Capital and Power: Two Speeches on Liberalism, Labor, and History
“The history of the world is but the history of a struggle for capital and power.” –Levi D. Slamm
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Libertarians and the labor movement have not always assumed hostile positions to one another in American political life. During the “golden age” of “locofoco” influence over the Democratic Party (ca. 1837–1845), the most radical of libertarians joined with a host of reformist allies, from utopian socialists to the first national labor unions. The coalition produced a decades‐long series of policy revolutions, cultural production, and ideological syncretism between individuals we now think of as occupying opposite corners of intellectual life. In the following two speeches, delivered in succession at a meeting of Democratic Workingmen in Tammany Hall, locofoco editor of the Daily Plebeian Levi D. Slamm and populist editor of the Subterranean Mike Walsh argue for union among Democrats against the aristocratic Whiggery.
One by one, Slamm addressed the planks of Henry Clay and the Whig Party’s “American System,” identifying state interventions into economic affairs as decidedly harmful to the interests of average working people. To locofocos like Slamm, Clay’s policies represented one half of the eternal struggle between “Liberty” and “Power,” the fundamental force that created historical change. Slamm, the Democratic Party, and his Workingmen audience represented the other half of the battle. Slamm expanded upon the “thin” liberal interpretation of history, which argued that social classes formed entirely on the basis of their access to political power. He noted that access to power was often impossible without prior control over large amounts of capital. Those who controlled vast amounts of wealth were in fact more often than not indistinguishable from the overall political apparatus. Access to capital and access to power operated in tandem to curtail the liberties of the people and extract their substance, provoking in turn popular rebellions and revolutions–the long series of events called history. Mike Walsh’s speech continued Slamm’s partisan and historical themes, emphasizing that ideas, in fact, drove events because ideas organized people according to their preferences for Liberty or Power. Americans, he argued, had only to recognize their individual roles as agents of history and warriors for Liberty, and the powerful could not possibly stand against progress. Discerning students of history will, of course, leave Walsh’s passing antisemitic remarks in the past where they belong.
The duty devolved upon us of directing the attention of the laboring classes of the city and county of New York to the dangers by which labor is surrounded was never less difficult of execution. The cheering news which pours in upon us as State after State wheels into our ranks, has already done the work to our hands. The cheat of Whig protection to home industry, is already seen through and appreciated.
“Great Meeting of the Mechanics and Working Men at Tammany Hall!” New York Daily Plebeian 1 No. 95, 19 October 1842. (Excerpts)
“Address to the Mechanics and Workingmen of the City and County of New York,” by Levi D. Slamm
The history of the world is but the history of a struggle for capital and power. In every page of it we find capital resorting to every possible subterfuge, to enable it to suck up the hard earnings of labor. With the general spread of intelligence, a spirit of resistance has grown up to the extortionate demands of capital; and in Great Britain the unwieldy proportions of capital and the institution of white slavery, are at length both sustained only by a large standing army. And yet Great Britain, with all its affluence of the few, and its grinding poverty of the masses, is the model government of the friends of the restrictive system. The mechanics and workingmen who are filling the teeming cities and spreading over the broad fields of this fruitful country, have yet to resist the deleterious influence of the institutions of Great Britain upon our own–to restore the perfect equilibrium between capital and labor–to prevent labor from continuing in any degree a prey to the rich–to prevent labor from striking two blows for capital, and one for itself.
The first device of capital to obtain by indirection the earnings of labor, is the Banking System. We have seen the whole capital of this country concentrated in Banking Incorporations. We have seen them swelled up by a portion of the capital of Europe. We have seen issues of paper money creating artificial rise in prices–tempting labor to hazard in speculations the hard earnings of years. We have seen contractions of the paper circulation, causing periodical revulsions, in which the large estates have eaten up the smaller; and we have seen the breaking down of the banking system, its machinery, and its grand Regulator, before the progress of free opinion. With the downfall of the banking system, the notion is fast gaining ground, that capital is monopoly enough of itself, and that no other incorporation is needed, than an INCORPORATION of the intelligence of the mass, in order to enable it to stand up against wealth.
Having gone to the wall upon the banking system, the friends of capital have concluded to play a strong game upon the tariff. They yet hope that their siren cry of protection to domestic industry, will lure to their ranks the unthinking and the credulous–that the phrase of protection to home‐labor, will prove a bait that will be greedily swallowed. In order to ascertain what protection to labor means, when put forth by the party which contains “all the respectability and all the wealth,” we have only to look to that country where a kindred party has protected it to the utmost. In Great Britain the system works to admiration. After centuries of experiments, the problem of the capacity of capital to contrive, and labor to endure burdens, seems there about to be resolved. Lordly estates and princely pensions on the one hand, and fatigue and starvation upon the other. Mechanics and working men, shall we not resist at the threshold the efforts of capital, here to turn labor to its own account? Shall we not prevent the entering‐wedge of a system which, under the garb of protection, would ultimately tax every article that enters into the consumption of the labor of the country? If the laboring classes of Great Britain had the power to legislate, would they not free themselves at once, from the grievous exactions of their wealthy capitalists; and shall we, the real laborers, and only true protectors of labor here, shall we be led hood‐winked to the support of a party, whose affinities are entirely with the moneyed classes of Great Britain, whose hypocritical cant about protection, is an insult to the true dignity of labor.
The doctrines of Free trade are more and more appreciated as conducing to the benefit of the labor of this great country; and the least departure from these doctrines consistent with the collection of adequate revenue, is all that can be yielded in its future legislation. An equal or horizontal tariff would afford sufficient revenue to the Government, and sufficient and equal protection to labor; but it would not suit the purposes of the capitalist, whose love for labor is extremely discriminating. He loves the manufacturer of iron, more than the builder, the rigger, the navigator of a ship–he loves the manufacturer of coarse wools, more than the grower of coarse wools. His love for the manufacturer is a dollar a yard, and for the wool grower, a mill per pound. He loves that branch of industry the most, the GAINS of which he can secure to himself the easiest. He loves any thing that is a corporation.
The temporary ascendancy of the Whig party, has enabled the capitalist, in addition to a Bank and High Tariff, to shadow forth their necessary adjunct, a National Debt. In order to bring labor into complete subjection, the whole three are necessary. The annual taxation of labor by the Government of Great Britain, is two hundred and forty millions of dollars; and of this sum one half goes to the capitalist, in the shape of interest upon the National Debt. The debt itself is viewed with indifference, but in the struggle to meet the interest, labor seems to have sunk into an entailed and grievous servitude. Shall we not, mechanics and working men, resist here, all debt, whether State or national, in its incipient stages? Shall we not work with all our might, against a party which sets no bound to debt and extravagant expenditure–opposes all taxation of capital, and shifts off upon labor, all the burdens of payment?
Our approaching State election again calls upon us to sustain the Democratic policy, the true working man’s policy, with reference to State Debt and Internal Improvements. Shall we, through supineness, again allow a party to take the reins, which at the time of its arrest, was trafficking away at a most ruinous depreciation, the credit of the State–sinking us deeper and deeper in embarrassment and debt? The progress of Democratic principles is onward; but it must not be forgotten that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The conviction that our principles are eternal, prevented our glorious Democracy from becoming disheartened when the cohorts of Whiggery triumphed in the memorable campaign of 1840. The general defection of the States from the Whig cause, and their return one after another to the Democratic fold, leaves the Whigs no other boast of 1840, but that it marks an epoch of their success in appealing to the passions, instead of the reason of the people. Shall we through divisions in our own ranks, neglect to secure at the coming election, members of Congress in favor of preserving the distinct rights–the cherished Institutions of the States; shall we from local or personal considerations, or from sectional jealousies, hazard our ascendancy in the State Legislature, and fail of sending back to his post, the distinguished Democrat, who now so ably represents us in the Senate of the Union? If any incentive to duty is needed, we have only to look at the heartless proscription, which our divisions among ourselves, have enabled the bitter enemies of the Democracy–though in a minority of thousands in this city–to inflict upon us. Let each one make some sacrifice for the common good. Let us present an undivided front in favor of regular nominations. Let us come out in our full strength, recollecting that we now have to whip the Federalists in their last stronghold, and in their very latest disguise. We have to whip them now as the PROTECTORS OF LABOR…
Speech by Michael Walsh
[After series of resolutions,] Mr. MICHEAL [sic] WALSH being called for with loud shouts from all sides of the room, rose and said:
Fellow citizens: It is rarely that I attempt to address an assemblage at Tammany Hall. About this time last year I opened one Ball here, and now I appear before you to open another for the benefit of the working classes [loud cheerings]. I am opposed to anything like distinctions among the working classes. [cheering]. There is but one class that I am disposed to recognize; not the merchants, traders or professional men, but the mechanics [cheers]. What constitutes a mechanic? Serving seven years to a craft did not constitute a mechanic; if so, on the same principle Peter the Great was a mechanic, because he learned ship‐building. But I believe the mechanic to be one who was depending on his own labors for support, whom I would call the bone and sinew of the country. Not those who would go up to their marble palaces in the Fifteenth Ward, and throw cold water on the bone and sinew of the country, and see disqualification in their eyes. The fact is, there are certain men who would not show their face in favor of any measures introduced for the benefit of the working classes, and who never would have joined the Democratic ranks if it were not for their own advantage. What was Democracy? He would ask. Was it the elevation to power of this or that man, or of ten thousand men? No; but it was the elevation of principle [loud cheering]. It was the elevation of principle to elevate the man to that situation for which Nature and Nature’s God intended him [loud and continued cheering]. What, he would ask, was it to him what was this man or that man, provided he was guided by principle? The Jews trampled on the cross to enrich themselves, and there were men who came into the Democratic ranks for the purpose of feeding on the party, and of blotting out the sprig of Democracy. He may stand where he was and flatter all of them, and tell them that they were all the most intelligent, the most honest, the most high‐minded fellows under God’s sun; but he would not tell them any such thing; he cared nothing for public opinion; he cared for principles. Public opinion was a fallacious test, as he had seen on the stand from which he spoke, men who had been lauded to the very skies, while in six months afterwards they may have been kicked and hooted through the streets.
He cared not what man came with the Democrats, provided he had principle and a good education, he would support him. If he had to acquire a profession, he had to work for it–first, by a good education, and next, when acquired, to labor for his bread. If he was to become a lawyer, he should work to get clients–if a physician, to get patients–and if a parson, to work for his congregation–though there were some who told them, that the best passport to Heaven was a bare back and a hungry belly. [Loud laughter.] The same men would sometimes tell them that they should bear with fortitude–[A band of music having here played loudly in the streets, and subsequently entered the room, made such a noise that several sentences were lost.]
Mr. Walsh continued. It was latterly a common trick to nominate committees for the express purpose of filling all the offices in the gift of the State, then neglecting their interest after they had selected them. Men had been selected as inspectors, who it was well known never thought of the interests of the working classes; and whenever a selection was made from the lower classes, it was some weak‐minded individual, who as soon as he had got a little higher than he had been, felt so tickled and elevated when he got to Albany, that he soon forgot the interests of the people who had returned him. They wanted men in the halls of legislation–not such men as the Horace Greeleys, who were to be considered but a mere connecting link between the animal and vegetable kingdom–[roars of laughter;] men who, if they kicked a cockroach, would not be able to kill it; men who had not stamina enough in their body to keep their backs straight. [Roars of laughter.]
Mr. W. here, after urging the propriety of a judicious selection of Democratic candidates, apostrophized the the [sic] genius of American Democracy with able effort, and having taken a cursory view of the affairs of Rhode Island, and then made allusion to certain recent attacks that had been made upon him in some of the public journals, which he ably repelled, and went on to say that if they looked back to the remote ages of the world, they would find that those who had been elevated to the aristocratic ranks invariably rose to eminence upon the shoulders of the working classes; that as soon as they had elevated some tyrant king or aristocrat, they had invariably been kicked away like a dog. There were but two principles in the moral, social, physical, and material world, and between them they had to choose. They had to choose between heat and cold, light and shade, life and death, liberty or slavery; and which, he would ask them, would they choose? They should choose between Whiggery and Democracy [loud cheering.]
In the magnificent temple of Minerva of old, where the productions of genius were judged according to their comparative merits, two rival artists who had been engaged, submitted the productions of their chisel to the judgment of the people. Being works of art, intended to be placed on a pedestal which had been prepared for their reception. The statues were submitted for inspection, and one being small and executed with great genius and ability, and breathing almost vitally, being beautifully moulded and chiseled, the voice was generally in favor of it. It was elevated gradually to the pedestal, until the beauty and harmony of its structure was so completely diminished in the distance as to make it appear a shapeless speck. The other statue, whose apparent deformities made it before appear without beauty in the eyes of the judges, when it was elevated and placed on the pedestal it was then that its beauties became obvious. Being forced into light by its position, it was then that the superior genius of the artist was made manifest, and the decision was given in favor of the larger statue.
Mr. W. spoke at considerable length in support of the Democratic principles, and concluded. The above is but a very meagre outline of his remarks.
The Hon. Mr. Davezac was here vehemently called for, and next addressed the meeting. In the course of his remarks he made forcible allusion to the address of the last speaker, and passed a glowing eulogy on General Jackson, after which he went very fully into the general policy of the Democratic party, and urged the judicious selection of candidates for Congress and the Legislature.
Mr. Alexander Ming next took the stand, and spoke at length on the subject matter introduced in the address as resolutions: in the course of his remarks, he made allusion to his steady and unalterable attachment to Loco Foco Democracy and urged the necessity of unity of action among all ranks of the Democratic party.
The Hon. Mr. Swackhamer was next vehemently called for, and made a powerful and eloquent appeal to the meeting. In the course of his remarks, he inflicted a severe castigation on the entire Whig party, showed up the fallacy of their doctrine, and interspersed his eloquent address with much humorous anecdote, which told with admirable effect upon his auditory. We very much regret that want of space obliges us to condense his speech as well as that of the other gentlemen who spoke on this occasion, as the crowded state of our columns will show the utter impossibility of our doing proper justice to the excellent speeches delivered in the course of the evening. The meeting was subsequently addressed by several gentlemen and separated at a late hour.