Development of the Working Class

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Development of the Working Class

When George Washington's administration took power in 1789, the United States had only a small working class in a structural sense, meaning free people whose only valuable possession was their ability to perform wage labor. Most of these were seafarers and urban laborers. But in Atlantic ports from Boston to Charleston, there were "workingmen" who were conscious of themselves as distinct from the rest of society. Many were artisans who expected in their own lifetimes to master the "mysteries" of a trade and, eventually, to own their shops, their tools, and the goods they produced until those goods were ready for sale.

craft pride

These workingmen were heirs to English and European craft pride and craft organization, and they possessed a proud Revolutionary record. They celebrated both themselves, as craftsmen, and the history they had helped to make in great parades that marked the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, which most of them heartily favored. They knew that even the world-famous Benjamin Franklin still called himself a printer, though he had left his type and press behind decades earlier for the life of a gentleman intellectual and politician. In Boston they honored Paul Revere much more for his mastery of silver-work, his Revolutionary-era political engravings, and his latter-day copper foundry than for the ride he made to Concord in 1775 with the news that the British "regulars are coming out." Like Franklin, Revere was becoming a wealthy man. A blacksmith, house carpenter, or cobbler never would reach their heights, but such a person could see that these were men much like himself.

outside the craft system

Among African Americans there were similar success stories, most notably, perhaps, that of the Philadelphia

sail maker James Forten. Forten, however, was an exception. Slavery was dying in his Philadelphia, but only in Boston among the major cities was it actually dead when Washington assumed the presidency in 1789. Many of the master artisans who paraded behind their craft banners owned slaves and intended to keep them, offering no hope that the slave would follow the owner's route from apprenticeship through journeyman status to full mastery. In the 1830s the young Baltimore slave Frederick Bailey learned the skills of shipbuilding. After he escaped and changed his name to Frederick Douglass, he found that nobody in New England shipyards wanted his skills.

A person did not have to be black to be permanently excluded from the full life course of a Franklin or a Revere. Shipbuilding was a complex business, which no single person could master. However skilled the shipwright, he could not expect to own his own yard. A man might master the art of smelting iron, but he was unlikely to amass the capital needed for his own foundry. In the 1790s the furniture maker Duncan Phyfe employed many woodworkers as skilled as himself. Unless they were slaves, such workingmen were free to quit, but they could not expect to emulate Phyfe. Shoemaking remained a skilled craft until the mid-nineteenth century, but in the leather capital of Lynn, Massachusetts, craftsmen found themselves increasingly committed to contract work for others, often at deteriorating rates. Vast numbers of American women spun their own thread, wove it into cloth, and cut and sewed their families' clothes. Some, such as the Maine midwife Martha Ballard, made weaving into a business, hiring "girls" to work for them. Ballard worked hard all her lifetime, but as with almost all women, what she did was within the framework of the household.


When New York State completed construction of the Erie Canal in 1825, much of these circumstances endured, but major changes were under way. The canal was a major part of the market revolution that brought, or promised to bring, goods produced at a far distance to people who consumed whatever they could buy. Beginning in 1791 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, power-driven mills began to turn the spinning of thread from a household task into paid work, often performed by women and children. Adopted New Englander Samuel Slater, who provided the knowledge for the first such American mill, had escaped in disguise from England, breaking its monopoly on emergent technology. In 1811 native New Englander Francis Cabot Lowell toured Britain's factories, memorizing the details of their much more advanced machinery. By 1825 American entrepreneurs were building large-scale factories of their own, often employing single women. Those women found new personal freedom, but their task was simply to tend the owners' machines. They were workers in the modern sense, and they were beginning to think of themselves that way. By the 1840s they had organizations and leaders of their own. They understood both strikes and political campaigns for better wages and shorter hours.

Large power-driven factories in newly built towns were only one form of emerging industrial America. In the ports and inland towns metropolitan industrialization meant reorganizing the rhythm and direction of old skills rather than ending those skills with new technology. Shoemaking would not become mechanized until the mid-nineteenth century. But well before the introduction of sewing machines, shoemakers were working for wages in central shops and some of the tasks were being put out on consignment to distant villages and isolated farms. Factory-made cheap cloth led to "sweated" labor by whole families laboring to turn consignments of fabric into finished goods. By no means was this transformation complete. In 1825, as in 1790, most white Americans still worked within a format of household production. Most still hoped for the "competency" (meaning the ability to meet their families' needs and stay out of debt) that owning their own shop or farm would bring. But a different future was taking shape around them.

workers and politics

Workingmen were political from the very beginning of the Republic. In 1829 New York workers organized their own Working Men's Party and sought political office. It proved short-lived, merging rapidly into the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. Jackson promised small government and equal opportunity, which most workingmen wanted, but he was a major Tennessee slaveholder. The coalition that he assembled had no room for either the idea that slavery was wrong or that free black people, or women of any race, should be equal participants in what America offered. Structurally, a working class was taking shape. Worker consciousness that transcended craft, race, gender, and the confines of local community was another matter.

See alsoLabor Movement: Labor Organizations and Strikes; Manufacturing; Manufacturing, in the Home; Shipbuilding Industry; Textiles Manufacturing; Work .


Blewett, Mary H. Men, Women, and Work: Class, Gender, and Protest in the New England Shoe Industry, 1780–1910. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Dawley, Alan. Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Laurie, Bruce. Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

Rock, Howard B., Paul A. Gilje, and Robert Asher, eds. American Artisans: Crafting Social Identity, 1750–1850. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Edward Countryman

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Development of the Working Class

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Development of the Working Class