Philadelphia Cordwainers Trial: 1806

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Philadelphia Cordwainers Trial: 1806

Defendants: Underl Barnes, John Dubois, John Harket, John Hepburn, George Keimer, Peter Pollen, George Pullis, George Snyder
Crime Charged: Conspiracy to raise their wages
Chief Defense Lawyers: Caesar A. Rodney, Walter Franklin
Chief Prosecutors: Jared Ingersol, Joseph Hopkinson
Judges: John Innskep, Mayor of Philadelphia, ex officio; Moses Levy, recorder, presiding; Andrew Pettit, Abraham Shoemaker, Philip Wager, aldermen, jury.
Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Date of Trial: January 2, March 26, 28-29, 1806
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Each defendant fined $8 plus the costs of the suit

SIGNIFICANCE: The history of the American labor movement can be traced through a series of trials that, stage by stage, mark its struggle to gain the right to organize. The earliest of these trials happened to involve shoe-and bootmakers. Of all these early trials, the one in 1806 of the Philadelphia Cordwainers is regarded as perhaps the most crucial.

From the earliest days of the European colonies in North America, shoe-and bootmakers played a special role in society. Everyone, poor or rich, needed footwear, so such craftsmen were found everywhere. Making durable and/or stylish leather footwear led to pride in one's craft, which in fact required intelligence, discipline, and special skills. Yet it was the widespread need for and nature of this product that exposed it to ongoing changes in both industrial and commercial practicesmass production in the former case, retail competition in the latter case.

The Shoemaking Trade in Philadelphia

By the late 1700s, there had been major developments in the nature of the footwear trade. During the first decades in America, almost all leather shoes and boots were custom-made, and the men who made them were also the men who sold them. Gradually, though, some master craftsmen began to expand their business and came to employ journeymen craftsmen to fulfill orders. By the end of the eighteenth-century, some of these employers were expanding their businessselling a standardized line of wares in public markets and exporting on a wholesale-volume level to even distant cities. The nature of these new markets meant that the employers needed to produce a cheaper line of footwear; for this they wanted to pay slightly lower wages to the journeymen "cordwainers."

This name for shoe-and bootmakers has a curious etymology. It is a word that appeared in England in the Middle Ages and came from an anglicized pronunciation of a French word, cordoan, which referred to Cordovan leather; that in turn referred to Cordoba, Spain, whose fine-grained leather was regarded as the finest in Europe. Thus "cordwainers" were the men who worked with leather.

In 1794, numerous journeymen shoemakers in Philadelphia formed the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers with the goal of protecting their wages. During the next several years, they called several "turn-outs," what we today would call strikes, during which the society's members tried to prevent all journeymen from working for less than standard wages. Those journeymen who defied the society's request were known as "scabs," the same term still used today. Then in November 1805, the society called another major turn-out. Because of the alleged tactics used by some members against cordwainers who either had refused to join the society or who continued working as "scabs," eight of the leaders of the society were brought to trial in January 1806.

If the Shoe Fits.

The trial, officially known as The Commonwealth v. George Pullis, et al., was conducted during two days before a so-called Mayor's Court; although a criminal action, it explicitly sided with the employers. The eight defendants were charged with several serious offenses, including resorting to "threats, menaces, and other unlawful means" to advance their "conspiracy" to maintain higher wages.

The society had hired two prestigious lawyers, Caesar A. Rodney, nephew of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Walter Franklin, a distinguished lawyer. The prosecution was conducted by two equally distinguished lawyers. The jury was composed of 12 men, nine of whom we would regard as employersinnkeepers, merchants, etc.and three who were craftsmena hatter, tailor, and watchmaker. It was, in fact, an early showdown between capitalists and labor.

The prosecution conducted its case by calling as witnesses 13 journeymen shoemakers or shopowners, who, one by one, testified that the society put strong pressure on all established journeymen to join, forced all new journeymen shoemakers in town to join, fined members who were found to have worked as scabs, withdrew their members from employers if they hired any scab workers, fined members who failed to attend meetings held virtually every night, and sent a "tramping committee" around town to make sure all journeymen belonged to the society.

But the witnesses made even more serious charges, claiming that the society's members constantly harassed those who did not join or who worked as scabs, even going as far as physically roughing them up. John Bedford, an employer and shop owner, testified: "Once they broke the window with potatoes, which had pieces of broken shoemakers' tacks in them, at least the one had which they aimed at my person and was near hitting me in the face." Anthony Bennett, a journeyman, even testified that he had been forced to join the society and that if he had not, "they have threatened to [kill me]. Not to my face, but according to what I have understood."

When it came to the defendants' case, their lawyers called 10 witnesses, seven new ones and three of the prosecution's. Walter Franklin, the defense lawyer, opened by claiming that much of the testimony actually described events that had taken place many years previously: "Indeed all the circumstances which have been so long dwelt upon, and which were so nicely calculated to touch your feelings and excite your sensibility, happened long before any of the defendants, except one, had any concern in the association."

He then resorted to sarcasm when he admitted that the defendants had indeed formed an association to "promote the [members'] happiness": "But, unfortunately for these poor and ignorant men, they went a step beyond this! They mistook their privilege! They thought they had a right to determine for themselves the value of their own labor! And among other acts of their association, committed the unpardonable sin of settling and ascertaining the price of their own work!"

The journeymen who testified on behalf of the defendants naturally portrayed the society, its members, its rules, its procedures, as nothing but reasonable and restrained. Their lawyers, meanwhile, especially stressed that the prices and wages these journeymen sought were completely in line with those in such cities as Albany, Baltimore, and New York, and in fact lower than in some other American cities.

A moment of humor came when an employer testified that he sometimes sold his fancy boots for several dollars more per pair than was considered standard. He went on to say: "If any gentleman is disposed not to credit me, as I can see by the expression of some countenances, I can refer them to my customers by name"and then proceeded to name two such. At that, the prosecutor cracked, "Then these are the gentlemen who have more money than wit?" The witness shot back: "They are gentlemen who have a right to indulge their fancy."

The summations were long and predictable, each of the four lawyers highlighting the elements that supported his position. What is to be noted, though, is that both sides said virtually nothing about the alleged acts of harassment but focused entirely on the issues of the "combination and conspiracy"what we today might call "collusion" and "a closed shop." The prosecution described a conspiracy to impose membership and pay; the defense described a lawful association to obtain a fair wage.

Equally notable is that the defense lawyers, although themselves from the highest socioeconomic class in Philadelphia, often employed a populist, almost socialist rhetoric, employing the term "masters" to suggest that the avaricious employers were out to exploit the journeymen. Thus Caesar A. Rodney claimed that masters "who employ twenty-four journeymen, must make near $15,000 dollars a year, when the best journeyman receives about six hundred, a sum scarcely adequate to the frugal maintenance of himself and his family in this city, though living on the simplest and cheapest fare which the market affords."

Verdict and Aftermath

The jury retired at 9 p.m. and apparently reached a verdict fairly quickly, but were not asked to return it until the next morning. They found all eight guilty "of a conspiracy to raise their wages." The punishment was that each of the eight defendants was fined $8 and forced to pay all the costs of the trial. The fine itself was a little less than what the average journeyman could make in a week; paying the fees of those four Philadelphia lawyers must have come to far more than that. Presumably the society of journeymen cordwainers paid all costs.

Nothing more is heard of these individuals or their activities. But in the years that followed, trial after trial throughout the United States would gradually establish the right of laboring people to form associations to seek better wages. In effect, these Philadelphia cordwainers had taken the first step toward forming unions.

John S. Bowman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Commons, John R. et al. eds. A Documentary History of American Industrial Society. Vol. 3, Labor Conspiracy Cases. Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1910.

COx, Archibald et al. eds. Cases and Materials in Labor Law. 12th ed. Westbury, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1996.

Tomlins, Christopher. Law, Labor and Ideology in the Early American Republic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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Philadelphia Cordwainers Trial: 1806

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