Submitted by Steven. on May 15, 2013

Visiting the United States in 1831, the French traveller Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed above all by the equality which marked life in America. The great majority of Americans were farmers working their own land, primarily for their own needs. Most of the rest were self-employed artisans, merchants, traders, and professionals. Other classes -employees and industrialists in the North, slaves and planters in the South-were relatively small. The great majority of Americans were independent and free from anybody's command.1

Yet the forces that were to undermine this equality-and to produce the mass strikes which are the subject of this book-were already visible. With sadness, Tocqueville noted "small aristocratic societies that are formed by some manufacturers in the midst of the immense democracy of our age."2 Like the aristocratic societies of former ages, this one tended to divide men into classes, made up of "some men who are very opulent and a multitude who are wretchedly poor,"3 With few means of escaping their condition.

Further, Tocqueville saw that production tended to become more and more centralized, for "when a workman is engaged every day upon the same details, the whole commodity is produced with greater ease, speed, and economy."4 Thus, "the cost of production of manufactured goods is diminished by the extent of the establishment in which they are made and by the amount of capital employed."5 The large, centralized companies naturally won out. This process shaped both the worker and the employer.

"When a workman is unceasingly and exclusively engaged in the fabrication of one thing, he ultimately does his work with singular dexterity; but at the same time he loses the general faculty of applying his mind to the direction of the work."6 Thus, "in proportion as the workman improves, the man is degraded. . . he no longer belongs to himself, but to the calling that he has chosen."7 But, Tocqueville argued, while "the science of manufacture lowers the class of workmen, it raises the class of masters,"8 until the employer more and more resembles the administrator of a vast empire.

Tocqueville believed that "the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest that ever existed in the world."9 And he concluded that "if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrates into the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter."10

Tocqueville's dire predictions soon proved all too true. Industry grew at an incredible rate. In the fifty years following the start of the Civil War, investment in manufacturing grew twelve-fold. Railroad mileage grew from 30,000 miles to more than 200,000. By the turn of the century, more than three-fourths of manufactured products came from factories owned by corporations and other associations of stockholders. In 1860, only one-sixth of the American people lived in cities of 8,000 or more; by 1900 it was one-third. The number of wage-earners, meanwhile, grew from 1.5 million to 5.5 million.

Looking back on how these changes had affected workers during his lifetime, a labor leader wrote in 1889-

With the introduction of machinery, large manufacturing establishments were erected in the cities and towns. Articles that were formerly made by hand, were turned out in large quantities by machinery; prices were lowered, and those who worked by hand found themselves competing with something that could withstand hunger and cold and not suffer in the least. The village blacksmith shop was abandoned, the road-side shoe shop was deserted, the tailor left his bench, and all together these mechanics [workers] turned away from their country homes and wended their way to the cities wherein the large factories had been erected. The gates were unlocked in the morning to allow them to enter, and after their daily task was done the gates were closed after them in the evening. Silently and thoughtfully, these men went to their homes. They no longer carried the keys of the workshop, for workshop, tools and keys be- longed not to them, but to their master. Thrown together in this way, in these large hives of industry, men became acquainted with each other, and frequently discussed the question of labor's rights and wrongs.11

Out of this experience, out of these discussions, workers concluded that they were no longer free and equal citizens; more and more they felt like wage slaves, able to live only by working for someone else, left to walk the streets unemployed when no employer would hire them. No longer possessing the keys to the workshop, they were left virtually helpless. Yet they possessed one weapon which gave them power - the strike. For without their labor, all the factories and offices, railroads and mines could produce nothing.

Strikes seem to have occurred ever since some people were forced to work for others; there are records of strikes by workers on the Great Pyramids of Egypt thousands of years ago. But until the end of the Civil War, strikes were relatively small in the United States. The great majority of workers were self-employed. They might protest by voting, by demonstrating, by rioting, even from time to time by armed rebellion, but they could not strike.

Thus our story starts a dozen years after the Civil War, with the Great Upheaval of 1877 -the first event to bring to the country's attention the vast new class of workers who possessed neither workshops nor farms, and thus had to work for those who did, the new class of industrial capitalists.

From the time of the Civil War, the U.S. government followed policies of immense benefit to the rising industrialists. Four key measures passed during the war set the pattern. In 1862, Congress gave a vast grant of land and loans to a group of promoters to build the first transcontinental railroad. The next year, Congress passed a national banking act which undermined the local banks and established a national banking system-essential to the new corporate order. By 1864, the tariff on foreign manufactured goods - designed to protect American producers from competition - reached forty-seven percent, and remained so high in the following decades that the government was often embarrassed to find it- self running a budget surplus. Also in 1864, Congress authorized employers to import foreign workers under contracts which forced them to work for the employer who imported them until their passage was paid off. Immigration provided a cheap labor force for industry; 28.5 million immigrants came to the United States from 1860 to 1920. It is little wonder that many contemporaries-and historians- have felt it was the industrial capitalists who really emerged the victors from the Civil War.

Railroads, factories and farms grew at breakneck speed in the years following the Civil War. The frontier moved steadily westward as one after another territory was opened to homesteaders- and land speculators. The railroads bribed Congressmen and received land grants the size of whole countries. The attention of the nation turned away from politics and toward the astonishing advance of industry. It seemed a "Gilded Age," and the magnates who amassed great fortunes and vast enterprises were widely viewed as the conquering heroes of a new industrial civilization.

The government established the conditions for economic growth but did little to cope with the consequences. Chaos resulted when private enterprisers used their control of the nation's resources to increase their own fortunes by any means necessary.

The result was an unorganized, disorderly society. The social institutions which today try to moderate social conflict, ease distress, and defuse discontent were virtually non-existent. Only those on whose backs the industrialists rode to power considered them not knights in armor but "robber barons."

Then the bubble burst. In September, 1873, the leading American banking house, Jay Cooke and Company, suddenly declared itself bankrupt. The stock market tumbled, and by the end of the month the Stock Exchange itself had closed its doors. In 1873 alone, 5,183 businesses worth over $200 million failed.

Depressions had been a regular feature of capitalist society since its start. But by 1877, depression had lasted longer than any time before in American history. For workers, conditions were quite desperate. Wages throughout industry had been cut more than twenty-five percent, below subsistence in many cases, while an estimated one million industrial workers were unemployed.

Large numbers of the unemployed hit the road looking for work, often travelling in bands of what became known as "tramps." The wealthier classes observed these conditions and trembled.

Only six years before, the workers of Paris had arisen, taken over the city by armed force, and established the famous Paris Commune. Now it was not only Europe that was haunted by the "spectre of communism"; a Workingman's Party, dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism, had arisen in America as well. Perhaps even more terrifying were the sallow, sullen faces of men, women and children, walking the streets with little in their stomachs and hardly a place to lay their heads. An English visitor found wealthy Americans "pervaded by an uneasy feeling that they were living over a mine of social and industrial discontent with which the power of the government, under American institutions, was wholly inadequate to deal: and that some day this mine would explode and blow society into the air."12

That explosion came with the Great Upheaval of 1877.

  • 1 libcom note: we feel it important to point out here that while this may have been the case for the majority of white men there were still huge gender and racial inequalities which are ignored here, for example the subjugation of women and the genocide of Native Americans.
  • 2 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America & (N.Y.: Vintage Edition) Vol. II, p. 170.
  • 3Ibid., p. 170.
  • 4Ibid., p. 168.
  • 5Ibid., p. 168.
  • 6Ibid., p. 168.
  • 7Ibid., p. 168-9.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 169.
  • 9Ibid., p. 171.
  • 10Ibid., p. 171.
  • 11Terence V. Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor 1859-1889 (Columbus, Ohio: Excelsior Publishing House, 1889), pp. 26-7.
  • 12 Goldwin Smith, "The Labour War in the United States," in The Contemporary Review, XXX (September 1877), p. 537, cited in Robert V. Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence (N.Y.: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1959), p. 26.