“Wherever man exists . . . this principle of his nature, selfishness, will appear, operating either for evil or for good. To curb it sufficiently by legislative enactments is impossible. Much can be done, however, towards restraining it within proper limits, by unity of purpose, and concert of action, on the part of the producing classes.”
Ely Moore’s December 1833 speech to the assembled members of the newly formed General Trades’ Union marked the beginning of a powerful and innovative labor movement in the United States. Instead of representing the practitioners of a single trade, as the guild system traditionally had, the General Trades’ Union sought to represent the entire working class of American society. In his groundbreaking address, Moore elucidates several points that came to be central to the philosophy of labor organizing in subsequent generations.
Moore explains that the true nature of humans is not to be good or evil but to be selfish and self-interested. As such, people will always try to exploit one another. It is therefore necessary for the working class to protect its interests from the competing interests of the merchant and investing classes. Moore similarly encourages the members of the General Trades’ Union to take pride in their status as members of the working class. The efforts of common laborers undergird all great technological and artistic achievements, he argues, so the working class is extremely important to the maintenance of a civilized society. Moore closes his speech by asking the workers to consider the great potential a free society such as the United States holds for them, giving examples of those who have risen from working-class obscurity to fame and telling his audience to make the most of the nation’s many opportunities.
As one of the major American ports, New York City has always exerted a strong influence over the economy of the United States. The city has long attracted members of the merchant class intent on making their fortunes through the lucrative intercontinental import trade, which in the city’s early years was centered on sugar, rum, and slaves. At the same time, New York had a strong manufacturing class, as the city’s merchants depended on a massive retinue of shipwrights, sailmakers, rope weavers, coopers, and other workers to keep their fleets outfitted. As the city grew in the decades leading up to the Revolutionary War, manufacturers flourished, serving the increasingly large home market. During the war, the importation of goods became difficult, and the country as a whole began to rely more on domestic production.
The decades between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1833, when Moore delivered his famous address to the General Trades’ Union, prepared the workers of the city to hear Moore’s prolabor message. Slavery was partially banned in the state of New York in 1799, marking the end of what had been one of the city’s main mercantile businesses and shifting the balance of power toward manufacturers and away from merchants. The city’s population swelled significantly, with many of the city’s new residents arriving from Europe.
This spike in immigration to New York was primarily caused by a paradigm shift in the global economy, a complex set of technological changes that are collectively referred to as the Industrial Revolution. These changes included the development of steam power, the introduction of interchangeable mechanical parts, and the building of large-scale factories to replace small-scale craft enterprises. With goods able to be produced more efficiently in centralized factories, many rural people lost their ability to make a living. As a result, there was a massive wave of urbanization as workers moved from the countryside to the cities in which industrial manufacturing took place. The newly formed United States, with its vast natural resources and promise of personal freedoms, attracted a significant percentage of the displaced population of Europe.
In the United States and other parts of the rapidly industrializing world of the early nineteenth century, workers sought a means of expressing their interests and concerns. Developments in American politics in the late 1820s and early 1830s fueled this interest in laying out an agenda for defending workers’ rights. Property requirements for voting had largely been dropped in the decades after the Revolutionary War, allowing nearly all white male citizens to vote in elections, and the rise of Jacksonian democracy resulted in an increased popular expectation that the common people should have a voice in running society.
The first wave of what can be called modern American labor organizing began in this period. Labor unions developed in the United States’ more industrialized northeastern cities, notably Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. They were primarily interested in increasing pay for untenured journeymen in trades such as carpentry, but also petitioned to improve working conditions and decrease the number of hours in the work day. Although these early associations were small and short lived, they represented the beginning of the American labor movement.
Ely Moore was born on July 4, 1798, near the town of Belvidere, New Jersey. After finishing his secondary education, he moved to New York City to pursue a medical degree. However, he showed little interest in practicing medicine professionally and instead obtained work as a printer. From there, he moved into journalism, proving to be a talented writer and editor. He also demonstrated a keen interest in advocating for the rights of workers. These talents and interests led Moore to become the chief editor of the National Trades Union, a New York labor newspaper. He was elected president of the Typographers’ Union in 1832.
Moore eventually gained a strong city-wide reputation as a formidable debater, orator, and defender of working-class interests. Because of his commitment to the labor cause, Moore was chosen by his peers as the first president of the General Trades’ Union in August of 1833, the year it was formed. The General Trades’ Union was part of a new wave of groundbreaking labor organizations that sought to achieve higher wages for journeymen and represent the interests of all working-class people in New York.
On December 2, 1833, at the Chatham Street Chapel, Moore delivered his most famous speech. The oration, known as “Address Delivered before the General Trades’ Union of the City of New York,” lays out a philosophy of working-class solidarity against exploitation by the wealthy that would come to define the American labor movement. As a result of this speech, which was later made available in printed form, Moore’s reputation spread beyond New York, and he came to be perceived as an important regional leader. Moore used his local political clout to run for national political office. In 1834, he ran for Congress on the Jacksonian ticket and won. He served two terms in the House of Representatives, advocating for the common people of New York and helping to define the emerging Democratic Party. Many scholars consider Moore to have been the first explicitly prolabor member of Congress in American history.
During his last term in Congress, Moore returned to the newspaper industry, becoming editor of the prestigious New York Evening Post. After leaving Congress, Moore was appointed president of the Board of Trade and surveyor of the port of New York City, two posts that afforded him a good deal of control over commerce in what was becoming one of the world’s most important commercial hubs. In 1845, US president James K. Polk appointed Moore US marshal for southern New York, giving him command over one of the most politically sensitive jurisdictions in the country. During this time, Moore also became the owner and proprietor of the Warren Journal in his hometown of Belvidere.
In 1853, Moore became the agent in charge of the American Indian tribes in Kansas, including the Miami nation. Along with this appointment, Moore was given the rank of colonel. Two years later, he was appointed register of the United States Land Office and settled on a farm near the small town of Lecompton, Kansas. Moore died on January 7, 1860, and was buried on his farm.
Moore begins his famous speech to the members of the General Trades’ Union by referring to them as his “fellow mechanics.” In the early nineteenth century, this term referred to all people who made their livings through manufacturing or repairing goods. Moore uses this broad term to signify that the new movement is meant to include all members of the working class. In addition, by addressing his audience as fellow mechanics, Moore imbues his speech with historical resonance that was particularly relevant to the workers of New York. During the Revolutionary War, mechanics asserted their power over the merchant class, which had until then almost completely dominated New York City politics. In that earlier era, workers from various trades came together to discuss the important issues of the day, namely independence from Great Britain and the impending war. The actions of the Revolutionary War–era mechanics groups sowed the seeds for later campaigns for workers’ rights, and early nineteenth-century organizations such as the General Trades’ Union were the first fruits of the modern labor movement.
Moore goes on to state why the workers have come together for the meeting. He explains that their purpose is to disclose fully why practitioners of various trades have chosen to form a single union rather than rely on their traditionally separate guilds. The workers, Moore says, owe other people around the city and indeed around the world an explanation of why they are engaging in this new form of multitrade organizing.
The main reason they have chosen to organize in such a manner, he explains, has to do with the innate human tendency to be greedy. Moore contends that history and common sense show that people are always inclined to take possession of the material goods and labor of others without giving them due compensation. Greed, in Moore’s opinion, is natural in humans because all humans have what he describes as an inborn self-love. This leads to an ever-present willingness to do what benefits the individual rather than what is morally right. In every known society, people struggle for power over one another to satisfy this natural greed and selfishness.
Moore’s view of human beings as inherently selfish is a radical departure from the prevailing thought of his day. Traditionally, the debate over innate human character was presented in terms of good and evil, with some theologians arguing that humans are born good and others claiming that they are born sinners because of the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Moore refuses to engage in this sort of discussion, stating that selfish motivations have historically led people to do both good and evil, but that at root they were motivated by an inborn self-love rather than any other sensibility.
This inherent selfishness and its propensity to create conflict are, he explains, the reason that people enter into compacts. Laws to govern a nation and treaties between nations, in Moore’s view, exist to prevent the strong from doing harm to the weak and to preserve some sense of stability so that people can prevent “intolerance, of mercenary ambition, or of political despotism.” These restrictions have never been perfect, Moore admits, but they represent the sincere efforts of humankind to achieve equality and safety.
He then expresses the perhaps most important part of his vision, a desire for the “producing classes” to come together in American society as they have in the General Trades’ Union. Law alone will never fully stop selfish individuals from creating intolerable conditions for workers; rather, labor organizing represents the best chance to curb the influence of greed. It would be possible and advisable, Moore asserts, for the working people of the country to act together for the betterment of the overall society.
Moore next explains that there is no real aristocracy in the United States except for that created by wealth. The country does not have laws to protect unearned status. Inheritance does not necessarily pass from father to eldest son, as was the case during Europe’s feudal period, and common people are free to own property. The main threat to American government, Moore contends, is the excess accumulation of wealth by a minority of citizens. Distributing the wealth more evenly will help counter this threat, and the best way to do this is to ensure that workers receive an honest wage for their labors.
Moore acknowledges that the decision to form the General Trades’ Union will be controversial in some circles and that many people in the United States may even consider such a move to be a violation of US law. He defends the members of the union, arguing that it is absurd to say that they are breaking the law. Doctors, merchants, and lawyers organize to fix prices for their services, and factory owners regularly organize to set wages as low as possible. Working-class people, Moore argues, just want the chance to do the same thing. As he sees it, they certainly have the same right to determine a fair level of compensation for their labor, since the law grants equal rights to every citizen regardless of profession. Those who study labor history identify Moore’s assertion as an early expression of the right of laborers to determine their pay on a mass scale, a hallmark of the labor movement that developed among later generations of American workers.
Moore then responds to allegations that the General Trades’ Union seeks to cause strikes. He explains that this is actually the opposite of the truth. The rules of the General Trades’ Union state that no trade may call a strike or a turn-out unless it is approved by the entire council. This policy will bring an end to the small, scattered strikes that had previously occurred. In Moore’s view, this will lead to greater labor stability and reduce the amount of disruption caused by individual workshops or trades going on strike without consulting their peers in other lines of work. He acknowledges that strikes are actually bad for the public as well as for merchants and factory owners, as they represent lost productivity and wages. Under the new system, he contends, strikes will be much shorter because employers will be dealing with the entire General Trades’ Union and not just a small contingent of workers. Furthermore, the collective power of the union will help win reforms quickly and thus negate the need for painful, ongoing work stoppages. This idea that the collective power of workers can help shore up, rather than disrupt, social well-being was new and radical and has greatly influenced the rhetoric of labor organizing since Moore’s day.
He next responds to the claim that allowing common laborers to organize will set “a dangerous precedent.” It will be dangerous, he states, for some special interests in society, such as the upper class and those who hope to preserve unfair monopolies. However, it will pose no threat to society as a whole. Laborers make up the majority of the nation’s population, Moore notes, and he rhetorically asks how a democracy can be put at risk by its majority being better organized. He dismisses the possibility of such a threat as nonsensical.
The next theme that Moore touches upon is the threat posed to the union by saboteurs. He admonishes his fellow workers to be wary of people who seek to create jealousies and factions within the labor movement and states that such individuals will try to undermine workers’ confidence in the General Trades’ Union. Comparing them to “assassins” and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Moore declares that such saboteurs are motivated by personal greed and ambition. He advises his fellows to treat any attempt to dissuade them from unionizing as an insult and an injury and to avoid those who seek to undermine the union while claiming to be friends of the working class. He underscores his reference to the Garden of Eden with dire biblical references to impending calamity for those who fail to take this warning seriously.
After this stern warning, Moore turns to a far more philosophical line of reasoning for supporting labor rights. First, he argues that it is, in fact, the material culture created by the crafts of the assembled workers that makes society civilized. In an argument that displays the racial prejudices of his time, Moore contrasts the culture of the Bushmen of South Africa, whom he describes as having very little material culture, with that of the Eskimo, who seem to have more material culture. He concludes that the Eskimo are relatively more advanced because they have more knowledge of the manufacturing arts than the Bushmen. After mentioning some theories about why the material cultures of the two societies differ, he again declares that it is knowledge of the material arts that distinguishes civilized people from savages. As the material arts are crucial to civilization, those who practice these arts should certainly be granted the same rights as those who merely sell or purchase the products of their work.
Moore’s analysis of the purpose of the General Trades’ Union is quite practical and neatly lays the groundwork for an equally radical idea. He frankly states that those who make things naturally need to protect their interests against those who buy and sell things, since it is in humankind’s very nature to exploit others for personal gain. As Moore explains, the aristocracy of the United States is determined by wealth, and it is up to organized labor to ensure that wealth is not concentrated in the hands of the few, but shared by the majority of people. Many scholars identify this element of Moore’s famous speech as one of the earliest clear examples of a modern expression of class interest.
In addition to addressing his immediate audience of workers, Moore spends a significant portion of his speech responding to the union’s critics, particularly those who assert that the creation of a multitrade union is illegal. Throughout this section, he focuses on the idea of equality, arguing that the owner and merchant classes coordinate to determine wages paid or fees charged for goods and concluding that it is therefore not illegal for workers to set the cost of their labor using the same tactic. Moore also tackles the allegation that a large union would be dangerous to social stability, arguing that it will actually ensure better social stability by decreasing the length and frequency of strikes, thus preventing prolonged work stoppages. This point likely appealed to both his immediate audience of workers, who would go without pay for the duration of a strike, and the union’s critics, who were more concerned with the disruption of production.
Interestingly, the majority of Moore’s speech has to do not with the practicalities of creating a large labor union, but with the need for workers to take pride in their working-class status. Working-class pride was a new concept, as many people in Moore’s day considered common laborers to be the basest and least worthwhile members of society. Moore goes to great lengths to point out that the efforts of laborers are what make American society civilized and that all technological and artistic innovation ultimately rests on their efforts. He further asserts that the United States, as a free society, is the perfect place for the flourishing of great ideas and notes that members of the working class can and historically have become leaders in many important fields. This latter point is an early and powerful expression of what later generations would call the American dream, the great and enduring belief that the United States is a land of opportunity for all who are willing to work hard.
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