Most Uncommon Jacksonians
The Radical Leaders of the Early Labor Movement
The age of Jackson saw the beginnings of America's labor movement in the emergence both of trade unions and of the Working Men's political parties. The leadership of this movement was one of its most outstanding and fascinating features. These radical leaders were "uncommon Jacksonians" in that they stood apart from both main currents of their day—the optimistic pursuit of material gain, and the moralistic criticism of that pursuit by traditionalists. They advocated a different, if minority, ideology, and it is this ideology that is Professor Pessen's major concern in this book.
The labor spokesmen were as diverse and complex as the movement they led. Some were employers rather than laborers and even the union leaders included men who had never actually soiled their hands in manual toil. In a sense these leaders were middle-class idealists interested in every variety of reform. They were drawn to labor largely because they believed it the most productive as well as the most victimized group in American society.
For all their differences, however, the leaders' social views were strikingly similar. They saw America as a class society dominated by the wealthy in general, capitalists in particular, with the control of government and the courts in the hands of the rich. Their picture of the contemporary social landscape was one marked by the poverty of the masses and vast disparities in wealth, power, and prestige. Greatly influenced by English radical thought, they rejected the Malthusian dictum that the poor were responsible for their own misery. They fixed the blame instead on a number of social institutions, the chief villain of which was private property. Without using the word "socialism," the leaders' vision of the good society was one in which no man profited from the labor of another, and the guiding principle was "to each according to his deeds. "
Though a complex and often inconsistent phenomenon, the political movement represented by the early Working Men's Parties was an authentic expression of labor's views, Professor Pessen believes. This study challenges the legend that organized labor enthusiastically supported Jackson, and the longstanding myth that American labor movements have characteristically been conservative. Most Uncommon Jacksonians adds new perspectives to the history of American social thought.