In 1839, in the Hudson River Valley, a group of land tenants organized themselves and refused to pay rent. For generations, the Hudson Valley land had been owned by the same family, which made a huge income by renting out property to small farmers, or tenants. But following the national recession of 1837, many tenants found themselves unable to pay. Thousands of tenants joined together to protest the landlord system. In the end, the government sent troops, who threw more than three hundred tenants in prison. Thus, “the power of the law crushed the Anti-Rent movement.”
This chapter is mostly about the people’s resistance to the growing inequality of the United States. Zinn begins by talking about a little-remembered populist movement in the 1830s, the goal of which was attacking the unjust rent system of the Hudson Valley. This movement was crushed with the force of the American military.
Around the same time, there was a minor stir in Rhode Island, known as Dorr’s Rebellion. In 1841, Thomas Dorr, a lawyer, mobilized working-class people to demonstrate for electoral reform, since, at the time, Rhode Island was the only state that didn’t grant universal suffrage for its white male residents. Dorr penned his own constitution, abolishing laws that required voters to own property. Dorr’s supporters unofficially voted for the constitution, and in 1842, Dorr led an attack on the state arsenal, hoping to arm his constituents and, it seems, found his own government. Dorr was arrested, charged with treason, and sentenced to jail time. Even after being imprisoned, he remained a martyr for many Americans who lacked property or power.
Dorr’s Rebellion was notable because, like the Anti-Rent movement, it challenged the idea that certain people should be given special privileges because they own large amounts of land. As late as the mid-19th century, some white male Americans couldn’t vote in state elections because they didn’t own property (at the time, neither blacks nor women could vote).
One rarely hears about Dorr or the Anti-Rent movement in American history textbooks—in fact, one rarely hears about any kind of class struggle. Many textbooks characterize Andrew Jackson as a “man of the people,” and yet the same textbooks spend little to no time talking about the “people” on whose behalf Jackson claimed to speak. Jackson may not have been a man of the people, but he was the first President to “master the liberal rhetoric” of speaking for the common man. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, presidents followed Jackson’s example by appealing to ordinary voters while continuing to protect the upper classes.
The bias of history textbooks leads to the omission of a thorough discussion of populism in the first half of the 19th century. Textbooks praise certain leaders, like Andrew Jackson, for being populists, but spend little to no time discussing the actual American people. In truth, American leaders gain power by pretending to be populists, even though, in secret they cater to the needs of the American elite.
Jackson’s demagoguery emerged at a time when the “common man” was becoming increasingly powerful. The 19th century was the age of the train, the canal, and the telegraph. Ordinary people had new opportunities to travel and organize themselves. The 19th century was also an era of “booms and slumps,” when the economy grew at an unstable rate, so that working-class people were often unemployed. Wealthy industrialists, therefore, needed to be careful to keep the working classes submissive, while enlisting the government to protect business.
In the 19th century, the common man was gaining new power: the power to travel across the country, to publicize his views in newspapers, etc. Whether consciously or unconsciously, American elites realized that they needed to prevent the American people from becoming too powerful or too dissatisfied with their lives.
It’s unclear how widespread populist movements were in the early 19th century. However, it is clear that the early 1800s were the era when Americans first formed trade unions as a defense against exploitation. Workers ran candidates in elections, but many seemed to think that rioting and demonstrating were more reliable means of getting what they wanted. In Philadelphia in 1835, trade unions organized factory strikes in support of a ten-hour workday (at the time, much less than the average work day). Workers intimidated those who refused to strike, often targeting poor Irish immigrants.
Noting that the historical record on radical populism in the early 19th century is incomplete, Zinn suggests that the early 19th century had its fair share of populist uprisings, strikes, and demonstrations. Most of these uprisings were reactions to the growing inequality of American society—for example, workers in Philadelphia protested their long hours and low wages.
In 1857, the labor movement was more widespread than ever. Women went on strike by themselves for the first time in years, and in New York and New Jersey, tens of thousands marched in support of higher wages and shorter hours. In 1860, the powerful shoe unions of New England went on strike, effectively ending the distribution of new shoes in the North. Strikes continued during the Civil War, when the price of food rose considerably. By 1864, about 200,000 workers belonged to a trade union. Many union workers opposed the Civil War, and went on strike to protest it—they couldn’t see the purpose of fighting for black slaves when they themselves worked in slave-like conditions. The federal government regularly sent troops to break strikes and attack war protesters. In 1863, the Union army broke up a massive riot in New York City, leaving about four hundred people dead.
As the 19th century went on, American workers became more aggressive in their uprisings and their demands for equality and respect. As a result, the federal government became more aggressive in its responses to populist uprisings—indeed, it began deploying federal troops to quell strikes and peaceful demonstrations. It’s important to notice that many working-class people in the 1860s weren’t interested in fighting for the Union—in spite of the government’s lofty rhetoric and patriotic proclamations, workers and immigrants couldn't see the point of fighting to free slaves, since their own lives were miserable and, in some ways, slave-like.
Around the time of the Civil War, the government took series of measures to strengthen business interests. In 1861 Congress instituted a high tariff that allowed businesses to raise prices. The next year, it passed the Homestead Act, allowing anyone to purchase a homestead for a mere dollar per acre, provided that they cultivated the land for five years. While such an act might seem generous, one should keep in mind that, around the same time, Congress gave railroad companies control of more than one hundred million acres, free of charge.
The Homestead Act is a perfect example of the injustice of the federal government. On the surface, the Homestead Act seems highly generous, since it essentially gave people free (or very cheap) land. However, the “generosity” of the federal government to the common man pales in comparison to the generosity of the government to the business community. As usual, the government seems to have been heavily biased toward the Establishment.
The 19th century, Zinn says, was a time when “the law did not even pretend to protect working people—as it would in the next century.” When there were accidents at a factory, workers weren’t compensated for their suffering, and they had no way of suing their employers. Nevertheless, trade unions continued to fight for worker’s rights. In 1872, union strikers in New York succeeded in winning an eight-hour day. Other union strikes in the 1870s won with limited successes. Most unions of the late 19th century did not admit black people. However, some unions, such as the National Labor Union, gradually opened its doors to black and female members. Unions also began to tackle more ambitious reforms—for example, demanding the issuing of paper money, rather than scrip that could only be redeemed at a company-owned store.
The worker’s movement of the second half of the 19th century arose from the miserable conditions of factories and the general indifference of the federal government to workers’ plight. Union strikers knew that they couldn’t pursue their grievance through the court system or the ballot box; as a result, they turned to strikes and riots to attract attention to their cause. Zinn acknowledges that unions, in spite of their populism and commitment to protecting their workers’ rights, weren’t perfect—indeed, many of them were bigoted and sexist. However, Zinn is careful to emphasize that some unions, though not most, welcomed black and female workers.
In 1873, the U.S. entered another recession. While some workers tried to migrate to South America or Europe, many workers who’d previously avoided unions now joined them. 1877 was the year of the Railroad Strike, still one of the most important strikes in American history. The strike began when railroad companies cut wages; in response, railway workers in Ohio and West Virginia went on strike, refusing to allow any trains to pass through. The governor of West Virginia asked Rutherford Hayes to send troops and, after the number of strikers entered the thousands, Hayes responded, temporarily restoring business in West Virginia.
As Zinn sees it, the Railroad Strike is representative of the federal government’s usual response to working-class uprisings: in the event of a national strike, the government usually sent in the army to break up the strike by force.
In spite of the troops in West Virginia, the railway strike spread to other cities, including Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. In Chicago, workers demonstrated to demand the nationalization of the railroads. Police officers attacked the crowds, killing three people. A similar pattern held in other American cities: workers demonstrated, and police or the military stepped in to “restore order.” In the end, the railroads made some concessions to the workers, but also strengthened their police force. By and large, the working classes’ attempts to go on strike against the railroads had failed: they were “not united enough, not powerful enough … but there was more to come.”
The workers involved in the Railroad Strike must have been phenomenally brave (and, perhaps, desperate), since even after Hayes sent federal troops to break up the strike, they persisted. However, the worker’s strike failed to accomplish its intended goals of raising wages and decreasing hours. Nevertheless, Zinn suggests that the Railroad Strike of 1877 was important because it prepared American workers for some more successful strikes in the future.