New England’s Industrial Slaves
Apparently missing the brutal industrial slavery that flourished among them, New England abolitionists, “looking about with an eye long-trained to detect sinners,” began a moral crusade against the aristocrats of the American South who they imagined were mistreating their own laborers. All the ills of Northern society, social, agricultural and financial, were found to originate with the evil slaveholders.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
New England’s Industrial Slaves
“[The] first significant result of the coming of finance-industrial capitalism to [New England] in the years between 1815 and 1844, was the rise of a new and powerful group of business leaders, and the creation of a new and uniquely dependent body of workers.
A decline in commerce made capital available and scattered cotton mills about wherever water power could be found. Profits soared. Successful groups . . . bought up power sites, built machine shops, laid out and built whole factory towns, speculated in lands, projected canals and railroads, and found use for their surplus capital in banking and insurance.
[The Northern merchants] harsh old Calvinistic beliefs gave way to more rational and dignified ones, and their political needs found expression in the conservative doctrines of the Whig party. A new aristocracy of growing wealth and power had come into being.
The young folks who came down from the country to work in the mills soon learned that their move meant . . . Long hours . . . in a poorly ventilated, lint-filled room spent at a single task . . . They also learned that bitter competition between factories in period of depression meant longer hours, more spindles to tend, and reduced wages. To protest or to strike brought lockouts and black lists. By 1844 most New England girls had chosen the latter course, and French Canadian and Irish girls had taken their places.
Workers looked “round them upon the princely palaces and gaudy equipages of the rich” who consumed the fruits of the poor man’s labor without adding to “the common stock a grain of wheat or a blade of grass.”
And when the right to organize was denied by the courts, workers solemnly proclaimed that “the freemen of the North are now on a level with the slaves of the South, with no other privilege than laboring, that drones may fatten on your life blood.”
Sympathy for the workers was [intense]. “There is not a State’s prison or house of correction in New England where the hours of labor are so long, the hours for meals so short, and the ventilation so neglected as in the cotton mills with which I am acquainted,” wrote Dr. Josiah C. Curtis in his report to the American Medical Association.
“Where is the humanity,” asked another. “It is swallowed up in gain – for the almighty dollar, and for this, poor girls are enslaved and kept in a state little better than machinery, [but when they become unable to work they] are laid to one side and new [human] machinery procured.”
And what became of the girl who was laid aside? The Daily Democrat tells us that “while those who reaped the profits” dropped “their heads on the cologne-scented handkerchiefs on prayer and thanksgiving every Sabbath day,” the poor mill-girl came “to Boston to die in the brothel.”
“ . . . At the North, the master has a lash more potent than the whipthong to stimulate the energies of his white slaves: fear of want.” And because the Northern worker did not see his chains, he was none the less a slave.
As one man put it: “When capital has gotten thirteen hours of labor daily out of a being it can get nothing more. It would be a very poor speculation in an industrial point of view to own the [laborers], for the trouble and expense of providing for times of sickness and old-age would more than counterbalance the difference between the price of wages and the expense of boarding and clothing . . . “
“Wages,” added Orestes Brownson, “is a cunning device of the devil for the benefit of the tender conscience, who would retain all the advantages of the slave system, without the expense, trouble and odium of being slaveholders.”
(The Civil War in the Making, Avery O. Craven, LSU Press, 1959, excerpts, pp. 9-16)