Origins of the American Labor Press

By Streitmatter, Rodger | Journalism History, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview
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Origins of the American Labor Press

Streitmatter, Rodger, Journalism History

As the United States entered the nineteenth century, the highly skilled artisans who had worked in their own homes to create customized items for individual patrons were replaced by largescale operations in which unskilled workers produced units in quantity and at lower cost By the mid-1820s, items such as clothing, furniture, carriages, barrels, cigars, and candy were all being produced in factories. At the same time, a growing supply of women, children, and recent immigrants depressed the wages being paid to workers, forcing them to toil longer hours. Only by pooling the earnings of husband, wife, and children could a family eke out even a bare subsistence; people who fell into debt would, like serfs from medieval times, be thrown into prison.

The new system of production created class distinctions that were inconsistent with the democratic principles laid down by the Founding Fathers only a few decades earlier. For in stark contrast to the multitudes of common laborers, there emerged a new class of merchant capitalists to reap the rewards available to the first generation of Americans who earned their livelihoods not by making goods but by hiring and managing workers, by selling the products at whatever price the market would bear, and by investing those profits to accumulate still more wealth. American laborers, suddenly confronted by developments that seemed beyond their control and feeling powerless in the hands of their increasingly prosperous employers, formed the nation's first trade unions.

America's mainstream newspapers had scant regard for the struggling new movement launched by the laborers, siding instead with the merchant capitalists and the growth and progress that they symbolized as harbingers of what promised to be a full-scale Industrial Revolution. Refused access to established papers, the leaders of the fledgling Labor Movement founded the labor press. During the late 1820s and early 1830s, some fifty labor weeklies appeared, most of them in the industrializing Northeast.

The earliest and most important of the labor newspapers was the Mechanic's Free Press in Philadelphia, founded in the spring of 1828; although the paper survived only three years, ]it boasted a circulation of 2,000-no small feat during a time when even the largest New York daily claimed a circulation of only twice that figure.2 A second significant voice of labor was the Free Enquirer, a paper published in New York City from 1828 until 1835 to champion various types of reform initiatives. The most long-lasting of the earliest voices of American Labor was the Working Man's Advocate, published in New York City from 1829 until 1849.3

The common purpose of the publications was to ensure that American workers did not exist merely to enhance the power and abundance of the merchant capitalists. The dissident labor papers, recognizing that theirs would be a difficult struggle, spoke with strength and defiance. "The working class are the blood, bone, and sinew of the nation," the Mechanic's Free Press boldly stated, while the merchant capitalists were modem-day "money changers."4

The rise of a dissident press created by American laborers coincided with the democratic revolution credited to Andrew Jackson, the first self-made man to ascend to the presidency. In concert with the themes popularized by the rough-hewn Tennessean who was elected to the White House in 1828, the labor publications reflected the concerns of an awakened working class during a time of social, political, and economic turbulence.

Newspapers that spoke on behalf of American laborers attracted a loyal following. Because many workers were illiterate, men and women with some education read the papers out loud on street comers and in churches, town halls, and other gathering places to crowds that often numbered 100 or more. Indeed, the fact that laborers came together to hear what the various editors had to say served to stimulate a sense of fraternity among the workers.

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