The Amesbury-Salisbury Strike and the Social Origins of Political Nativism in Antebellum Massachusetts

Article excerpt

On May 31, 1852, John P. Derby, newly appointed agent of the Salisbury Manufacturing Company, announced that "luncheon" privilege would be abolished the following day. The so-called "luncheon" privilege, a custom at this woolen factory since it began production in 1823, amounted to two fifteen-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon for all male employees. The next day about one-hundred operatives defiantly left the mills at the usual hour for their morning break. All were discharged for their insubordination, and were soon joined by most employees of the SMC, male and female, in sympathy strikes. Within two weeks Samuel Langley, another newly appointed agent of the nearby Amesbury Flannel Manufacturing Company, announced that his firm would likewise revoke "luncheon" privilege. Threatened with a massive strike, Langley refused to rescind his order and watched his mills completely shut down.(1)

As operatives streamed out of the mills, residents organized a political response. Led by the towns' native-born journeymen, master craftsmen, and small storekeepers, a local movement erupted in mid June for the ten-hour working day. The leaders penned a "Ten Hour Circular" and sent it to surrounding communities in July. In it, the activists declared it to be "the duty of every well-wisher to the prosperity of the state to unite" in favor of a ten-hour law. They emphasized how the issue transcended the usual "schemes and prejudices of party politics," maintaining "all classes" have a "common and inseparable interest" in legislation for a ten-hour day. On this note of antipartyism and cross-class solidarity the Ten Hour Circular announced a decisive break with political orthodoxy. Amesbury and Salisbury, Massachusetts, once roseately described by the Quaker-poet John Greenleaf Whittier as places where "the utmost harmony prevails and has always done so between employer and employee," were plunged into a period of political upheaval.(2)

The tumult peaked two years later when local insurgents united behind the Know Nothing, or American party in the November 1854 election. Know Nothing candidates in both towns, and indeed throughout the state, swept to record majorities, obliterating the Whig party and speeding the collapse of the second American party system in Massachusetts. In fact the election of 1854 capped years of popular frustration, both locally and statewide, with the Bay State's conservative Whig establishment. Remarkably, the insurgent party carried nearly every town in the state - a complete rout that suggests the scope of voter antipathy towards politics-as-usual. Proclaimed one Amesbury nativist: "The American movement gives more power to the mechanics, the true strength of the country." "It excludes those broken-down wire-pullers and party hacks," he gloated triumphantly, "who will sell themselves for political office."(3)

Historians continue to debate the sources of the Know Nothing revolt in the antebellum North. Some insist that ethnocultural antagonisms between native-born Protestants and Irish-Catholic immigrants over conflicting values and lifestyles spilled into politics and precipitated the movement.(4) Others acknowledge the ethnocultural dimension of Know Nothingism, but are also impressed by its antiparty and reform tendencies.(5) Yet while recent work has expanded our understanding of the movement's plebeian cast and pervasive antiparty tone, the standard treatments share a conceptual imprecision. Typically the Know Nothings are portrayed as "populists" disillusioned with the political status quo and distrustful of the major parties' capacity for change. Though certainly accurate, such generalizations shed little light on the distinctive social experiences and political economic assumptions that underlay the insurgency. Evidence of the party's social composition suggests it appealed strongest to the middling sorts - skilled and semi-skilled mechanics, master manufacturers, petty merchants, and low-status professionals. …