I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

Workers, Farmers, and Immigrants at the Turn of the Century

David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987). 

Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). 

John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985). 

David Montgomery is credited with helping to found the field of “New Labor History.” This labor history, instead of focusing on government labor policy or political and capitalist reactions to labor issues, focuses on the individual workers and their personal experiences. Montgomery, who worked in the labor system and was involved in union activity, displays a perceivable sympathy for the working-class and a level of mistrust in regards to the American capitalist system. “Modern America had been created over its workers’ protests, even though every step in its formation had been influenced by the activities, protests, and proposals that had sprung from working-class life,” he writes. Montgomery views labor history as a continuous cycle of temporary worker triumph followed by the development of even tougher obstacles on the part of employers.  

The new labor history was significantly influenced by the preceding and parallel upsurge of social history within the profession, and was particularly sensitive to the inclusion of women and minorities in the revamped labor narratives. In addition to government and policy reports, Montgomery examines firsthand accounts and other primary documents such as union meeting minutes to paint a more down-to-earth portrait of the labor movement in Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, The State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. However, Fall of the House of Labor is not a study in Montgomery portrays the victimization of a class of homogenous workers. Montgomery argues against the concept that there was an accord amongst these workers that enables for the analysis of a “voice of the working-class.” Instead, Montgomery argues that the working-class consisted of many differing voices that were at times in agreement and at other times in complete dissention. One of the greatest inequalities amongst workers was that of wage, some making up to four times as much as others.  

Additionally, Fall of the House of Labor focuses on the experience of those that stood in the middle ground of labor disputes, the working-class activists who were able to organize and lead their fellow workers into labor activism. Montgomery argues that other histories ignore these individuals. Histories that drive the focus from the bottom-up typically focus only on the wage workers, and top-down histories only focus on the industry barons and policy makers. Examination of these central figures is particularly illuminating, according to Montgomery, because they often represented the embodiment and practice of ethical norms that originated outside of work and took official from within the workplace.  

Aside from human relationships, the changing form and occupation of these individuals effectively traces the evolution of industrial capitalism. During the late nineteenth century, these middlemen were typically craftsmen and other skilled workers, who had a degree of control over the mechanical and social workings of their place of employment. Their extra responsibility made them obvious individuals to which to turn when workplace conditions became unsuitable. This role became even more important when workplaces turned into massive factories, such as steel mills, where worker voices often were choked by the immense capitalist structures. At the turn of the century when the Efficiency Movement, led by Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management, swept through industrial America, increased specialization became to overrun the industrial workplaces. It was no longer necessary for individuals, such as craftsmen, to have an understanding of the entire manufacturing process. Instead, one merely had to know how to run the machine and make the piece to which one was assigned. In order to ensure order, those at the top placed increasing pressure on the masses to behave and accept their role in the machine. These are just a few of the changes to which working-class activists had to adapt.  

Montgomery’s analysis of individual groups of workers such as the dock workers and the coal miners are the strongest parts of Montgomery’s narrative, largely because they enable the close analysis of Montgomery’s other main contention. This contention is that the class consciousness that defined these individuals was prevalent and sustained both at work and at home. For instance, the solidarity of miners was strengthened by the support of the women at home. These women created an atmosphere and home economy that became the cornerstones of the miner’s existence. Montgomery also gives due attention to those women that entered the workforce themselves. Similar to the African American women in Jacqueline Jones’ Labor or Love, Labor of Sorrow, the women of the working-class had to endure the twin prejudices of class and gender subordination. Despite having earned wages for themselves, these women were limited to gender specific industry positions and were usually beholden to family obligations rather than individual ambitions. Indeed, the mainstay of worker life was their connection to their family and neighborhoods. The workers may come from completely different backgrounds, but their commonality was their commitment to democracy. 

In A Final Promise, Frederick Hoxie portrays European immigrants as being more easily assimilated and accepted into American society than Native Americans due to their relative similarities, largely race and religion, to the dominant American population. Montgomery, on the other hand, seems to refute this argument. He contends that these immigrants were considered to be drifting, inassimilable bearers of political and social corruption. John Bodnar suggests that immigrant workers did actively fight assimilation at times. They found it hard to cooperate with American workers and those of other ethnicities, and thus made it almost impossible to create working-class unity. Additionally, Bodnar points out that they often fought complete integration into American society by way of religion and ethnic schools. However, when labor conditions threatened the nuclear home, immigrants were willing to transcend both ethnic and skill boundaries in order to gain social change, Bodnar argues. 

In The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in America, Bodnar observes relatively the same connection between the economy and worker/immigrant life that Montgomery points out, but instead of it being a background theme, Bodnar places the relationship front and center. “The human relationships structured by commodity production in large collective enterprises devoted to private gain generated bondings and antagonisms that were…the daily experience of everyone involved,” (i) Montgomery comments. Similarly, Bodnor contends that it was not a connection to the past or an obsession with the future that drove immigrants, but rather the ephemeral necessity to contend with the ever-changing challenges that capitalism threw their way. The need to survive and protect one’s kin group drove the actions of these individuals.  

Bodnar places himself in a very specific role in historiography. Prior histories of immigrants had come to one of two conclusions: either immigrants were the downtrodden victims of the false promises of the American dream or the shining examples of the possibilities for upward mobility in this very same dream. In either depiction, Bodnar argues, immigrants are seen to be moving upon a linear track from pre-industrial, agricultural proletarianism to modern participants in industrial society. Like Montgomery’s treatment of workers, and perhaps even more akin to Sandra Myre’s argument in Westering Women, Bodnar contends that the immigrant experience was much more complex and varying. Like Myres, though much more convincingly, Bodnar rejects the black and white categorization of individuals as victims or victors. Bodnar, like Patricia Nelson Limerick, who in The Legacy of Conquest criticizes the fragmentation of western history, also takes issue with social history’s trend to splinter the immigrant history in the preceding few decades. Histories that focus on specific ethnic groups and their personal experiences fail to give the movement a cohesive, overarching analysis. By looking at Bodnar’s sources it seems that he took these divisive studies and melded them into one coherent synthesis.  

Key to Bodnar’s argument is the assertion that immigrants were not arriving in the United States without any conception or experience with capitalism. On the contrary, the reason that they were immigrating was due to the twin forces of increased population and capitalism in their home countries. Bodnar shows that these individuals were emigrating from their particular regions due to a lack of available land and industrial occupation alternatives. These individuals were also not the impoverished, demoralized souls portrayed in many histories, but rather were usually literate, middle-class citizens. Those that were severely poor usually did not have the means to leave their conditions, and rich people had no incentive to leave. This act of leaving their homeland was also not a brash whim of fancy, but rather a carefully weighed decision.  

Similar to the domestic experience of other American workers, as portrayed in The Fall of the House of Labor, Bodnar’s immigrants used their deep kinship network before and after their migration. Most immigrants, having been in contact with family and friends already in the country, knew exactly where they were going and often already had jobs that they landed through networking. Once settled, immigrants relied heavily on a family economy, in which every member contributed to the welfare of the household as a whole. Cooperation was highly valued. However, Bodnar points out that this family system was not always easy and often led to disagreements and tension. Bodnar also refutes the idea that the immigrants, like the workers, could ever be considered a cohesive group. Early on fragmentation occurred due to ethnicity and to class, particularly when some immigrants began to become more successful than others. Additionally, Bodnar does not agree with historians that represent immigrants are being obsessed with social mobility. Naturally, due to their position in industrial society, they had nowhere to go but up, however for the most part only marginal progress was made. The first generations of immigrants accepted the wage state out of necessity and a hope that, like Jones’ African American mothers, their children would have it better than they did.  

The workers and the immigrants in these two books are defined largely by an attempt to unify disparate groups of people based largely on class and occupation. Another group of individuals at the turn of the century, those farmers of the agrarian revolt also strove for unity, in this case under, first, a cooperative movement and then under the wings of a third-party political platform, Populism. In Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, published in 1976, Lawrence Goodwyn attempts to rework the history of Populism under the advantages and limitations of the time period in which he was writing, the Cold War. It is quite obvious that Goodwyn is frustrated by the ways in which his academic freedom and ability to critique and perhaps criticize America’s capitalist society are hindered by a strict, contemporary, unspoken rule against the condemnation of United State society. He says that historians and others that look upon the past are inherently predisposed to be condescending towards it because if it was not a lesser version of the present than the almighty premise of progress would be negated. Although it is not assumable that Goodwyn is a Socialist or even a Socialist sympathizer, it is clear that he, like Bodnar in the 1980s, is not completely in favor of the way in society was operating.  

Goodwyn is writing in direct response to John Hicks’ The Populist Revolt: The Farmers Alliance and the People’s Party, published in 1931. Goodwyn states that it is in this book that the stereotype of the populist as a backward-focused, unintellectual, country bumpkin farmer was solidified and legitimized, which in many ways continues today. Goodwyn completely challenges this characterization. Goodwyn places the Populists in a position of forward-thinking. They were not concerned with the past or the present, but rather in the future. They wanted to ensure that people retained their ability to control their own destiny amidst the capitalist, corporate state. “Populism,” Goodwyn writes, “is the story of how a large number of people, though a gradual process of self-education that grew out of their cooperative efforts, developed a new interpretation of their society and new political institutions to give expression to these interpretations. Their new ideas grew out of their self-respect.” Goodwyn’s portrayal of the Populist Movement completely revolutionized the topic and opened it up to further study by such individuals as Charles Postel, who in The Populist Vision published in 2007, built upon Goodwyn’s assessment to further place Populists in the era of modernity.  

Goodwyn uses a great deal of primary sources to foster his new assessment of the Populist movement, including newspaper articles, movement newsletters, and organizational meeting proceedings. The main impetus behind the agrarian revolt and subsequent Populist movement was based on an aspiration to reform the country’s economic system; this aspiration most fully portrayed itself in the movement’s embracement of the Greenback philosophy, which would enable to develop of a more flexible form of currency. The gold standard caused deflation and thus decreased crop prices, which further disable the farmers’ ability to escape the crop lien system. Used largely by sharecroppers, the crop lien system created a kind of debt peonage or revised slavery. The Farmer’s Alliance in Texas and the more widespread agrarian revolt sprang from a significant number of farmers banding together in order to improve their circumstances and take back control of their lives from the merchants that issued this credit. Goodwyn notes that the speed at which farmer’s in other regions hopped on the Farmer Alliance train demonstrates how desperate these individuals truly were.  

The heart of the agrarian revolt was a cooperative movement in which farmers would no longer have to suffer in seclusion, but could band together to gain control of their futures. Like the unions in urban areas, however, differences amongst members often made it difficult for a clear plan to take charge and move ahead. The difficulty in unifying people was even more pronounced when the farmer’s tried to band together with the Knights of Labor and other urban organizations, in order to create a mass political and social force consisting of the “producing classes.” The agrarian revolt evolved into political form, embodied by the Populist Party, largely due to the need to provide a way in which members from both sides of the political spectrum could join together. Support of the farmer’s ideals was not possible in a world controlled by either Democrats or Republicans, and banding with either would simply support the continuance of the pattern towards corporate dominance, which enjoyed pervasive cultural support amongst the populace.  

However, according to Goodwyn, the development into a political party is what undermined and led to the eventual dissolution of the movement. Like most, if not all, political parties, the Populists suffered due to the disjointed relationship between the politicians and the group as a whole. The politicians were concerned with the short-term and their ability to gain election and reelection, while the agrarian movement was concerned with deep-seated, long-term goals, of which they were passionate. In an effort to gain political footing, the party inevitably gave up the core of their original message, the call for the restructuring of the economic system, by deciding to join the push for silver. The last nail in the coffin was the decision in the 1896 to merge with the Democrats to support William Jennings Bryan for president. The move left the silver message in place, but marked the death of the agrarian revolt. The loss of the central core of their beliefs and the victory of McKinley, virtually destroyed all remaining vestiges of the movement. Goodwyn marks the defeat of Populism with a noted sense of personal remorse. He views it as the last chance that American democracy had for purification before it sold itself to capitalism. When reading his descriptions of the movement, one cannot help but note an uncanny resemblance to the current day concerns of the Occupy Wallstreet Movement, and comparisons made by the media of the movement to Populism make almost complete sense. The ability of a book written almost forty years ago on a topic over a hundred years old to spur contemporary comparisons is very telling and helps to support Goodwyn’s claim that the Populists were not concerned with the past or the present, but the future, the future in which we now live.  

Feature Photo

  • Title: Immigrants, Ellis Island
  • Creator(s): Bain, George Grantham, 1865-1944, photographer
  • Date Created/Published: ca. 1910.
  • Medium: 1 photographic print.
  • Summary: Photograph shows five women immigrants sitting on dock at Ellis Island.
  • Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-20624 (b&w film copy neg.)

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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