Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

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so far only been able to track down two scholarly works on the organization, both of which are Master's theses and thus unpublished (and one of them is not even solely about SoI, but is a comparison of several such cooperative groups in the 19th century).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).


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