The Contagion and a Cure

tags: labor history, pandemics, yellow fever

Mark Lause is a Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati and author of 10 books, including most recently Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class,  and Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, Radicalism.

Finally, it had a remarkable impact on the working class generally.  As with earlier mass epidemics—famously the Black Death of the fourteenth century—the widespread death created a labor shortage.  Before 1793, hired craftsmen had organized short-lived mutual aid societies earlier and even waged a few episodic strikes, notably the 1786 effort of the local printers under the mentorship of Benjamin Franklin.

In the wake of depletion of the work force, lesser supply creates greater demand, raising the price of labor.  When this happens the free marketers of all stripes tend to raise a howl for severe regulation to suppress the price of labor.  In the wake of the yellow fever epidemic, the patriotic advocates of American freedom from British tyranny took up the use of English common law against dangerous “combinations” of hired workers.  After some preliminary threats—if not more—employers successful prosecuted Philadelphia’s journeymen shoemakers for “criminal conspiracy.”

More immediately, though, workers in roughly a dozen trades formed unions in the Philadelphia crafts.  The cabinet and chair makers of the city formed a particularly militant body that called a strike in April 1796.  Other organizations rallied to their support and the strikers established their own cooperative to earn a living while not supplying their bosses with their labor.  In May, they called upon “other Mechanical Societies, viz. House-Carpenters, Tailors, Goldsmiths, Saddlers, Coopers, Painters, Printers, &c &c” to form “a plan of union, for the protection of their mutual independence.”

About this time, John McIlvaine of the printers union published a rhyming address appealing to shoemakers, ie. “cordwainers:”

Speak not of failure, in our attempt to maintain,

For our labor a fair compensation;

All that we want is assistance from you,

To have permanent organization;

A commencement we’ve made, associations we have,

From one to thirteen inclusive,

Come join them my friends, and be not afraid,

Of them being in the least delusive;

A generation before the establishment of Philadelphia’s celebrated Mechanics Union of Trade Associations in 1827, American workers had already established the rudiments of a city central network, the institutional embodiment of a growing sense of solidarity among hired workers.


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