Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Mechanics of Little Rock: Free Labor Ideas in Antebellum Arkansas, 1845-1861

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Mechanics of Little Rock: Free Labor Ideas in Antebellum Arkansas, 1845-1861

Article excerpt

IN LATE 1858, CHARLES O. HALLER, a longtime resident of Little Rock, wrote to the Arkansas State Gazette and Democrat, complaining about slaves taking jobs normally done by white workingmen and demanding that the Arkansas General Assembly take steps to curb the practice: "As artisans we suffer materially, when hired slave labor . . . is brought into competition with us; and-what is still worse-we find ourselves morally degraded by seeing ourselves yoked with hired slave mechanics in the public streets and thoroughfares of the towns or being confined in the same rooms (shops) with a lot of sweating and puffing hired black slave mechanics."1 Haller's complaint was part of a larger campaign by the Mechanics' Institute of Little Rock, a group of white workingmen, to rid the city of all types of unfree and degraded labor, including not only slaves who competed with whites but also convicts and free blacks.2

During the two-month campaign, the Mechanics' Institute enunciated its own version of a free labor ideology more commonly voiced in the antebellum North, where it fueled the growth of the Republican party. At the heart of this ideology was the belief that free workers, if forced to compete with slave or other forms of unfree labor, would themselves become something akin to slaves-forced to accept low wages and brutal working conditions and stripped of the ability to achieve the economic independence considered necessary for true citizenship. Although free labor ideas could foster sympathy for those held in bondage, most free laborites-both in the North and in Little Rock-viewed African Americans as economic threats and denigrated them as morally, socially, and intellectually inferior to whites.3

The Mechanics' Institute's free labor campaign had mixed results. Although the state of Arkansas took steps to remove convicts and free blacks from competition with free white workingmen in early 1859, the mechanics could not convince the state to prohibit the working of slaves at non-agricultural pursuits. But even those who led the opposition to the Mechanics' efforts conceded the principle that free white workingmen should not be forced to compete with unfree labor; they simply insisted that those with African blood could never possess the knowledge, skill, or work ethic necessary truly to replace white mechanics and artisans. Free labor ideas resonated in Little Rock and Arkansas much more than historians have realized.4

Debates over free labor were at the heart of the sectional conflict that erupted into civil war in the spring of 1861. Many northerners, especially those belonging to the Republican party, insisted that the nation's western territories should be a place where humble whites could move in order to improve their lot. They feared if whites in these territories were forced to coexist with slave labor that they could never save enough money to escape the indignities of wage work. These northerners saw the opportunity to secure economic independence-owning one's own shop or farm-as the cornerstone of both citizenship and the republican system of government and worried that slave labor's degradation of free white labor was a step along the path to aristocracy. They wanted the West to be "free soil"-that is the land reserved for free labor and available at little cost to those whites who wished to settle it. Large numbers of white southerners, though, asserted that slaveholders had an absolute right to take their slaves into the western territories and claimed that Congress was constitutionally obliged to protect their slave property in these areas. These southerners feared that, if slavery was banned from the western territories, plantation agriculture-with its voracious appetite for land-and the ways of life it supported would collapse and their region would become increasingly impotent in national affairs.

For all its importance to northern anti-slavery sentiment, historians have located pockets of free labor thought among workers in the cities of the antebellum urban South. …

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