Overview. In the colonies' struggle for independence, workers and their interests played an important role in the success of the revolutionary movement. One example most people are aware of is the Boston Massacre. This event had roots in the unhappiness of Boston ropemakers over competition from off duty British soldiers who sought casual work to supplement their wages. What began as a verbal confrontation between one ropemaker and a soldier moved to a confrontation between workers and sentries and then ended as a battle cry for the revolution. Further evidence of the importance of common people in the movement is the success of Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, which was written for the masses and not the upper class. The tremendous sales (over 150,000 and three printings) indicate the level of interest the average person had in the emerging ideology of independence. During this period people continued to work and there were instances of workers uniting to better their condition. The involvement of the worker and the common person truly made this more than a rebellion into a revolution.
Labor Related Issues of the Period.
- Support of Adam Smith's free trade ideology grew. Workers used this to fight wartime monopolies and price controls.
- Most soldiers were commoners, eg. farmers, slaves, apprentices, laborers, fishermen, artisans and women
- Growth of political organization and action.
- Ideally the Revolution creates a government and society based on equality of free men.
- In reality the Revolution maintains an elitist system that favors the educated upper class.
- Slavery deliberately not addressed by the Declaration of Independence.
- Slavery continued as an institution.
Labor Related Events of the Period.
- Boston Massacre precipitated by conflict between ropeworkers and British soldier.
- Carpenters dressed as Mohawk Indians help lead the Boston Tea Party.
- United Company of Philadelphia for Promoting American Manufacturing employs 400 women under one roof. Points toward future industrialization.
- Common Sense published throughout colonies.
- Colonial delegates sign Declaration of Independence in Carpenter's Hall built by Carpenter's Company of Philadelphia.
- The Wealth of Nations published which promotes laissez-faire economics, individualism yet opposes monopolies and mercantilism.
- British defeated at Saratoga saves New England from British.
- New York City journeyman printers unite and gain increase in wages. They then disband.
- Their defeat at Yorktown by Washington's army proves to British they cannot win.
- Treaty of Paris signed. England recognizes American independence.
- New York City shoemakers strike for three weeks.
- Printers in Philadelphia walk out to protest a wage reduction. Result: Gained a $6 a week minimum wage.
- Constitution counts five slaves as three people for Congressional representation.
free trade, independence, laissez faire, monopoly, strike, minimum wage, capitalism, equality (1776 version)
Integrating Labor History into Effective Teaching of the Period.
- Have students study Adam Smith's theories in his Wealth of Nations to see his real intent for capitalism.
- Investigate the Boston Massacre so students can discover the labor roots of the conflict. See Who Built America, v.1 for a short version of the story.
- Investigate the letters of John and Abigail Adams to see the limits of independence and rationale behind it. See The Feminist Papers, Alice Rossi, Ed., 1973.
- Investigate the Constitution to understand the limits of equality in early America.