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.


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