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This Day in Labor History: March 31, 1840

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On March 31, 1840, Martin Van Buren issued an executive order granting the 10-hour day on federal projects. This early critical moment in the fight for a dignified work day may not have changed the world, but it was a rare moment of worker success in the early decades of the United States and a symbol of what would soon be a major issue for American workers over the next century.

The 10-hour movement came out of the big cities of the east coast in the 1820s. The world of work was changing significantly in these years. First, the old apprentice system was breaking down. It used to be if you were a young worker, say a young printer apprentice named Benjamin Franklin, you lived in the house of your master and you were under his control. There was possible benefits to this sort of arrangement, although it was highly varied. But with more freedom in the growing cities, it was becoming much more difficult for masters to control their workshops and their workers, especially as many were living out. That meant they attempted to have their workers labor for very long hours to maintain that control. Second, in the burgeoning factory system of industrial capitalism, the goal of employers was to force workers to labor as long as possible for as little compensation as they could possibly pay. Efficiencies, technological advancement, and other mechanical methods were meant to create profit. For workers, keeping control over your conditions of work was not only a big deal, it was ultimately the single most important goal of many workers’ movements in the nineteenth century, something that was not fully defeated until Ford’s $5 day in 1914 that came with total Ford control over the workplace and your outside lives too.

The building trades were the core activists of the 10-hour movement. Boston carpenters went on strike in 1825 for the 10-hour day. They failed, as not only did no one agree to the demands, but they also blacklisted any master carpenters who agreed to such conditions from their workforce. Employers agreed to stop all construction in the city before agreeing to it. In 1827, a Philadelphia mechanic named William Heighton began publishing letters on the 10 hour day under the pseudonym “An Unlettered Mechanic.” This connected workers rights with what it meant to be an American in these democratizing days. His letters stated that the only way for workers to be good citizens of the republic was to have enough time to follow politics, read, debate, and vote. That was impossible with the days they were working. About 600 carpenters in Philadelphia went on strike that year for the 10-hour day. They didn’t win their demands, but their political organizing did elect some working-class Jacksonians to local office. New York carpenters had a little more success because of a local tradition of a 10-hour day. When employers tried to increase it to 11 hours, they managed to beat that attack back.

In 1832, a carpenter named Seth Luther engaged in a speaking tour around New England over the 10-hour day. He published his Address to the Working-Men of New England and it got a lot of attention. This led to the formation of the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Working Men. Again, workers didn’t win anything, but they struck for the principle across New England and even in faraway places such as Detroit and Louisville.

Luther remained a critical figure though. In 1834, New England workers again began agitating for the 10-hour day, increasingly talking about the effect of long days on the women workers who were their wives and daughters. The next year, a group led by Luther issued the Ten Hours’ Circular, making the argument for the 10-hour day using Enlightenment rhetoric about natural rights and republican virtue, as well as talking about the physical and mental toll long days took on workers’ bodies. It also took on the arguments employers made about workers needing to labor for moral reasons, noting that employers only cared about this in the summer when they wanted workers to labor from sunrise to sunset, while not employing them or forcing them to work short days in the winter. Boston carpenters again struck for two months, but again lost.

But in Philadelphia, workers also struck and this time they won. They argued as well for tying the 10-hour day to a living wage. They petitioned the city’s Common Council, which ruled in their favor on city projects, setting a standard that soon spread to private employers. Other workers built upon the Philadelphia model and some won major gains and others smaller gains, but finally, they were building momentum. The Panic of 1837 halted their momentum, but mostly they did not lose what they had won.

It’s not clear why Martin Van Buren acted to expand the 10-hour day movement in 1840. Andrew Jackson had been favorable to the movement and had workers in the Philadelphia Navy Yard had successfully petitioned him for a 10-hour day in 1836, so it’s not as if it was anathema to Democratic Party politics. It’s entirely possible that Van Buren was acting from electoral worries. After all, his administration had not responded well to the Panic, which since it was largely caused by Jackson’s atrocious economic thinking, was definitely on he and Van Buren. The Whigs were soon to defeat Van Buren because of the terrible economy. Workers were already agitating over the economic problems they faced, such as the 1837 Flour Riot. So this is the most likely reason, but to my understanding at least, the historical record really doesn’t provide a clear explanation.

Anyway, Van Buren’s executive order read, in part:

“finding that different rules prevail at different places as well in respect to the hours of labor by persons employed on the public works under the immediate authority of himself and the Departments as also in relation to the different classes of workmen, and believing that much inconvenience and dissatisfaction would be removed by adopting a uniform course, hereby directs that all such persons, whether laborers or mechanics, be required to work only the number of hours prescribed by the ten-hour system.”

This was a nice win. The 1840s saw the continuation of the 10-hour movements, getting caught up in the larger nascent workers’ movements, such as the unions and strikes led by the Lowell Mill Girls. There was a lot of petitioning state legislatures during these years, making the argument that women needed protection and that men had the natural right for a dignified day that would support his family. While Massachusetts didn’t do anything, despite the central role led by the Lowell workers, other states such as New Hampshire did pass laws limiting hours. That state created a 10-hour rule in 1847. Pennsylvania and Maine followed in 1848, Ohio in 1852, Rhode Island and California in 1853, and Connecticut in 1855. But these laws were extremely limited because they only went into effect if the employee had not made another “contract” with the employer. This allowed employers to argue that any agreement to work a contract, no matter how little power the worker had. Employers began having workers sign agreements that had them work the “customary” hours of labor, which meant the hours before the laws went into effect.

Labor law in the nineteenth century would remain piecemeal and ineffective. Workers would continue the struggle for shorter hours all the way through the 19th century, culminating in the 1886 8-hour day strikes and then finally being codified with the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. But today, thanks to new employer strategies, many workers are once again laboring ungodly hours. The struggle for worker dignity never ends.

This is the 304th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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