Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America

By Daniel Jacoby | Go to book overview
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Chapter 1
Republican Soil

Nothing is a due and adequate representation of a state, that does not represent its ability, as well as its property. But as ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it [property] be out of all proportion, predominant in the representation. It must be represented too in great masses of accumulation, or it is not rightly protected. The characteristic essence of property, formed out of the combined principles of its acquisition and conservation is to be unequal. The great masses therefore which excite envy, and tempt rapacity, must be put out of the possibility of danger.

-- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

It is an underlying theme of this book that there are only two types of workers: those who are struggling to be free and those who are unfree. Although absolute freedom is a fable, the failure to struggle toward it guarantees that conditions will not improve. In revolutionary America, the impulse toward freedom was best captured by the mythic allure of the independent yeoman: The proud homesteading farmer was the central symbol of American life. Our discussion of labor and freedom in America begins by examining this symbol as it has survived through historical memory.


Farmers and Master Craftsmen: At the Heart of Republican Ideals

Today, when labor issues and history are discussed, farmers are seldom mentioned. This was not always so, and why it should be so now requires explanation. Farming is obviously work, but whether it is also labor depends upon the definition one chooses. If we imagine--incorrectly--that farmers always worked their own land, then it might be said of them that they comprised a unique class of workers--one that by virtue of its self-

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