Factory-Slaves For New England’s Monied Aristocracy
Like the slave trade before it, the sharp Whig capitalists of New England saw financial gain as their goal and the human cost as inconsequential. They certainly possessed no moral high-standing from which to lecture others on the evils of human slavery, when it was they who brought the enslaved ones here.
Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402
Factory-Slaves For New England’s Monied Aristocracy:
"Enterprising merchants in Boston, New York City and Philadelphia found equal opportunities for wealth in the revival and expansion of trade and in the decline of competition from the older centers. Families in both these fortunate groups widely intermarried. Their harsh old Calvinistic beliefs gave way to more rational and dignified ones, and their political needs found expression in the conservative doctrines of the Whig party. A new aristocracy of growing wealth and power had come into being.
But industry had done more than produce capitalist. The young folks who had come down from the country to work in the mills soon learned that their move meant considerably more than just an escape from the fields and kitchens. Long hours at varied tasks in the open air were one thing; the same hours in a poorly ventilated, lint-filled room spent at a single task, was something else. They also learned that bitter competition between factories in periods of depression meant longer hours, more spindles to tend, and reduced wages. To protest or to strike brought lockouts and black lists. The alternatives were to accept or to leave. By 1844 most New England girls had chosen the latter course, and French Canadian and Irish girls had taken their places.
Workers in the great commercial centers fared little better. According to the Workingman’s Advocate, they were “despised and trampled upon by the drones and minions of fortune.” “The capitalists,” complained the New York State Mechanic, “A monied aristocracy,” they said, was hanging over the worker “like a mighty avalanche threatening the annihilation to every man who dared to question the capitalists’ right to enslave and oppress the poor and unfortunate.” Workers looked “round them upon the princely palaces and gaudy equipages of the rich” who consumed the fruits of the poor man’s labor without adding to “the common stock a grain of wheat or a blade of grass.” And when the right to organize was denied by the courts, workers solemnly proclaimed that “the freemen of the North are now on a level with the slaves of the South, with no other privilege than laboring, that drones may fatten your life blood.”
“There is not a state’s prison or house of correction in New England where the hours of labor are so long, the hours for meals so short, and the ventilation so much neglected as in the cotton mills with which I am acquainted,” wrote Dr. Josiah C. Curtis in his report to the American Medical Association. “Could any beast of burden bear the duration of toil imposed on the factory operative?” asked one editor, and then added, “How much better is a horse than a woman.” “Where is the humanity?” asked another. “It is swallowed up in gain – for the almighty dollar; and for this, poor girls are enslaved and kept in a state little better than the machinery, which, when it gets out of repair, is taken to a repair shop and restored: but not so the human machinery – that is kept in constant motion until the motive power is brought to a stop, and what of it then? It is laid to one side and new human machinery is procured.”
And what became of the girl who was laid aside? The Daily Democrat tells us that “while those who reaped the profits” dropped “their heads on cologne scented handkerchiefs in prayer and thanksgiving every Sabbath day,” the poor mill-girl came to Boston to die in a brothel.”
(Civil War In The Making, Avery O. Craven, LSU Press, 1959)