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Pilgrims’ Progress: A Seventeenth-Century Solution to the Nineteenth-Century Conflict between Labor and Capital

In order to challenge the emphasis on extreme economic individualism espoused by Gilded Age industrialists and laissez-faire theorists in the late 19th century, labor writers drew on diverse historical and religious traditions. Massachusetts labor reformer George McNeill, for example, found in early Pilgrim life and thought the roots of a rejected American tradition of commonwealth and cooperative activity that he thought should be rekindled. In this 1884 piece published in the Cigar Makers' Official Journal, McNeill invoked the tradition of cooperative living that sustained the Pilgrims in the 1600s in New England as a role model for modern relations between labor and capital.

The Pilgrims, disciplined in a republican church government, forced by necessity into communion in matters of property, easily and naturally adopted the congregational form into their civil policy. With church and State thus under majority rule, indisputably separated and yet in harmonious accord, it only remained for the Pilgrims to complete the typical Zion by solving the problem of the relations of labor and capital.

In the year 1620 nothing was known of the subdivisions of labor, nothing of machinery as at present understood. The home was the manufactory, the members of the family were the spinners, weavers, tailors, and dressmakers. The carpenter and the shoemaker were at the door, needing but few tools, and those were easily made by their neighbor, the smith.

With these three trades—trades among the very last to succumb to the influence of machinery—the Pilgrims were self supporting, and could bid defiance to barbarism. Their sustenance must come from the harvestings of the earth and the products of the sea; the earth was free to them, and was easily managed under the industrial or family-help system, and no new departure was needed in that direction, any more than in cooking a dinner, spinning yarn, or weaving cloth.

The first industry that demanded congregation of labor and aggregation of wealth was the fisheries; and here the Pilgrim completed the circle of his possibilities. These men united in motive, method, and purpose, found mutual help the best self-help, found that equity in risk, responsibility, and profit, like honesty, was the best policy, as well as in unison with good morals and the previously formed habits of mutual government.

The share system in the cod and mackerel fisheries was the first introduction of co-operation in industry, as the establishment of the township on the congregational principle was the inauguration of republican government. Here in this commonwealth was planted by the Pilgrims the germ of co-operative enterprise.

In considering the vexed question of capital and labor, and analyzing the proposed remedies, it is well to know fully all of the anterior data, so that the light of past experience and experiments may serve as a guide for the future.

Any attempts to treat of co-operative efforts in Massachusetts without commencing with or referring to the Pilgrim church, the township and the fisheries, would be like a record of the Revolution with Samuel Adams, Lexington, and Concord left out.

A New England town in its inception was the embodiment of pure democracy. De Tocqueville says: “The native of New England is attached to his township, because it is independent and free; his co-operation in its affairs insures his attachment to its interests; the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition and of his future exertions. He takes a part in every occurrence in the place; he practices the art of government in the small sphere within his reach; he accustoms himself to those forms, without which liberty can only advance by revolutions; he imbibes their spirit; he acquires a taste for order, comprehends the balance of power, and collects clear practical notions on the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights.”

The extension of the township principle was the new wine of liberty in the old bottle of monarchy—church, industry and government. Seventeen hundred and seventy six was the partial fulfillment of 1620. It was a confession and a concession. Virginia and New York had been settled from different motives, by different men of different habits of thought and life. The Revolution was an agreement on their part to try this co-operative experiment on a grander scale—to enlarge the New England union into the federation. It was a concession that equality was a normal condition, equity a natural law, and unity a principle. Seventy-six was adoptive, not inventive. The statesmanship and patriotism of that time were required for protective measures. Hence the continuance of chattel labor, the wage system, caste and class distinction. The township of the Pilgrim rested on an actual equality of condition, consequent not so much upon motive as upon circumstance a practicable equity of dealing; a unity, the result of necessity, as well as of habit, custom and motive, and all were welded by a general intelligence. . . .

In our own State emigration has destroyed the homogeneous barrier to monarchical forms and systems. Neighborliness often disappears when neighbors have neither religion, habits nor tastes in common. Co-operation is the agreement with disagreeable people for a stated object. The Pilgrim might have so agreed; the Puritan and his descendant, never. They agreed to conquer, never to submit. But not alone the emigrant had broken down the walls of the Pilgrim’s Zion. The moral barrier had already given way in the union of the township with the plantation—a compromise between the share fisherman and the no-share slave that lead to further compromise. . . .

Source: George E. McNeill, “Co-operation in Massachusetts,” Cigar Makers' Official Journal, 9 (August 1884): 7.

See Also:Law and Order: William Law and the Power of Organization
Cain and Abel Revisited: A Case for Keeping thy Brother