Radical Mainers: War Capitalism and the Rise of Modern Society in Maine


On Monday, March 29, 1841, 500 young women left the York Manufacturing Company on Factory Island. They marched through the streets of Saco and Biddeford, waving banners with slogans like “We despise being slaves” as the village marching band marched with them playing catchy tunes.

Six days a week, textile workers wove and spun cotton in the loud noise factory of Factory Island. They worked from 15 minutes before sunrise until 7 p.m. in the spring and summer, with only half an hour each for breakfast and lunch. In winter, they often worked with the oil lamp. The air was thick with tiny strands of cotton that got stuck in the throat and caused respiratory illness.

Nonetheless, most were grateful to be freed from the boredom of living on isolated family farms in rural hamlets. For the first time in their lives, these women were able to earn a real wage and live relatively independently. But there were grievances that flowed.

The women were fed up with living in overcrowded company-owned guesthouses, sleeping in cramped and uncomfortable rooms, poorly ventilated and lacking privacy. They were constantly under the watchful eye of the residents who ensured that the rooms were “scrupulously clean and carefully supervised”. The year before, the company had imposed a pay cut, allegedly necessary to stay profitable, and another was being discussed.

Then came the breaking point: the company announced a new rule prohibiting workers from looking for their own accommodation. As a Citizen Review Panel later reported, the women, “who had previously stood out for their growing intelligence and hitherto perfect demeanor,” “turned out” right after breakfast and ” greatly disturbed the tranquility ”of the“ usually peaceful village ”of Saco.

According to an account in the Boston Post, between 8 and 9 o’clock in the morning, the strikers “waded in the clayey mud, for which Saco is particularly distinguished”. Most of them wore ‘rubbers from India’, but many of them only had thin shoes to squeeze through the mud. Some passers-by were disgusted by the decidedly anti-feminine behavior of the workers and their blatant disregard for authority.

“Vil!” one shouted. “Wretched!” spat another.

But the textile workers chanted defiantly:

We are not slaves! – We despise the name!

We are not asking for the favor of a friend or a foreman.

We are the daughters of the free man – and we pretend

The rights that the woman’s father gave her!

Not all the inhabitants were offended by this act of defiance, and some men even joined the strikers in supporting the “weaker party” in the workers’ struggle – “especially when the party is made up of women”, observed the committee.

This was the first “participation” by female workers in Maine and part of a larger struggle by textile workers across New England for dignity and fair treatment at the start of the revolution. industrial. As young Yankee Protestant women in the 19th century, they were expected to be submissive, pious and pure. But when they found themselves among an emerging working class in the cogs of a profit-hungry business, many realized the power they could wield if they withheld their labor to force their demands.

The Saco women were also part of a much larger story about the birth of modern business and how it laid the foundation for the global capitalist system we live in today. As historian Sven Beckert argues in his book Cotton Empire, the formation of this new economic system began in the 15th century with the militarization of commerce, the massive expropriation of land, genocide and slavery. Beckert calls this “war capitalism”. The military might of the American and European states was essential to the emergence of the world cotton industry and the development of the industrial revolution.

War capitalism involved funding armies to invade and expropriate indigenous peoples’ lands and waters, building roads and canals to ship cotton, tariffs to protect the domestic textile industry from cheaper imports, and l chartering companies to finance and organize this new, extremely expensive global enterprise. This forced governments to use their power to enforce private property rights over land stolen from indigenous peoples, as well as the legal right to own the slaves who gathered the cotton grown on these lands. As Beckert notes, governments have also encouraged global capitalism by creating courts and other bodies to arbitrate trade disputes, enforce contracts, and maintain trade standards.

The Saco strikers were not slaves like South African-American workers, but the term “wage slave” was commonly used in the 1800s in reference to the fact that workers depended on capitalists for their daily bread. The Saco women contempt for the term, like their claim to be “the daughters of the free man”, was based on the revolutionary heritage of the nation and the promises of freedom and equality. Workers’ resistance in the North to this new form of exploitation occurred at the same time as the slave revolts on the plantations in the South.

“Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence,” Beckert wrote, “were not aberrations in the history of capitalism, but at its very heart.” He continues: “The Cotton Empire was, from the beginning, a site of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, farmers and merchants, laborers and landowners. factories. … [A]s in so many other ways, the cotton empire ushered in the modern world.

A 19th century advertisement for the Continental Mills in Lewiston depicting the connection between bonded laborers and the textile industry.

Industrialization had been a polarizing issue in the early days of the United States. Observing the unwashed working masses in the urban slums of England, Thomas Jefferson expressed hope that the United States would remain an exporter of raw materials and that these factories would remain in Europe. He envisioned a largely agricultural republic of self-sufficient “yeoman farmers”. These hardworking, virtuous and meticulous people, Jefferson believed, were the most trusted citizens to rule the country. As he wrote in 1781:

It is better to bring provisions and equipment to the workers there. [in Europe], than to bring them to provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by transporting goods across the Atlantic will be offset by the happiness and permanence of government. Large city crowds add as much to the support of pure government as the plagues do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and the spirit of a people which preserve the vigor of a republic. A degeneration of these is a chancre which soon gnaws at the heart of its laws and its constitution.

Jefferson argued that because the land in Europe was “either cultivated or locked against the cultivator,” the British were forced to develop a manufacturing industry to support the surplus population of newly landless people. In the 18th and 19th centuries, England and other European countries began to confiscate and divide land that had been used in common for centuries by villagers to graze cattle and grow food. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey writes, this process of pregnant was anything but peaceful. It “involved taking land … locking it up and expelling a resident population to create a landless proletariat, then freeing the land into the privatized stream of capital accumulation.”

The English aristocracy claimed to be able to operate these newly fenced properties more efficiently and profitably than the peasants who relied on the land for their livelihood. A similar process happened in Maine with the theft of native land, but by the turn of the 19th century 90 percent of white settlers were still farming small plots, and industrialization did not seem inevitable.

Britain quickly dominated the cotton manufacturing industry. It relied on slave labor in the United States to produce 77 percent of its raw cotton by the dawn of the 19th century. However, after President Jefferson passed the embargo law of 1807, cotton and other exports rotted in national warehouses, prompting trade-dependent New England merchants to consider invest their capital with them.

In 1810, Moses Brown, an abolitionist whose family had made their fortunes in the slave trade, enlisted the help of English industrialist Samuel Slater – who had stolen designs for English textile machines – to build the first cotton mill. automated on this side of the Atlantic, at Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1815. The “Rhode Island System” had many features for which textile factories would later be known, such as a corporate store, a housing enterprise and inhumane exploitation.

Brown and Slater’s business initially employed a workforce made up of women and daughters of local farmers, but as it grew and added more looms, workers became scarce. Company recruiters searched all of then southern Massachusetts before finally finding young workers 200 miles north in present-day Hallowell, Maine.

The children were also employed at the Pawtucket factory. According to reports, floor managers at Slater occasionally dragged child laborers into “whipping rooms” and brutally flogged them for various offenses. This practice continued throughout the 19th century, including in Maine.

By mid-century, the first textile factories were operating here, and women from across the state also headed south to work in Massachusetts textile factories. Portland anarchist journalist Jeremiah Hacker wrote in 1849:

There are hundreds of young females dispatched from [Maine] every year in factory prisons, such as cattle, sheep and pigs sent to slaughter. Every steamboat and car that leaves this state for Massachusetts carries more or less of these victims to polluted and polluting industrial cities where they are prepared for a miserable life and horrific death in the mansions of infamy.

The industrial revolution had arrived, and it was never going to go away.

Will Chapman is a librarian and archivist at the Bethel Historical Society Museums. Andy O’Brien is the Director of Communications for the AFL-CIO of Maine. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected].


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