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Overview: This was a significant period of reform in American history. Emerson and Thoreau were contemplating the essentials of life and William Lloyd Garrison founded the abolition movement. Out of this climate came the ten-hour movement. The ten-hour movement achieved legislative success in several states for the ten-hour day. However these laws contained one loophole which employers used. All these laws allowed employees to contract for longer hours if they wanted. Employers manipulated this to apply to all workers and those who refused were fired and/or blacklisted. The presence of an eager labor pool, caused by immigration, weakened employee's bargaining power on this and other issues.

Labor Related Issues of the Period

  • The threat of conspiracy lawsuits is lifted by the reversal of previous court decisions in Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842).
  • Growth of the Ten Hour movement and subsequent passage of ten-hour laws in several states.
  • Land reform movements called for the free distribution of the public domain to help cure labor ills.
  • In the 1830s children under 16 made up about one-third of the New England labor force.
  • Manufacturers had earned a strong voice in determining the nation's destiny along with agricultural and commercial interests.
  • Reform organizations seek a wide range of changes from abolition to child labor restrictions to the ten-hour day.
  • Women's labor organizations increased its voice and militancy.

Labor Related Events of the Period

Birth of American abolition movement when The Liberator published by William. L. Garrison.
Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Virginia, he was later killed and executed.
In New York City, 1600 tailoresses go on strike for two months over wages and lose.
Workingmen's Ticket is a political party formed of men and women to promote labor ideology.
The National Trades Union formed in New York City. The first attempt at a national labor federation.
The Factory Girls' Association is formed in Lowell and go on strike over working conditions and wages.
800 women go on strike over the right to organize and wage reductions in Dover, New Hampshire.
Geneva shoemakers tried and convicted for conspiracy. See below.
The National Cooperative Association of Cordwainers, the first national union of a specific trade, was founded in New York City.
A convention of mechanics, farmers, and workingmen met in Utica, NY. The wrote a Declaration of Rights which opposed bank notes, paper money, arbitrary power of the courts, and called for legislation to guarantee labor the right to organize to increase wages. They formed the Equal Rights Party to be free of existing party control.
Lowell girls go on strike again over working conditions and wages.
Panic of 1837 puts an end to the National Trades Union and most other unions.
President Jackson declares ten hour day in Philadelphia Navy Yard to quell discontent caused by Panic of 1837.
One-third of the nation's workers were unemployed due to the economic hard times.
Ten hour day without reduction in pay proclaimed by President Van Buren for all federal employees on public works.
In Commonwealth v. Hunt, the Massachusetts Supreme Court rules that labor unions, as such, are not illegal conspiracies.
Connecticut and Massachusetts pass laws prohibiting children from working over ten hours per day.
200 delegates form New England Workingmen's Association to fight for the ten-hour day.
Female workers in five cotton mills in Allegheny, Pennsylvania strike for the ten hour day. They are supported by workers in Lowell, Mass. and Manchester, New Hampshire.
First professional teacher's association is created in Massachusetts.
Sarah Bagley helps form the Female Labor Reform Association (an auxiliary of the New England Workingmen's Association) in Lowell, Mass. to work for a ten-hour day.
New Hampshire is the first state to make the ten hour day the legal workday.
Child labor law in Pennsylvania makes twelve the minimum age for workers in commercial occupations.
Pennsylvania passes a ten hour day law. When employers violate it women mill workers riot and attack the factory gates with axes.
Compromise of 1850 perpetuates slavery and the sectional debates between North and South.

Important Concepts

abolition, panic (economic), ten-hour day

Integrating Labor History into Effective Teaching of the Period.

Debate the arguments in the Geneva shoemakers' case of 1835.

  • Union Defense- Without the union the workers are powerless. "You forbid these men that union which alone can enable them to resist the oppressions of avarice....You deprive them of the means and opportunity of learning the rights and duties which they are to exercise as citizens."
  • New York State Supreme Court Chief Justice Savage- The union is guilty of "a statutory offence because such practice was injurious to trade and commerce."

Note- The above is from Philip S. Foner's History of the Labor Movement in the United States: From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor. (New York, International Publishers,1947) pp. 154-5. Foner found the quotes in John R. Commons' Documentary History of American Industrial Society, vol. IV.

Lesson 4: Slavery.

Divide your class into three groups.

  • One group will argue for the continuation and extension of slavery.
  • Another group will oppose them.
  • The third group will serve as a panel which must prepare ten questions for each side to answer.

Provide the two documents from the Lesson 4 handout. Give the pro-slavery team the opinion stated by Professor Dew and the opposing side the document from the Phalanx. Require that some students argue from a purely economic and labor point of view. Students should note how the northern workers and manufacturers felt that slave labor was unfair competition and that the extension of slave labor would not increase markets to sell their produced goods.

Assign points based on participation and students ability to stay within their role. The winning group should be determined by the panel who must give sound reasons for their selection. The panel will earn points based on their completion of tasks and their choice of winners and reasons for that choice.

Lesson 5: Problems facing workers

Use the documents included in Lesson 5 handouts for student study. This lesson will ask students to discover the problems workers faced during the 1830s and 1840s.

Pair students off and give one student the Declaration of Rights (1836), and one The Auction System for homework or classwork.. The pair will then make a joint statement, in their own words, on their findings about the problems facing workers at this time.

Lesson 6: Ten Hour Day.

Using the 1840 proclamation of a ten-hour day for some federal workers, students will make an assumption on the long range benefits of Van Buren's executive order for all workers.

Lesson 7: Lowell.

Use the primary sources included in Lesson 7 handouts. Break your class into groups of four and give each student in the group a different document to read for homework. Each student must then prepare a half page summary of conditions at the Lowell Mills with a list of specific details to present to his group the next day. The group's goal is to prepare their own statement on conditions at Lowell. It is important for the group to synthesize the information from the individual documents and express their findings in their own words.

"And I long to see the day when Labor will have the destiny of the nation in her own hands and she will stand as a united force and show the world what the workers can do." --- Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, 1830-1930

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