Gilded Age: Heyday of Laissez-Faire Capitalism

From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican
Liberty in the Nineteenth Century
Alex Gourevitch
Introduction, pp. 3-

On November 26, the Journal printed a letter describing the Knights’ defiance of the “many companies of State militia, with their Gattling [sic] guns,” who were attempting to force the striking workers back to the fields. Little did the Journal’s editors know that by the time they had printed that letter the Louisiana state militia had broken the strike and corralled thousands of strikers into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. State militia then withdrew, intentionally leaving the town to a group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” who happened to have been organized by the same judge that declared martial law. Upon meeting resistance from the penned in strikers, the white vigilantes unleashed a three-day torrent of killing, from November 21 to November 23, on the unarmed cane-workers and their families. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes one historian, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.” 12 Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule[,] the nigger or the white man? For the next 50 years . . .” 13 A few months later, the Knights continued to organize in parts of Louisiana and elsewhere in the South, but the slaughter at Thibodaux put strict limits on the black worker’s struggle for economic independence and equal rights in the South. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred; it was easy to forget it had ever been a possible world the cane cutters might live in. The Knights, meanwhile, were soon reduced to an historical footnote.

The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many over the course of Southern history. In each case, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy. In this case, however, it is worth noting that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, not well-remembered, language of freedom. From the abolition of slavery to the end of Reconstruction, many freed slaves sought more than legal recognition as equal citizens. They felt their liberation included the right not to have a master at all. They refused to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. 14 Instead, when possible, they seized or settled land set aside for them and worked it individually or in joint “labor companies.” 15 Former slaves asserted their independence at all levels by organizing their own militias to protect their rights, by working their own property, by voting as they wished, and by holding local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was quickly suppressed and the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877 spelled the end of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean. 16

When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana a decade later, they not only revived old hopes about self-organization and economic independence. They also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom. The aforementioned hopeful parenthesis – “by January 1 we will be in good trim to lease ( on the co-operative plan) a good plantation” – speaks to this ideological shift. No doubt black laborers and local leaders heard echoes of the short-lived Reconstruction-era “labor companies” and black militias in this new language of self-directed “co-operative plans.” Their enemies certainly did. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti.’” 17 But former slaves were now also modern workers, and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage-laborers everywhere. If their message carried special historical resonances in the South, the Knights added a new universalizing and solidaristic note.

This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the transracial language of making all workers into their own employers, scared northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. In fact, if we see the Thibodaux massacre as just a Southern race story, then we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the plantocracy and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority. After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold, they were met with violence not all that different from that of Southern vigilantes. Throughout the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, the Knights faced private violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with National Guards or even Federal troops. In fact, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. 18 Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with the “Pinkerton Armed Force,” its spies and “provocative agents,” as a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” 19 Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion sometimes blurred into indistinction. What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses?

The Knights of Labor represented the culmination of a radical, labor republican tradition. Their starting premise was that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” 20 Wage-labor was considered a form of dependent labor, different from chattel slavery, but still based on relations of mastery and subjection. Dependent labor was inconsistent with the economic independence that every republican citizen deserved. That is why, in the name of republican liberty, these Knights sought “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.” 21 Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found as applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana as to the shoe factories of Massachusetts. 22 The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. 23 The cooperative ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee. Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was – according to the Knights – the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence. The abolition of slavery two decades earlier was but the first step in a broader project of eliminating all relations of mastery and subjection in economic life. Although these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage-labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent post-war labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.” 24