In order to challenge the emphasis on extreme economic individualism espoused by Gilded Age industrialists and laissez-faire theorists, labor writers drew on diverse historical and religious traditions. William Law, writing in the Detroit Labor Leaf in 1886, cited a variety of historical events, starting with the Magna Carta, to argue for collective organization. Law reminded his readers that some of history’s most notable changes came about only as a result of organized effort on the part of the masses.
WHAT CAN ORGANIZATION DO
BRETHREN—The general question of the day, put to us by our fellow-men is: What can you do by organization? My direct answer is that without organization you can do nothing. Allow me to put before you a few examples of what organization has done in the past, leaving out ancient history, where we could find many instances where it has succeeded.
Let us proceed to examine modern history. How was the Magna Carta obtained? It was by the organization of the few intelligent men of that period, whereby they obtained from King John of England, A. D. 1215, a constitution which guaranteed their rights and privileges to have a say in the government of their country.
Again, how was the French Revolution hatched? It was by organization. Although the crimes committed in it are revolting to us, still France is better off today on account of it. . . . But coming nearer to our own time, what has agitation and organization done for this country? It freed us from the aggressive power of England, and gave us the independence of a free nation. . . . Again, what did O’Connell and the people of Ireland accomplish by agitation and organization? They compelled the British government to emancipate her Catholic slaves. . . .
Some people will say that Christianity should cure those evils. Christianity did not in any way influence the social state in the earlier centuries of its existence. It openly announced that it would not interfere with that. It ordered the slave to obey his master. It attacked none of the great evils, the great injustices of the society of that period.
Notwithstanding this, who will deny that Christianity has been since then a great aid to civilization. Why? Because it changed the internal man, his creeds and sentiments; because it has regenerated the moral and intellectual man. Would to God that our monarchs of money were Christians. They would not be oppressing their fellowmen today, for then they would love their neighbors as themselves.
So, brethren, it is for us to attempt to right the wrongs and social discords by intelligence and brotherhood. He who stands back and says, “I’ll wait to see what organizations will do before I join,” is a traitor to his fellowmen and a fraud before his Maker.
Source: William J. Law, “What Can Organization Do?” Detroit Labor Leaf, 30 June 1886.