No Emancipation for the Wage Slave


It is often remarked that the Northern climate led to slavery’s demise up there, though it is more accurate to say that Massachusetts inventor Eli Whitney, New England cotton mills, and a plentiful supply of wage slaves had more to do with it. The South had great expanses of cultivated land to produce raw cotton for those Northern mills, Manhattan banks provided financial lubricant, and New England slave ships continued to ply the Gulf of Benin for dusky laborers to work the plantations.

Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute


No Emancipation of the Wage Slaves:

“Negro slavery was a flop in the North.

The accent there was on manufacturing and the Negro was at his best when teamed up with a hoe and a cotton patch. The thrifty manufacturers of New England had a cheaper and more efficient labor supply readily at
hand in the white wage slaves already there and the immigrants from Europe who came flooding in.

The chattel slave [in the South] had to be fed and clothed and taken care of in sickness and in health. When he got too old to work he had to be provided for. Some States made it illegal for slaves to work on Sundays under pain of a fine of five pounds. The average work day was about eleven hours [and] The slave was given a holiday between Christmas and New Year’s. Louisiana prescribed by law that every slave had to be given a minimum of 200 pounds of pork a year.

The New England white wage slave wasn’t nearly as expensive and a lot more efficient. He represented no capital outlay. He worked for starvation wages. Laborers in the North in 1860 were earning 60 cents a
day, and a day was often 14 to 16 hours.

The plight of women workers was even more appalling. In New York city, during the Civil War, women umbrella workers, after laboring 18 hours from six in the morning to midnight, earned three dollars a week.  Seamstresses in the underwear crafts got seventeen cents for a twelve-hour day.  When the wage slave got sick he went off the payroll. When worn out by age and hard work, he was discarded like an old shoe.

Bells rang at daybreak in most factory towns. The wage slaves – men and women, boys and girls – had to report at the factory gates in fifteen minutes. An hour later they were allowed twenty-five minutes for whatever breakfast they had brought. They got another twenty-five minutes at mid-day. The gates opened again at 8 o’clock that night to let the wage slaves go home.

In the Eagle Mill, at Griswold, Conn., the work day lasted fifteen hours and ten minutes. At Paterson, New Jersey, women and children began the day’s work at 4:30 o’clock in the morning. Overseers in some textile mills cracked a cowhide whip over the backs of women and children.  That isn’t to say that chattel slavery was to be preferred to wage slavery.  There were folks who used to say that back in the middle of the past century but whenever Abraham Lincoln heard them Old Abe would sort of hunch those bony shoulders of his and cock his head to one side and burn them down with a single sentence.

“They’ve written volume after volume to prove slavery a good thing,” he’d say, “”but I never heard of a man who wishes to take the good of it by being a slave himself.”

(My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night! W.E. Debnam, The Graphic Press, 1955, pp. 30-31)