Wilentz's Workies: Labor Power in the Big Apple

Twenty years prior to The Communist Manifesto, the Working Men’s Party (“Workies” colloquially) proposed some incredibly revolutionary ideas in New York City, such as the abolition of private property, universal suffrage, and universal public education. Sean Wilentz, in his epic study Chants Democratic, analyzes the causes, context, and consequences of these critical labor groups. Wilentz rejects the notion that the Workies were a Marxist phenomenon of the proletariat uniting against the oppressive bourgeois. He instead argues that worker groups and their leaders were not “class conscious” of exactly who or what they represented. (15) Were they the party of all working men, or just unskilled urban laborers who rejected capitalism and revivalism? Wilentz portrays how the workingmen’s inability to establish a clear identity of their political goals and base made them susceptible to interference and coercion from the major political parties in the early 1830s.

Wilentz describes how, around 1825, the great “artisan republic” crafted by the Founders had collapsed “gradually but decisively” under the weight of modern capitalism. (145) A new entrepreneurial class, with (then-defunct) Federalist leanings, rose up to claim their foothold in the city. As thoroughly described in The Shopkeeper’s Millennium, these businessmen fueled the religious revivals of the 1820s. As a result, as Michael Lamoreaux pointed out, they “imposed a sense of religion on the poor of their community because they believed a void of morality existed”. The entrepreneurs and businessmen now became the spiritual as well as the economic protectors of the working classes, who were either too incompetent or too drunk to establish a decent code of conduct. Many workers undoubtedly resented this new form of bourgeois condescension onto their lives and chose instead to form political societies based on their own interests.

Wilentz’s description of the Working Men’s leadership is simply fascinating; the party was a hodgepodge of French Jacobins, Painite deists, Owenite Utopians, and even women, such as Frances Wright, who was “the first woman of importance to ascend a lecture platform in the United States.” (182) The party’s figurehead was a agrarian socialist named Thomas Skidmore, whose The Rights of Man to Property!, added a socialist spin to the work of Thomas Paine. Wilentz utilizes the worker-friendly newspapers of New York as primary sources for the events and philosophies of the Workies, such as the Radical, the Working Man’s Advocate, the Free Enquirer, and the Sentinel (205). The party, steadfast in its progressivism, reached into territory uncovered by neither Clayites nor Jacksonians: equal distribution of private property, universal suffrage regardless of race, freethinking independence from religious institutions, and public education. At first, the party experienced surprising local successes, with candidates receiving over six thousand votes in the race for State Senate. (199) However, the party’s working-class unity was soon to falter.

By the turn of 1830, Wilentz reveals how the Workies lack of class-consciousness came back to haunt them. In what Wilentz calls “The Coup”, a coalition of urban workers and Tammany Democrats brought down the agrarian Skidmore from power in a scene worthy of the 1917 Russian Duma. The Democrats then “co-opted” the issues of the Working Men’s Party for their own, effectively sealing former Workies inside their bubble. (202) The party’s newspapers, individually allied with a certain faction of the party, also turned on Skidmore, leaving him without public vindication. Wilentz describes the political coercion and the downfall of Skidmore as rather tragic; the united working class, the only true threat to the two-party system, had been subjugated by coercion and deceit. For years to come, the Tammany political machine would dominate the city using the same tactics displayed against the Workies to consolidate their power in an unrivaled fashion. For now, the great socialist vision of urban America would have to wait.

Religion: Yea or Nay

In Chants Democratic, Sean Wilentz discusses the formation of the working class in the late 18th to early 19th Centuries. In the midst of the Second Great Awakening, a divide is created between “religionists” and “free-thinkers”, the rich and the poor, capitalists and socialists. Wilentz discusses these developments in great detail, providing an account of how certain evangelical movements led to the inclusion of morality in debates of politics, economics and of course, religion.

Along with much of what we had discussed earlier in Shopkeeper’s Millennium, a huge shifted transpired in the work relations between employers and workers in the 1820s as the temperance movement assumed an integral role in the New York. The motivations behind the temperance movement included both paternalistic moral reasons but also concerns of the effectiveness of workers with drinking tendencies. The employers did not want to be seen as advocates of temperance just so that it “could yield 25 percent more profits” but also to “improve their souls.” These masters walked the thin line between economic interests which would be seen as purely selfish and moral reasons which fit in perfectly with the ideals of wealthier peoples trying to exemplify evangelical benefits. Oddly enough, though, there also seemed to be assertions that helping young men to remove themselves from the drink would allow for more efficient labor and thus foster a more productive, successful country. This provided an interesting incentive of loyalty to the country so that people would work diligently.

A different perspective of morality was introduced with respect to social tensions and the social inequality prevalent throughout New York. The General Society and the Institute of New York City worked to create an environment that would even the playing field between the rich and poor in a system with “aristocratic mercantile abuses” and trying to “awaken the spirit of American Independence.” These institutions saw it as their duty to return the nation to a state of relative egalitarianism where each person’s worth could be measured as a function of their contributions to society and not as a product of how rich their family is. This morality is much differentiated from the one aforementioned problem but it was a very real problem that many saw as needing to be rectified by society. As Wilentz states though, “their fresh interpretation of artisan republicanism in turn fit well with the moral imprecations of the temperance men and the Association for Moral Improvement”, indicating that these two themes of morality and the duty to correct wrongs were very common in different fields during this early stage of American freedoms.

I appreciated the Wilentz’s writing in that provided many sources and quotes to substantiate his argument and the linear progression between different topics such as those I just discussed makes for very easy reading. It is much more satisfying to digest than say Fanning’s article because Wilentz gives each of his claims much evidence and leaves no question untouched. Last week, Eli posted about partial acceptance which seems to relate to the topics I have just written about. As the employers distanced themselves further from their workers and receded into private terms, the workers saw themselves as being accepted as a form of capital but discarded as a potential liability what with their drinking tendencies. The employers had to take the good and the bad with their workers.

Determining Intent

Dr. Shrout said once in class that the hardest thing for a historian to determine is intent.  Sara C. Fanning attempts to do just this in “The Roots of Early Black Nationalism: Northern African Americans’ Invocations of Haiti in the Early Nineteenth Century”.  Fanning’s thesis is basically that freed black men and women in the north were inspired by the success that Haiti had as an independent black nation after their violent revolution.  Fanning uses examples of this success in Haiti as evidence to further her point.  By doing so though, she must try to determine the intentions of many people.

Fanning dedicates a section to analyzing why Thomas Jefferson cut ties with Haiti.  She surmises that it may have been done to secure Louisiana and Florida from Napoleon or because he was upset that the Haitians shared his same republican ideologies and philosophical outlook.  It is really impossible to ever know for sure.  Yet, Fanning’s detailed thought process is shown and is fairly convincing.

Throughout the rest of the article, Fanning makes statements that imply that she is determining intent.  She says, “they hoped…” and “African Americans who learned of the freedom afforded to black men would have looked upon Haiti as…”.  Some of her conclusions about intentions are more reasonable than others.  When she discusses how many of the African Americans who immigrated to Haiti returned home, she argues that it was because of cultural differences and problems with Haiti.  While this reasoning is fairly sound, it struck me as a little bit of her trying to reason and justify her argument, as opposed to a more concrete answer or evidence.

Fanning does a thorough job of pointing out what made Haiti appealing to African Americans, but I felt that she lacked any real evidence of African Americans noting how they were inspired by Haiti.  While I understand that the basis of her argument was that the African Americans surely noticed what was going on in Haiti, it may have been helpful if she had found more concrete sources backing this up.  Overall, Fanning’s article is an excellent hypothesis with great details and ideas.  It just contained a little bit too much assuming for me.  Then again, without some assumptions a historian would struggle to write much of anything.  So, in the end, I guess I’ll give Fanning my stamp of approval (whatever that may mean to her).

Hank Updegrave (New York State) raises some interesting questions in his post.  His point about Fanning not paying enough attention to the early instability in Haiti is very valid.  He brings up the issues of those who returned after going to Haiti and the inevitable tension between black people and those of a mixed race.  This is a solid point that I had not thought about.  Fanning definitely should have attempted to explain how African Americans would have seen these issues as she did about so many other things.  So now, after reading Henry’s blog, I’m back on the fence about Fanning.

Lack of Evidence

In “Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies”, Sara C. Fanning discusses the extent to which the Haitian Revolution and the subsequent efforts by the Haitian government to lure northern free African Americans to the freedom of the new colony. She argues for the idea that Haiti, contrary to the beliefs of many modern historians, played a large role in fostering the political and cultural actions of American free people of color. Although I believe that she  makes a decent argument and I am sure that there is some validity to it, she does not go about it in the most efficient way.

In forming her argument, Fanning assumes too much knowledge on the behalf of the reader. For example, Fanning refers to “northern free blacks subscribing to American republican sensibilities but were faced with a society retreating from its own revolutionary promises.” This may seem fairly clear but she does little in the successive sentences to elaborate on such a point. She gives no indication as to which revolutionary promises she is regarding and neglects to mention whether the fathers of the revolution really had free men of color in mind. Would it have been really so rational for American free men of color to expect white men to begin an emancipation of slaves in the wake of the American revolution which barely had anything to do with them. She could have approached this theme by first mentioning the ideals of the French revolution which actually related more to the men of Haiti and their freedom. This indicated for me the a less than ideal paper structure.

Fanning’s use of sources and quotes is also a bit disconcerting. She implements very sparse usage of quotes-only block quote in the whole paper-and this absence immediately jumps out at me as something that could be rectified to help the quality and structure of her paper especially one in which the argument of her paper is based on how a certain group of people is affected by revolutionary discourse. I would want to hear more about African-Americans were saying at the time, but her supply is few and far between. She is prone to making sweeping, generalized remarks without providing the necessary evidence. On pg. 66, she discusses how Thomas Jefferson may have viewed an African American exodus to create a state in Haiti. She says that he called them “the Cannibals of the terrible republic” but then goes no further to explain how he “recognized the connection between black nationalist thought in the United States with Haiti and feared it.” I believe this phrase should have been substantiated.

I do, however, agree with Max’s similar assertion that “these actions led to real influence in the United States.” As Max points out, I find it hard to accept many of the claims she makes under the cloud of  what seem to be assumptions. More examples in key sections could solidify her argument however the lack of evidence is crucial when you are making an argumentative paper.

Missing the Followthrough

I’d like to echo Max’s critique of Fanning’s evidence and the actions of Haitian officials and the acceptance of Haitian ideology in the black population of the United States. Additionally, given that her first words promised to show that “Haiti played a far greater role in cultural and political activities of northern free blacks than historians previously credited,” I think she failed to connect the actions of northern free blacks and Haiti in an adequate manner. While her examples of attempts to encourage the emigration and selected political activities of northern free blacks offer support to her point, the paper lacked the requisite context needed to situate the importance of those events in the larger political actions of the free black community in the northern United States. Answering simple questions like did free blacks immigrate to other nations in in the 1820s or was Haiti the prime destination of immigration would have helped situate her argument a lot more for those unfamiliar with the specific history surrounding this issue.

One of the things I did enjoy in her paper was her engagement with the merchants and sailors. I thought it was an engaging piece because it showed that even white merchants were pushing for Haitian recognition. However, she fails to connect it to the actions of the northern free black community of the United States. While she provided examples of how American laws were affecting the lives of free blacks such as the case in South Carolina and how Haitian opposition to said laws may have garnered respect, the connection is tentative at best.Additionally, I thought the information presented on Jefferson after he became President and his treatment of Haiti was presented well, but I wish she had taken a stronger stance on the issue.  While she provided the opinions of various scholars who described the varying reasons behind Jefferson’s decision, she refused to engage the historiography in a way that challenged the flaws in the position that Jefferson’s treatment of Haiti stemmed from his desire to improve diplomatic relations with France. Instead she offered the exceedingly strong statement, “ But he may have had less generous motives” and proceeds to argue  that Jefferson’s attention to the Haitian issue was “a testament to Haiti’s politicization of African Americans.” Without offering an argument against the other historians she cites, her conclusion is invalid. It is not a testament to Haiti’s politicization of African Americans if Jefferson was seeking to appease France. The consistent theme in this paper was a failure to connect the actions of Haitian actors to political manifestations in the northern black community.

Print Media – Unveiling Hidden Voices

This week’s readings complemented each other well in outlining the development of black nationalism and political community in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. I found Newman’s tracing the development of a political voice for free people of color through print extremely effective. His claim that persistent use of print media led society “to reconsider its justification of bondage” and a tearing down of racial stereotypes is well supported in the countless pamphlets, articles, and speeches he uses to demonstrate the expansion of the political voice for black people (182-183). In this way, Newman reveals that in a time when the freedom was often limited for free people of color, print media was an outlet where disgruntled black people could vent their frustrations and share their ideas in a public forum. Moreover, Newman shows that the process of publishing for free people of color was a political statement in and of itself (184).

One aspect of Newman’s argument that relates to our discussion from last class is his analysis of the adaptations made by free people of color to ensure their political voice, specifically through what he calls “patron-client politics.” This method revolved around black activists garnering support from white elites to connect them to the parts of the world often inaccessible to free people of color (187). Unlike Reid, who in last week’s reading painted free people of color as victims to a system similar to patron-client politics, Newman writes about this system as an avenue of advancement for black people. While both claims are convincing and well supported, it is interesting to see two very divergent views on social systems that share very similar characteristics.

I think Fanning’s piece was a great expansion of the scope established by Newman. By bringing the role of the Haitian Revolution into discourse about the development of black nationalism in the early-nineteenth century we begin to see some of the possible inspiration behind the changing political climate for free people of color. As Fanning notes, black people in the North used the Haitian Revolution “as a rallying cry” for their own movements (63). Like Newman, Fanning also effectively notes the importance of print culture in the creation of a political voice for free people of color. As Eli mentions in his post from last week, the Pennsylvania personal liberty laws made free people of color second-class citizens perceived as undeserving of full protection under the laws. Eli’s argument is supported by Fanning. Haitians, realizing what Eli indicated in his post, appealed to those free people of color inflicted by the injustices of personal liberty laws – they were sure to indicate that the laws of Haiti did not allow white men to own land within their country. Fanning also reveals that American merchants supported the recognition of Haiti in major newspapers (67). While depicting the importance of print media in the growth of black nationalism, Fanning also underscores the success of print to spread previously quieted voices and ideas within American society and throughout the Caribbean. Both Newman and Fanning do well in highlighting how free people of color found a way to make all they could out of a white-dominated political system and how, amidst challenging circumstances, were successful in establishing their own political identity.

Problems in Haiti

In her article entitled The Roots of Early Black Nationalism, Sara C. Fanning writes about the political significance that Haiti held for African-Americans after going from a slave state to a black-led, independent nation in 1804 following its revolution. More specifically, Fanning’s thesis is that Haiti gave free African-Americans (who, despite not being enslaved, still faced disenfranchisement, the possibility of being enslaved, etc.) hope by existing as a successful society where people of color were the ones in charge. Fanning has lots of convincing evidence about Haiti itself showing why it would be an inspiring place to people of color in the United States. For one thing, black people’s rights were preeminent to those of whites in Haiti’s constitution—for example, whites could not own land in post-Revolution Haiti. (65) It is not surprising that black people in America would be inspired by such a system. Fanning also points out that Haiti was economically successful even as the United States under Jefferson put the country under a trade embargo—Fanning discusses the importance of its ports and how sailors complimented its economy and government. (66-67) Those are just two of many ways Fanning points out that would make Haiti look promising to black Americans.

Fanning also points out that there were civic groups in the United States, made up of both African-Americans and white Americans, that pushed Haiti as a good place for African-Americans to emigrate to. (74) That, combined with concerted efforts by Haitian leaders, resulted in 13,000 African-Americans immigrating to the islands in the 1820s. (75) However, Fanning must admit that many of them soon returned the United States. She chalks these returns up to cultural differences and feelings that there was no more work to be done in Haiti following France’s recognition of the state. Fanning uses primary sources to show that Haiti’s policies and cultural realities did make the country a significant beacon of hope to politicized African-Americans.

Despite the successes of Fanning’s argument, I believe that she does not pay enough attention to early Haiti’s instability and how that may have affected African-Americans’ views of the country. She acknowledges that Haiti’s first president, Dessalines, was assassinated two years after Haitian independence and that the country was momentarily split in two. However, she does not address how those events may have affected African-Americans’ view of the country and its status as a symbol of hope. I’m sure many people would be skeptical of the long-term health of such a country so unstable so soon after its revolution, let alone the idea of moving there permanently. Yes, Boyer’s reunification and lasting rule of the country probably dissuaded those fears somewhat (though he was eventually overthrown and exiled), but what about the tension in Haiti between black people and mixed race people that Fanning briefly alludes to? (65) Many African-Americans were of mixed race or at least must have been related to or known people who were. Wouldn’t that have been troublesome to many black and mixed race Americans? Looking at all these tensions and issues of stability, I would not be surprised if they played a role in the many African-Americans who moved to Haiti and came back. However, Fanning does not address those as possible reasons when discussing the many who emigrated and returned to the United States. So, while Fanning does some things right, I believe that she does not give enough consideration to early Haiti’s many problems.

Haiti's Influence: Real or Perceived?

In “The Roots of Early Black Nationalism,” Sara Fanning aims to argue that Haiti “played a far greater role in the cultural and political activities of northern free blacks than historians previously credited.” (Fanning)  Although she provides extensive support to the measures taken by Haitian officials to cater to the Free African American population in the United States, she does not give adequate evidence that these actions led to real influence in the United States.  She spends most of her time describing reasons as to why her claims would be supported, but not enough concrete evidence to African American reactions to her specific reasons.


After the Haitian Revolution, Fanning portrays Haiti as an attractive place for African Americans to reside.  The Constitution provided for equality, banned white ownership of plantations, and the country was characterized by a military presence, demonstrating their willingness to defend their newfound freedom.  After the revolution and stints of civil war, however, Haiti needed more people if it was going to be able to survive economically; it was already difficult enough as many countries refused to recognize their independence.  It was for this reason that officials were often sent to the states to recruit for Haitian immigration, official declarations made that would be published in black newspapers in the US, and even the constitution modeled after that of the United States (although this was probably not for publicity reasons, it came to be used as one.)


Fanning gives plenty of reasons for Haiti to be attractive to African Americans, and that these qualities were made apparent, but rarely gives specific examples of how the African American population felt about them.  She often uses language such as “would not have gone unnoticed” or “must have been welcomed” in an attempt to give the nationalist movement relevance, but these are simply assumptions.  She is able to show that emigration occurred after some publicity attempts, but a connection with her specific examples is not clearly shown.  The most relevant exception would be the naming of the Boyer Masonic Lodge in New York, but even then she mentions he failed to bring the expected number of migrants.


This is not to discredit Fanning’s article, as there is valuable information.  I simply feel that her Abstract does not match the content of her article, and a change in thesis could greater reflect the evidence given.


As seen in Eli’s post, much of our knowledge of slavery we see as conventional, something everyone learns about throughout their education.  We often find, though, that much of what we learn is not the entire truth, and we can be misled.  I feel like Fanning plays on our natural inclination to trust a historian, as without careful reading much of the assumptions she makes in her article could be accepted as fact.  It is important as young historians ourselves to always be aware of what we are reading and how evidence can be skewed or misleading.

Second-class citizenship

Slavery has existed since the first civilizations, though the kidnapping of Africans and their brutal enslavement in the Americas has been the most brutal. Past civilizations have allowed people to sell themselves into slavery to pay back debts and slaves have often been allowed to earn there freedom over long periods of time (I do not have sources for these claims, except to say that I have learned of them during my previous education). Within the brutal system of American slavery, slaves had little or no legal protection, could be bought and sold as slaveholders pleased, work brutal hours in even more brutal conditions, and be punished for malfeasance through torture. I believe that part of what allowed these slaves to be brutalized, as never before in history, was the omnipresent racism that slaveholders both participated in and used as a tool for the subjugation of blacks. Patricia Reed, in “Margaret Morgan’s Story: A Threshold between Slavery and Freedom, 1820-1842, documents what I believe to be an inevitable consequence of this racism-supported slavery: the legal marginalization of free blacks.

Wade argues that Pennsylvania laws were ineffective due to their weakness. I wonder, however, how strong those laws would have had to be in order to have prevented the encroachment of slavery and slave catchers upon border and other nearby states. For example, in the United States, which has inherited the English Common Law principle of the presumption of innocence, blacks were slaves until proven free. Why did southern states not require a proof of ownership before allowing blacks, like Morgan and her children, to be sold to slaveholders? That might have prevented their kidnapping and enslavement, but rather they lacked the adequate documentation of manumission, and therefore could not prove their freedom. I argue that to do so would have highlighted the initial kidnapping from Africa. Indeed, if it is unjust to kidnap a black family from Pennsylvania, why would it be more just to kidnap them from the African coast. To ask such a question would be to undermine the fundamental justification of slavery–that blacks were inhuman, and could therefore be enslaved at will.

Though abolitionists and northerners in or near border states were rendered ineffective by the laws and customs of nearby states, I was saddened to learn of the ways in which their own racism hindered their abilities to aid free blacks. For example, Reid mentions that “Pennsylvania state laws had stripped free blacks from bringing criminal charges against whites in court” (372). By granting blacks status as second-class citizens, rather than slaves, Pennsylvanians had acknowledged their belief that blacks did not deserve the full protections of the law. From there, it is a slippery slope to being unable to prevent their enslavement at the hands of unscrupulous slave catchers.

As an American in 2013, I argue that this phenomenon–bigotry with partial acceptance–is not over. In the Davidsonian, my freshman year, I argued that Davidson’s Presbyterian tradition was incompatible with homosexuality, and that we should therefore abandon the Presbyterian tradition. The responses I received were interesting, and I learned several things, but the one that stuck with me the most was that many people believed in accepting gays and lesbians, but that to engage in homosexual activities was still a sin. Not only do I disagree, but I believe that such splitting of hairs is not beneficial to any disfranchised group. To love someone, to include them and accept them, you cannot reject part of their identity. I believe that such rejection fuels homophobia today, and that such racism and exclusion of blacks from the courts and other political processes is what allowed Margaret Morgan and her children to be brutally re-enslaved so long ago.

Prigg vs. Pennsylvania- Focus On Lasting Impact Rather than Immediate Effect

Many of my fellow classmates have mentioned the case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania in their posts, particularly CT as he mentioned the case in his post to highlight the fact that “for those blacks who had their freedom undocumented or unrecorded, their freedom was based on white authority” (368) I agree with CT’s assortment that during this time much of black freedom was predicated on white’s perception of their freedoms and rights but in my opinion, the particular case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, in fact, helped the cause of slave’s and fugitive’s rights more than it hindered them. Patricia Reid, in “Margaret Morgan’s Story: A Threshold Between Slavery And Freedom, 1820-1842″ mentions that this particular case ” ultimately resulted in, the infamous Dred Scott opinion”, which as we know made the ruling that African Americans were slave property and thus not able to attain citizenship of the United States. (359-360) In doing this, Reid is making a direct claim that the case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania was counterproductive in the fight for the rights of runaways and freed slaves. But, in my opinion, Reid is putting to much emphasis on the events that occurred directly after the ruling, rather than the developments in the multiple decades since. Justice Joseph Story, while in the ruling did not claim the Fugitive State Law to be unconstitutional, did mention that state legislations had the authority to enact their own laws regarding the issue. In doing this, Justice Story transferred the authority of managing runaway slaves away from the Federal Government and in the hands of the states, which, in my opinion, greatly aided the cause of slaves and fugitives especially in the North.

But looking at the specific ruling of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, one can see that it gives states the ability to interpret the Fugitive Slave Act as they please, as it recognized certain states held a different stance towards fugitive’s rights than did the decision made by the court. So while, the immediate effects of the ruling were of course not ideal for Margaret Morgan, it did prove to aid multiple laws and legislations passed thereafter, in supporting runaways if state legislation allowed particularly in Northern states, where fugitive laws were less enforced. In this particular case, thus, it is important to realize that the immediate effects of an incident, while important to analyze in their own right, stand separate from the lasting impacts and future developments of the issues surrounding the particular incident, in this case, the case of Pregg vs. Pennsylvania. Although, I agree with both CT and Reid regarding their assessment of white authority over black freedom, I also one should focus on the lasting effects of an event, so as to see the entire picture and wholly understand the topic of discussion.