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Sweet Tyranny

Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture, and Imperial Politics

Kathleen Mapes

Publication Year: 2009

In this innovative grassroots to global study, Kathleen Mapes explores how the sugar beet industry transformed the rural Midwest by introducing large factories, contract farming, and foreign migrant labor. Identifying rural areas as centers for modern American industrialism, Mapes contributes to an ongoing reorientation of labor history from urban factory workers to rural migrant workers. She engages with a full range of individuals, including midwestern family farmers, industrialists, eastern European and Mexican immigrants, child laborers, rural reformers, Washington politicos, and colonial interests. Engagingly written, Sweet Tyranny demonstrates that capitalism was not solely a force from above but was influenced by the people below who defended their interests in an ever-expanding imperialist market.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

front cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. viii-

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pp. ix-xi

Over the many years it took to research, write, and revise this book, I have benefited from the generous support of a number of institutions and individuals. These acknowledgments represent merely a token of my deep appreciation. The History Department at the...

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pp. 1-12

A year after Congress passed the 1901 Platt Amendment, dramatically restricting Cuban sovereignty, the U.S. House of Representatives convened special hearings to debate what kind of trading rights to award its southern neighbor.1 While dozens...

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1. Rural Industrialization and Imperial Politics

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pp. 13-38

In 1899, USDA sugar beet investigator Charles Saylor wrote a celebratory account of the newly emerging domestic sugar beet industry. He proclaimed: “[H]ere is a chance in the sugar industry to see the factory and the farm side by side. . . . Here is a chance to...

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2. Contract Farming in Rural Michigan

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pp. 39-64

In December 1899, Michigan sugar beet industrialists Gilbert H. Lee of Caro, W. L. Churchill of Bay City, and N. H. Stewart of Kalamazoo traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, to meet with other sugar beet industrialists from across the country. They had gathered to organize...

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pp. 65-95

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3. Family Farms, Child Labor, and Migrant Families

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pp. 96-121

Company officials and farmers, who spent much of the first decade and a half of this industry battling over the relationship between the factory and the field, nonetheless found themselves in agreement on one fundamental issue: the need to find an appropriate...

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4. Farmers and the Great War

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pp. 122-142

After the United States formally declared war in April 1917, Michigan’s rural population eagerly joined the war effort. Many small towns sponsored Liberty Loan Drives and abandoned German-language classes in their schools.1 The Gleaner, the most popular...

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5. Immigrant Labor and the Guest Worker Program

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pp. 143-165

Soon after the United States formally entered World War I, the Michigan Sugar Company came up with a plan to convince eastern European migrant families to stay in the countryside year-round. It would erect “modest but comfortable houses” near the factories...

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6. Mexican Immigrants and immigration Debate

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pp. 166-185

Two years after passing the historic 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which severely curtailed the number of southern and eastern Europeans coming into the United States and made it virtually impossible for immigrants from Asia and Africa to enter at all, the U.S. House...

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7. Child Labor Reformers and Industrial Agriculture

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pp. 186-214

During the same years that sugar beet industrialists sparred with immigration restrictionists over the growing numbers of Mexicans working in Michigan’s sugar beet fields, they also faced criticism of their labor practices from an altogether different source—child labor...

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8. Remaking Imperialism and the Industrial Countryside

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pp. 215-240

A year after Michigan sugar beet industrialist T. G. Gallagher traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the restriction of Mexican immigration, he journeyed to the nation’s capital yet again. This time, however, his concern was not with keeping the door open to Mexican...

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9. The Politics of Migrant Labor

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pp. 241-246

As the Great Depression spread across the Midwest in early October 1930, Detroit resident W. H. Davis took pen in hand to write a letter to Henry Hull, the Commissioner General of Immigration. In the letter, Davis complained about Mexicans as the root cause of unemployment...

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pp. 241-246

In 1937 Paul S. Taylor, the sociologist who had spent two decades interviewing and writing about migrant workers in the United States, proclaimed: “Migratory labor is a proletarian class, not a people with a developed culture. It is forced to till the soil for..


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pp. 247-300


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pp. 301-313

back cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252091803
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252034367

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: The Working Class in American History

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Migrant agricultural laborers -- Middle West -- History -- 20th century.
  • Child migrant agricultural laborers -- Middle West -- History -- 20th century.
  • Agricultural laborers, Foreign -- Middle West -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rural industries -- Middle West -- History -- 20th century.
  • Industrialization -- Middle West -- History -- 20th century.
  • Agriculture and politics -- Middle West -- History -- 20th century.
  • Agriculture -- Economic aspects -- Middle West -- History -- 20th century.
  • Middle West -- Rural conditions.
  • United States -- Emigration and immigration -- Government policy -- History -- 20th century.
  • Imperialism -- History -- 20th century.
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