Food prices in the United States shot up in 1917 as a consequence of World War I, then engulfing Europe. Agriculture had come to a halt in the theater of war, so the US had stepped up its production and export of food in response. Our nation was shipping vast quantities of food overseas (wheat especially), both in support of the Allied war effort and to relieve famished civilian populations. Besides leading to a collossal loss of life, the all-consuming war had disrupted everyday life in many countries, reducing many people to homelessness, hunger, and worse.
Back in the States, the price of food was skyrocketing. Food was scarce, and ordinary wage-earners couldn’t afford enough food to feed their families. Frustrated women, many of them immigrants, began protesting in places like Newark and New York City. The crowd of women above “charged” New York city hall in the winter of 1917 to plead for bread.
Similarly, women in Newark slogged en masse through the snow and slush to present their mayor with a petition for food relief. Many of the women brought their children to the demonstration. The spectacle of the protestors, appearing in numbers with their hungry children, made the urgency of their hunger tough to ignore. Only people with a just case would stand so patiently in bad weather, the snow falling on their umbrellas, hoping for compassion and mercy to come down, too.
Not fifty years had passed before some Americans grew restive under the federal Union.
Back then, in 1832, the unhappy ones were called “nullifiers.” They hailed from South Carolina, and their leader was the redoubtable John C. Calhoun, a senator and out-going Vice President with a good head on his shoulders and plenty of determination. (In the cartoon above, he is the central figure, reaching for the despot’s crown.)
The nullifiers argued that because the states had existed before the federal Union, the states had the right to “nullify,” or say no to, a federal law. Nullifiers believed that the states, which had ratified the Constitution, retained a kind of sovereignty, despite having empowered the federal government and established the Constitution as “the supreme law of the land.”
The down-side of federalism
By the 1830s, Americans were having to grapple with the fact that, under the federal system, their point of view would sometimes be in the minority. Congress would sometimes craft federal laws that defied individual interests or the interests of individual states. The preferences of a state or region could be perennially disregarded unless it could persuade a majority to share its view.
Slave states, in particular, became deathly afraid that, if slave-holding became a minority interest, the federal government could legislate slavery out of existence.
So radicals in South Carolina got busy inventing a school of thought that would justify their disobeying federal laws they didn’t like. As it happened, a political controversy over tariffs rather than slavery furnished their first test case.
Unhappy radicals nullify a federal law
The uproar came over what they called “the tariff of abominations.” Battles over tariff policy were to 19th-century politics what tax issues are to Americans now. In the first century or so of the country’s existence, tariffs, not internal taxes, supplied most of the federal government’s revenue.
Tariffs protected America’s developing economy, which, though burgeoning, was in danger of being cannabalized by mature economic powers like England. So the US imposed many tariffs on imports, both manufactured goods and commodities. Congress drafted and debated tariff legislation every few years, occasioning intense negotiations and bad feelings.
Inevitably, tariffs affected southern and northern interests differently. Tariffs forced southerners, who engaged mainly in agriculture, to pay more for manufactured goods or imports they needed, whereas northerners benefited from the protection given to their emerging industries and to internal trade. In the long term, the South stood to benefit from more goods being produced domestically, but it was not inclined to see it that way. The system of tariffs imposed through federal legislation in 1828 and again in 1832 roused the radicals to defy the so-called “Tariff of Abominations.”
South Carolina’s nullifiers got serious and, on November 24, 1832, used their majority in the state legislature to pass a Nullification Ordinance declaring the national tariff law void. Their action posed a threat to the entire federal system, for what would remain of the Union if every state were allowed to defy a law it didn’t like?
Andrew Jackson, who was president at the time, might have been thought sympathetic to the nullifiers. After all, he was a Southern slave-holder who opposed certain forms of centralized power, such as a national bank. His response to South Carolina, however, was swift and uncompromising: he had Congress pass a Force Bill, empowering him to enforce the federal law by military means if necessary. In the meantime, Henry Clay obtained some concessions in the tariff legislation that made it easier for South Carolina to retreat from its dangerous position without losing face. Jackson never had to use the power the Force Bill gave him. The crisis passed.
Nullification’s baleful legacy
The desire to break free of federalism’s limits continued to disorder the political culture of the Palmetto State. Its radicals never disavowed the anti-federalist temptation. Their principles were still doing damage a generation later, when fire-eaters in South Carolina were the first to take their state out of the Union, claiming that this was every state’s right. Eleven states eventually followed their lead. It took the Civil War and four years of bloodshed to lay to rest the nullifiers’ dangerous doctrines.
When I hear of Cliven Bundy and others who do not wish to abide by federal law, I hear the echoes of the nullifiers. These are Americans ignorant of the tragic consequences of the doctrines they mouth. Federalism, however imperfect, has secured to every American benefits that never would have been attained under a weaker system. Cliven Bundy subverts the values of the flag that he loves to wave. “From the many, one?” He’s forgotten what that means.
Image: An 1833 lithograph by Endicott and Swett correctly envisions the consequences of nullification’s doctrines. Calhoun and other nullifiers mount a pyramid at whose base lie two slain figures, draped in the American flag and the motto “E Pluribus Unum.” They represent the Constitution and the Union. At right is Andrew Jackson, pulling down the nullifier who would ascend from nullification to treason. The kneeling figures at left are modestly circumstanced Southerners, forced to endure whatever may come of the nullifiers’ rash and self-serving deeds. Beyond the top step of the pyramid, labeled Disunion, lies Anarchy.
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There’s something raw about the history of the 1910s, a period of depression and unrest, when Americans were engaged in an anxious quest for alternatives. It was a period of activism, when anti-capitalist sentiment and true human suffering allowed organized labor, still in its infancy, to make significant strides. At the center of these trends were redoubtable labor leaders like Big Bill Haywood (right), shown here in 1913 with his fellow activist Adolph Lessig.
William Dudley Haywood (1869-1928) was one tough customer, a sometime socialist who helped found the radical labor organization known as the International Workers of the World (IWW), or ‘Wobblies.’ Founded in 1905, the IWW was radical in seeking to organize workers of all types and nationalities, even unskilled workers, in contrast to the other, more exclusive, ‘trade’ unions of the day.
Haywood was born in Utah and by age 15 was working in western copper mines. By 1900, he had an invalid wife and two children and had gotten involved in the labor movement, skyrocketing to the top of the Western Federation of Miners, a militant union that in 1903 pitted itself against the Colorado mining industry and the state’s government in a bitter strike lasting nearly three years.
Aligned for a time with the fledgling Socialist Party, Haywood ultimately fell out with that group over strategy. By 1910, his chief interest lay in directly mobilizing masses of people in IWW-led strikes and protests, believing this the surest path to structural change.
Haywood was involved, for instance, in the famous 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, also known as the Bread and Roses strike, whose centennial is now being commemorated. Lawrence’s textile workers included large numbers of women and teens, and many persons of foreign birth. Their protests aroused national sympathy, particularly when children of striking parents were sent to New York City for safekeeping. The strike ended after three months, with workers gaining many concessions to their demands.
Haywood’s star began to set during WWI, when the IWW’s on-going militancy and vision of international solidarity jarred with wartime industrial demands and an accompanying tide of national feeling. In 1917, Haywood and 100 other IWW officials were arrested on charges of wartime sedition, found guilty, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Freed on bail while appealing conviction, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union, where he entered on an ignominious final chapter and died of alcoholism and diabetes a decade later.
His ashes are interred partly in a wall of the Kremlin, while others were sent back to Chicago to be buried in Waldheim Cemetery near the remains of the Haymarket martyrs.
Images: (top to bottom) Adolph Lessig and Big Bill Haywood, from this source; Haywood and followers in Paterson, NJ (1913), from this source;
and a scene from the Lawrence textile strike (1912), from this source.
I WAS RUSHING out of my office building the other day when I ran smack dab into a May Day parade. It took me a minute to realize it wasn’t just another Occupy rally. No, the date was the first of May, when, by tradition, workers around the world take to the streets en masse, their parades a vivid display of emotion and identity.
It was striking was how un-specific this demonstration was. It didn’t have much to do with labor in particular or something specific workers might actually need. It seemed to have more to do with how unfair life is—a general proposition we might all assent to.
Seeing the marchers made me think about how much the nature of work and the status of workers in the US has changed over the decades, since May Day observances first began. International Workers Day, as it is officially called, was instituted to mark the anniversary of the Haymarket disturbances in Chicago when, in 1886, violence erupted as police sought to dispel a crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality toward workers demonstrating for the eight-hour day. Eight policemen were killed, an unknown number of protesters were killed and injured, and 4 probably innocent demonstrators were later hanged in what was one of the most infamous incidents in labor history.
The heroic struggles of those earlier generations of workers were quite remarkable. Their disciplined efforts brought about many important gains: the abolition of child labor, the minimum wage, safety inspections, the 40-hour week. Without the labor movement, most of us would not have anything like the standard of living we enjoy today. One has only to dip into Freidrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Classes in England or Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills or Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives to recall why their struggles were necessary.
Bits of that story are told in photographs such as these, preserved at the Library of Congress.
These girls were photographed on May Day in New York City in 1909. Their sashes bear the words “Abolish Child Slavery” in English and Yiddish.
This protester was a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), also known as “the Wobblies.” Wobblies believed in the international brotherhood of labor and dreamed of improving conditions of workers the world over. A labor movement like that today would still have much to do. Looking at this photo makes me think of some of the labor movement’s missed opportunities.
In good times and bad, May Day has inspired expressions of worker pride, as displayed in this wonderful photograph of female garment workers in 1919. You would never guess from looking at these ladies how very punishing their occupation was.
Maybe that is one of the differences between that era and today: whereas, then, many workers suffered from conditions that were local and immediate, the costs global capitalism inflicts on American workers are more abstract and harder to see.
There was a great deal to ponder in even a fleeting glimpse of a modern May Day parade.
Additional information regarding Library of Congress images: here and here and here