Free Labor in the American Revolution

Mark A. Lause
University of Cincinnati

The majority of Americans in the Revolutionary period were laboring people of one sort or another. In the countryside, their perspectives and activities became largely indistinguishable from that of the general population. However, their numbers in the cities and towns were large enough to define a distinctive approach to the problems of the Revolution.

The populations of only twenty communities had grown beyond 3,000, but Philadelphia, New York, and Boston had many times that number. A large proportion of these depended on the earnings of unskilled day labor or skilled craftsmanship. Among the latter, one advanced through the rank of apprentice to journeyman to master. Broadly described as "mechanicks," these urban artisans had disproportionate importance because of their location in the seaport cities. There, several of the more well-off and influential craftsmen like Paul Revere sat in the inner circles of Boston's Loyal Nine, the secret steering body of the opposition. Revere, like Benjamin Franklin was no mere manual laborer but a prosperous businessman who employed other artisans.

Nevertheless, the radical strategy of blocking enforcement of imperial measures required mobilizing craftsmen and laborers who had hitherto played only a marginal role in colonial political life. These urban commoners made their views felt by following street leaders like Ebenezer Macintosh, the Boston shoemaker in thwarting the Stamp Act of 1765. After initially leading this "mob" on a rampage against the symbols and property of the authorities, such men proved to be reliable, plebeian allies of the rebellious local elites.

After the 1766 repeal of the Stamp Act, the British imposed a series of duties on goods imported into the colonies. Unwilling to risk mobilizing "mobs" they could not control, opposition leaders turned to nonimportation. This new strategy had a particular appeal to the mechanics as domestic manufacturers of goods. While artisans tended more readily to favor the boycott of British imports, some colonial merchants immersed in Transatlantic trade, politics and culture lost whatever enthusiasm they had for this particular approach.

As a result, artisans began playing a more independent role in the resistance strategy. More or less distinct committees, associations and societies of mechanics began to appear under the general auspices of radical leaders. Craftsmen clashed with the authorities in such incidents as New York's Battle of Golden Hill and the Boston Massacre. As the British imposed the Tea Tax, craftsmen, laborers and seamen provided the self-invited participants in the "Tea Party."

As the actual fighting began, craftsmen and laborers provided disproportionate numbers to the militias and Continental army units.

While British occupation scattered the patriot peoples of Boston and New York, craftsmen at Philadelphia followed the local radical leaders in overthrowing the old Pennsylvania proprietary government. These also provided the political weight to secure the most democratic state constitution of the Revolutionary period. In most of the urban centers, women of the laboring classes provided the front line proponents of rigorous and militant actions to curb profiteering and regulate the prices of foodstuffs and other "necessaries" of life. Within the army, such grievances contributed to the eruption of the 1781 "mutiny" in which Philadelphia workingmen in the Pennsylvania Line waged what its historian called a "well-managed strike."

In the end, the victory for American Independence only partially realized the aspirations of such laboring people. Despite the success for which both Revere and Macintosh had worked, the former ended his days as a wealthy and respected Boston manufacturer basking in the fame of his 1775 ride, while Macintosh died forgotten in a Vermont poorhouse. For the Revolutionary generation, latter was much more characteristic of the fate of workingmen-participants and their families.

Nevertheless, independence had dissolved the social contract, leaving much open for renegotiation. Men with close personal ties to the development of the mechanic resistance and to the Revolution went on to organize other workers within their crafts and wage strikes for better wages and conditions. Samuel Lecount, a Philadelphia printers and Continental veteran shared both a record of his commitment to liberty and participation in the 1786 strike. Such forgotten men---and their children---established the first labor movement in American history.

Over time, the increasing proportions of propertyless workers, began rewriting the Declaration of Independence to reflect their grievances. In doing so, they discussed a social contract of the workplace, asserted a liberty that embraced a living wage and decent standard of living, and warned that violations of this understanding would lead to independent actions by workers. In this spirit, their organizations continued to celebrate the Fourth of July and cherish all such associations with the Revolutionary generation.

At the close of the war, Dr. Benjamin Rush wisely advised against confusing American Independence with "the American Revolution." The latter he wrote, had just begun. The struggles of the laboring people of the Revolutionary generation demonstrates that the "American Revolution" is still being fought

Select List of Additional Readings

Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York, 1976)

Philip S. Foner, Labor and the American Revolution (Westport CT, 1976)

Bruce Laurie, Artisan Into Worker (New York, 1989)

Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America (2nd ed.; New York, 1965)

Charles Olton, Artisans for Independence: Philadelphia Mechanics and the American Revolution (New York, 1975)

Howard B. Rock, Artisans of the New Republic: the Tradesmen of New York City in the Age of Jefferson (New York, 1979)

Charles G. Steffen, The Mechanics of Baltimore: Workers and Politics in the Age of Revolution, 1763-1812 (Urbana, 1984)

Richard Walsh, Charleston's Sons of Liberty: A Study of the Artisans, 1763-1789 (Columbia, 1959)

For the Postrevolutionary Years. Bruce Laurie, The Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850 (Philadelphia, 1980); Mark Lause, "Some Degree of Power": from Hired Hand to Union Craftsman in the Preindustrial American Printing Trades, 1778-1815 (Fayetteville, Arkanssas, 1991); and, Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York, 1984)

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