Whitman shared his misgivings with large numbers of Americans in these years. The depression of 1873 and the violence of 1877 had struck alarm bells heard everywhere. America seemed once more on the edge of civil disaster. "Sudden as a thunder burst from a clear sky," wrote the journalist J. Dacus in 1877,
"the crisis came upon the country. It seemed as if the whole social and political structure was on the very brink of ruin," as thousands of workers, "alleging that they were wronged and oppressed . . . bid defiance to the ordinary instruments of legal authority." Not all citizens, of course, viewed strikers and workers on the tramp with Whitman's sympathy. In a memorable collocation assembled from The New York Times of July 1877 by historian Philip Foner, the reader can easily discern the newspaper's point of view of the railroad strikers:
Disaffected elements, roughs, hoodlums, rioters, mob, suspicious-looking individuals, bad characters, thieves, blacklegs, looters, communists, rabble, labor-reform agitators, dangerous class of people, gangs, tramps, drunken section-men, law breakers, threatening crowd, bummers, ruffians, loafers, bullies, vagabonds, cowardly mob, bands of worthless fellows, incendiaries, enemies of society, reckless crowd, malcontents, wretched people, loud-mouthed orators, rapscallions, brigands, robbers, riffraff, terrible felons, idiots.
In short, all but "savage Indians." The dean of the Yale Law School supplied the missing term, however, in "A Paper on Tramps" at an 1877 meeting of the American Social Science Association: "As we utter the word Tramp, there arises straightaway before us the spectacle of a lazy, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savage." In such images of unruly passions and suspicious motives did respectable folk find their fears confirmed: the troubles marked a degeneration of virtue, a loss of those character traits of industry, regularity, and respect for order essential to the republic.
It is noteworthy that the violence of 1877 spurred middle-class organizations of charity and cultural enlightenment in towns and cities across the country. But intimations of disaster, of a cancerous growth attacking the nation's vital organs, did not subside. The 1880's brought even greater numbers of strikes and battles, reaching a crest in what labor historians call the Great Upheaval of 1886, the year of the Knights of Labor's great strike against Jay Gould's railroad in the Southwest, the peak of agitation for an eight-hour day, and the Haymarket riot in Chicago. The perception spread that America was in the grip of alien forces. But exactly who were the aliens became a bone of consid-
erable contention. The vehemence of the Times, of journals like The Nation, and commentary from respectable middle-class pulpits such as Henry Ward Beecher's in Brooklyn, may have comforted some citizens with the notion that only virtue and discipline were wanted to restore harmony. But for many more, including communities in which small merchants and clergymen joined in support of aggrieved workers, the lack seemed more visible at the top of an increasingly lopsided society. After a harsh attack by police on demonstrating unemployed workers in Tompkins Square in New York in 1876, editor of the New York Sun (and later one of the prominent labor journalists of the period) John Swinton wrote angrily that "the power of money has become supreme over everything," securing "for the class who controls it all the special privileges" it required for "complete and absolute domination. This power must be kept in check," he wrote; "it must be broken or it will utterly crush the people."
Of course, "the power of money," class privilege, the dominion of wealth, had seemed potential enemies of "the people" since the early years of the republic, and the language of labor reformers and union leaders in the postwar era rang in accents of antebellum campaigns against monopolies and banks. By the same token, abject poverty, pauperism, the dependency and in- security of wage-earning, had seemed equally out of place; these were precisely the social evils of Europe it was America's mission to prevent. Now, in the 1870's, these opposite images seemed out of control. During the Grant Administration (1869-77) the new monied power had been involved in scandal, bribery, and corruption reaching even to the Cabinet and the Presi- dent's circle of intimates: Credit Mobilier, the Gold Conspiracy, the Whiskey Ring, the notorious Salary Grab. Here the monied classes showed a new brand of arrogance, tampering with the political faith of the people. And a new breed of unscrupulous figures, chiefly financiers, speculators, and railroad promoters, tapping the public purse with apparent impunity, and parading their private wealth and power in lavish mansions and luxurious banquets, offended older business and political groups. With the depression of 1873, and spreading unemployment, poverty, unrest, and strikes in the following years, social contrasts reached a pitch without precedent in American life outside the slave South.
Both extremes seemed alien in the eyes of Americans in several social sectors, especially among that large stratum called the middle class. As that group itself experienced dynamic changes in these years, differentiations of vocation, values, and outlook, perceptions of the social world changed. A premise widely shared in the North before the war, indeed serving as a rallying cry for the Northern cause, held that all labor deserved its just rewards, that personal security and independence was the birthright of free Americans (white males) willing and able to work. Whitman evoked this broad belief and expectation in his remark in the 1870's that the "real culmination" of America lay in the prospective "establishment of millions of comfortable city homesteads and moderate-sized farms, healthy and independent, single separate ownership, fee simple, life in them complete but cheap, within reach of all." This had seemed to be the prevalent aspiration of factory workers, farmers, small merchants, and manufacturers.
Now, Whitman observed, the signs of "exceptional wealth, splendor, countless manufacturers, excess of exports, immense capital and capitalists," represented "a sort of anti-democratic disease and monstrosity." But for some middle-class people on the rise, the immensity of capital and capitalists represented perfectly that ambition of mobility implicit in "single separate own- ership." Was not the successful businessman the very model of a "healthy and independent" America? The poor had no one to blame but themselves. Workers, on the other hand, tended to agree with Whitman. Inheritors of the republican rhetoric valuing labor, independence, and free institutions, they tended to view wage labor as another form of slavery, of life-long dependency, and the monied classes as usurpers. The condition of "employee" was not meant to be permanent.
The strength of republican rhetoric, of the prewar consensus regarding "free labor," was such that political battles and ideological campaigns in the Gilded Age took the appearance of struggles over the meaning of the word "America," over the political and cultural authority to define the term and thus to say what reality was and ought to be. The consensus, unstable even at the height of the campaign against slavery and the execution of the war, split asunder in the crisis of the 1870's. New ideological configurations reshaped themselves according to sharply di-
verse experiences which now divided industrial workers, small farmers, merchants, manufacturers, bankers, and a rapidly growing stratum of lawyers, managers, sales and clerical workers, professional engineers, teachers, and civil servants. Judging from rhetoric alone, the term "America" now seemed the unstable element, the issue in contention. And nowhere more so than in the unrelenting conflict between the two colossal forces of the period, capital and labor. Like the West and the machine, capital and labor were highly charged, compact with changing and conflicting meanings. Uses of the images by business and workers differed profoundly on one side, but still rang with common meanings on another. Contrast grew increasingly stark and bitter in the eyes of labor, but few labor spokesmen called for an absolute overthrow of capital. Working-class consciousness took forms other than revolutionary action. "We want a system," explained Eugene Debs before his conversion to socialism in the 1890's, "in which the worker shall get what he produces and the capitalist shall produce what he gets." The dominant demands of labor were for fairness and economic justice, and as struggles intensified, a tone of betrayal appeared: had not the laboring man been led to expect a different outcome from his efforts than the prospect of lifelong drudgery and dependence?
The violence of feeling often registered in the speeches and writings of labor spokesmen arose in large part from the dawning sense of discrepancy between political promise and present con- ditions, between rhetoric and the facts of daily life. On the whole, labor had been drawn to the Republican Party during the Civil War on the basis of that party's espousal of the doctrine of free labor, of the nobility and dignity of productive work. The doctrine was founded on a work ethic which promised personal advancement and security for honest labor, frugal self-management, and disciplined personal character. Were not these virtues precisely the ground of distinction between the free North and the slave South, between the true America and its internal enemies? Embracing all "producing classes," excluding only those who, like speculators, promoters, and bankers, profited from the labors of others, Republicans viewed labor as the only sanctioned means to self-improvement. As Eric Foner writes, "The aspirations of the free labor ideology were thus thoroughly middle-
class, for the successful laborer was one who achieved self-employment, and owned his own capital a business, farm, or shop." With the small enterprise, the shop or farm, still at the basis of the Northern antebellum economy, all producers seemed potential entrepreneurs, and workers "nascent capitalists." "Property is the fruit of labor, property is desirable; is a positive good in the world," taught Abraham Lincoln; "that some would be rich shows that others may become rich." An implicit labor theory of value, that all wealth originates in someone's labor, seemed to assure continuous mobility between the status of laborer and the rank of independent entrepreneur. Drawing on popular sermonizing and storytelling about character reform, temperance, diligence, and self-made men, the free-labor ideology impressed itself deeply on middle-class life.
Its appeal to the majority of workers in the 1850's and 1860's, as the pace of industrialization quickened and factories developed into larger, more demanding institutions, is questionable. But as long as the boundary between wage earner and capitalist seemed relatively passable, as it did in the 1860's, the ideology retained some credibility among workers. Individual workers and labor organizations supported the Republicans during and just after the war years, as the radical wing of the party enacted a program of strengthening the federal government by extending its powers over both civil rights and banking. Support for emancipation, for equality (the Fourteenth Amendment redefining citizenship as a federal rather than a state right), seemed of a piece with the Republican economic program, and as David Montgomery has shown, labor groups looked toward Republican support for their demands, especially the eight-hour day. It became clear even by the end of the 1860's that the economic program would take first priority. Wartime fund-raising measures such as the increase in tariffs on imports and the establishment of direct taxes (including a short-lived income tax), the Legal Tender Act (1862), which increased the money supply by authorizing the issue of fiat paper money by the central government for the first time, and the founding of a National Banking System in 1863 established a key role for the federal government in the making of a unified national system of finance. Instituting the antebellum Whig program of direct government intervention to provide "internal improvements," the Republicans maintained the high tariff to
protect manufacturers as well as to provide income for government, supported railroad development by subsidies, land grants, and rights of way, quickened the disposal of the Western public domain into private hands by the Homestead Act, and with its money and banking policies, contributed directly to capital formation, the most urgent need of the rapidly expanding industrial sector.
In pursuit of the twin goals of destroying slavery and enhancing the free labor of Northern industry, the Union government under the Radical Republicans emerged as a genuine national state, complete with powers to issue money, tax individuals and personal property, raise an army by conscription, and confer and protect citizenship and its civil rights. The party would serve as an umbrella for both labor and business interests as long as the free-labor ideology held out the promise that, in David Montgomery's words, something lay "beyond equality," some hope for workers of social and economic, as well as legal, equality. The labor-Republican alliance splintered, however, as disappointment, frustration, and a sense of betrayal grew among workers. Conditions in the 1870's, the economic crisis in the North and the growing strength of Democratic "Redeemers" in the South, eroded the influence of the Radicals within the Republican Party. The ardent support for the voting and other civil rights of ex-slaves in the South had owed something to moral principle and something to expediency: the Republicans needed black votes for their majority in Congress. Black support lessened dramatically during the 1870's, as business-minded Republicans found willing friends among Southern Democrats. With the balance of commitment shifting from civil rights and equality toward more direct aid to industrial expansion (especially in the underdeveloped South, still reeling from the devastation of the war), Republicans were willing, in 1877, to barter Reconstruction and the federal occupation of the South, with its military protection of blacks, in exchange for the Presidency. Through the Compromise of 1877, the House of Representatives settled the disputed electoral count between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden by declaring Hayes the victor by a single vote.
Facilitated in large measure by the intervention of Thomas Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the nation's largest corporation at the time, the compromise was designed to forge
an alliance between Northern Republicans and friendly Southern Democrats especially interested in federal aid for such regional projects as the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Agreeing to abandon the efforts to swing votes for Tilden, the South gained autonomy for white-controlled state governments and the understanding that it might pursue its policies of racial discrimination without Northern intervention. As C. Vann Woodward has shown, the "politics of reconciliation" did not work smoothly for all parties. The compromise patently failed to bring the South into the new industrial order on a par with other sections. But it did open the region to Northern capital, which kept the South as a loyal "satellite" of the dominant industrial regime. Thus, concluded Woodward, "the South became a bulwark instead of a menace to the new order."
In that new order, it became clear, the ideology of free labor that promised independence and mobility for all honest, diligent laborers had developed into a justification of big business, and further, an implied insult to the cultural status of manual laborers. Surrounded by images of status, success, and wealth, increasingly locked into a wage system which offered small hope of release from toil by independent ownership, and finding the horny-handed laborer increasingly characterized by such epithets as the Times employed in 1877, labor spokesmen adopted an angry, defensive tone. William Sylvis, leader of the iron molders in the 1860's, damned "effeminate non-producers" while praising the true "dignity of labor" of industrial workers, "the bone and muscle of the nation, the very pillars of our temple of liberty." "Labor ... creates everything and does everything, and is the protector and preserver of all," proclaimed the Knights of St. Crispin, or the Sovereigns of Industry, a cooperative league of workingmen based in New England. Without labor, thundered Eugene Debs, "the warehouses would stand empty, factories would be silent, ships and docks would rot, cities would tumble down, and universal ruin would prevail."
Such apocalyptic words reflected the spirit of duress of the times, when heights of production also provoked nightmares of destruction. But the essential fact, as David Montgomery has shown, is that working people saw themselves as the true inheritors of the republican tradition, the genuine upholders of free labor. In their oratory, their defense of labor, and their assault on
privilege and the corrupting powers of wealth, labor spokesmen fashioned a figure of the worker drawn from the older "producer class" together with the image of a defender of the republic. The language of republicanism and fervent Americanism has suggested to some that labor remained in these years within the middle-class consensus. And, to be sure, features of individualistic thought appear in the persistence of a simple labor theory of value, on the basis of which each laborer demands a just portion of his product. An examination of rhetorical figures suggests that even the fiercest antagonists in these years often shared a common vocabulary, common assertions of the "dignity of labor," the value of diligence and regular habits, the importance of discipline and "character." Such common imagery reflects the transitional character of the moment, the first disbelieving and disapproving recognition that the wage system had become a permanent fixture of American life. Dominated by craftsmen and seasoned industrial workers, labor organizations early in the period refused to accept this change and still drew on a free-labor rhetoric while proposing cooperatives and collective ownership of factories and businesses. The republican and work-ethic imagery points, then, to deeper issues than battles over hours and wages and work-place control. On another level, struggles between labor and capital raged on the ground of culture, the meaning of the nation itself at stake.
Raising an evangelical warning about sundry "perils" facing the nation, the Home Missionary minister Josiah Strong took note in 1886, the year of labor's "Great Upheaval," of "an almost impassable gulf" existing between industrial employees and employers. His widely reprinted popular tract, Our Country, warned of a "present crisis" to social peace and the integrity of the Protestant faith and the Anglo-Saxon race. America's mission to settle the West and awaken the world to Christ seemed threatened by unrestricted immigration, rising Romanism, sinful cities, irresponsible wealth, and socialism. The latter peril arose from that impassable gulf created by a factory system which had "developed a dependent class" on one hand, and, on the other, owners with "little personal acquaintance" with their employees and
"little Personal interest in them." The very impersonality of the system, so unlike the recent past when journeymen and proprietors sat side by side at the workbench, wrote Strong, now "rend- ered it vastly more difficult to rise from the condition of employee to that of an employer, thus separating the classes more widely."
By the late 1880's, that separation had become palpable in communities throughout the nation. Where workers and owners may once have shared common experiences, of community (in smaller towns and cities), schools, churches, civic groups, now barriers arose: the wealthy left congested residential areas for secluded, clean, and fresh suburban areas; they sent their children to exclusive schools, their wives to expensive resorts and summer homes and on trips abroad, themselves and their families to newly built elegant churches with comfortable pews where they could hear Sunday sermons about the virtue of wealth, the sorrows of poverty. And more and more, as the industrial working class took on a distinctly "foreign" cast with heavy immigration from Catholic and Slavic nations, the wealthy came to seem a homogeneous group: white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and Republican. "The men who were getting to the top," writes Carl Degler, "even in the 1870's--that alleged era of the self-made man--had not been poor farm boys or uneducated immigrant lads starting at the bottom, but instead men who had been given rather exceptional opportunities to make the race to the top." Older propertied elites, such as the Boston Brahmins, easily accommodated their interests to those of the new self-made breed; through alliances of old and new wealth throughout the country, businessmen came more and more to seem a ruling class with cultural norms of its own.
We have to reckon, then, with the fact and the perception of a widening class rift. The context includes the intense rate of technological change, the shift from steam to electrical power, which altered daily relations between workers and management at work places. Technological change also made new demands on individual entrepreneurs, new forms of competition, and new challenges to policy and bookkeeping. Social definitions of basic categories--capital, labor, enterprise, work, ownership--all underwent shifting and sliding alterations in the watershed decades of the 1870's and 1880's. The rapidity of change left in its wake
confusion and anger, a loss of bearings, and a gathering of forces. Both the rate of business failure--some contemporary observers spoke of a 95 percent rate in the 1870's and 1880's--and the incidence of strikes--close to 37,000, involving 7 million workers on record between 1881 and 1905--provide dramatic indices of turmoil.
To all appearances, the age belonged to big business, to railroad leaders, industrialists, and financiers like the Harrimans, the Stanfords, the Carnegies and Rockefellers and Swifts and Morgans. These were household names, better known in the press and pulpit than those of labor leaders like William Sylvis, Ira Steward, Uriah Stephens, Terence Powderly. Men of business seemed the epitome of the era, models who served to lure "men of ambition and ability" into the fray of competition, according to H. J. Habakkuk, "not only because of the gains which might be made there--though they were sometimes enormous--but because businessmen, a Rockefeller or a Pierpont Morgan, were leading men of the country." They were also portrayed as models of virtue in "rags to riches" fiction and in the literature of advice and exhortation by preachers like Henry Ward Beecher and Russell Conwell (whose "acres of diamonds" pamphlet sold in the millions) and by articulate businessmen themselves. Speaking to students in a commercial college in 1885, Andrew Carnegie admonished: "You know that there is no genuine, praiseworthy success in life if you are not honest, truthful, fair-dealing."
The warning suggests a region of ambiguity in the very image of success, for the public knew well enough that virtue was the easiest victim in the hard world of competition. Repressed as overt criticism of business in the success literature, that knowledge appeared in the frequent portrayal in popular stories such as those by Horatio Alger of wicked and cruel bankers who threaten widows with foreclosure. In Alger's world, as John Cawelti has noted, industrial enterprises rarely appear; benevolent figures are usually diligent and honest merchants, and suc- cessful young men settle for modestly lucrative positions within the firm. Measured against the antebellum work ethic, the robber barons seemed aggrandizers rather than honest and frugal pro- ducers. Success literature hid this conflict in melodramatic victories over the unscrupulous capitalist, but could not eliminate it altogether. The popular image of the business world held un-
resolved tensions: on one hand, it seemed the field of just rewards, on the other, a realm of questionable motives and unbridled appetites.
The image accumulated its ambiguities under circumstances of increasingly unnerving competition, in which rewards flowed more often to sheer power than entrepreneurial skill. In the very celebration of the businessman as the epitome of American individualism, we detect signs of concern that the older individualistic virtues no longer apply, that the ability to mobilize, to concentrate, toincorporate, counted for more than thrift and diligence. The enormous role of luck in Alger's tales may contain a covert recognition that the route to success required some magical outside assistance. For it was clear, even in images of robber barons and captains of industry, that business was a kind of warfare, in which all's fair which succeeds.
"They pursued their game of war on each other with zest and without mercy," writes Louis Hacker about the railroad companies in the 1860's and 1870's. The image of warfare filtered into public discourse in accounts of these very doings by speculators like Jay Gould and empire builders like Hill and Huntington. While the spectacle appalled, it also thrilled, and certain Americans leaped to defend such motives and practices as true to the natural order of things. "The race is to the strong," the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, William Lawrence, assured his flock, adding the further guarantee that "Godliness is in league with riches." The celebrity of the English social philosopher Herbert Spencer among business groups and their supporters provided another rich source of imagery. Spencer's "Social Darwinism" seemed to sanction precisely that scene of tumult and conflict, of rising and falling fortunes. "Nature's cure for most social and political diseases is better than man's," argued Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University. A law of nature, added Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner, the struggle for existence "can no more be done away with than gravitation." "It is here," stated Andrew Carnegie in his efforts to account for his own phenomenal rise to fame and fortune through competition; "we cannot evade it. And while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department."
In fact, efforts to evade, to control, to do away with destructive
competition, emerged by the 1880's as a cardinal motive of the biggest business interests. Increasingly, the instrument of success proved to be more effective organization, the restructuring of enterprises into corporations in which financing and sales along with production fell under control of a single entity. Within the age of the robber barons, another age and another form took shape, that of the giant corporate body. The age of celebrated individualism harbored the decisive decline of proprietors, family businesses, simple partnerships: the familiar forms of capital. These older forms of commercial and manufacturing enterprise did not wholly disappear, of course, but they were no longer typical and they diminished in importance.
Two interrelated motives lay behind the enormous increase in the use of the device of incorporation in the postbellum years: the desire to control competition and the wish to facilitate access to capital. A chronic shortage of capital before the war, together with prospects for high returns, led many foreigners to invest in American railroad companies. The need expanded significantly with the growth of new industrial enterprises after the war, and government banking, money, and credit policies eased the way for the expansion of intermediary institutions such as banks and insurance companies, to transfer private savings into capital formation. While the supply of circulating money increased significantly through government policies, it did not keep pace with economic growth, because of steadily falling prices during the postwar decades and the significant increase in the national market. As market exchanges became the pervasive form of economic activity (in contrast, for example, to the relative self-sufficiency of family farms earlier in the century), as more and more of economic life came under the rule of the competitive market, the demand for money increased and intensified.
In a period of expanding economic growth and more or less unstable money supply, the advantages of incorporation were manifold, for it permitted a number of people to pool their capital and their efforts under one name, as a single entity. By tradition, the granting of corporate status usually required a special act by the sovereign, or, in the United States after the Revolution, by state legislatures, an act which included provisions regulating the internal organization of the corporate body and its public functions. Chief justice Marshall gave this view its classic expres-
sion in the Dartmouth College case of 1819. "A corporation," he wrote, "is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law. Being a mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it." The status was granted in these early years chiefly to companies providing transport, water supply, insurance, banking. State governments often joined such chartered companies in "mixed enterprises" which subordinated private profit-seeking to public service: the establishment of external economies essential to agriculture, commerce, and industry.
As James Willard Hurst points out, American corporate law developed in a homegrown fashion, in response to the pressures of changing circumstances. After the Civil War, the practice of the special charter requiring a separate act of a legislature gave way to standard general laws and much simpler, more generous, and less regulatory procedures. In many states (New Jersey par- ticularly), incorporation by the 1870's had become more of a right than a privilege, a status virtually for the asking. This democratization of procedure thus made available to business an easy and quick legitimation of what came to seem an indispensable instrument, in Hurst's words, "for mustering and disciplining large amounts of capital and allowing dependable continuity for its use." Freed from encumbrances often attached to special charters, and from the presumption of public service, of any but a profit-making purpose, the corporation swiftly displaced unin- corporated forms (individual ownership, partnership) as the most significant organization of business.
The corporation embodied a legally sanctioned fiction, that an association of people constituted a single entity which might hold property, sue and be sued, enter contracts, and continue in exis- tence beyond the lifetime or membership of any of its participants. The association itself was understood as strictly contractual, not necessarily comprised of people acquainted with each other or joined by any common motive other than profit seeking. The law called for a delegation of control and policy making to a board of directors and managers: the power, that is, to issue shares to the public at large with the understanding that shareholders were legally immune from liability for the debts of the corporate entity. Thus, the mass of shareholders, while technically owners of the corporation, willingly abandoned authority
over their investment in return for the security of limited liability. Centralized control proved to be an economic asset in its own right, permitting efficiencies of administration, freedom of negotiation, extensions of control among many companies within single industries, and integrating whole industrial steps, from the extraction of raw materials to processing and marketing, within single companies. The corporate form produced a variety of forms only faintly anticipated by entrepreneurs before the war, fostering protean changes of purpose, from running a railroad to spinning textiles, mining coal to making toys, Such ease of change, of purpose, function, even name, altered basic concepts such as ownership; property itself "acquired a new meaning," writes Daniel Boorstin, "a new mystery; a new unintelligibility."
With the corporate device as its chief instrument, business grew increasingly arcane and mysterious, spawning new roles intermediary between capital and labor, in middle management, accounting, legal departments, public relations, advertising, marketing, sales: the entire apparatus of twentieth-century corporate life was developed in these years and clouded the public perception of the typical acts of business. Organization and administration emerged as major virtues, along with obedience and loyalty. At the same time the rhetoric of success continued to hail the self-made man as the paragon of free labor, even as the virtues of that fictive character grew less and less relevant. Thus, incorporation engendered a cultural paradox. While praising the stern virtues of struggle and risk taking, Nicholas Murray Butler could still exclaim: "I weigh my words when I say that in my judgment the limited liability corporation is the greatest single discovery of modern times," far surpassing "even steam and electricity."
Seedtime of a new corporate order, the Gilded Age was dominated by images of personal power, of force, determination, the will to prevail. To be sure, in the early postwar decades the corporate form seemed to provide a stage for strong individuals, a field of struggle on which it was possible to entertain an ideology of social Darwinism even while piecing together structures which aimed to diminish risk and submerge the laissez-faire doctrine in cornered markets and controlled resources. "The growth of a large business," wrote John D. Rockefeller, "is merely a
survival of the fittest, the working out of a law of nature and a law of God."
With savings from his partnership in a small produce-commission business in Cleveland, Rockefeller invested in oil during the Civil War, organized a small refining company, and in 1870 incorporated the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. The fierceness of competition in this lucrative trade in one of the essential ingredients for illumination and lubrication led to drastically unstable conditions, secret deals between refiners and railroads for advantageous rebates, and fluctuating prices. It was urgent, Rockefeller explained, for someone to "bring some order out of what was rapidly becoming a state of chaos."
Submitting chaos to order, Rockefeller created in Standard Oil a virtual state of his own. Within a decade he wrested control of about 90 percent of the trade. "It is well understood in commer- cial circles," noted a congressional investigating committee in 1886, "that the Standard Oil Company brooks no competition; that its settled policy and firm determination is to crush out all who may be rash enough to enter the field against it; that it hesitates at nothing in the accomplishment of this purpose." The more colorful methods included threats, fraud, chicanery, and open violence. But seeing an opportunity to control the entire process, from extraction to marketing, Rockefeller and his lawyers seized on the corporate device, chartering under the permissive New Jersey laws the famous South Improvement Company. Under its charter he joined with a handful of other refiners and several railroad companies in a convenient arrangement whereby member carriers would return generous rebates to member refiners. The successful aim was to eliminate competition and achieve monopoly over wells, refineries, pipelines, railroads, and delivery routes. Under the banner of Standard Oil, Rockefeller (whose name by now symbolized a well-disciplined and adept organization) developed an intricate marketing system, dividing the country into districts and subdistricts, and employing methods from price cutting to coercion against retailers reluctant to accept his products under his terms. The corporation won its victories by superior organization and efficiency in production and sales. About his rivals Rockefeller remarked: "They had not the means to build pipe lines, bulk ships, tank wagons;
they couldn't have their agents all over the country, couldn't manufacture their own acid, bungs, wicks, lamps, do their own cooperage so many things; it ramified indefinitely."
An "apostle of order," writes the historian Edward C. Kirkland, Rockefeller saw through his own rhetoric to understand that "the incalculable must give way to the rational, strife to cooperation." Often caricatured as a tight-fisted, mean-spirited Baptist, Rockefeller grasped the significance of his endeavors as a phase in the unfolding of a new corporate order. "This movement," he wrote, "was the origin of the whole system of modern economic administration. It has revolutionized the way of doing business all over the world. The time was ripe for it. It had to come, though all we saw at the moment was the need to save ourselves from wasteful conditions ... The day of combination is here to stay. Individualism has gone, never to return." Standard Oil (the name itself significant) typified the major trend in business, toward integration, standardization, and central administration.
Moreover, while founding corporations, artificial persons with a legal and economic life of their own, the Rockefellers, Harrimans, Hills, and hundreds of their regional and local counterparts also founded family dynasties that employed devices of incorporation, forming themselves into businesslike entities, trusts, foundations, and holding companies serving to keep intact and transferable through inheritance the family's fortune. The same logic that introduced the private corporation into the broad American demesne also produced new monied dynasties: a ruling stratum of inherited wealth, position, and power. Behind Rockefeller's tearless farewell to the classic American individualism and its doctrine of free and virtuous labor, the hand of a new secular Providence performed its deeds.
The rate of failure in the postbellum business world suggests how exceptional were the robber barons and their lesser cousins. But those who survived did so on a scale of conspicuous display by which the successful represented themselves as the most prominent and potent figures in the society, princely in their mansions, their banquets, their excursions to pleasure resorts,
their philanthropy and admonishments about success, and firm, resolute, sharp-eyed and far-reaching in their actual business. Their power to attract attention, even as objects of criticism and scorn as well as envy, derived as much from the willingness of the press to follow their doings as from the monumental scale of their city homes, their new towering office buildings and railroad terminals, the museums and libraries and civic buildings all inscribed with their preferred style of elegance and power. Such display made perfectly plain who ruled the society.
Portraying itself as success, business thus captured the free labor ideology, convincing the middle classes that in competitive enterprise lay the route to fulfillment, to the true America. Predominantly Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origins, the leading business families reinforced this claim with cultural homogeneity, an assertion of authority over a native tradition. In cultural as well as economic and legal ownership, America seemed to belong to its entrepreneurs. For Mark Twain it was Hank Morgan, the "Boss," who represented the Yankee; Henry James chose as his leading character in The American (1877) a Western millionaire with the appropriate New World name of Christopher Newman. And while such characterizations in fiction, sermons, editorial commentary, often assumed a background of labor, of physical skill as well as entrepreneurial acumen and a desire for self-improvement, the popular image of the industrial worker in the same years underwent a major revision; the worker now appeared as foreign, alien, in need of Americanizing.
A new American working class arose in these years, recruited out of the necessities of economic growth and shaped by the rapidly changing character of both industrial labor and entrepreneurial structure. Wage labor emerged, unequivocally, as the definitive working-class experience, a proletarianization no longer the imagined nightmare of independent artisans and failed entrepreneurs but the typical lot of American workers. Growing even more rapidly than the general population, which almost doubled between 1870 and 1900, the industrial labor force expanded to more than a third of the population by the end of the century. The figures represent a worldwide pattern of industrial and urban growth: a massive movement of rural peoples into factories and cities. In the United States, currents of migration
from the countryside mingled with overseas immigration to change the actual composition as well as the public image of the worker: now less likely to be a skilled artisan of English, Welsh, or German background--with pride in craft, experience in trade unions, some degree of economic and cultural security--but more likely an unskilled- laborer with no previous industrial experience. And among the new wage earners, the foreign born or their children counted for a major percentage. Immigrants alone represented a third of the total population increase between 1860 and 1900, and by 1870 one out of every three industrial workers was an immigrant (the proportion would remain constant until the 1920's).
Increasing ethnic diversity and the making of a new industrial working class constituted a single process, introducing cultural difference into American life on an unprecedented scale. "Not every foreigner is a workingman," observed a Chicago clergyman in 1887, but "it may almost be said that every workingman is a foreigner." The remark fell not very short of the mark, since in many of the larger cities, including Chicago, the majority of the population were immigrants and their offspring. Moreover, an aura of a more general cultural foreignness began to attach itself to manual wage labor itself, particularly in light of the growth of salaried white-collar occupations among an increasingly suburban middle class. Often crowded into cramped living spaces, in slum tenements or abandoned middle-class housing in older districts, working-class families tended toward ethnic and racial enclaves where native languages and styles of life prevailed. Work was often dirty, backbreaking, and frustrating. Working women and children seemed at odds with middle-class ideals of home and school. In the popular press, workers found themselves stereotyped as the unwashed, unenlightened masses, swayed by disreputable-looking bomb throwers and associated with brutish caricatures of Irish potato eaters, slow-witted Slovaks, fun-loving Italians. On every count, labor seemed to represent a foreign culture, alien to American values epitomized by successful representatives of capital.
The most dramatic visible symptom of tensions governing working-class life appeared in the growing number of industrial
strikes, reaching the tens of thousands in incidence, and involving hundreds of thousands of workers in the peak years of 1877, 1886, 1892-93. A ready weapon in the era before widespread adoption of union contracts and collective bargaining, the strike was often a spontaneous response to local circumstances, a protest against an arbitrary firing by a foreman, an assertion of rights against a change in work rules. The number of striking workers in the 1870's and 1880's far exceeded registered union membership. But strikes were not simply responses to economic and working conditions. They signified more than protest, and although their character differed from case to case--and altered over time--they were an expression of working-class life.
As a working-class event within public life, "strike" represented a defiance of the cardinal norm of everyday life: compliance with the authority of employers. The strike was a rupture, a release, an act of negation by which a sense of positive freedom came to the fore. The word itself ran deep in the history of work, naming a variety of simple, basic acts in the crafts of carpentry, surveying, bricklaying, tanning, farming, shipbuilding, fishing, and sailing. Directly from the nautical meaning of lowering sails or taking down, and more generally unfixing and putting out of use, the term began to appear early in the industrial era in its familiar sense of work stoppage. To strike work or tools was to assert the power of workers over the process of production: to strike was, in short, an act of work, albeit negative. It was, moreover, a collective act, embodying a recognition that the freedom which arose from negation belonged to a common group. Thus, a significant cultural element of virtually all strikes eludes strict calculation: "the rush out of the gates," in David Montgomery's words, "the songs they savored, the symbolic violence, the parades, and the oratory all bore witness to those aspects of the strike which cannot be subjected to statistical correlations."
The 1880's witnessed almost ten thousand strikes and lockouts; close to 700,000 workers went out in 1886 alone, the year of the "Great Upheaval." That decade brought into sharpest focus what from the 1860's had served as labor's leading national issue, the eight-hour day. The 1873 depression had rendered almost wholly ineffective legislation and agreements limiting work hours in the 1860's; ten, twelve, or more hours of work, with irregular seasonal layoffs, were common. The focal event of 1886 was the plan
for a national general strike on May 1 to demand an "eight-hour" law. Here was an attempt (by no means the first, but the most dramatic to date) to plan a nationwide strike to mobilize workers into a national movement. The turnout on May 1 was only about 300,000, but the significance of events in Chicago on May 3 overshadowed the issue of the eight-hour day. At the McCormick Harvester Company, four strikers were killed by police. A protest meeting was called for Haymarket Square; it proceeded peacefully until, as the crowd was dispersing, a bomb was thrown, killing a policeman; in the riot that followed (for which the police had already arrayed their might), seven more police and four civilians lost their lives. "The bomb was a godsend to the enemies of the labor movement," wrote John Swinton. Police rounded up eight known anarchists, charged them with the killings (the actual thrower of the bomb has never been identified), and four were executed in 1887. The event proved a setback for the eight-hour movement, and the onset of a fatal decline in the strength of the Knights of Labor. The Chicago "red scare" flamed across the nation, branding labor with the charge of fomenting anarchy and violence.
What lay behind the readiness to strike, to refuse, to unfix and put down tools, with all the attendant consequences of economic hardship, beating, and arrest? The extremity of economic need is an obvious though incomplete explanation. In part, the strikes were in response to maneuvers by industrialists: wage cuts designed to increase productivity by decreasing costs; an intensified application of advanced machine technology, eliminating many traditional crafts and speeding up the pace of work; a more fevered competition among businesses at a time of increasing consolidation and concentration of economic control. A rough economic profile from the end of the 1880's indicates how close to the margin of poverty many workers were compelled to live. About 45 percent of the industrial laborers barely held on above the $500-per-year poverty line, about 40 percent lived below the line of tolerable existence, surviving in shabby tenements and run-down neighborhoods by dint of income eked out by working wives and children. About a fourth of those below the poverty line lived in actual destitution. A small group of highly skilled workers, about 15 percent, were capable of earning from $800 to $1,100 a year. The common daily pay for unskilled labor re-
mained about $1.50. Moreover, hardships were exacerbated by periods of high unemployment (as much as 16 percent) during the depressions of the mid-1870's and mid-1880's.
This is not to speak of substandard conditions beyond the home, such as schooling, sewer, water, and lighting in working-class neighborhoods. Moreover, conditions at work contributed to a readiness to strike the tools. Hazards to health and to life itself were common in the heavy-metal industries, in textile factories, and in chemical plants. The railroad took a particularly horrible toll: 72,000 employees killed on the tracks between 1890 and 1917, and close to 2 million injured; another 158,000 killed in repair shops and roundhouses. Workmen's compensation did not appear until the 1930's, and railroad disability insurance not until 1947. When we take into account the heat and danger from molten steel at open hearths, the threats of cave-ins and toxic gases in coal mines, the danger to fingers and limbs in all kinds of machines with unguarded moving parts--a picture emerges of mechanized violence inherent in the industrial work place.
Not only did industrial wage earners lack adequate protection against injury or insurance to cover time lost from work, they labored under conditions set by the clock. Measurement of work by units of time was basic to the accounting system of the productive process. Measurement by time represented the transformation of the laborer's efforts, his skills, intelligence, and muscle power, into a salable commodity: his own labor converted into a market value, into wages. The image of machinery as "laborsaving" held a bitter irony for workers: not only did machines threaten life and limb, not only did they increasingly threaten the usefulness of craft skills, but, employed by capital to increase productivity as rapidly as possible, they often increased the amount of physical exertion over time. No wonder the eight hour movement, to make workers "masters of their own time," won such wholehearted working-class support--and no wonder the movement consistently failed in these years.
Another issue concerned what came to be known as the "union work rule." This complex issue related to agreement with management over such matters as rates of work and pay, tempo of work, and output. At the beginning of the period, a significant degree of autonomy in establishing these conditions lay with skilled craftsmen, workers already experienced in industrial
labor. A growing number of strikes in the 1880's and 1890's concerned these matters, as management undertook "efficiency" campaigns to wrest control from skilled workers. By the close of the period, "scientific management" had provided a rationale and a body of methods precisely to transfer work-place control to employers, and in so doing to complete a process inherent in industrialization: the appropriation of inherited craft skills by industrial capital. To protect their own skills and the traditional rights of control over them, industrial artisans displayed what David Montgomery has described as a "spirit of mutuality": "technical knowledge acquired on the job was embedded in a mutualistic ethical code, also acquired on the, job, and together these attributes provided skilled workers with considerable autonomy at their work and powers of resistance to the wishes of their employers." Resistance increasingly took the form of "sympathy strikes," which in the 1880's and 1890's represented a growing percentage of all strikes.
While it is rash to infer a unified working-class consciousness from the incidence of strikes and other expressions of work-place dissatisfaction, evidence suggests a pervasive rejection of the concept of wage labor. But workers, members of the larger society whether foreign-born or native, were not immune to cultural influences. The story of the "self-made man" pervaded the popular media and political and clerical rhetoric. While Horatio Alger had depicted the "humble beginnings" of this fictive character as rural, many living testimonies had shifted the setting to fit an urban industrial world. Thus Andrew Carnegie, himself once an immigrant boy: "From the dark cellar running a steam engine at two dollars a week, begrimed with coal dirt, without a trace of the elevating influences of life, I was lifted into paradise, yes, heaven, as it seemed to me, with newspapers, pens, pencils, and sunshine about me ... I felt that my foot was upon the ladder and that I was bound to climb."
The typical legend of providential success in the new America included a concept whose influence and role in working-class culture has not received the critical attention it deserves, that of "character." The term is implicit in Carnegie's reference to "elevating influences," the usual source of character and respectability, and explicit in such commonplaces of the period as Lincoln's:
"If any continue through life in the condition of hired taborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular mis- fortune." Even labor spokesmen frequently voiced protests and demands in a language which evoked a similar notion of character. In its Address of the National Labor Congress to the Workingmen of the United States (1866)--a significant early formulation of a national policy for workers--the National Labor Union supported the campaign for a legal eight-hour day by linking it to "the virtue, the intelligence, and the independence of the working classes," essential to "the success of our republican institutions. Any system," the document argued, "social or political, which tends to keep the masses in ignorance, whether by unjust or oppressive laws, or by over-manual labor, is injurious alike to the interests of the state and the individual."
How widespread was working-class acceptance of a normative bourgeois idea of virtue is difficult to say. Certainly, workers' social institutions, fraternal orders, benevolent societies, clubs, and reading groups--as well as communal neighborhood groups centered in church, family, drinking place--presented alternatives to reigning values of acquisitive individualism. Immigrant workers, especially, clung to neighborhood and street life against "Americanizing" pressures of charity groups and social reformers who sought to inculcate new habits of regularity and temperance. Moreover, numerous short-lived cooperative enterprises arose in the 1870's and 1880's, both consumer and producer cooperatives: grocery and general retail stores, newspapers, banks, and factories producing shoes, pianos, soap, brooms, and so on. Taking into account such new patterns of organizing the necessities of life, we can speak, as does David Montgomery, of "a collectivist counterculture in the midst of the growing factory system," a "spirit of mutuality" arising from the very conditions of wage labor.
But, in fact, mutuality did not lead to an effectively unified working class. The "religion of solidarity," which Edward Bellamy tried to promote in the nation as a whole and the Knights of Labor attempted to instill among all "producers," encountered not only the resistance of a dominant culture of individualism and competition but also divisions among workers such as ethnic
antagonism, language and religious differences between skilled and unskilled workers.
Ethnic, racial, and sexual discrimination, geographical dispersion; exhausting and often impoverishing working and living conditions; and increasingly staunch and violent opposition from employers, the press, and the government, all hampered the fledgling labor movement in these years, and helped set the conditions for the decline of "reformism"--the principled opposition to the wage system--and the victory of the policy of the American Federation of Labor in the 1890's. The beginnings of intense organization after the Civil War show labor and its supporters among the reform community searching for viable institutional forms: the reform association, the trade union (some already in the late 1860's calling themselves "national"), several abortive labor parties, and sections (small, but vocal and influential) of the International Workingmen's Association (for which Karl Marx was a leading spokesman). Statistical evidence is not fully reliable, but at no point did the trade unions themselves include more than 10 percent of the industrial work force; no union in this period succeeded in recruiting as much as one third of any given trade, and most of the mass-production industries successfully resisted unionization.
While unions did not encompass all the meanings of "labor" in these years, and the unevenness of their growth and their success in particular regions, industries, and communities limited their representativeness, still, the trade union was a uniquely working-class form. It rose to prominence in these years and, better than any other structure, gave expression to common thoughts about common experiences. Of course, the term embraced a range of ideas about strategy and tactics, and historians have described in detail the main lines of division, between "reform" groups such as the "assemblies" of the Knights of Labor and the "trade-unions" among specific crafts, which eventually comprised the American Federation of Labor. The Knights ad- vocated broad unions of skilled and unskilled workers, and included small businessmen among the class of "producers"; they rejected the legitimacy and permanence of wages, and looked toward "the organization of all laborers into one great solidarity, and the direction of their united efforts toward measures that shall, by peaceful processes, evolve the working classes out of
their present condition in the wage-system into a cooperative system." Within the Knights, however, ran another current, which preferred struggles for immediate improvements and grew doubtful of an eventual "cooperative commonwealth." Held especially by skilled workers in traditional crafts, this point of view came into ascendancy late in the 1880's and 1890's, as membership in the Knights declined and the strength of the AFL increased. Under Samuel Gompers, the AFL made improved wages the center of its program, giving it priority over long- range reform. "Unions, pure and simple," wrote Gompers, "are the natural organization of wage workers to secure their present and practical improvement and to achieve their final emancipa- tion . . . The way out of the wage system is through higher wages." Excluding "reform" from its tactics, the AFL fashioned the strike and boycott as weapons to set bargaining into motion, to make the "union label" the mark of legitimacy. Thus, the label seemed to signify labor's willingness to accept the wage system in exchange for a secure place within the social order, and under the AFL, "union" and "strike" would often come to seem vehicles of integration rather than agents of insurrection.
The spirit of the 1870's and 1880's belonged to the Knights: their formulation of the labor-capital conflict seemed to exercise the most powerful sway. Moreover, their insistence on "one great solidarity" arose from a state of affairs rife with division and antagonism: not only labor against capital but skilled Protestant workers against unskilled Catholic and Jewish newcomers; whites against blacks and Asians; men against women. Such antagonisms existed in real measure. New immigrants and blacks in the North were used as strikebreakers; often they were targets of violent attack by strikers, and of aggrieved resentment thereafter. Segregated neighborhoods and ethnic and racial competition for jobs abetted such antagonisms. Ethnicity, racial and sexual prejudices, proved in many cases stronger forces than class identification. Discriminatory practices by employers contributed to such antagonisms: blacks assigned the lowest order of work, denied apprenticeships and the opportunity to learn mechanical skills; women, still second-class citizens, earning less pay for equal work, thus seeming to "cheapen" the labor market.
Still, while racist and sexist biases reigned throughout the culture, labor organizations offered an alternative. The National
Labor Union, founded by William H. Sylvis in 1866, admitted women and blacks to full membership, actively campaigned for their support, and advocated "equal pay for equal work." The NLU did not survive the defeat of its Labor Reform Party in the elections of 1872, and the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869 by a tailor, Uriah H. Stephens, emerged as the most potent national organization of workers in the following two decades. It excluded only bankers, lawyers, gamblers, and liquor dealers from its membership of "producers," and, like the NLU, advocated racial, sexual, and ethnic equality. To be sure, women were not accepted as a matter of course; not only patriarchal attitudes about the "weaker" and "fair" sex who belonged "at home" but economic fears that women laborers lowered the price of labor often clouded the egalitarian program of the Knights. Nevertheless, their assemblies included several comprised entirely of women, and others of Southern black workers. In their famous Preamble, the Knights included equal pay for women along with abolition of child labor, an eight-hour day, a graduated income tax, and government ownership of "telegraphs, telephones and railroads" as measures necessary to achieve a cooperative society. In short, in its public statements, the labor movement opposed the various forms of inequality--racial, sexual, and economic--accepted as a matter of course throughout America.
And in doing so, labor thought of itself as upholding nothing so much as the fundamental American traditions of republicanism and equality--indeed, as the most vigorous defenders of that tradition: so far from "foreign" as to be the most authentic voice of America itself. Labor attitudes on social issues embodied an amalgam of values and outlooks derived from sundry cultural sources. Evidence suggests the beginnings at least of a significant coalescence of influences into a distinct labor culture in these years. The most common rhetorical form of labor statements, its speeches and programs, its calls to action and its rallying songs, expressed an unmistakable fusion of republicanism and evangelical Protestantism. One common form was the alternative "declaration of independence," of which dozens appeared in these years, issued on the Fourth of July by unions, farmers' groups, black organizations, women's-rights groups, and socialists. Typically, it opened with the familiar preamble of principles: "We hold these truths to be self-evident"; proceeded into a bill of
complaints against monopolies and economic injustice, concluding with a series of resolutions for reform. Furthermore, calls for a "Golden Rule of Christ," for a "new Pentecost," and statements such as George E. McNeill's that "the hope of peaceful solution to the problem of today rests in the Christianizing influence of our free institutions," support Herbert Gutman's argument that workers found in Protestantism a profound "notion of right" for their struggles. It is telling, moreover, that Protestants marched without a qualm under banners proclaiming the names of patron saints of labor, that workers of all creeds accepted the implied medievalism and chivalric code of the Knights of Labor without question. Indeed, religious sources of labor culture showed as much in the actual social groupings of workers as in their evangelical rhetoric, in fraternal orders such as the Knights, in countless church groups and benevolent societies, in labor "temples" and the "mummery" of pageants and parades. To be sure, a widespread proliferation of such associations occurred throughout the society in these years: professional societies, sporting clubs, and clubs of hobbyists, of amateur enthusiasts of local history and geography. Workers often participated in these as citizens of their local communities or as sportsmen or stamp collectors. But, in unions and working-class community groups, it was clear that membership implied a commonality of the work experience, and that the secret pledges and oaths and proclamations of solidarity implied a distinct, if unspecific, religious model. just as important was the wage-earning experience itself, its lessons in collective enterprise. Of course, the work place was also a place of internal hierarchy; master craftsmen and apprentices and helpers were not equal, and under subcontracting arrangements, skilled workers often assumed the role of "boss" toward the unskilled. But on the whole the efforts by craft unions to formulate and uphold regular work rules, to clarify the various work tasks and their functional importance, were grounded in an ethic of cooperation, of mutuality: that is, it flowed from the rhetoric of republican and religious equality. To a certain extent, the movement toward producer cooperatives, a key plank of the Knights, found an impetus in the cooperative arrangements among workers at work. Strikes, too, were occasions of mutuality, and performance of women, blacks, Catholics, and ethnic groups on the picket line provided experiences of unity and
equality. Thus, the "religion of solidarity" proclaimed by Edward Bellamy and other Protestant reformers was often a living experience within labor.
We know too little of this evolving labor culture which developed as a conscious alternative to the culture of competitive individualism, of acquisitiveness and segregation. It was short-lived, although its legacy reappears throughout the later history of labor. A residual culture of ethnic identity, religious and republican communitarianism, it was also in some instances fostered by class-conscious radicals. In Chicago, for example, German anarchists not only preached dynamite and self-defense as "propaganda of the deed" but included in their program alternative institutions of everyday life: schools and libraries, reading clubs and mutual-benefit societies, groups of poets and dramatists dedicated to ridicule and mockery of "high" culture. A consciousness of positive cultural difference appeared in the words of George E. McNeill: "We complain that culture busies itself upon immaterial subjects--conning the olden lore, delving for the unrevealed treasures that lie embossed in humanity." Arguing that "civilization is common property," he wrote that "the institutions that enable the many to read and write and speak their native language amply and correctly are communistic institutions, inasmuch as the results are common property, even when the buildings are under private ownership." And he envisioned a process in which, as "the laborer receives more and more for his earnings," as hours decrease and factory buildings are "so improved that labor shall become a blessing instead of a curse, a pleasure instead of a pain," culture itself will undergo radical revision. Instead of the present "poor, ignorant, physically and mentally, and sometimes morally, deformed unskilled worker," the "now-dawning day" will show "a well-built, fully equipped manhood, using the morning hours in the duties and pleasures of the sun-lit home; taking his morning paper in the well-equipped reading-room of the manufactory." The worker will be, then, a man of "civilization." True enough, McNeill still imagines "civilization" as a comfortable middle-class life available to all. But in 1890 the vision implied for labor a "new revolution" which "shall evolve the dude out of existence; the rot of a false-named culture shall be of the past."
Once a shock to the American body politic, the "impassable gulf" between labor and capital came shortly enough to be accepted, tolerated as inevitable. In the 1880's and 1890's, however, the body politic still reeled in shock that America should encompass a gulf of any sort. Was it for this, the Knights of Labor asked in its Preamble, that we took the land, "by physical power, by robbery or fraud," from the Indians? Indian lands were "originally common property." Can we justify "driving the native from the land of his fathers," if their once-sacred possession now "remains in the hands of individual proprietors?" If we committed that act "in the name of civilization, then in that name their possessions should be common property." This rare piece of logic regarding the Indian warfare just subsiding took on added point with the revelations of the census of 1890. Based on its figures, Charles Spahr calculated a range of income distribution which provided one measure of the shape and depth of the gulf. Out of 12 million families, I I million lived on incomes below $1,200 a year. The average income of this group was $380, far below the accepted poverty line. In the population as a whole, the richest one percent earned more than the total income of the poorest SO percent, and commanded more wealth than the remaining 99 percent. About half of all American families lived without property.
Statistics measured only the economic dimensions of the gulf. In addition, labor had begun to rear structures of culture at odds with the individualist values of business, of middle-class aspira- tion. Not that working people were immune to such aspirations, or that a wholly distinct working-class culture established itself in these years as an independent sector of American life. But it was palpable to many labor spokesmen that unions and corporations arose from radically different outlooks, from sharply diverging views of human relations. Both collective entities, both representing consolidations on behalf of economic interest, unions and corporations diverged dramatically in the relation of their members to the organization as a whole. Corporations absolved their investors from liability should the joint enterprise fail. Relations between investors and directors, between the body of owners and the cadre of managers, became increasingly impersonal, indirect, governed by technicalities of law. To be sure, unions, too, would eventually develop internal bureaucracies and
a self-perpetuating stratum of leaders. But the predominant meaning of "union" in these years lay in the motto of the Knights of Labor: "An injury to one is the concern of all." Rather than absolving members of liability, unions fostered a sense of mutual responsibility. Members counted on protection, on the willingness of the "all" to come to the aid of the "one."
Such differences in the human relations of unions and corporations arose from differences in the daily experiences of workers and businessmen. Born in competition, corporations formed themselves as superior economic fighting units. They existed solely for the sake of the market, and assumed acquisitiveness as the primary motive of economic behavior. Unions stood on a different ground, at the place of work rather than the marketplace of trade. They assumed equality among their members, a virtually religious communal bond expressed in oaths, emblems, hymns, and, in the case of the Knights, in rites of secrecy. Many unions continued to oppose the wage system as a system of enforced and permanent inequality. They condemned unbridled competition and celebrated productive labor as the source of cultural value as well as economic wealth. Moreover, arising from the "idea of solidarity," as Norman Ware has remarked about the Knights of Labor, the very word "union" echoed with the original principle of the nation itself--E Pluribus Unum--while "incorporation" implied a unity based on unequal mem- bers. Thus, in the eyes of unions, the incorporation of America seemed a profound contradiction in terms. In the antithesis between "union" and "corporation," the age indeed witnessed an impassable gulf of troubling proportions, for it remained unsettled on which side lay the true America.