On September 27, 1922, the Sentinels of the Republic formed as a conservative organization to defeat labor reform. It first targeted the Child Labor Amendment proposed to the Constitution. This successful attempt to defeat even the most basic labor reforms demonstrates how rich corporate and conservative interests in the United States can defeat labor reform. Understanding this is as central to our labor history as any victorious strike, if a whole lot less inspirational.
The people who met at Faneuil Hall in Boston on that date in 1922 to form the Sentinels of the Republic were largely wealthy. Its first president, pictured above, was Louis Coolidge, a former top aide to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and a shoe company executive that used child labor in its plants. I don’t believe he was related to Calvin Coolidge, then having recently been named Vice-President because he busted the Boston Police Strike as governor in 1919. The leaders of this group included leading newspapermen, politicians, lawyers, anti-suffragists, and textile capitalists. The Sentinels formed not specifically to fight child labor, but to fight all left-leaning reforms, using the typical perversions of the Constitution that we find in right-wing movements today. Basically, everything done to expand rights or help people out was a betrayal of the Framers, etc.
But the first battle they fought was against the Child Labor Amendment. I’ve written about that before, but in short, child labor was a horrible plague on the nation in the early 20th century. It stopped kids from going to school and getting an education and thus any hope for an easier life. It undermined the wages of adults. It cut against the growing maternal sentiments of middle-class politics. It had spawned the Consumers’ League led by Florence Kelley, among other reform movements. And so, in 1924, it moved forward to with a Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution that was quite simple. It read:
Section 1. The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.
Section 2. The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress
Well, this was enough to send the Sentinels of the Republic through the roof. What a violation of freedom! When Congress sent it to the states, they mobilized to defeat it. They used this idea of freedom from government interference as the core of the argument, claiming it would “take away the sovereign rights of the states and destroy local self-government” by allowing the government to subject “your children and your home to the inspection of a federal agent.” I think I need a shower.
Well, this stuff was effective. A key state in the Child Labor Amendment world was Massachusetts. It was not the state it is today. This is before the New Deal. The white ethnic-dominated Democratic Party that would long govern the state was still forming. Parts of the textile industry, which had long used child labor, still remained there. There was also a very strong anti-government conservatism that dominated the rural parts of the state and New England (which is why Vermont and Maine were the only states to vote for Alf Landon in 1936). It was also the home of some of the nation’s strongest unions and a significant amount of immigrant activism. So if the CLA was to pass, it was going to have to pass in Massachusetts. The Sentinels thus targeted the state legislature not to ratify it. They didn’t quite win a rejection, but they did convince the legislature to send it out to a plebiscite. And there, it was able to muster the state’s many conservative elements to defeat it at the ballot box. That included the Catholic Church, highly suspicious of any government intervention in the home and which had a lot of votes it could throw around. The final vote wasn’t even close. The CLA was defeated by a 697,563 to 241,461 margin. Ouch.
So the CLA lingered. It actually never had an expiration date on ratification. Heck, we could ratify it today. In fact, we should! So it did not succeed in the 20s. But then came the Great Depression and then the New Deal. A new era of labor activism was at hand. Unions could actually form and the government would make companies sit down and deal with them! Groups such as the Sentinels of the Republic were determined to defeat what they saw as the destruction of America. It was part of the larger coalition of anti-New Deal groups that laid the initial groundwork for the growth of the modern conservative movement.
Not surprisingly given the context, the Child Labor Amendment gained new life. The CLA still had value as a reform measure. But antifeminism would get in the way once again. We think of the feminist movement as primarily being opposed by men. But as Phyllis Schlafly would demonstrate decades later, this wasn’t true. Wasn’t in the 20s and 30s either. It was women who were often at the leadership of this, believing strongly an truly in a patriarchal system and being as politically conservative as their husbands. The government having a say over what went on in the home was therefore anathema to these women. In fact, the Sentinels would develop into an organization primarily concerned with defeating a feminist agenda. Unlike most conservatives, they worked closely with the Catholic Church, which gave them a lot of power in states such as Massachusetts.
So by the 1930s, the Republican Party was united against the Child Labor Amendment in a way it was not in 1924. Before Roosevelt could even really push for it, the Sentinels fought in 13 states to get it defeated in 1934 and they won all those battles. Even the American Bar Association openly opposed the amendment in 1935. In the aftermath, they ran into the buzzsaw that was Hugo Black, a man deeply committed to ending child labor in this country. Furious at this unprecedented lobbying effort, he launched an investigation into the Sentinels’ funding and then hauled them before his committee in the Senate for questioning. Like far-right organizations today, it was funded by millionaires doing nefarious work to destroy any reform in the nation. That included Alfred Sloan of GM and the DuPonts, already not friends of the New Deal. Plus it came out that the current president of the organization was a huge anti-Semite with lots of written evidence of it. So it fell apart by the late 30s in the fact of this disastrous publicity, just what these organizations never want.
But even though the Sentinels of the Republic would disappear, all these people would end up in other far right organizations seeking to stem the tide of labor reform and turn back the New Deal. Examining how these groups operated is key to understanding why the state of labor is so poor in the United States. Banning child labor should be something that unites us. But it is not and it never was. It’s groups like this, funded with big time resources, that convince people not to support things that are very much in their economic interests, not to mention the interests of their own children. Alas, welcome to the United States.
The Fair Labor Standards Act did end child labor in industrial work in 1938, but that left a lot of work arrangements unregulated, primarily those done by Black workers in the South, required to get the southern senators not to filibuster it to death. Yet, child labor remains far too common in the U.S. today, especially in agriculture. For example, this 2015 Human Rights Watch report exposes just how bad the child labor problem is in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. Of course, little to nothing changed after the story came out.
This post borrowed from Julia Bowes, “‘Every Citizen a Sentinel! Every Home a Sentry Box!’ The Sentinels of the Republic and the Gendered Origins of Free-Market Conservatism,” published in Modern American History in 2019.
This is the 409th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.