Which would have made for some really interesting contortions on the immigration debates of the 1880s and 90s.

    Oh man, counterfactuals are so addictive! Look at the time…

  • One of the Blue

    Hmm! All we really have on Lincoln that might tell are his evolving attitude and approach to racial justice, as recounted brilliantly in The Fiery Trial, his sort of chronic bias to the “little guy” as shown by the numerous civil war pardons, and the fact that he was openly proud of his work as a criminal defense attorney. In fact if I recall correctly he is the only person ever elected President of the United States who had an extensive criminal defense resume. And there’s the story (apparently true)recounted in the movie Lincoln where he helped a woman who had been convicted of murdering her husband skip bail prior to sentencing.

    Lincoln may have been a moderate, or at least taken pains to track moderate, but there’s a lot of evidence, such as that noted here that he was very much an atypical politician. To me that means we cannot assume, had he lived, he would have followed the standard evolution to oppose labor rights, which we know did happen among those Republicans left living. (Someone with this kind of resume and documented bias could not be elected so much as dogcatcher in 21st Century America.)

    As a very dominant president in his second term and beyond (we cannot assume also that he would not have run for and won a third term), or even if he stopped at two, and as expressed elsewhere here, a very dominant ex-presidential figure in the Republican Party, his view if different might have prevailed.

    If nothing else Reconstruction would have been very different, and quite possibly much more successful, if Lincoln had been around to shepherd it through. Though Lincoln’s views on race were hardly exemplary by 21st Century standards even at the end of the war, and he had expressed strong views on working to conciliate the South where possible, it also is blindingly obvious that his views on race were a world more progressive than those of Andrew Johnson. Lincoln would have been compromising with the congressional Republicans on Reconstruction; Johnson did everything he could do sabotage and derail the process.

    This proves nothing. I think it does suggest, however, that America’s 19th Century history might be a deal less fraught on all kinds of justice issues if Lincoln had remained a dominant figure into the 1870’s and beyond.

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