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The Labor Question in America

The Labor Question in America: Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    The Labor Question in America
    Book Description:

    In The Labor Question in America: Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age, 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09010-3
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION. The Labor Question in the Late Nineteenth Century
    (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, dishearteningly put it, “There is liberty of thought and expression. Every man has a right to vote, and still the golden age has not come.”¹ What exactly that golden age might be was far from clear, but most Americans believed that it could not include desperate families crowding into New...

  5. 1 The Cant of Economy: Narratives of Depression in the 1870s
    (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 was more than just an endless series of economic hardships. It emerged as a social problem in the 1870s because it, like the depression itself, was an outward sign of seismic changes in American life. We now understand those changes as signaling the transition from proprietary to corporate capitalism,...

  6. 2 Meat versus Rice: Anti-Chinese Rhetoric and the Problem of Wage Work
    (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 not be understood without addressing the “Chinese Question.” “The Chinese,” he explained to the committee, “are a barbarous, debased, demoralized people. If they come here, and are detrimental to the interests of the workingmen, then I say, in the language of Dennis [sic] Kearney [the leader of the anti-Chinese Workingman’s Party of California], ‘They...

  7. 3 The Value of Wages: Historical Economics and the Meanings of Value
    (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 to is as big as the Reformation, or the English Revolution.” There was yet, he assured her, “great opportunity for thinking, and some opportunity for writing.”¹

    Much like other Americans, the young Turk economists who came of professional age in the 1870s and 1880s recognized the labor...

  8. 4 “Labor Wants More!”: The AFL and the Idea of Economic Liberty
    (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 already begun to work out those details through a relentlessly practical politics of more. “More” became the AFL’s official answer to the general social crises of the late nineteenth century and to the labor question in particular. The fledgling AFL’s president, Samuel Gompers, griped that labor was...

  9. 5 The End of the Labor Question
    (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 a clew to the tangled affairs of city poverty,” new ways to revive the democratic promise of America. Instead, she got a thorough scolding from the great man himself, first for the “monstrous” size of her fashionable dress sleeves and then for...

  10. AFTERWORD. Residues of the Labor Question
    (pp. 146-152)

    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 of economic democracy) substituted “a communism of opportunity” for a more rigorous and radical “communism of productive property,” and the basic outline of this argument has not disappeared in the historiography or in popular culture.¹ Perlman understood the relations to the means of production as the most central,...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 153-202)
  12. Index
    (pp. 203-210)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-219)