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Southern Labor Archives: Work n' Progress - Lessons and Stories: Part I: Colonial and Antebellum Era

Colonial and Antebellum Era: Overview

America's union movement traces its beginnings to the earliest days of the country's history. Craftsmen counted themselves among the first Europeans to arrive with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Early efforts at collective action, in primitive unions or guilds, sprang up in several of the major seaports that developed in the early colonies. The pace of change in urban centers like Boston, New York and Philadelphia brought new stresses and strains to craftsmen and laborers, who slowly began to lose control over the nature of their work. Carpenters, shoe makers, and cobblers all attempted to form associations for their benefit during this time.

Workers played a crucial role during the struggle for American independence from Britain. The Boston Massacre began as a dispute over British troops moonlighting and taking the jobs of American workers. Laborers also led the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Many of them fought and held leadership positions in the Continental Army or in various state militias.

After the war, craftsmen in many areas led a precarious existence. They began to try to organize to protect their position in society. Printers went on strike in New York in 1794. Shoemakers, carpenters, and cabinet makers followed in other cities in the 1790s.

As more and more people worked in factories during the industrial revolution that began in the early 19th Century, workers began to explore the idea of banding together for economic and legal protection against their bosses. They fought to reduce the working day from 12 to 10 hours. City-wide labor organizations sprang up in the growing urban areas of the East. In 1834, workers in five cities formed the National Trades' Union, one of the earliest attempts at a national federation of labor organizations. The participants of this early organizing effort were skilled workers who were usually educated and received training. Unskilled workers were given simple tasks that required no judgment and could be learned on the job in a short period of time. A financial panic in 1837, however, destroyed the effort.

Colonial and Antebellum Era: Georgia

Georgia began as a noble experiment. Established in 1733 by James Oglethorpe, it was to be a town-oriented society of tradesmen and small farmers. However, the colony faced economic hardship and by the 1740s, Georgia established a slave-labor, staple crop, plantation colony. Little is known about workers after the American Revolution in Georgia. Many skilled white craftsmen from the North, their options restricted by market and production changes, arrived in the state looking for new opportunities. They found work and established shops in the port city of Savannah and the growing town of Augusta. They worked as blacksmiths, jewelers, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers and tanners. A few owned their own shops and employed white laborers and apprentices, or contracted out for black slave workers. Some white craftsmen who ran their own shops eventually owned slaves. By 1850, craftsmen had established the Athens Mechanics Mutual Aid Association which served to promote the work and activities of its members. Though the organization was not political in nature, it represents an early example of Georgia workers thinking in terms of collective action.

White and black skilled workers sometimes worked alongside each other in Georgia. Former slaves, who made up a small minority of the free workforce, found their way as skilled craftsmen who competed with whites for jobs as tailors, carpenters, butchers, bricklayers and shoemakers. Although slaves often worked alongside whites, this physical proximity did not approach racial equality.
Slaves, who made up a large part, if not the majority, of Georgia's workers before the Civil War, labored in the plantation fields and homes. They built the region's early infrastructure, developed important farming techniques and helped establish early staple crops like rice. They also worked as mechanics in plantation shops, and as tanners,

shoemakers and dockworkers. Many times they were hired out by their owners to work at these occupations in urban areas. In some parts of the South, slaves served as physicians. Early manufacturers experimented with the use of slave labor in factories.

Caption: Planting Sweet Potatoes: c. 1862; James Hopkins's Plantation, Edison Is., South Carolina. (L1984-22/19)

Colonial and Antebellum Era: Sources

AFL-CIO, "A Short History of American Labor," AFL-CIO American Federationist, March 1981.


Michele K. Gillespie, "Planters in the Making: Artisanal Opportunity in Georgia, 1790-1830," in American Artisans: Crafting Social Identity, 1750-1850, and "Artisan Accommodation to the Slave South: The Case of William Talmage, Blacksmith, 1834-1837", The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Summer 1997.



Alfred Young, "George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742-1840): A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution", The William and Mary Quarterly, October 1981.

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