Wendell Phillips, The Labor Question, 1872

The Labor Question
The text of an 1872 speech by Wendell Phillips
Scanning and OCR are taken from the book:
Theodore C. Pease, editor; Speeches, Lectures and Letters by
Wendell Phillips, Second Series
, Boston: Lee and Shepard,
1905, pages 168-177


Delivered before the International Grand Lodge of the Knights of Saint Crispin, in April, 1872.

Gentlemen, I feel honored by this welcome of your organization, and especially so when I consider that the marvellously rapid success of the political strength of the Labor movement, especially in New England, is due mainly to this organization. There never has been a party formed that in three years has attracted toward itself such profound attention throughout the United States. Some of you may be old enough to remember that when the Antislavery sentiment, nearly thirty years ago, endeavored to rally a political party, it took them some seven or nine years before they had an organization that could be considered national in any real sense. The political Labor movement in three years has reached a position of influence which it took that idea nine years to obtain.

I trace that rapid progress in popular recognition to the existence of these Crispin lodges and trades-unions of the State. You cannot marshal fifty thousand men at once, taken promiscuously from parties and sects; they must be trained to work together, they must be disciplined in co-operation; and it is the training and the discipline which the working-men got in these organizations that enabled the Labor movement to assume its proportions so rapidly.

Then, again, I stand here with great interest from another consideration, -- I stand in the presence of a momentous power. I do not care exactly what your idea is as to how you will work, whether you will work in this channel or in the other. I am told that you represent from seventy thousand to one hundred thousand men, here and elsewhere. Think of it! A hundred thousand men! They can dictate the fate of this nation. Give me fifty thousand men in earnest, who can agree on all vital questions, who will plant their shoulders together, and swear by all that is true and just that for the long years they will put their great idea before the country, and those fifty thousand men will govern the nation. So if I have one hundred thousand men represented before me, who are in earnest, who get hold of the great question of labor, and having hold of it, grapple with it, and rip it and tear it open, and invest it with light, gathering the facts, piercing the brains about them and crowding those brains with the facts, -- then I know, sure as fate, though I may not live to see it, that they will certainly conquer this nation in twenty years. It is impossible that they should not. And that is your power, gentlemen.

I rejoice at every effort working-men make to organize; I do not care on what basis they do it. Men sometimes say to me, "Are you an Internationalist?" I say, "I do not know what an Internationalist is;" but they tell me it is a system by which the working-men from London to Gibraltar, from Moscow to Paris, can clasp hands. Then I say God speed, God speed, to that or any similar movement.

Now, let me tell you where the great weakness of an association of working-men is. It is that it cannot wait. It does not know where it is to get its food for next week. If it is kept idle for ten days, the funds of the society are exhausted. Capital can fold its arms, and wait six months; it can wait a year. It will be poorer, but it does not get to the bottom of the purse. It can afford to wait; it can tire you out, and starve you out. And what is there against that immense preponderance of power on the part of capital? Simply organization. That makes the wealth of all, the wealth of every one. So I welcome organization. I do not care whether it calls itself Trades-union, Crispin, International, or Commune; anything that masses up the units in order that they may put in a united force to face the organization of capital, anything that does that, I say amen to it. One hundred thousand men! It is an immense army. I do not care whether it considers chiefly the industrial or the political questions; it can control the nation if it is in earnest. The reason why the Abolitionists brought the nation down to fighting their battle is that they were really in earnest, knew what they wanted, and were determined to have it. Therefore they got it. The leading statesmen and orators of the day said they would never urge abolition; but a determined man in a printing-office said that they should, and they did it.

And so it is with this question exactly. Brains govern this country; and I hope to God the time will never come when brains won't govern it, for they ought to. And the way in which you can compel the brains to listen and to attend to you on the question of labor, actually to concentrate the intellectual power of the nation upon it, is by gathering together by hundreds of thousands, no matter whether it be on an industrial basis or a political basis, and saying to the nation, "We are the numbers, and we will be heard," and you may be sure that you will. Now, an Englishman has but one method to pursue, to be heard. He puts his arm up among the cog-wheels of the industrial machine, and stops it. That is a strike. The London Times looks down and says, "What in heaven is the matter?" That is just what the man wants; he wishes to call public attention to the facts, and the consequence is that every newspaper joins with the Times, and asks what is the matter, and the whole brain of the English nation is turned to consider the question. That is good, but we have a quicker way than that. We do not need to put our hands up among the cog-wheels, and stop the machine. Pierpont said of the little ballot, --

"It executes the freeman's will,
As lightning does the will of God."

Now, I turn my sight that way because I am a Democrat, a Jeffersonian Democrat in the darkest hour. England can look down into Lancashire, rotting in ignorance; and if the people there rise up to claim their share of the enjoyments of life, she need not care, because she says, "I have got the laws of state in the hands of the middle classes; and if that man down there can handle a spade, or work in a mill, it is all I want of him; and, if he ever raises his hand against the State, I will put my cavalrymen into the saddle, and ride him down." The man is nothing but a tool to do a certain work.

But when America looks down into her Lancashire, into the mines of Pennsylvania, she says literally, "Well, his hand holds the ballot, and I cannot afford to leave him down there in ignorance." I admire democracy because it takes bonds of wealth and power, that they shall raise the masses. If they don't do it, there is no security. Therefore, on every great question I turn instantly to politics. It is the people's normal school; it is the way to make the brains of the nation approach the subject. Why, in 1861 or 1862, when I first approached this question, you could not get an article on the Labor movement in any newspaper or magazine, unless, indeed, there was a strike, or something of that sort. Now you cannot take up any of the leading newspapers or magazines without finding them full of it; editors eat, drink, and sleep on it. The question is so broad, it has so many different channels, that it puzzles them. Even John Stuart Mill has not attempted to cover its whole breadth. It takes in everything.

Let me tell you why I am interested in the Labor Question. Not simply because of the long hours of labor; not simply because of a specific oppression of a class. I sympathize with the sufferers there; I am ready to fight on their side. But I look out upon Christendom, with its three hundred millions of people, and I see, that, out of this number of people, one hundred millions never had enough to eat. Physiologists tell us that this body of ours, unless it is properly fed, properly developed, fed with rich blood and carefully nourished, does no justice to the brain. You cannot make a bright or a good man in a starved body; and so this one third of the inhabitants of Christendom, who have never had food enough, can never be what they should be.

Now, I say that the social civilization.which condemns every third man in it to be below the average in the nourishment God prepared for him, did not come from above; it came from below; and the sooner it goes down, the better. Come on this side of the ocean. You will find forty millions of people, and I suppose they are in the highest state of civilization; and yet it is not too much to say, that, out of that forty millions, ten millions, at least, who get up in the morning and go to bed at night, spend all the day in the mere effort to get bread enough to live. They have not elasticity enough, mind or body, left to do anything in the way of intellectual or moral progress.

I take a man, for instance, in one of the manufacturing valleys of Connecticut. If you get into the cars there at 6.30 o'clock in the morning, as I have done, you will find, getting in at every little station, a score or more of laboring men and women, with their dinner in a pail; and they get out at some factory that is already lighted up. Go down the same valley about 7.30 in the evening, and you will again see them going home. They must have got up about 5.30; they are at their work until nigh upon eight o'clock. There is a good, solid fourteen hours. Now, there will be a strong, substantial man, like Cobbett, for.instance, who will sit up nights studying, and who will be a scholar at last among them, perhaps; but he is an expert. The average man, nine out of ten, when he gets home at night, does not care to read an article from the North American, nor a long speech from Charles Sumner. No; if he can't have a good story, and a warm supper, and a glass of grog perhaps, he goes off to bed. Now, I say that the civilization that has produced this state of things in nearly the hundredth year of the American Republic did not come from above.

I believe in the Temperance movement. I am a Temperance man of nearly forty years standing; and I think it one of the grandest things in the world, because it holds the basis of self-control. Intemperance is the cause of poverty, I know; but there is another side to that, -- poverty is the cause of intemperance. Crowd a man with fourteen hours work a day, and you crowd him down to a mere animal life. You have eclipsed his aspirations, dulled his tastes, stunted his intellect, and made him a mere tool, to work fourteen hours and catch a thought in the interval; and while one man in a hundred will rise to be a genius, ninety-nine will cower down under the circumstances. Now, I can tell you a fact. In London, the other day, it was found that one club of gentlemen, a thousand strong, spent twenty thousand dollars at the club-house during the year for drink. Well, I would allow them twenty thousand dollars more at home for liquor, making in all forty thousand dollars a year. These men were all men of education and leisure; they had books and paintings, opera, race-course, and regatta. A thousand men down in Portsmouth in a ship-yard, working under a boss, spent at the grog-shops of the place, in that year, eighty thousand dollars, -- double that of their rich brethren. What is the explanation of such a fact as that? Why, the club-man had a circle of pleasures and of company; the operative, after he had worked fourteen hours, had nothing to look forward to but his grog.

That is why I say, lift a man, give him life, let him work eight hours a day, give him the school, develop his taste for music, give him a garden, give him beautiful things to see, and good books to read, and you will starve out those lower appetites. Give a man a chance to earn a good living, and you may save his life. So it is with women in prostitution. Poverty is the road to it; it is this that makes them the prey of the wealth and the leisure of another class. Give a hundred men in this country good wages and eight hours work, and ninety-nine will disdain to steal. Give a hundred women a good chance to get a good living, and ninety-nine of them will disdain to barter their virtue for gold.

You will find in our criminal institutions to-day a great many men with big brains, who ought to have risen in the world, -- perhaps gone to Congress. You may laugh, but I tell you the biggest brains don't go to Congress. Now, take a hundred criminals: ten of them will be smart men; but take the remainder, and eighty of them are below the average, body and mind, -- they were, as Charles Lamb said, "never brought up; they were dragged up." They never had any fair chance; they were starved in body and mind. It is like a chain weak in one link; the moment temptation came, it went over. Now, just so long as you hold two thirds of this nation on a narrow, superficial line, you feed the criminal classes.

Any man that wants to grapple with the Labor Question must know how you will secure a fair division of production. No man answers that question.

I hail the Labor movement for two reasons; and one is, that it is my only hope for democracy. At the time of the Antislavery agitation, I was not sure whether we should come out of the struggle with one republic or two; but republics 1 knew we should still be. I am not so confident, indeed, that we shall come out of this storm as a republic, unless the Labor movement succeeds. Take a power like the Pennsylvania Central Railroad and the New York Central Railroad, and there is no legislative independence that can exist in its sight. As well expect a green vine to flourish in a dark cellar as to expect honesty to exist under the shadow of those upastrees. Unless there is a power in your movement, industrially and politically, the last knell of democratic liberty in this Union is struck; for as I said, there is no power in one State to resist such a giant as the Pennsylvania road. We have thirty-eight one-horse legislatures in this country; and we have got a man like Tom Scott, with three hundred and fifty million dollars in his hands; and, if he walks through the States, they have no power. Why, he need not move at all. If he smokes, as Grant does, a puff of the waste smoke out of his mouth upsets the legislature.

Now, there is nothing but the rallying of men against money that can contest with that power. Rally industrially if you will; rally for eight hours, for a little division of profits, for co-operation; rally for such a banking-power in the government as would give us money at three per cent.

Only organize, and stand together. Claim something together, and at once; let the nation hear a united demand from the laboring voice, and then, when you have got that, go on after another; but get something.

I say, let the debts of the country be paid, abolish the banks, and let the government lend every Illinois farmer (if he wants it), who is now borrowing money at ten per cent, money on the half-value of his land at three per cent. The same policy that gave a million acres to the Pacific Railroad, because it was a great national effort, will allow of our lending Chicago twenty millions of money, at three per cent, to rebuild it.

From Boston to New Orleans, from Mobile to Rochester, from Baltimore to St. Louis, we have now but one purpose; and that is, having driven all other political questions out of the arena, having abolished slavery, the only question left is labor, -- the relations of capital and labor. The night before Charles Sumner left Boston for Washington the last time, he said to me, "I have just one more thing to do for the negro, -- to carry the Civil Rights Bill; and after that is passed, I shall be at liberty to take up the question of labor."

Now, one word in conclusion. If you do your duty, -and by that I mean standing together and being true to each other, -- the Presidental election you will decide, every State election you may decide if you please.

If you want power in this country; if you want to make yourselves felt; if you do not want your children to wait long years before they have the bread on the table they ought to have, the leisure in their lives they ought to have, the opportunities in life they ought to have; if you don't want to wait yourselves, -- write on your banner, so that every political trimmer can read it, so that every politician, no matter how short sighted he may be, can read it, "We never forget! If you launch the arrow of sarcasm at labor, we never forget; if there is a division in Congress, and you throw your vote in the wrong scale, we never forget. You may go down on your knees, and say, "I am sorry I did the act;" and we will say, "It will avail you in heaven, but on this side of the grave never." " So that a man, in taking up the Labor Question, will know he is dealing with a hair-trigger pistol, and will say, "I am to be true to justice and to man; otherwise I am a dead duck."