Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sovereigns of Industry, Part II

Alrighty, so here's the second part of my report on the Sovereigns of Industry (SoI). I wrote last week that the SoI seems to have vacillated between (relatively) conservative and radical social positions. I will expand on this theme here by noting both the use of religious rhetoric by the SoI as well as its racial and gender politics.

One of the very first things I noticed when reading the pamphlet I mentioned last week was the use of Biblical allusion to support a seemingly radical socialist economic position. Indeed, on the very first page of the pamphlet William Alger wrote that the capitalist system of economics was in direct contradiction with the teachings of the Bible, and asserted that economic cooperation among the producing and working classes, along with the elimination of the merchant class, would help to bring about the Millennium (the return of Christ to Earth and the end of history as we know it). Later, in the section penned by C. Edwards Lester, I came across this poetic prophecy: "And the heavenly dove of wisdom shall descend upon mankind and the holy ghost—the wind of God—blow through the souls of men until forgetfulness of self shall overtake them all" (pg. 11). Similar religious language was also used in the second document I was able to take a look at last week, the Sovereigns of Industry Bulletin! I reviewed two issues of this newsletter, Vol. 1, #8 (July 1875) and Vol. 1, #12 (November 1875). An item in the second issue explaining the purpose of the bulletin again made an explicit allusion to the Millennium, arguing that a cooperative economic system like the one promoted by SoI would help to bring about the end times: "The gates of history will be lifted up, the doors of prophecy will be flung open, and the King of Glory will come. Humanity will be throned in its world-estate in harmony and happiness."

In a posting from last November I discussed how important religion has been in the social life of Hampden, and particularly its place within collective imaginings of Hampden's past. It seems likely that the kind of religious justification for a group like SoI would have worked very well in a place like Hampden, and indeed, famous labor historian Herbert Gutman once surveyed the many ways in which the organized labor movement of the late 19th century used religious arguments to bash capitalism and promote socialist alternatives (Gutman, 1966, "Protestantism and the American Labor Movement: The Christian Spirit in the Gilded Age." The American Historical Review 72(1):74-101).

Finally, I was struck by the race and gender politics of the SoI. While certainly not radical for the 21st century, SoI did hold what would at the time have been very progressive positions. In the pamphlet by Alger and company, they note that one of the reasons for the need for an organization such as SoI is that women were "divorced from equal participation" in the economic and political system by men, when in fact they had every right to be just as involved (pg. 6-7). Vol. 1 #12 of the Bulletin! included a front-page article stating the "Declaration of Purposes" recently adopted by the national SoI. The declaration read, in part, that SoI was to be "an association of the industrial or laboring classes, without regard to race, sex, color, nationality or occupation; not formed for the purpose of waging any war of aggression upon any other class, or for fostering any antagonism of labor against capital. . . ." SoI's socially inclusive policy was directly counter to that held by the new American Federation of Labor, the leader of which, Samuel Gompers, was determined that the AFL should be principally an organization for skilled, white, male workers. On the other hand, SoI's insistence that it was not in the business of fomenting class war made it seem somewhat less radical than other contemporary groups, such as the Knights of Labor, that were all about upending the capitalist economic and social order. Certainly, the SoI did not treat women and people of color equally to white men. On page 3 of the November 1875 issue of the newsletter, one author urged men to make their wives members of SoI (rather than urging women to join of their own accord). Nevertheless, the same author did argue that "the Order will never accomplish its work . . . until the cheering and elevating influence of women is made manifest by her presence in the council room." Again, this kind of philosophy would likely have been appealing in a place like Hampden, where at least half of the industrial workforce consisted of women.

Apart from the "Declaration of Purposes" published in the November 1875 Bulletin!, I only noticed one other piece of evidence concerning the racial policies of SoI. It appears that the order subscribed to a "separate but equal" philosophy when it came to African Americans. In a section titled "Notes and Clippings," in the same issue of the paper, it was reported that a newly formed "colored" council was operating in Ohio. Why African Americans should have to form separate councils is, of course, not stated, but was probably taken for granted by most (if not all) white members of SoI.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Sovereigns of Industry

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to do a little digging into the archives here at the University of Michigan, on the topic of the Sovereigns of Industry. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned them before, but it's been awhile, so I'll provide a new introduction: The Order of the Sovereigns of Industry (hereafter referred to as SoI) was a cooperative workers' organization founded in Massachusetts in 1874 and patterned after both the Grange (here in the U.S.) and similar organizations in England. Not much is known about SoI—in fact, I have so far only been able to track down two scholarly works on the organization, both of which are Master's theses and thus unpublished (and one of them is not even solely about SoI, but is a comparison of several such cooperative groups in the 19th century). While SoI was organized at the national level, most of the activity took place in local "councils," more or less like union locals. The primary activity of these locals was the organization of cooperative stores in an effort to connect producers directly with consumers, thus eliminating the "idle" and parasitic merchant capitalist. SoI apparently did not last for more than a few years in the mid-1870s. According to the researchers who compiled a National Register of Historic Places nomination for Hampden a couple of years ago, they found evidence that a local council of SoI was active in Hampden (although they unfortunately do not mention it in the nomination that was submitted to the National Register, and I have not yet been able to discover any confirmation).

In looking for information on SoI, I discovered that the University of Michigan Graduate Library's Labadie Collection (an amazing archive of materials related to anarchist and radical organizations in the U.S. over the past 150 years or so) actually contains several documents published by SoI, and I was able to see two of them earlier this week. As is my habit, I'll write a little this week but save some juicy tidbits for a posting next week, as well.

The first piece of SoI literature that I looked at was a pamphlet titled, "Sovereigns of Industry. Report of the Committee on Declaration of Principles and Purposes," written by three men named William R. Alger, C. Edwards Lester, and Henry B. Allen and published in January, 1875. This was a most enlightening document for several reasons. First, it lays out both the reasons for the organization of SoI and its goals. In 1873 a depression hit the United States, partly as a result of the ongoing financial burden of Reconstruction in the South. In response to this economic panic, which disproportionately affected working-class people, SoI was organized to help workers deal with an unjust economic system. Apparently, SoI was one of a number of groups at the time calling for the adoption of paper currency (at the time, only "hard" currency was held to be valid by the U.S. government). The pamphlet is quite critical of capitalists, which it calls "the curse of American society; barnacles on the ship, only to retard her progress" (pg. 8). Capitalism is described as a "false social system," and workers, called "mechanics and artizans (sic)," are compared to slaves (pg. 14; a common analogy during the mid-to-late nineteenth century).

Unlike the then-fledgling American Federation of Labor (AFL), whose main goals were better working conditions and better pay (only for skilled workers, however), SoI emphasized education over the accumulation of "wealth." According to the pamphlet, the various activities of the SoI were aimed at the mental, social and material elevation of the working class. Advocating a system of economic cooperation among producers and consumers, the SoI seems to have vacillated between a stridently socialist project (wherein the social and economic differences between producers, workers, and consumers would be completely eliminated) and a more conservative approach that would simply do away with "middlemen"—the merchant class (as evidenced in the pamphlet's disparagement of strikes as a method of improving the working person's lot).

Monday, May 01, 2006

Religion in Hampden

Well, now that the semester is over I'll be going on my honeymoon for a couple of weeks, and then preparing to come out to Hampden, so this is likely my last post before I get there. I figured I'd talk a little about some of the archival research I want to try to do this summer when Dave and I aren't getting very dirty in other people's yards.

This past semester I was an instructor for the course "Religion in America" here at the University of Michigan. I learned a lot myself (I must admit that previously I had little knowledge of the topic), and now I'm interested in looking into the topic in Hampden. We already know that a large number of Hampden workers were Methodists, but there were also Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, and probably others. Camp revival meetings, when preachers from all over would converge in a field near Hampden and exhort the message of the Gospels to the masses, were a very important and popular part of social life in Hampden from the 1860s through the early 20th century. Interestingly, this time period in general was not particularly known for such public displays of religiosity. (The Second Great Awakening lasted roughly from 1800 to 1835, and the next outpouring of religious fervor began in the 1910s.)

E.P. Thompson established the connection between Methodism and the labor movement in England in his classic book "The Making of the English Working Class," and labor historian Herbert Gutman wrote an article titled "Protestantism and the American Labor Movement: The Christian Spirit in the Gilded Age," published in 1966. In this article, Gutman argues that labor activists during the late 19th century actively used the Christian scriptures to argue for the rights of working people (even as capitalists and their allies used the Bible to defend laissez-faire capitalism). But, as I've written on this blog before, the 1917 "History of Hampden Methodist Protestant Church" makes barely any mention of Hampden's industries, much less the fact that a large part (if not all) of the congregation would have worked for the mills. So my question is, did religion act as a deterrent to militant labor activity in Hampden (as Karl Marx might suggest), or did it actually provide workers with some support for their various attempts to gain better wages, working conditions and standards of living over the years?

Thus, one of my goals this summer is to try to get into some church archives in Hampden this summer to see if I can unearth some information about the role of religion in Hampden. Some of the things I will be looking for include social activities and public events organized by churches for workers or in support of workers in times of labor unrest; the position of the churches and their members on the camp meeting revivals that were so popular; public statements by local ministers concerning strikes, such as the 1923 strike at Mt. Vernon Mills, in which local clergy played an important role in getting the mayor of Baltimore to intervene; and even any evidence from sermons to suggest the general stance of ministers on the labor-capital relationship over the decades.

If you have any documents, personal memories or family stories about church activities in Hampden, from any time period, I'd love to hear from you and to incorporate this information into our research.