Maria Sanford, who was a history professor at Swarthmore at the time, gave this address at the July 24, 1878, session of the Pennsylvania Teachers’ Association meeting.1 Given the topic, it’s notable that Sanford had previously also taught a Junior course on John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, possibly supplemented with lectures about American Whig economist Henry Carey.2
Labor issues were quite salient in 1878 Pennsylvania. An 1873 financial panic had precipitated a severe recession that struck railroads especially hard. With the growing importance to the economy of permanent wage labor, this downturn became America’s first experience of widespread unemployment.3 Workers’ reaction led to the country’s first major labor action, the 1877 Great Railroad Strike, which was contested with particular bitterness in Pennsylvania.4 Coming only a few years after the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, Americans feared the prospect of Marxist-inspired labor violence.
Sanford analyzes the situation, not as an economic question, but through her audience’s perspective as citizens and teachers. She frames the underlying dynamic as a centuries-long struggle between the privileged few and the mass of humanity, which America’s founders had hoped to overcome by giving all a share in government. Republican Rome, however, offers a lesson in how growing wealth inequality can lead the privileged abandon respect for labor and the cultivation of republican virtues in favor of the pursuit of greater wealth. She argues that America could suffer the same fate unless the founders’ principles are adapted to the new conditions, so long as the adaptation does not lead to anarchy and to equality at a degraded level. Sanford briefly addresses the rioting laborers, whom she sees as having followed a small number of agitators, before turning her attention to the wealthy. Although she won’t condemn wealth per se, she is strongly critical of those who disdain labor, pursue idle wealth, and perceive themselves as better than ordinary workers. This group represents a greater threat to American society and its republican government.
The Labor Question
I shall not attempt in this brief hour an exhaustive analysis of the question which may rightly be considered the most important one not only of our politics but of morals and of social life. It is a question demanding the profoundest thought, and the most careful study, not of statesmen alone, but of every citizen, and especially of those whose business it is to form the character, direct the thought and awaken the conscience of the rising generation. It is then in its relation to us as citizens and as teachers that I shall speak this morning of the Labor Question, desiring most of all to bring home to the heart a sense of its importance and of our personal responsibility concerning it. I but give my thought, hoping that in your minds it may awaken a better thought, and each speed on and on until a glorious work shall be accomplished.
We all admit that we have fallen upon evil days; we hear no more the spread-eagle eloquence of former times—of America the home of the oppressed, the paradise of the laborer—and thoughtful minds can perceive that a worse evil than hard times and low wages is threatening us in the growing sense of bitterness and conflict between the rich and the poor.
Nearly every one can tell us exactly what brought on the trouble; it was the importation of foreign luxuries, or glutting the market with foreign laborers, it was the failure of this firm or of that enterprise, it was the railroads, or speculation, or paper money, or the return to specie payments, or some other of score of evils, that plunged the country into all distress.5Contemporary newspaper accounts tended to blame the panic and recession on the railroads and their reliance on debt, but other possible causes were also discussed. Monetary policy was particularly controversial, although the terms that Sanford uses here reflect state of the controversy roughly three years earlier. Some or all of these specific causes doubtless contributed to hasten or aggravate the difficulty; but there are two things which it might be well us to remember: first, the axiom that great results do not proceed from trivial causes, and if they do seem thus to follow, it is because previous and important causes had made it possible—if a slight cold produces fatal results it is because the constitution had already been undermined and the seeds of disease already planted; and second, that while it may be very important that we find out the cause of the evil, it is at least equally important that we consider what can be done to remedy it. It is not enough to bemoan our present condition or to long for better times; we must observe the symptoms of the disease of the body politic and study the record of similar cases with the direct and definite purpose of bringing about a cure.
Careful observation and study cannot but convince us that the trouble of our times is not accidental; it is no mere episode; it is part of the long struggle of centuries, a phase of that great strife between the privileged class and the multitude, between manhood and caste, which constitutes three-fourths of the whole history of civilized nations. It is as De Tocqueville says, “An irresistible revolution which has advanced for centuries in spite of every obstacle, and is still advancing in spite of the ruins it has caused;”6From the introductory chapter of Democracy in America but in this advance we can plainly see the Divine hand bringing order out of chaos and out of anarchy law.
Our fathers thought they had settled the question forever in granting to the rich and poor alike an equal share in the government. They did not perceive that there might exist side by side political equality and social despotism. They did their part well; but new circumstances, increased wealth and population, constant communication with the Old World—an importation of the dregs of its population and the scum of fashions and conceits, have brought to us difficulties they never dreamed of, and revived in new and complicated form the old issue.
When in Rome, after one hundred and fifty years of struggle, the Plebeian gained his point—secured an equal share in the government with his Patrician neighbor, an equal right to senatorial and military honors, to the consulship and the priestly offices, they built a temple to Concord, and believed, as we have believed, that the question was settled and equal rights secured. But immediately there grew up a new division—a new caste; it was no longer Patrician and Plebian, but the rich and the poor—those who had honors and those who had not. The men of wealth and culture despised the common herd, and the populace hated with ferocious bitterness the rich and haughty masters before whom they cringed.7Political struggles in the late Republic were between the Optimates (traditionalists) and the Populares (populists). The division didn’t neatly align with patrician and plebeian status; some patrician politicians, such as Caesar, were Populares and depended on plebeian support. No poet broke in upon their darkness with “the lightning of his song;”8From Thomas Holley Chivers’ “On Reading Miss Barrett’s Poems” their religion gave them no aid; they grew more and more wretched and debased until any demagogue could lead them at his will to any act of desperation. Patriots like the Gracchi tried to renovate the nation, but both classes were corrupted—the rich with luxury and effeminacy, the poor with hopeless ignorance and degradation.9Sanford’s opinion of the Gracchi is shaped by the favorable treatment that they received from 19th century historians. More recent historiography tends to see the Gracchi as motivated more by factional and familial loyalty and less by ideological commitments. And thus the Roman Republic fell. Shall we or shall we not profit by the example?10America’s founders consciously drew upon Roman republicanism when deciding how the new nation should govern itself, and the late Republic is often looked at for lessons on how America might avoid its fate. Edward Watts’ Mortal Republic is a recent example. Sanford analyzes the fundamental problem as being that wealth inequality corrupted the character of both rich and poor.
No student of history can fail to recognize the striking similarity between our circumstances and theirs. As their wealth and power and cultivation increased, the early equality in condition necessarily disappeared. Republican simplicity gave place to ostentatious display; respect for manly dignity to respect for position. As the rich man became polished in his manners, his language and his tastes, he looked down upon the rude farmer who practiced the simple virtues which had in the early days been the acme of Roman pride. Riches became the one object of ambition; self-control, stern virtue, was unfashionable and out of date, and honor was forgotten in the strife for wealth. Labor was despised, and the wages of labor and the price of produce fell until it would not pay to cultivate the soil and the independent farmer found himself a pauper. Eager for greater gain, or trembling on the verge of ruin from reckless expenditure the rich neglected the poor man’s cry until hope was past; and revolution, anarchy, despotism followed. How far we have gone on the same path it is not necessary to point out; but here history furnishes us a lesson that he who runs may read.
We know that it is impossible to return to the simple conditions of the early time—they have passed away forever; but the question is, Is it or is it not possible to carry out the maxims of our fathers? Must we accept the old doctrines that they repudiated and run the old course until ruin overtakes us? or may we adapt their principles to the new conditions, and develop a higher ideal of social and political life than the world has yet witnessed—in other words, Was their success accidental or was there a real vitality in the spirit they possessed?11Sanford positions herself here within what could be called American Whig thought, rooted in political values that have been tested by history and oriented toward continual progress. were the principles they advocated false and doomed to failure or the truth which must prevail?
It seems to me that our present difficulties may be overcome and the principles of our fathers gloriously vindicated if we will but take up the work in the spirit in which they accepted it, and apply to the obstacles in our way the wisdom, the energy and the self sacrifice that they gave to the problems presented to them. They held that “all men are born free and equal;” but the freedom they advocated was not anarchy, and the equality to which they aspired was no degraded level.12The duty to lift up the “degraded classes” is a theme that will govern much of Sanford’s speaking throughout her life. As sincerely as they believed in the right of all to “life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they held the duty of all to spend that life in usefulness, in self restraint, and in virtue.13Not only is freedom not anarchy, it is also not the liberal individualism of other 19th century reformers, such as the Mugwumps.
The foundation of our social and political system was laid upon three great principles—the equality of man, the sacredness of law, and the dignity of labor. We find it attacked on the one hand by lawlessness and brute force, demanding “a loaf for every loafer with full privilege of loafing,”14In 1877 several newspapers quoted this epigrammatic description of communism, attributing it to the New York World. and on the other far more insidiously and fatally by the spirit of caste which looks down upon labor and seeks constantly to build up distinctions between the privileged idler and the plebeian laborer. We must meet both these enemies with determined opposition, prevent their success and destroy their influence, or to us will come the hand writing on the wall: “Tho art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”15Daniel 5:27
What then can we do? First, we must recognize the duty as a personal one, and seek the good result with a clear and definite aim; not content with saying something ought to be done, we must stir ourselves to do it, and each one give to the work, patient, intelligent and judicious effort.16We see here that Sanford urges her audience to act in support of the shared values that she is affirming. What the individual mind of the nation is determined upon, that the nation will perform; our fathers were bound to secure their civil and religious freedom; they had their separate hopes and fears, but for this one end they were each man of them prepared to die. The freedom they determined upon they obtained. If we love it as they loved it, and are ready, if necessary, to make the same sacrifices, we may protect and preserve it and win for it new victories. But if we prefer ease and pleasure and personal gain, if our mental and moral vigor has been sapped by our love of luxury and display, the standard of freedom and progress will drop from our nerveless grasp, we shall have what we sought, but it will not be the foremost place among those who have raised mankind to higher levels and triumphed in the cause of human rights. It is not sufficient to cling to the creed of our fathers.
“New occasions teach new duties, Time makes good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of Truth.”17From James Russell Lowell’s “The Present Crisis;” abolitionist Lowell wrote this 1845 poem at a time when the annexation of Texas would soon disrupt a decade-long period of relative quiet about slavery.
What is needed is a moral elevation which shall enable us to see clearly our duty, not narrow and circumscribed, but reaching out to our fellow men and to the future; a force of character which makes life a constant effort to attain some worthy end; an independence of spirit which having seen a duty, walks straight forward to its performance with the same calm dignity with which the Mahommedan kneels with his face to the sacred city, unconscious of the scoffs and sneers of the unbelieving crowd. This moral tone, this unselfish devotion to right, will cut the Gordian knot of mine and thine, and lead us, as by Divine inspiration, to the true solution of the difficult problem.
No great results have ever been accomplished without this individual consecration to the work. The nations by whom the triumphs of civilization have been won are those
“Where every freeman was a host,
And felt as though himself were he
On whose sole arm hung victory.”18From James Montgomery’s “Arnold Winkelried, about the victorious medieval Swiss independence fight
Our fathers gave this enthusiastic personal devotion to the cause of good government, and it is this this alone that can make our vision clear and arms strong to carry on and complete their work.
There is urgent need that this spirit be aroused for there are signs of the times that are dark and portentous. The mutterings of riot have ceased for a time, but there is left a wide-spread feeling of discontent, and the seeds of lawlessness which have been scattered broadcast will surely bear fruit if they are not rooted up.19Sanford had earlier outlined two attacks, and here she explains the threat from lawlessness and brute force. The pest of vagrancy, one of the worst nuisances of the Old World has fastened itself upon our vitals; it is not too late to rid ourselves of the evil if instead of complaining we would act. If in every neighborhood and town and county, good citizens would organize and devise means with the straight-forward earnestness they would use in self-defence, the difficulties would disappear. It may be hard sometimes to draw the line and say what is the place for severity and what for compassion, but justice in the end is kind, and we may be sure that nothing could be more cruel than the false sentiment and sympathy that foster this degrading vice.
The forces of law and order are strong if they are once united. There is an element of base instincts and brute force underlying all society, but if isolated it is impotent. The demagogues of communism would feel themselves powerless if all whose interests are opposed to theirs, all who are willing to labor and hope to enjoy the rewards of honest toil were but united against them; but when unfortunate circumstances, or injustice, or neglect, have put plausible arguments into their mouths, and they lead away multitudes of the law-abiding God-fearing masses, then it is that they are strong. The real rioters were a few desperadoes, but they were supported by a crowd of ignorant men whom they had deluded, and still more by a sense of injustice that rankled in the breasts of men who would die before they would take up the weapons of the rioter or the torch of the incendiary. 20Memories of the short-lived 1871 Paris Commune and its bloody suppression would probably be uppermost in Sanford’s mind when associating lawless rioting with communism. We owe it to this class for their protection in good morals, we owe it to ourselves and to coming generations, to put down the lawless with a strong, firm hand; to vindicate the sacredness of law by the execution of penalty upon offenders high and low, the elegant defaulter and bankrupt, the noisy brawler and the idle vagabond; for to be tender towards crime is to encourage and increase it.
But there is another duty, far more difficult and equally urgent, that presses upon us. 21Sanford now turns to what she had characterized as the greater threat: the spirit of caste. The open attacks upon society can be openly met; but under the attractive guise of aristocratic ideas there is spreading a covert poison that is paralyzing our energies and working the ruin of our hopes. There prevails, as Huxley says, “the mischievous delusion that brain work is in itself and apart from its quality a nobler and more respectable thing than handiwork,”22From Thomas Henry Huxley’s address “Technical Education,” which was printed in an 1878 issue of Popular Science and the still more mischievous delusion that dignified idleness is the ideal state. Wealth, idleness, and exclusiveness have been accepted as evidences of social superiority until we have grown ashamed of useful labor and are learning more and more to look down upon it as degrading.23Sanford unleashes far more scorn on the idle rich than on the idle poor, and she blames them for sowing division in society. We have accepted the maxims of social life from which it was the pride of our Republic to have revolted: in the words of our poet:
“The cast clothes of Europe democracy tries
And mumbles again the old blarneys and lies.”24Misremembered from the “British vs. American” section of James Russell Lowell’s A Fable for Critics (the original has “your statesmanship” where Sanford substitutes “democracy”)
We have not yet arrived at that point where we would admit that we look down upon the laborer; but we have come to feel, and tacitly by our conduct to admit, that the hard work of the world is to be done by a separate class from whom we wish to be carefully distinguished. When we have once learned to shun labor as degrading, it is but a step to the position of the decayed scion of Spanish nobility who does not hesitate to beg a small coin, but if you propose that he earn a shilling by carrying your valise, he folds his arms in proud scorn and informs you that he is an Hidalgo—a son of somebody—and is not by any means to be confounded with the nobodies who labor.
I believe it to be the bounden duty of every man and woman, and especially of every teacher and parent, to make earnest and continual protest against this reverence for idleness. Let us reverence culture and give time for all elegant accomplishments; they bring light and joy into our life and raise the standard of the race; but let us despise and condemn idleness in the man (or woman who) lives on an income of a hundred thousand, as well as in him who begs his daily bread. Let us honor labor by precept and example; accept and teach the doctrine that “the most valuable of all genius is the genius for hard work.” Let us teach the children—girls as well as boys—to scorn the namby-pamby weakness and inefficiency which must be served but cannot serve; show them folly of being idle hangers-on to the skirts in a world,
“Where—whether the prize be a ribbon or throne,
The winner is he who can ‘go it alone.'”25From John B Saxe’s “The Game of Life”
Instill into them the honest pride that delights to “endure hardness like a good soldier;”26The beginning of a passage in a letter from Methodist preacher George Whitefield that is frequently quoted in 19th century sermons and devotional works teach them the self respect, the true dignity that seeks to contribute something to the world, and is not willing to be a mere recipient of good things; but above all open to their vision the worth and excellence of noble life—its glorious opportunities for good, its hard-won victories, its sweet reward of work well done!
Such a conception of life would level the wicker barriers we seek to build between the rich and the poor; it would spread a kindling sympathy which would consume like the refiner’s fire, the scorn and the bitterness that now separate the laborer and the capitalist, and enable each to see clearly the other’s worth and the other’s rights.27Sanford looks to cooperation and harmony, not competition in defense of interests, as the key to resolving the labor question. This is an approach that the Knights of Labor will take up with their vision of a cooperative commonwealth, and it is in contrast with the eventually successful confrontational approach that other labor groups will adopt. We found this to be true, when for a moment at the call of patriotism, we were thus raised out of the narrow selfishness of our daily lives; the rich threw off their false dignity, and the poor rose up in their manhood, and as they all stood shoulder to shoulder for the defence [sic] of their homes, the whole land felt the thrill of a common brotherhood.
Social distinctions must exist, but let them rest sensible foundations. We have abjured an aristocracy of wealth, let us not accept an aristocracy of wealth and idleness.
I make no protest against wealth, I think it is time that on this point our moral code and our practical life were reconciled. We declaim, one day in the week, against money as a curse, the root of all evil, the false god before whom the multitude bow down; and we spend the other six in the most strenuous exertions to obtain it, and are for ourselves and for our children the most absolute devotees of the almighty dollar. Our creed, being thus divorced from our practice, gives us no help where we need it most. We may hail with joy, then, the utterances of a prominent clergyman, “Excellent money, you make more moral whoever touches you, for there is that in every dollar honestly and hardly earned, that acts like an amulet to make a man’s life cleaner and sweeter, more honest and sincere.”
As the reward of industry and thrift, as an evidence of ability, and as that which stimulates these virtues, money is good; as the power that can command the good things of the world, can give not only food and clothing, houses and lands, but can place within our reach the means of culture, open to us the stores of literature and the treasures of art, can feed the hungry soul, money is a priceless boon. But let us not mistake the sign for the thing signified;—the key to dining saloon is not the banquet, and hugging this talisman we may be starved unless we enter in are fed. It is when we take as the object of respect and the test of preferment, the money itself, instead the energy that gained it and the culture it may bring, that riches become a curse. It is because idle enjoyment and not earnest usefulness, has been regarded as the privilege and life of the wealthy; gold only demanded of them and not a record of good deeds, men are willing to sacrifice all things, honor and reputation even, in headlong haste to become rich.
It may seem an Utopian idea to hope to make true manhood and real worth the basis of distinction, the standard of excellence, and the test of social position;—I know it is vastly easier to talk about this principle than to act upon it; that it is much simpler on paper than in practice; that it is easier to judge a man by the breadth of his acres or the length of his rent-roll, than by the grasp of his intellect, or the greatness of his soul. But if each man knew that he should be judged by what he is and not by what he has or can seem to have, what an incentive would be offered to true and noble life; how many would be encouraged to honest industry, instead of wild speculation; to practice wise economy instead of keeping up appearances by reckless extravagance, to the judicious use of their means to cultivate in themselves and in those around them, a larger life and a taste for higher enjoyments, instead of the mere senseless hoarding of thousands, to be wasted by their children in idleness and dissipation.It is the chief grievance of the laboring classes today, that while riches are made the standard of preferment, by the new order of things they are doomed to perpetual poverty. It is not so much the loss of physical comforts as that they see closed upon them, little by little the door of hope. Hunger and cold, and privation of every sort the stout heart can bear and bear cheerfully; but the galling sense of injustice, to be looked upon as made of other clay, and fit only for the burden, this it is that rankles and corrodes. As Burns says,
“I tent less and want less
Their roomy fireside,
But hanker and canker
To see their cursed pride.”28From Robert Burns’ “Epistle To Davie, A Brother Poet”
It is this spirit of caste that gives bitterness to the sufferings of the poor, and it is robbing us of that rare excellence observed by all who visited America in the early time—the loyalty of the masses to the government, their sympathy with and support of law and order.
We take for granted that education, refinement and moral worth are wanting in the poor, and cultivate a spirit of exclusiveness that refuses them recognition, and by so doing we not only alienate them, but we take away all incentive to progress.
It may be claimed that we do give honor to intellectual and moral qualities and recognition to the worthy poor. In our own circle, yes; and to a Franklin and a Lincoln when he has fought his way up to position and fame; but what do we more than others? the proudest aristocracy in Europe will do the same. The question is do we reach down a hand to help those who by real worth are trying to rise—do we make room for them, give them sympathy and encouragement while their success is still doubtful; recognise their good qualities and commend their energy: or do we magnify their short-comings, keep constantly before us their plebian stamp, the smell of the garlic they have not yet been able to throw off. This sympathy is not alms, but opportunity. Charity degrades the recipient; sympathy lifts him up, teaches him that he must rise if at all, not by assistance. but by perseverance and pluck. It is not a maudlin compassion that the honest heart asks, but a fair chance and a kind word.
We delight to honor Burns; we mourn over a starving Chatterton, and we pity the Spanish court that allowed Cervantes to live in poverty and neglect; but do we ever think that just such spirits may be living in our midst
“Forlorn, forlorn, bearing the scorn
Of the meanest of mankind.”29From Charles Mackay’s “Eternal Justice”
It is easier to build the tombs of the prophets than to discern their voice.
We are afraid of our own reputation, that our tastes will be considered common; we forget that we are the professed disciples of Him who was the friend publicans and sinners; and we dare not do as we would be done by. We recognize our duty in empty platitudes, but go on saying, in act if not in word, to the rich man, “sit thou here,” and to the poor man, “stand thou there.” Can we, will we, throw off these shackles, rise to a fuller freedom and a broader humanity: put into the poor man’s labor heart and hope; make him feel that
“A man’s a man for a’ that,”30From Robert Burns’ “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”
and weld together class and class by this true-hearted sympathy.
It is not generous impulse only but sound policy that urges us to this course; if we close our ears to the spiritual wants of the laborer—refuse to lift up his soul, the time will come when, brutal and debased, he will demand his rights in thunder tones. By our selfish and exclusive policy, each one trying to rise but holding back our skirts from those below us, we are widening the chasm which will engulf us. The poor, ever crowded down and crowded down, incensed by our neglect and made desperate by their sufferings, will at last level all things in their brute vengeance and despair; and “not theirs the blame if we who scattered fire-brands reap the flame.”
One great issue has been presented to this generation and they were not found wanting in passionate patriotism; glorious indeed were the sacrifices made, blood was poured out like water and money without stint, in the cause of the poor and the oppressed; but it is easier when “flags wave and drums beat” to march up to the cannon’s mouth than to pursue the even tenor of our way calmly doing an unfashionable duty, with no opposition but a covert sneer.31The allusion is to what Sanford’s audience accomplished during the recent Civil War. It is easier to give our means, and our lives even for the heathen in Borrioboola Gha, than to give our time and thought and sympathy to the heathen at our door. It is a harder test of our Christianity, this silent unheralded devotion to the good of others, and those often repulsive, degraded, unreasoning. It is only the highest Christian sympathy and the purest patriotism that can nerve us to this self-sacrifice. We cannot regard this idea of duty as a new doctrine, it is the underlying principle of our religion, it runs through the New Testament from cover to cover. Let us then make these glorious precepts the governing principle of our lives, feel in our hearts and acknowledge in act that we are “our brother’s keeper,” that if to us have been given greater wealth, higher position, finer talents—”nobility implies obligation”—these each and all are to be used to lift up our brother man; to show him that rough hands and coarse clothes are no disgrace; that he is a gentleman whose feelings and thoughts are refined and pure; that the man who grasps the hammer or holds the plow may have a heart as tender and a soul as true, and that to him the song-birds of love may sing as sweet a melody, as to the veriest autocrat in the land. That what the masses want is energy and skill and thrift, economy and self-restraint; that if all the money in the country were divided equally to-morrow, those who possessed these qualities would be rich and those who lacked them would still be poor.
Oh! if there were in every valley and hamlet city, some who could teach to the laborer this doctrine; some one whose heart was true enough and whose life was pure enough; some man or woman who had in and out before them, the people’s friend, and could therefore preach this gospel and be believed, it would indeed be to our country and to the people thereof the glad tidings of peace and of salvation.
This is the true Republicanism, the equality to which society through all its revolutions is slowly advancing; it is not easy to attain, but what great work was ever easy? struggling blindly after it man has often grasped at its semblance and in headlong haste thrown away the jewel that he sought, but in the end it will be gained. All seeming advance is not progress, but that which is false passes away while that which is true endures and forms part of a new and more perfect system. It took two thousand years to develop the idea of Representative Government which to us seems so simple, and it may take thousands more to establish the true Christian principle of equality; but we are under the government of One to whom a thousand years are but as one day, and who slowly but surely will work out His purposes.
One nation after another does its work and passes away. It may be impossible for us so to rise above our selfishness and our prejudices as to reach the solution of this great question, but if we fail, we too shall be laid aside and the mission given to a nation with clearer sight and nobler aim.