The Market Revolution and (The Myth of?) Free Labor

ByRay Tyler
On March 9, 2021

What historical sites are on your bucket list? Fortunately, I have visited several of mine – Civil War sites from Chickamauga to Gettysburg and civil rights sites like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Once, on a sweltering, memorable day at Mount Vernon, I laid a wreath in Washington’s Tomb. On a trip to Hawaii, I stood speechless in the somber memorial built over the USS Arizona’s sailors’ final resting place in Pearl Harbor, remembering my mother’s anguished wait for news from her brother, a young ensign stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. 

The primary purpose of this series of posts on Teaching American History’s Core Document Collection: Documents and Debates in American History and Government is to let teachers know about the audio recordings being added to these volumes by our colleague, Jeremy Gypton. It has also expanded my bucket list by two. My list now includes Pullman, Illinois – site of the Pullman Strike in 1894 – and the Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts. Both volumes of our Documents and Debates Core Document Collection include debates focused on social history – movements embedded in Americans’ daily lives. Examples include the Pullman Strike and the story of the factory girls of Lowell. 

Lowell’s ambitious investors planned a community of industrial and social innovation. They consolidated in one location the processes required to manufacture cloth, thus reducing production costs. They employed thousands of workers, many of whom were young women leaving New England farm life for a chance at independence. These women were required to sign yearly contracts, work 12-14 hour days, live in company housing, attend church, and adhere to the investors’ vision of morality. 

The documents in Teaching American History’s Volume I, Chapter 10: The Market Revolution and (The Myth of)? Free Labor tells the story of the rising debate over ostensibly free labor working long hours for low pay with rigid restrictions on their personal lives. Reformers like Orestes Bronson and William West likened the conditions Lowell’s factory girls labored under to that of the southern plantation slave – claiming rules requiring workers live in company boarding houses, follow strict behavior rules, and endure long hours for subsistence wages created a daily life similar to that of the enslaved person. Supporters of Lowell’s lifestyle, including some of the factory girls themselves, considered the life wholesome, healthy, and enjoyable. They welcomed the independence a wage offered and the community they found with other young women in the boarding houses.

The original focus of TAH’s content-focused professional development programs was on political history, because political history is the arena in which human beings can act according to “reflection and choice,” in the famous phrase from Federalist 1. Social history, on the other hand, usually focuses on broad movements that act on people and are outside of their control. Of course, “social history” is important. It is the arena in which we live our day-to-day lives, and political choices are usually made in awareness of the social realities people live within. Social history and political history need to be studied together because social life shapes politics, just as politics shapes social life. 

Understandably, today’s American history teachers seek a wide range of voices political, social, and cultural to use with their students. Therefore, TAH’s content-focused professional development programs have expanded over recent years to include topics like Gender and Equality, Women in American History and Politics, and Reform Movements in America. It is nice to see this expansion incorporated into our Documents and Debates Collection – as Americans  continue to examine the political debate that informs the choices of self-governing people.  

Documents in this Chapter 10: The Market Revolution and (The Myth of?) Free Labor include: 

  1. Orestes Bronson, The Laboring Classes, 1840
  2. “Song of the Spinners,” Lowell Offering, April 1841
  3. Massachusetts Lawmakers Investigate Working Conditions, 1845
  4. William West, “Wages Slavery and Chattel Slavery,” April 2 and 23, 1847
  5. Timetable for Lowell Mills, c. 1851 

We have also provided audio recordings of the chapter’s Introduction, Documents, and Study Questions. You’ll find these just beneath the headings for each element of the chapter. These recordings support literacy development for struggling readers and the comprehension of challenging text for all students.

Teaching American History: We the Teachers blog will feature chapters from our two-volume Documents and Debates in American History with their accompanying audio recordings each month until recordings of all 29 chapters are complete. Following today’s post on Volume I, Chapter 10, we turn, on March 23rd, to Volume II, Chapter 24: Containment and the Truman Doctrine. We invite you to continue following this blog closely, so you will be able to take advantage of the new audio feature as the recordings become available. 




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