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The Labor Question in America

Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age

Rosanne Currarino

Publication Year: 2011

Rosanne Currarino traces the struggle to define the nature of democratic life in an era of industrial strife. As Americans confronted the glaring disparity between democracy's promises of independence and prosperity and the grim realities of economic want and wage labor, they asked, "What should constitute full participation in American society? What standard of living should citizens expect and demand?" Currarino traces the diverse efforts to answer these questions, from the fledgling trade union movement to contests over immigration, from economic theory to popular literature, from legal debates to social reform. The contradictory answers that emerged--one stressing economic participation in a consumer society, the other emphasizing property ownership and self-reliance--remain pressing today as contemporary scholars, journalists, and social critics grapple with the meaning of democracy in postindustrial America.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: The Working Class in American History


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. 4-4

Copyright Page

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pp. 5-7

Table of Contents

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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-xi

Mr. Micawber’s famous equation of happiness with freedom from debt applies mainly to personal finance, for in many other aspects of life, debt may be a happy thing. The debts I have incurred while working on this project are many and great, and they remind me over and again of the pleasure of scholarly work, the real...

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Introduction. The Labor Question in the Late Nineteenth Century

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pp. 1-10

Could democracy survive in industrial America? This was, in essence, the labor question of the late nineteenth century. In earlier times, democracy’s meaning—political equality among white men—had been clearer, or so thought Americans in the postbellum years. But by 1886, as J. L. Spalding, the bishop of Peoria...

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1. The Cant of Economy: Narratives of Depression in the 1870s

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pp. 11-35

The “labor question” became a question during the depression of the 1870s. It became a question in part because of the depression’s effects on labor, because of workers’ real and highly visible suffering, because of high unemployment, and because of the widespread distress of the manufacturing industry. But the labor question...

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2. Meat versus Rice: Anti-Chinese Rhetoric and the Problem of Wage Work

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pp. 36-59

On December 11, 1878, Isaac Cohen, an unemployed machinist and labor agitator from Washington, D.C., volunteered to give his views on the “current depression in business and labor” before New York Democrat Abram Hewitt’s investigating committee, now returned from New York. The depression, Cohen insisted, could...

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3. The Value of Wages: Historical Economics and the Meanings of Value

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pp. 60-85

In the mid-1880s, economist Henry Carter Adams received a nervous letter from his mother. She worried that with so much being written on the labor question, “all would be said” before her son’s book came out. Adams replied teasingly, “What a foolish little mother you are! This question we are rapidly coming on...

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4. "Labor Wants More!": The AFL and the Idea of Economic Liberty

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pp. 86-113

Simon Nelson Patten never fully worked out his insistence that the “right to share in the social surplus” was the “new basis of civilization.” Given more to broad pronouncements and rhetorical flourishes than proscriptive tracts, he left the details hazy and vague. By the 1890s, however, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had...

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5. The End of the Labor Question

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pp. 114-145

In Twenty Years at Hull House, Jane Addams wryly recounts her disastrous meeting with Leo Tolstoy. Addams had long revered the Russian’s writings on social reform and made a visit to his farm a central part of her 1896 trip to Europe. But the encounter did not quite unfold as she had imagined. She had hoped “to find...

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Afterword. Residues of the Labor Question

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pp. 146-151

The Progressive Era’s expansion of the labor question from a struggle over the means of production to a quest for economic democracy has been roundly criticized for at least fifty years. Selig Perlman, one of the originators of labor history, claimed that the American Federation of Labor (and by extension other proponents...


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pp. 153-202


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pp. 203-210

Back Cover

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pp. 234-234

E-ISBN-13: 9780252090103
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252035708

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: The Working Class in American History
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OCLC Number: 841172530
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Labor Question in America

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Working class -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Working class -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • Labor -- United States -- History.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1865-1918.
  • Citizenship -- United States.
  • Democracy -- United States.
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