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  • Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class by Mark A. Lause
  • Frank Towers (bio)
Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class. By Mark A. Lause. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. Pp. 275. Cloth, $95.00; paper, $28.00.)

Writing a history of American labor in the Civil War era is a daunting task given the momentous changes wrought by war and emancipation and the division of the workforce by race, gender, skill, and ethnicity. Taking [End Page 454] up the challenge, Mark Lause interprets the Civil War as a defeat for the promise of a genuinely egalitarian and inclusive labor movement.

Civil War workers fought against not only slavery but also wage-paying employers and their government allies. Although workers shared a commitment to free labor, the “elasticity” of the term meant that no single agenda or organizing strategy guided their efforts (xiii). Lause views the question of how to fight for free labor as equally important as debates over its meaning. Confronted with systematic discrimination, unskilled, non-white, and female workers opted for radical measures like the strike, which relied on worker solidarity, whereas skilled white men who worried more about retaining existing privileges pursued a politics of respectability that emphasized moral suasion and alliances with politicians and bosses. The triumph of respectability at war’s end did lasting damage to the promise of free labor for all.

Northern workers “took up arms because they understood the importance of the conflict in shaping the future value of ‘free labor,’” and a “rolling strike of the slaves” in the South became “the great incontrovertible and irreversible fact of the war” (41, 57). While many slave-state trade union leaders left the Confederacy, northern unskilled workers—often recent immigrants—led strikes and draft protests. Compared to prewar militancy, these actions were larger, more violent, and exhibited greater “bitterness” (70).

Although fighting slavery, the United States government opposed the militant strategies pursued by slaves and unskilled immigrants. It “used ethnicity to conjure a difference between the respectable conduct and the riotous, violent and subversive means unworthy of how Americans did things” (80). Describing U.S. general William Rosecrans’s antilabor stance during his command of St. Louis, Lause argues that he “sounded no different than his Confederate counterparts at Richmond,” who summarily broke strikes and conscripted labor organizers (124).

Despite hostile treatment from the Lincoln administration, northern labor supported Republicans over the Democrats, who “did not speak the language of labor” (152). This alliance drew white workers toward political reform at the expense of more radical methods and broader solidarity. Partnering with Republican proponents of respectability “created a situation in which the leaders of the most successful and secure unions could become as invested as the employers in avoiding conflicts that might lead to strikes” (169–70).

Tracing a line from the wartime victory of respectability over militancy to Samuel Gompers’s American Federation of Labor, which concentrated on narrow questions of wages and hours and limited organizing to skilled [End Page 455] white men, Lause concludes that “American institutions shaped the kind of labor organizations that could behave in such a way as to cooperate in their own marginalization in the lives of the nation and its workers” (182).

Lause’s attempt to integrate the history of labor in the Union and the Confederacy has great potential, as does his big argument about strategy and the postwar trajectory of American labor. Unfortunately, the book leaves these as suggestive ideas rather than rigorously argued proofs. The analysis needs more primary source documentation and more engagement with recent secondary literature.

Despite the book’s claim to be a breakthrough in inclusive history, it focuses primarily on the elite of skilled white men active in trades unions, especially typographers. Printers had influence as communicators, but their numbers were smaller than those of the iron molders, shoemakers, miners, and other industrial craft workers who organized during the Civil War. A strike by the former irritated partisan newspaper editors, but collective action by the latter could cripple the war effort. Meanwhile, despite the book’s argument about political engagement, it says...


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