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American Capitalism Versus American Craftsmen

The Opposition of Massachusetts Shoeworkers to the Rise of Industrial Capitalism, 1780 to 1860


Dec 19, 2009


When studying economic history writ large, humanity's modern period may be reasonably reduced into a single world: capitalism. Regardless of earthly location, all nations of the modern world have developed either within a capitalist environment, or within an environment influenced by the capitalist acts of other regions. In examining the history of this phenomenon, we discover that since the late nineteenth century, America has worked its way to the forefront of the global capitalist project. The question then arises: how is it that capitalism came to dominate within America?

Capitalism settled itself into the American political economy during the first half of the nineteenth-century, and in explaining the rise of American capitalism popular and scholarly histories alike often cite freedom and democracy as its foundational elements. Many historians, economists, and philosophers posit that capitalism was the natural system for America to adopt because it democratically harmonized political freedom with merchant business practices, and thus fostered industrialization. In support of this analysis, we hear the rallying call of the late American economist Milton Friedman; "free markets for free men." Echoing Friedman, we find the dictates of Alan Greenspan's metaphysical mentor, Ayn Rand, who asserted that "[i]n a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary. Men are free to cooperate or not, to deal with one another or not, as their own individual judgments, convictions, and interests dictate." Capitalism then, as we are told, is an economic system predicated on freedom, voluntarism, and cooperation. These three tenets are closely tied to the American ideal of democracy, and indeed, while looking backwards, historian Gordon Wood concluded precisely this; "American capitalism was created by American democracy." Are the claims of Rand and Wood the best approximations of American reality? Were freedom and democracy the basis for capitalism in the United States?

In examining the rise of capitalism, we find a concurrence of anti-capitalistic movements, and this observation challenges the idea that freedom and democracy were the roots of American capitalism. The political theorist and essayist Noam Chomsky for example argues that freedom, voluntarism, and cooperation did not figure into capitalism's ascendance, but quite the opposite; that "modern America was created over the protests of its working people." From its very introduction, capitalism was opposed by anti-capitalists who "were vigorous and outspoken, particularly in the working-class and community." In analyzing the claims of Friedman, Rand, Wood, and Chomsky, how might we determine which offers the most compelling historical account?

When investigating the years during which capitalism came to the fore, between 1780 and 1860, and observing its advance from the perspective of the worker, a picture of capitalism entirely different from the one painted by Rand and Friedman begins to emerge. Nineteenth-century workers ranging from shoemakers and loom weavers to printers and cabinet-makers all underwent, in their own words, a profound "degradation" in status and material wellbeing as capitalism forced its way into their lives. As one Massachusetts labourer exclaimed in 1845; "Wherever we turn our eyes we see insurmountable obstacles presented to our view. Here we see a moneyed aristocracy hanging over us like a mighty avalanche threatening annihilation to every man who dares to question their right to enslave and oppress the poor ... If we take another view we find ourselves crippled and destroyed by human competition, and ... machinery ... that will not only lessen but annihilate the last surviving hope of the honest mechanic." Workers across the country expressed similar sentiments, as small producers found themselves driven into the position of wage labourer, and away from the position of independent manager. The first-hand accounts of nineteenth-century labourers demonstrate that the rise of capitalism in America was no steady march towards the freedom of markets through the politics of democracy. Rather, the entrepreneurs who drove the expansion of capitalism faced resistance from workers who struggled against capitalism's every advance. The entrenchment of capitalism was a battle between capitalists and craftsmen, and capitalism won the battle only through the social and political machinations of economic elites and over the protests of American workers.

In order to develop an understanding of the nature and origins of American capitalism this paper will examine the lives of shoemakers in Lynn, Massachusetts during the period of capitalism's rise, from 1780 to 1860. A specific investigation of shoemaking in Lynn is suitable for the study of American capitalism at large, because unlike the many factory cities that were designed and constructed specifically for industry, the production of shoes in Lynn and the city itself both predated Lynn's shoemaking industry. Lynn "went through a dynamic period of growth and transformation that made it a factory city," and the transition from small production to industrial production in Lynn therefore presents the modern reader with "an ideal representative of the larger shift in America from an agricultural to an industrial way of life." The growth of the industry in Lynn "exemplified the larger processes of American economic development" as a whole, and the experiences of Lynn's shoemakers were a "microcosm" of the Industrial Revolution and the institutionalization of capitalism.

This paper will begin with an exploration of the shoemaker's life and mentality as it existed in Lynn during the second half of the eighteenth century. We will then review the structure of Lynn's local market economy, which was built on a network of interdependent household producers. Following this we will examine the chain of difficulties experienced by shoemakers, and their many protests as market exchange and capitalist economic relationships broke workers away from their robust communal economy, and pushed them into a set of insecure relationships based on competitive wage labour. In closing, we will examine the final overthrow of the shoemaker's chosen way of life and their eventual subjugation to the structures of American capitalism.

At the end of the eighteenth century, two professions dominated working life in the town of Lynn: farming and shoemaking. In warmer months agricultural pursuits prevailed, and in winter months warmth was found indoors, making shoes and other goods at the fireside. In this way, all of Lynn -- both its lands and its houses -- was bent towards manufacture and production. Small producers reared animals and food on their land, and in addition to making shoes they fashioned textiles, soaps, and candles in their homes. Communal solidarity manifest itself in all aspects of life, and was perhaps nowhere more evident than in their attitude towards the handling of surplus foodstuffs; having already fulfilled their own requirements, residents often simply gave their excess away. Family alliances enabled the residents of Lynn to perennially sustain a community of socially interdependent and economically independent producer-artisans; working and living together, crafting and trading the necessities of life.

To better understand working life in Lynn let us look briefly at the life of one small producer, Nehemiah Collins. In the early 1760s, Collins provided for himself by producing cider, plowing, carrying wood, making shoes, and undertaking "six day's work in the marsh." Collins' experiences were common, as workers enjoyed the opportunity to try their hand at different tasks, and were free to explore the ebb and flow of their passions and energies. For these workers there was no opposition between the spheres of life and work. Productive work was the highest want and goal in life, and the noble life was the one spent in labour. This labour oriented ethos permeated the mindset of workers in Lynn, and was in later decades formalized by the constitution of cordwainers; "Believing labor to be the true basis on which happiness as well as riches, depends, and being ourselves dependant on labor, for both one and the other, we hold it to be our duty to sustain its value, that it may of itself be respectable, and the laborer be respected."

Labour in Lynn had focused on farming until the middle of the eighteenth century, at which time the production of shoes began to rise. With respect to shoe production, the year 1750 marked an important introduction to Lynn: the expert shoemaking Welshman John A. Dagyr. In 1750 there had been three master shoemakers in Lynn, and fifty years later, thanks in large part to the skill of Dagyr, there were two hundred. Notable here is the fact that Lynn's population had not grown enough to place pressure on the availability of farmland, and so the adoption of shoemaking was not a response to economic constraints, but was instead a freely adapted trade.

Proportionate to the rise in the number of masters the number of farms with outbuildings devoted to shoe production also rose. Such an outbuilding was called a "ten-footer," so named because of its architectural footprint. The typical ten-footer contained all of the implements necessary to shoe production, and was run by the shop master. The master employed relatives and journeymen as apprentices and assistants in the various duties of shoemaking. Though the master owned a shop's implements, journeymen also owned many of their own tools. Journeymen often lived with their master, and though they were professionally subordinate to the master, the relationship was typically one of supportive paternalism. Thus the atmosphere of the ten-footer was familial and diligent, and workers enjoyed relations that were pleasant and familiar.

Still, in spite of familiar working relations, the master-journeyman relationship -- just as every master-assistant relationship -- was subject to the occasional blustering of a domineering master. In Lynn however, the citizen worker possessed a powerful sense of self-respect, and domineering was not to be tolerated. Rather than suffer any man's arrogance workers either put their master to the test or simply took up and left. Deference was not accorded to bullying and airs, but was reserved for labour and skill.

Skill was an integral component in shoemaking, because the making of shoes was an intricate procedure and good shoes required technical proficiency. In many fields, regardless of specific duties, a technically skilled worker was referred to as a mechanic, and because many shoemakers were learned in multiple aspects of shoe production there were many shoemaker mechanics. While offering the opportunity to develop and perfect multiple skills, shoemaking also endowed workers with a degree of artistic license, as well as freedom in decision-making. Shoemaking was accomplished in many phases and at every step the worker had to decide precisely how they would carry out the project. Pride and craftsmanship, of both personal and professional varieties, thrived in this environment. Just as Nehemiah Collins had exercised his mind working at multiple labours, so did shoeworkers exercise themselves at multiple tasks, and thus stave off any potential monotony in the working day. It is important to recognize however, as one contemporary observer noted, that it was rather presumptuous to assume "there ever was any monotony in a shoemaker's shop."

Stepping back, and moving away from ten-footers to view the city as a whole, we may examine the impact that shoemaking had on the community. As a productive device shoemaking increased the numbers of skills possessed by workers and this increased the breadth of Lynn's economy. Workers were trained in multiple skills and had multiple sources of income, and were thus positioned to avoid the negative impacts of a downturn in any one sector. Combined with existing social and economic relationships, shoemaking enhanced the strength and stability of Lynn's local market economy. As in any market, there were of course economic disparities between participants, but factors such as the close interactions of residents and the limited scale of production worked together to mitigate tensions and inequalities. As the cordwainers' had observed in their constitution the citizen workers of Lynn appreciated that they were "dependant on labor, for both one and the other." However, as the town moved into the early decades of the nineteenth century, household relationships in Lynn would be tested by outside markets. Local trade would extend beyond town borders and external forces would soon cause drastic changes inside artisan households.

The nature of household trade was such that small producers possessed the means of production as well as the final product. Artisans manufactured and sold shoes locally to clients and shops, and began to sell shoes remotely through consignment. However, to choose sale by consignment was to permit a person who played no role in production to profit from the sale of someone else's labour, and even though consignment offered potential profit increases many shoemakers chose instead the pride of independence, and accompanied their products all the way to the point of sale. As the nineteenth century opened most shoes continued to be made for individual purchase and as late as the 1830s trade was still carried on by "bag-bosses," as workers packed shoes into a bag and walked or traveled by coach to neighbouring towns, selling shoes from their backpacks. Pride in independence notwithstanding, traveling bag-bosses and remote sales via consignment both drew shoemakers away from the local market and into the wider marketplace. The penetration of markets also permitted markets to penetrate shoemaker's businesses; that is, market activity now entered shoemaker's homes. Still however, though "the master was in the marketplace ... he was not of it."

With market exchange on the rise, the high quality of shoes made in Lynn became renowned. As demand increased, master shoemakers, local shopkeepers, and merchants began to open central shops for the production of shoes. Few masters however possessed enough wealth to open a central shop, and even fewer succeeded in the enterprise. The bulk of central shops that succeeded were those run by men not reliant on shoemaking for wealth. In Lynn, as in the rest of America, most successful businessmen came from moneyed backgrounds, and were not new to extralocal trade. Wealthy entrepreneurs and merchants were in a strong position to develop central shops because -- unlike up and coming shoemakers -- they already possessed the capital necessary to sustain the labour of tens of people, they held centrally located properties, and they enjoyed aristocratic business connections.

The central shop began as the proto-urban equivalent of the rural ten-footer, but the central shop was larger, and its workers did not own any tools. Perhaps most significant however was the fact that central shop workers were not apprentices working towards mastership, but were instead employees, bound to an employer only by the sale of labour. Here was one of the most pivotal changes in the economic arrangements of the city of Lynn, and, as noted earlier, in the American economy at large. This change combined the sale of labour for wages with the divorce of producer from product. Production had now moved out of the household, into a centralized manufacturing shop, and was directed by a nonproducing manager who stood far above their employee workers in terms of economic relations. Tools and products were removed from the hands of the producers, placed into the hands of merchant capitalists, and economically distant managers were now in control of means and profits.

Workers were livid. For decades Lynn was a community of workers; most residents performed labour, and participated in fair exchange for the necessities of life. Lynn had been a town sustained by indispensable groups of labour, each required for production. However in the opening decades of the nineteenth century as the marketplace interactions of Lynn's shoemakers increased, so multiplied their interactions with the people of marketplace -- the nonproducers. Nonproducers included "idlers, aristocrats, capitalists, lawyers, bureaucrats, and paupers," who as a group "contributed nothing that was required for the preservation of human existence." Displays of contempt for nonproducers ranged from workers demanding that a lawyer step down and abolish his office, to a Lynn girl beating away a potential suitor because he was dressed in a suit, and was therefore quite obviously a nonproducing dandy. Nonetheless, despite their palpable disdain for nonproducing individuals, workers had no tangible recourse against the intangible forces of market exchange.

Market exchange, combined with centralization and the profits born of the capitalistic employer-employee relationship, sustained a general trend in the aggrandizement of central shops. Even faced with market fluctuations and economic recessions, central shops continued to extend their domination over shoe production and shoeworkers. Market demands required more shoes to be produced, and to meet these demands manufacturers decreased the quality of the shoes being produced. In response to decreased quality, prices fell, and lower profits reduced compensation for production. Owners sought ways to reclaim the profits they were used to and turned to outwork. Outwork sent shoes to nonlocal wage earners, and this had the predictable effect of increasing competition for jobs. Workers in Lynn complained that not only were they facing decreased wages because of low prices, but they also had to compete against outworkers to secure those decreased wages. Shoeworkers were in no position to discuss their terms of employment and shop owners simply ignored their complaints.

As centralization and outwork progressed, shoemaking was increasingly broken down into discrete operations. The breakdown of production into well-defined tasks promoted consistency and simplified coordination between shop workers and outworkers. These changes offered clear benefits for employers but for workers they came at the cost of over-specialization. With workers performing a narrower range of tasks new employees could quickly learn any role. This meant more people could easily qualify for work as a shoemaker, and this yielded yet another source of competition.

Initially the wage decreases caused by falling prices, outwork, and specialization were moderated by alternative sources of food and income, such as tilling a private garden. But as centralization continued, shop footprints increased and the demand for space in the central shop area of town was aggravated by an expanding contingent of migrant workers who required lodging. Access to land in the central shop area was reduced, and the maintenance of private gardens became impossible. Thus at the same time that wages were falling, workers were also driven into exclusive reliance on those wages. Almost paradoxically, with few options available more shoeworkers passed into employment with central shops.

Although full scale, factory style industrialization lay more than a decade away, centralization and capitalist economic relations had already diminished the number of property owning artisans and created an economic situation which left workers with little or no control over their working lives. By the end of the 1830s, large-scale manufacturing had undermined the position of independent shoe producers to the point of near complete dependence on wage labour. Despite their protests, the best a shoeworker might now hope for was to become a skilled journeyman, on a one-track journey ending in wage labour.

In reaction to this profound degradation, the shoeworkers established their own centralized vehicle, a labour oriented newspaper entitled The Awl. The paper was founded in 1844, and was styled after one of the most important tools in a shoemakers' kit. The awl is used to puncture heavy materials such as leather, and to create holes through which binding threads are drawn. Just as a shoemaker's awl was used for binding together the parts of a shoe, so was The Awl a device for binding together the cordwainers of Lynn. The significance of this metaphor would not have been lost on Lynn's residents -- one did not need to be a shoeworker to identify the most prominent tool of the predominant occupation -- and was thus an appeal to all citizen workers.

The Awl passionately laid bare the class war between labour and capital, and declared that "[l]abor, as the source of all value, is the only absolute value," and, as a consequence of this absolute fact, "[t]he capitalist will justly receive no esteem or influence besides that creditable to his diligence and tact. The golden robe in which fortune has enveloped him will be thrown aside, and the man, with his naked powers and defects, [will then be] offered to our view." Every page of every issue was a veritable deluge of anti-capitalist sentiment. The Awl offered emotional yet eloquent articles full of circumspect analysis, and labeled with simple but symbolic titles such as "Better Days," "Labor in Civilization," "White Slaves," and the "Elevation of Working Men." These articles were meant to rouse the labouring masses, unite them in their suffering, and stir them into action. To this end, writers respectfully admonished the quiet deferral and quiescence of slave labourers to their capitalist masters; "Too long have you looked on the movement that is taking place around you, in silence. Too long have you closed your ears to the cry of your fellow craftsmen, who are engaged in the high, noble, and philanthropic work of reform; reform, which, if successful, will elevate you far above your present slavish condition."

To provoke "slavish" labourers into joining the war for worker rights, the first page of The Awl's twelfth issue reprinted the American Declaration of Independence, in full. In associating themselves with the Declaration, shoemakers were attempting to identify themselves with the successful political revolution that had separated the United States from England. In this way, the shoemakers hoped to build support for their own revolutionary movement and achieve separation from the grips of "the hydra-headed monster, aristocracy." However, while the Declaration explicitly mentioned equal rights, one particular topic omitted from the Declaration was perhaps more important to the shoeworker's movement than anything said in the Declaration: the unequal distribution of wealth. Although it was true that the American Revolution abolished the nobility of England from the United States, it was also true that in the matter of voting, American politicians had disenfranchised household dependents and adults with no property. The problem with this was that "[i]n disfranchising household dependents and other adults without property, republicanism incorporated the inequalities of eighteenth-century society." As the rise of central shops and the degradation of shoeworkers had already shown, economic inequality completely suppressed political and social equality; if workers had ever possessed real political power they would never have been degraded in the first place. Protesting against "the hydra-headed monster, aristocracy" may have increased sympathy among labourers, but while shoeworkers operated within the confines of the Declaration and America's unspoken and unwritten political conventions it simply was not possible for them to increase their political power.

The political weakness of shoeworkers came to the fore in 1850, when the economic elites of Lynn, that is, the manufacturers, began the project of incorporating the town. Incorporation was to include the establishment of police and fire forces, as well as new taxes to fund the forces. Workers protested that the only reason shop owners could possibly need such forces would be to address dangers that shop owners themselves had created. Apart from The Awl however, workers had few methods for communicating their complaints to the masses, and shoemaker's protests smouldered against the multitude of competing, anonymous voters. Previously any worker wishing to be heard could speak at the town meeting, however the town meeting was now proving an inadequate means for serving Lynn's burgeoning population. So it was that in 1850, the same year that the shop owners began to seek incorporation, the time-honored town meeting was discarded, and replaced with a district based mayor-council system. The political impotence of the working class was made evident, and though it was not until the 1860s that the business elites of Lynn achieved full incorporation, it was already clear by 1850 that while worker protests might slow the plans of merchants and central shops they could never stop them. Worker protests continued however, and peaked in the winter of 1860, culminating in the Great Shoemakers Strike, which until that time was the largest strike in American history. A majority of shoeworkers took part in the strike, which lasted six weeks. It was an impressive feat of solidarity, but an equally impressive exercise in futility; not one of the shoeworkers' demands was met.

Though not fully complete, the fate of shoeworkers in their transformation from independent producers into dependent wage labourers had been sealed long before the Great Strike of 1860. Throughout the entire first half of the nineteenth century, the economic and political machinations of wealthy elites repeatedly rendered worker objections as nothing more than protest, and with respect to political progress the Great Strike was remarkable only as the loudest protest of all. Industrialization proceeded apace, as the businessmen converted their shops into factories. Factory style automation encouraged further subdivisions to the work of shoemaking, and the process of shoe production was increasingly performed by machinery. Workers bemoaned every new labour saving device as a labour displacing device, but they were left with few options other than to work alongside the very machines that would replace them, and to watch as the dream of a worker revolution gave way to the reality of an industrial revolution.

Standing in stark contradiction to the notion that "[i]n a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary," we have the experiences of shoeworkers in Lynn, Massachusetts. Capitalism embedded itself in Lynn's economy between the years of 1780 and 1860, and it was in this same period that anti-capitalism rose to the foreground of Lynn society. The previously unknown positions of merchant-wage-purchaser and producer-wage-seller were established, and the introduction of these positions was marked not by voluntary acceptance, but by heavy protest against the loss of independence that attended them. The same ethos that drove journeymen to stave off bullying shop masters also impelled shoemakers to denounce nonproducers, sidestep merchant consignment, establish a labour newspaper, and organize mass demonstrations to communicate as loudly as possible the fact that in their increasingly capitalist society, all human relationships were not voluntary.

From their earliest exposure to markets and capitalistic relationships, shoeworkers avoided all threats to their independence. Shoeworkers did not however possess genuine political power and the rise of American capitalism revealed and exacerbated these already extant inequalities. Class divisions became more pronounced and were institutionalized in the capitalistic roles of wage purchaser and wage earner. With these new economic roles established, the central shops and labour markets of merchant capitalists transformed the cordwainers of Lynn from a community of interdependent producers in control of their products into a market of competing wage earners who could peddle only their labour.

Returning to our original question, "how is it that capitalism came to dominate within America?", we now see that in the matter of Lynn, Massachusetts, Chomsky's was indeed the most compelling historical account, and that capitalism came to dominate in Lynn only over the protests of its working people. Further to this, as noted in the introductory remarks of this paper, a case may be made to support the idea that the economic processes of Lynn "exemplified the larger processes of American economic development," and hence by studying the economics of Lynn one may begin to develop some understanding of the nature of American capitalism as a whole. Soberingly, as also suggested in the introduction, developing an understanding of American style capitalism is only a first step towards answering the broader question: how is it that capitalism came to dominate across the entire planet?


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