Wage Slavery: A Quick History

Noam Chomsky Interview: History is Not Over, April 18, 1997:

Go back to the 1870s, the New York Times was denouncing wage labor. The standard of the Republican Party around 1870 was “We’re the party who opposes slavery and who opposes wage slavery.” The Republican Party, you know, we’re not talking about wild radicals. It doesn’t take much to go back to those days.

The standard position right through the 19th Century was that we’re against slavery, but renting yourself isn’t that different. It’s legitimate only as a step towards free labor which means you’re not rented. But in itself it’s unacceptable. That was a standard view right through the American mainstream through much of the 19th Century.

Noam Chomsky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, March 22, 2002:

From their point of view, what they called “wage slavery,” renting yourself to an owner, was not very different from the chattel slavery that they were fighting a civil war about. You have to recall that in the mid-nineteenth century, that was a common view in the United States — for example, the position of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln’s position. It’s not an odd view, that there isn’t much difference between selling yourself and renting yourself. So the idea of renting yourself, meaning working for wages, was degrading. It was an attack on your personal integrity. They despised the industrial system that was developing, that was destroying their culture, destroying their independence, their individuality, constraining them to be subordinate to masters.

There was a tradition of what was called Republicanism in the United States. We’re free people, you know, the first free people in the world. This was destroying and undermining that freedom. This was the core of the labor movement all over, and included in it was the assumption, just taken for granted, that “those who work in the mills should own them.”

Time to research Chomsky’s assertions:

We can start with Thomas Jefferson. Claudio J. Katz wrote an article in the American Journal of Political Science titled Thomas Jefferson’s Liberal AnticapitalismVol. 47, No. 1 (Jan., 2003), pp. 1-17:

For Jefferson, independence presupposed access to one’s own productive property. He anticipated the charge, familiar to Americans until the close of the nineteenth century, the working for hire represented a diminished form of liberty, tantamount to “wage slavery”.

Micheal Sandel of Harvard University has written about Lincoln’s conception of freedom and how it relates to wage labor and slavery in a book called “Democracy’s Discontent: America in a search for Public Policy“. The following quotations are taken from a chapter called “Free Labor versus Wage Labor”, Pgs 181-183:

Although he shared the abolitionist’ moral condemnation of slavery, Lincoln did not share their voluntarist conception of freedom. Lincoln’s main argument against the expansion of slavery rested on the free labor ideal, and unlike the abolitionists, he did not equate free labor with wage labor. The superiority of free labor to slave labor did not consist in the fact that free laborers consent to exchange their work for a wage whereas slaves do not consent. The differences was rather that the northern wage laborer could hope one day to escape from his condition, whereas the slave could not. It was not consent that distinguished free labor from slavery, but rather the prospect of independence, the chance to rise to own productive property and to work for oneself. According to Lincoln, it was this feature of the free labor system that the southern critics of wage labor overlooked: “They insist that their slaves are far better off than Northern freemen. What a mistaken view do these men have of Northern laborers! They think that men are always to remain laborers herebut there is no such class. The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself. And next year he will hire others to labor for him.

Lincoln did not challenge the notion that those who spend their entire lives as wage laborers are comparable to slaves. He held that both forms of work wrongly subordinate labor to capital. Those who debated “whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without consent,” considered too narrow a range of possibilities. Free labor is labor carried out under conditions of independence from employers and masters alike. Lincoln insisted that, at least in the North, most Americans were independent in this sense: “Men, with their families – wives, sons and daughters – work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other.

In Lincoln’s hands, the conception of freedom deriving from the artisan republican tradition became the rallying point for the northern cause in the Civil War. In the 1830s and 1840s, labor leaders had invoked this conception in criticizing northern society; wage labor, they feared, was supplanting free labor. In the late 1850s, Lincoln and the Republicans invoked the same conception in defending northern society; the superiority of the North to the slave holding South consisted in the independence the free labor system made possible.

The Union victory in the Civil War put to rest the threat of free labor posed by the slave power, only to revive and intensify the threat posed by the wage system and industrial capitalism. Lincoln had led the North to war in the name of free labor and the small, independent producer, but the war itself accelerated the growth of capitalist enterprise and factory production.

In 1869 the New York Times reported on the decline of the free labor system and the advance of wage labor. Small workshops had become “far less common than they were before the war,” and that “the small manufactures thus swallowed up have become workmen [for] wages in the greater establishments, whose larger purses, labor-saving machines, etc., refused to allow the small manufacturers a separate existence.” The article criticized the trend it described in terms reminiscent of the labor movement of the 1830s and 1840s. The fall of the independent mechanic to wage earner status amounted to “a system of slavery as absolute if not as degrading as that which lately prevailed in the South“.

The 1870 census, the first to record detailed information about Americans’ occupations, confirmed what many workers already knew. Not withstanding a free labor ideology that tied liberty to ownership of productive property, American had become a nation of employees.

Amid the ongoing Civil War, Abraham Lincoln gave the State of the Union Address on December 8, 1863. Towards the end of his speech, he address the issue of capital and labor.

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class—neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families—wives, sons, and daughters—work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.

Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned.

Let’s take a look at some other sources regarding this notion of “wage-slavery”.

Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, The Labor Question, (1883):

As labor becomes more intelligent he will develop what capital he already possesses – that is the power to organize and combine for its own protection. Experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.

There is nothing more common now that the remark that the physical condition of the freedmen of the South is immeasurably worse that in the time of slavery; that in respect to food, clothing and shelter they are wretched, miserable and destitute; that they are worse masters to themselves than their old masters were to them.

Ironically, the South’s leading pro-slavery intellectual, George Fitzhugh, also argued in 1849 that that wage labor was “worse than slavery”:

The rich man, however good he may be, employs the laborer who will work for the least wages. If he be a good man, his punctuality enables him to cheapen the wages of the poor man. The poor war with one another in the race of competition, in order to get employment, by underbidding; for laborers are more abundant than employers. Population increases faster than capital. Look to the situation of woman when she is thrown into this war of competition, and has to support herself by her daily wages. For the same or equally valuable services she gets not half the pay that man does, simply because the modesty of her sex prevents her from resorting to all the arts and means of competition which men employ.

The simple man represents a class, the common day laborers. The employer cheapens their wages, and the retail dealer takes advantage of their ignorance, their inability to visit other markets, and their want of credit, to charge them enormous profits. They bear the whole weight of society on their shoulders; they are the producers and artificers of all the necessaries, the comforts, the luxuries, the pomp and splendor of the world; they create it all, and enjoy none of it; they are the muzzled ox that treadeth out the straw; they are at constant war with those above them, asking higher wages but getting lower; for they are also at war with each other, underbidding to get employment. This process of underbidding never ceases so long as employers want profits or laborers want employment. It ends when wages are reduced too low to afford subsistence, in filling poor-houses, and jails, and graves.

Self-interest makes the employer and free laborer enemies. The one prefers to pay low wages, the other needs high wages. War, constant war, is the result.

In a densely peopled country, where the supply of laborers exceeds the demand, wages is worse than slavery.

Let’s turn our attention to another very interesting case in the first half of the 1800s: The Lowell Mill Women.

In the years before 1850 the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts became the nation’s largest textile manufacturing center. The increasing number of firms in Lowell and in other mill towns brought the pressure of competition. Overproduction became a problem and the prices of finished cloth decreased. The high profits of the past declined and so, too, did conditions for the mill operatives. Wages were reduced and the pace of work within the mills was stepped up. The women, who made up 85% of the workforce, did not accept these changes without protest. Their writing during this period is very revealing of the conditions and the mindsets of the public of this time.

Check out the chapter titled Women, Work, and Protest int he Early Lowell Mills by Thomas Dublin’s Labor History (1975).

The women of Lowell first made their grievances heard in 1834. Read the Boston Evening Transcript, February 18, 1834:

Our present object is to have union and exertion, and we remain in possession of our unquestionable rights. We circulate this paper wishing to obtain the names of all who imbibe the spirit of our Patriotic Ancestors, who preferred privation to bondage, and parted with all that renders life desirable–and even life itself–to procure independence for their children. The oppressing hand of avarice would enslave us, and to gain their object, they gravely tell us of the pressure of the time, this we are already sensible of, and deplore it. If any are in want of assistance, the Ladies will be compassionate and assist them; but we prefer to have the disposing of our charities in our own hands; and as we are free, we would remain in possession of what kind Providence has bestowed upon us; and remain daughters of freemen still.

The women interpreted the wage cuts as an effort to “enslave” them — to deprive them of the independent status as “daughters of freemen.” Wage reductions forces a future dependence on mill employment. By striking, the women asserted their actual economic independence of the mills and their determination to remain “daughters of freemen still.”

In 1836, the women went on strike again. These are the lyrics to one of the protest songs:

Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I’m so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave

The women organized and wrote feverishly. Factory Tracks are texts distributed as flyers by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association of Lowell Massachusetts. Let’s take a look at the following letter published in November 7, 1845 by “Amelia”.

Some of the Beauties of Our Factory System – Otherwise, Lowell Slavery (1845)

It is pretty generally known that the Female Labor Reform Association, of this City, are publishing a series of Tracts, the object of which is, to give a true exposition of the Factory system and its effects upon the health and happiness of the operatives.

We will soon show these drivelling cotton lords, this mushroom aristocracy of New England, who so arrogantly aspire to lord it over God’s heritage, that our rights cannot be trampled upon with impunity; that we will not longer submit to that arbitrary power which has for the last ten years been so abundantly exercised over us.

From every rolling river,
From mountain, vale and plain,
We call on you to deliver
Us, from the tyrant’s chain:

And shall we call in vain? We trust not. More anon.

Chomsky quotes the labor press in the 1840s. Voice of Industry, March 28, 1848:

When you sell your product, you retain your person. But when you sell your labor, you sell yourself, losing the rights of free men and becoming vassals of mammoth establishments of a monied aristocracy that threatens annihilation to anyone who questions their right to enslave and oppress.

Those who work in the mills ought to own them, not have the status of machines ruled by private despots who are entrenching monarchic principles on democratic soil as they drive downwards freedom and rights, civilization, health, morals and intellectuality in the new commercial feudalism.

And for the grand finally: The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860: The Reaction of American Industrial Society to the Advance of the Industrial Revolution. Published in 1924 by Canadian-born historian Norman Ware, this book goes into meticulous detail about the conditions of the labor classes following the rise of industrialism in the mid-19th century. Many of these observations and conclusions are drawn from workers’ writings in the popular labor newspapers of the time, including Voice of Industry, Working Man’s Advocate, and The Awl.

Here are some excerpts:

As late as 1854, a little group of highly skilled pianoforte makers in New York declared that a daily wage was equivalent to slavery and hoped that “the day is far distant when they [the wage-earners] will so far forget what is due to manhood as to glory in a system forced on them by their necessity and in opposition to their feelings of independence and self-respect. May the piano trade long be spared such exhibitions of the degrading power of the day system.”

New York Daily Tribune, March 22, 1854. The term ‘wage-slave’ had a much better standing in the forties than it has to-day. It was not then regarded as an empty shibboleth of the soap-box orator. This would suggest that it has suffered only the normal degradation of language, has become a cliche, not that it is a grossly misleading characterization.

Wherever we turn our eyes we see insurmountable obstacles presented to our view. Here we see a moneyed aristocracy hanging over us like a mighty avalanche threatening annihilation to every man who dares to question their right to enslave and oppress the poor and unfortunate. If we take another view we find
ourselves crippled and destroyed by human competition, and last, though not least, we see machinery introduced that will not only lessen but annihilate the last surviving hope of the honest mechanic.

The new industrialism was repugnant to the liberal tradition of the eighteenth century. Workers and reformers alike considered that they were being enslaved, not only by the new power, but by their own acquiescence.

They accepted, along with their generation, the theory that the price of labor and the price of goods were determined by natural law in a completely competitive market. No one seems to have imagined that wages could be affected artificially in the same way that the prices of cotton goods had been affected from the beginning of the industry.

It was in fact the more vital ‘Spirit of the Age.’ “The first lesson a boy is taught on leaving the parental roof,” said a Fall River labor leader in 1846, “is to get gain…gain wealth…forgetting all but self….”

In addition to this, wages were paid in ‘store orders’ instead of cash, a practice that was very common in the period and meant a loss to the worker of from twenty to thirty and even fifty per cent. The men were said to be “as completely subjugated to the will of the employers as was possible in a free country.”

The Lynn shoemakers, after they had completed their own organization, sent a circular to the shoemakers throughout New England asking their cooperation in an attempt to get better prices. “Let us prove,” they wrote, “that we are not menials or the humble subjects of a foreign despot, but free, American citizens.” At the same time they admitted, “We are slaves in the strictest sense of the word. For do we not have to toil from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same for our masters— aye, masters, and for our daily bread?”

The shoemakers signed a “declaration of independence” [The Awl, 1844]:

Whereas, our employers have robbed us of certain rights which they will, in our opinion, never voluntarily restire … we feel bound to rise unitedly in our strength and burst asunder as freemen ought the shackles and fetters with which they have long been chaining and binding us, by an unjust and unchristian use of power and a host of advantages which the possession of capital and superior knowledge furnishes.

“So far as the journeymen are concerned,” Greeley lamented, “the Golden Age of printing is passing away.” Those who were yet young were advised to go West “where independence and plenty may be found.” While they remain at their trade “they are always slaves . . . despite their proud boasts of freemen, living from hand to mouth and seldom in possession of twenty dollars clear of the world.

The Lowell factory system was being attacked in our period from two directions. The Battle of Books represented the opposition of the intellectuals and was directed chiefly against the alleged tendency to degrade the morals and health of the operative, while the attack of the operatives themselves was chiefly against the ‘tyranny’ and ‘despotism ‘ of the system, its increasing discipline and anti-republican nature.

That the factory system contains in itself the elements of slavery, we think no sound reasoning can deny, and every day continues to add power to its incorporate sovereignty, while the sovereignty of the working people decreases in the same ratio.

It was against despotism, whether benevolent or malicious, that the industrial worker was in revolt. “It is the monopoly feature that we have opposed. … It is the divorce of labor and capital in the repartition of dividends—the fact that labor is not represented in these companies. . . . They who work in the mills ought to own them.

“I do not believe,” said the “Citizen of Lowell,” “that there is upon the face of the earth any large class of persons who labor incessantly for so many hours each
day as do the factory operatives of New England.” In the matter of health, no class of persons in the country were so unfavorably situated. The slaves were infinitely better off than the factory operatives, and if the moral and intellectual condition of the latter was better no thanks were due to the factory system, “for that allows less time for the improvement of the intellect and morals than the slaves enjoy.”

In 1846, a long, low, black wagon, termed a “slaver,” makes trips to the north of the State cruising around in Vermont and New Hampshire with a commander who is paid $1 a head for all [the girls] he brings to the market and more in proportion to the distance —if they bring them from a distance they cannot easily get back. This is done by representing to the girls that they can tend more machinery than is possible and that the work is so very neat and wages such that they can dress in silks and spend half their time in reading.

Scarcity of employment, low wages, and fourteen, sixteen hours of labor per day [they contended] are indeed grievances which the laborer does now and then muster courage to grumble about; but they are not fundamental. The laborer does not belong to himself, has no right to be, and exists upon sufferance. He is emphatically a wage slave.

A member from your city [Lowell] made a speech in which he said that capitalists and priests had joined hands to put down, grind and oppress the laboring man – that commerce, manufacturing and foreign emigration were killing them – that there was ten times more slavery in Lowell than on the Southern plantations – that Lowell manufactured the prostitutes of New York.

Again, in July, the Land Reformers called a meeting at Croton Hall of “mechanics, laborers, and useful persons,” They made a great parade of the craft character of the delegation and declared that in the City of New York are 65,000 paupers, that is, one-seventh of the entire population; in the State, one in seventeen is a pauper, and ratios in city and country are increasing year by year. The compensation for labor is steadily sinking until thousands are now reduced to the starvation point. Labor and laborer— it is useless to deny it — are, in this Republican country even, subject to a subtle, indirect slavery rarely acknowledged, but everywhere felt. And in this respect the white laborer of the North is in a worse state than the slave of the South, for while the condition of the slave is pretty much the same from year to year, that of the supposed free man is growing constantly worse.

This Croton Hall meeting had grown out of a gathering of mechanics at the National Hall to consider organizing cooperatives. But Bovay, the secretary of the National Reformers, had killed this proposal, asserting that the ballot box was the only hope of the worker, and through the ballot box the freedom of the public lands, “that the virgin [soil], rich and wild as at the dawn of creation, should be preserved, a free asylum for the oppressed and a safe retreat for the slaves of wages and all other slaves forever.”

In Boston, the Congress developed out of cooperative activities. The shoemakers proposed to form a cooperative society “to emancipate themselves from the system of wage slavery and become their own masters.”

You get the point.

Now, don’t for a minute think that this “wage slave” phrase was confined to the 19th century. In 1947, Congress pass the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft–Hartley Act. The labor class was staunchly against it, calling it the “slave labor bill” — as reported in Time magazine.

Please note that the sentiments expressed by the American laborers regarding wage slavery, capital and exploitation were completely independent of the socialist movements taking place in Europe. Karl Marx had not published his famous Manifesto till 1848 and it took several decades before his ideas reached the Americas. In other words, the sentiments of the American laborer were a natural response to the realities of the time. Here is a quick timeline of events in support of this argument:

  • Manifesto of the Communist Party was published in 1848.
  • The first English translation of the Communist Manifesto, by Miss Helen Macfarlane, appeared in George Julian Harney’ s Red Republican, London, 1850.
  • The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), commonly known as the First International, was established in London in 1864. The organization was initially strictly European in composition, including prominently English, French, German, Polish, and Italian labor leaders and political activists.
  • The IWA made its way to American soil in 1866 when Italian socialist Cesare Orsini, brother of an attempted assassin of Napoleon III, arrived in the United States in 1866 and attempted to organize an American section.
  • In 1876, Workingmen’s Party of the United States (WPUS) was formed as one of the first Marxist-influenced political parties in the United States. It later changed its name to the Socialist Labor Party of America in 1877.

Poor Karl gets a bad rap for simply writing down what the world was already thinking 🙁

Thanks for reading,


PDF of The Industrial Working 1840-1860

Complete Issues of The Voice of Industry

Chomsky on Democracy & Education (2003)

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