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The Dawning of American Labor: The New Republic to the Industrial Age


Brian Greenberg











A concise history of labor and work in America from the birth of the Republic to the Industrial Age and beyond

From the days of Thomas Jefferson, Americans believed that they could sustain a capitalist industrial economy without the class conflict or negative socioeconomic consequences experienced in Europe. This dream came crashing down in 1877 when the Great Strike, one of the most militant labor disputes in US history, convulsed the nation’s railroads. In The Dawning of American Labor a leading scholar of American labor history draws upon first‐hand accounts and the latest scholarship to offer a fascinating look at how Americans perceived and adapted to the shift from a largely agrarian economy to one dominated by manufacturing.

For the generations following the Great Strike, “the Labor Problem” and the idea of class relations became a critical issue facing the nation. As Professor Greenberg makes clear in this lively, highly accessible historical exploration, the 1877 strike forever cast a shadow across one of the most deeply rooted articles of national faith—the belief in American exceptionalism. What conditions produced the faith in a classless society? What went wrong? These questions lie at the heart of The Dawning of American Labor.

Accessible introductory text for students in American history classes and beyond, The Dawning of American Labor is an excellent introduction to the history of labor in the United States for students and general readers of history alike.

Brian Greenberg, PhD, is the Emeritus Jules Plangere Chair in American Social History at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey, USA. He has also taught at Lehman College, Princeton University, and the University of Delaware, where he was director of the Hagley Graduate Program from 1980 to 1987. In addition to courses on the worker in America, he has taught courses on the rise of modern America, law and society in America, and the history of American public policy.


P.1 Labor conflict on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia during the Great Strike of 1877
P.2 A march in Pittsburgh against the railroads during the Great Strike of 1877
1.1 Banner of the Society of Pewterers carried during New York City’s Federal Procession celebrating the ratification of the Constitution, July 23, 1788
1.2 An eighteenth‐century pewterer’s shop
1.3 The interior and exterior of an eighteenth‐century cordwainer’s ten‐footer shop
1.4 An example of a family employed to produce cloth in their home during the “putting‐out” period in the early textile industry
1.5 “Scenes and Occupations Characteristic of New England Life”
1.6 Workers on the Erie Canal in the early 1830s
2.1 Samuel Slater
2.2 A drawing of the original 1793 Slater Mill
2.3 Slater’s spinning frame
2.4 A view of cotton mills at Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1852
2.5 December 1845 cover page of the Lowell Offering
2.6 A membership certificate for the New York Coopers Society in the mid‐1820s
2.7 A banner displayed by housewrights during an 1841 parade in Portland, Maine, sponsored by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association
2.8 A banner displayed by blacksmiths during an 1841 parade in Portland, Maine, sponsored by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association
3.1 The bottoming room of the shoe manufacturer B. F. Spinney and Company in Lynn, Massachusetts, in the early 1870s
3.2 Lady shoemakers’ procession during the Great Strike of 1860, in Lynn, Massachusetts
3.3 Upheaval in the streets of Lynn, Massachusetts, during the Great Strike of 1860
3.4 The Norris Locomotive Works in Philadelphia in 1855
3.5 A section of the forge shop at the Norris Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, 1855
4.1 William Sylvis
4.2 The National Eight Hour Law


In January 1989 I was invited by the distinguished historians John Hope Franklin and A. S. Eisenstadt to write a book on the history of labor in America in the early industrial era, 1783–1860. My book would be a volume in The American History Series, which they edited for the publisher Harlan Davidson. I was thrilled to be asked and immediately accepted, but other projects and changes in my academic and personal life continuously intervened, derailing my best intensions to finish this book. As the years passed, I would return to the manuscript for brief periods whenever I could. Fast‐forward to 2014, when, during a sabbatical, I finally completed a draft of the book. I then sent the manuscript to Andrew Davidson, my editor at Harlan Davidson, which was now a part of John Wiley & Sons. Among his other responsibilities at Wiley, Andrew continued to oversee The American History Series. His response to my query about Wiley’s interest in my book was to express shock as it was the first time that he had been contacted by an author who was not bowing out of a long‐delayed book but was actually sending him a draft manuscript. From that point to this, once again a process that took much longer than I had planned, Andrew was all that an author could hope for in an editor. In gratitude for his abiding faith in this project and in me, I dedicate this book to him.

Andrew has since left Wiley, but my project has been ably shepherded by a number of capable individuals. In particular, I am very grateful to Janani Govindankutty for all she did to help me get my book into production and to Jacqueline Harvey for her meticulous copyediting. The draft that I sent to Andrew was reviewed by two anonymous readers, and I would like to thank them for their excellent comments. At their suggestion, I broadened the scope of the draft and, I believe, produced a stronger book as a result. I hope that they agree.

It is a pleasure to acknowledge the research support I received as Jules Plangere Chair in American Social History and from Monmouth University. These funds were immeasurably helpful in my being able to obtain the many books and articles that I used in writing this book and in giving me the time necessary to think and to write. Similarly, I am grateful for the assistance that numerous librarians and their institutions provided me in obtaining necessary sources, particularly the Hagley Library in Delaware, especially Michael Nash, and Monmouth University’s Guggenheim Library, especially Susan Bucks, Linda Silverstein, Eleonora Dubicki, and George Germek. Sherri Xie in Monmouth’s Interlibrary Loan office always found what I needed in an amazingly short amount of time.

A number of people facilitated the process of obtaining and reproducing the images that are included throughout the book. For their kind assistance and permission to reprint these images, I want to thank Pennee Bender and Joshua Brown, at the American Social History Project; Jane Ward, the American Textile History Museum; Bryan Wright, Colonial Sense; Robert Delap, New‐York Historical Society; Jennifer Strobel, Smithsonian Institution; Lori Urso, Old Slater Mill; Arthur Gaffer, Maine Charitable Mechanical Association; Sofia Yalouris, Maine Historical Society; Peter Hansen, Railroad History; Steven Lubar, Brown University; Glenn Roe, The ARTFL Project; and Shane MacDonald, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives. I am also very grateful to Wayne Elliott at Monmouth University for all his help.

An earlier version of the history of the 1806 cordwainers’ conspiracy trial appeared in Pennsylvania Legacies (Brian Greenberg, “Class Conflict and the Demise of the Artisan Order: The Cordwainers’ 1805 Strike and 1806 Conspiracy Trial,” Pennsylvania Legacies 14 no. 1 [Spring 2014]: 6–11). I acknowledge the journal’s permission to draw from that material in this book and thank, in particular, the journal’s assistant editor, Rachel Moloshok. I would also like to recognize the research support that I received from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.

A book like this, a synthesis intended to provide an introduction for undergraduate students to the key themes and issues that confronted Americans during the dawning of labor, relies heavily on the work of others who have tilled this field. The work of my many fellow labor historians has influenced my thinking on early labor history. Although the contributions of these scholars are noted throughout the book and in the bibliographical essay, I would like to single out Irwin Yellowitz, whose course on labor history at City College of New York first introduced me to the topic of labor history, and Charles Stephenson, who was also there at the beginning of my journey as a labor historian. Finally, at Monmouth, where I have had the opportunity to work with and to learn from many excellent colleagues in the History and Anthropology Department, I especially thank the many graduate and undergraduate students who, over the years, have taken my “Worker in America” course.

Of primary importance to my being able to complete this project was the support and love I have received from my family. Kae, Molly, and now Romina are contemporary examples of the concern for others and the desire for social justice that has motivated American workers. But the writing of a book is also a practical matter. I cannot imagine having a better critic of my ideas and my writing than my wife, Susan. I have been most fortunate to be able to share with her all the highs and lows that come with writing a book.