The Labor Question in America
Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: University of Illinois Press
Table of Contents
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...
Introduction. The Labor Question in the Late Nineteenth Century
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...
1. The Cant of Economy: Narratives of Depression in the 1870s
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...
2. Meat versus Rice: Anti-Chinese Rhetoric and the Problem of Wage Work
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...
3. The Value of Wages: Historical Economics and the Meanings of Value
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...
4. "Labor Wants More!": The AFL and the Idea of Economic Liberty
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...
5. The End of the Labor Question
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...
Afterword. Residues of the Labor Question
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...