The working class in the US Civil War

Submitted by Anon on 21 October, 2005 - 5:40

By Sacha Ismail

In my first article, I described how the bourgeoisie of the Northern United States formed a coalition with other social layers to defeat a pro-slavery rebellion and destroy slavery in the US South. This article looks at the US working class during that period.

The making of the American working class

It was only when the Napoleonic Wars and the Anglo-American war of 1812-15 cut off the import of manufactured goods from Europe that the US’s industrial revolution really began.

US factories lacked the reservoir of cheap labour, made up of dispossessed peasants and ruined handicraft workers, which Britain had had. The US North was still mainly a society of small independent producers — small farmers and craft workers. The South was a slave plantation economy.

Factories were mostly in outlying and rural areas with access to water power, and were isolated from the older, city-based working class. Divisions by origin, religious affiliation, and native-immigrant also retarded the creation of a labour movement.

The largest contingents of immigrants came from Germany and Ireland. Many of the Germans were skilled workers. But all the Eastern seaboard cities came to have large populations of impoverished Irish labourers and their families, living just above the hunger line when there were jobs and below it when there weren’t.

There was a small free black population in the North, and a relatively small class of wage workers in the South.

The class struggle

After 1825 city workers on the Eastern seaboard created unions in various trades, followed by city-wide union federations and then inter-city links. In 1827 a carpenters’ strike in Philadelphia for a ten-hour day spread to other crafts and resulted in the formation of a Mechanics Union of Trade Associations, and not long after similar associations were formed in dozens of Eastern and Midwestern cities.

During the 1830s and 1840s, the labour movement sought to win better working conditions and wages — for instance a ten hour day — as well as democratic reforms such as extension of the franchise, an end to religious qualifications for officeholding, free public education and an end to imprisonment for debt.

The 1840s brought setbacks. Employers reduced wages, while the cost of living in New York rose by 50 percent between 1843 and 1850. The radical New York journalist Horace Greeley calculated the minimum necessary budget for a family of five at $10.37 a week. The majority of skilled workers earned between $4 and $6.

As yet, trade unions were not yet firmly enough established to survive during economic crises such as financial panics and periods of depression. The panic of 1857 destroyed most unions in the US. Nonetheless, the labour movement did not disappear totally. The ten-hour day had been fairly widely established by the start of the Civil War.

By the last two years of the conflict, the massive expansion of industry and reduction of unemployment resulting from the war effort, and the pride many workers took in their role defending the Union, brought a revival in working-class confidence and organisation. Citywide trades councils reappeared as early as 1863, and 1865 they existed in New York, Chicago, Albany, Buffalo, Troy, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Detroit, St Louis, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Seven national unions had been formed by the end of the war, climbing to eighteen in August 1866, when sixteen of them met to form the National Labor Union.

The “irrepressible conflict” and working-class politics

The workers were offered nothing directly by the anti-slavery Republican Party platform, though the industrial capitalists were offered tariffs, development of railways and so on, and the small farmers, expansion of free settlement in the West through the Homestead Act. But workers of all political views rallied to the Northern cause. Some unions organised their members and volunteered as military units, posting “closed for the duration” signs on their headquarters. Despite the substantially pre-industrial nature of US society, 42.1 percent of soldiers in the Union army had been labourers or mechanics in civilian life.

Part of the reason for this sympathy to the Union was that Northern workers regarded the United States, whatever its faults, as the most democratic country in the world. They had already won many of the basic democratic rights that workers in Europe were still struggling to establish. Moreover, the North was seen as and to some extent really was a society where people could rise through the social ranks. Many workers had indeed become independent farmers, shopkeepers, small employers and even industrialists. The hope of one day “going West” to become a small farmer was one of the reasons why so many workers supported the battle to keep slavery out of the Western territories.

The idea that every adult male should own property and be an independent producer retained a powerful grip on wide layers of the American working class.

Particularly among the German workers of the Midwest, whose participation in the Union army had kept the border state of Missouri in Northern hands, there were radicals led by refugees from the 1848 revolution, including followers of Marx and Engels. However, the “irrepressible conflict” between slavery and free labour, and not the nascent battle between capital and labour, absorbed most of the political energy of these few pioneer socialists. There was little in terms of independent working-class politics.

In the 1820s, Workingmen’s Parties had appeared in Philadelphia, New York and various parts of New England. Where they did not dwindle to nothing, these formations were usually coopted by the Democratic Party, which used anti-capitalist demagogy to tie small farmers and many of the poorest urban workers to the interests of the Southern slavocracy. Irish workers in the Eastern cities were organised by the racist Democratic Party machines, which incited them against anti-slavery forces and prevented the development of any genuine class consciousness.

The real attitude of the “Democratic” hierarchy to the working class was summed up by South Carolina Senator James Hammond in March 1858: “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life... such a class you must have, or you would not have the other class which leads progress, civilisation and refinement... Your whole hireling class of manual laborers and ‘operatives’, as you call them, are essentially slaves. The difference between you and us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated... ”

The cutting edge of political radicalism in 1850s America was the struggle over slavery. Many of the most advanced workers were sympathetic to the campaign against slavery and the political organisations which grew out of it (the Free Soil Party and the Republican Party), but, unlike the radical political activists, they tended to see it as a lower priority than the struggle for their own immediate interests. Even the most radical abolitionists were mostly bourgeois in origin and outlook.

The workers’ and anti-slavery movements remained sharply separate, not least because many bourgeois abolitionists were hostile to the labour movement. For instance, at a mass meeting of the New England Labor Reform League, held in Boston in 1847, anti-slavery activists packed the hall in order to vote down a motion calling for the abolition of both slavery and wage slavery, and passed a substitute resolution that chattel slavery must be abolished “before than elevation sought for by the labouring classes can be effected.”

Later a small number of abolitionists became sympathetic to workers’ struggles, but the majority of even the most radical Radical Republicans chose their class interest over democratic and humanitarian principles.

Class struggle and racism

Workers’ enthusiasm for the war cooled with a worsening of living standards. Real wages dropped drastically. By 1863, the average wage was only 76 percent, and by 1865 66 percent, of the 1860 figure. Meanwhile the Republican Party machine enjoyed an orgy of war profiteering and corruption. Workers and soldiers were paid in depreciating paper money, while government bondholders were guaranteed payment of interest in gold. There was a wave of strikes to maintain living standards.

Various states passed anti-strike legislaton and in a number of cases troops were used against strikers. Employers used immigrant workers and black workers as strikebreakers. Those measures were supported by the bourgeois Radical Republicans. They considered harsh discipline for the Northern working class, whose struggles they saw as disruptive and even treacherous to the war effort, to be a logical couple with the harsh measures they advocated against the Southern slavocracy.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party press played on the fears of white workers that freed black people would stream North to drive down wages and take jobs. Packinghouse workers in Chicago threatened to strike against plans to introduce black workers into their industry. The spring of 1863 saw fighting between Irish and black dockers on the waterfronts of cities including Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, New York and Boston.

Another source of grievance for Northern workers was the military draft. When Congress introduced conscription in March 1863, it included a provision allowing exemption for those able to pay $300 — a trifle to the wealthy, but far beyond the means of most workers. When the authorities put the draft into operation in July, working-class frustration exploded in a spontaneous uprising in New York city.

Following attempts to disperse a spontaneous strike wave and demonstration with gunfire, battles between workers and police spread across New York, bringing large parts of the city under the controlled of an armed working class. According to some reports, there were at times as many as 10,000 armed workers parading. The movement vented its anger largely on ruling-class and state-associated targets such as police stations and the homes of the rich. It ended only when 10,000 troops were withdrawn from the Southern front to crush it, with around a thousand deaths and many more injuries.

The New York uprising was the high point of class struggle during the war — but for new York’s black community, it was a pogrom, with twenty black people killed, many more attacked and beaten and a hastily evacuated black orphanage looted and burned. In the confused consciousness of many Irish American workers, exploiting capitalists were amalgamated with Republican abolitionists and black people as one threatening force. The responsibility lay with the city’s capitalists, who had used black strikebreakers and supported the Democratic campaign to divert the hostility of white workers away from the rich. There was no organised socialist tendency in the working class to counter the ideological poison of racism.

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