Historical Context: The idea of "free labor" was important to political debates in the antebellum years. In the face of a growing anti-slavery movement in the North, southern slaveowners justified the institution of slavery by arguing that they provided slaves with decent working conditions and cradle-to-grave shelter and subsistence and charged that wage laborers in northern factories were treated far worse by their employers. In the North, the growth of wage labor among white workers challenged earlier Jeffersonian ideals of independent property ownership, and workers and political commentators feared that the North was slipping into a system of servitude not unlike the slavery practiced in the South. These conflicting notions about race, the nature of work, and citizenship contributed to growing political and social schisms in the 1850s that ultimately led to the Civil War.
Goal: To compare and contrast life and work on an antebellum plantation versus in an antebellum factory by analyzing primary documents.
Themes: antebellum working conditions; women’s work; slavery; early industrialization.
Skills: document analysis; taking and defending a position in writing and in debate; conflict resolution and consensus-building .
Materials: This activity builds on one developed at the Smithsonian’s Whole Cloth Web site (http://www.si.edu/lemelson/centerpieces/whole_cloth). You might want to browse this site for background before beginning this activity.
Step 1: Document Analysis
Read the following documents available at the Smithsonian’s Whole Cloth Web site:
(All links open in separate windows from this instruction sheet.)
1. Lewiston Mill Regulations (http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2images/act9/Lew_rules.html)
2. Timetable of the Lowell Mills (http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2images/act9/time_tbl.html)
3. "Plantation Management," DeBow’s XIV (February 1853): 177–178 (Journal of agricultural advice aimed at southern planters and farmers) (http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/index.html)
4. "Plantation Rules," from Ulrich Phillips, ed., Plantation and Frontier (New York: Burt Franklin, 1910) (http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/index.html)
Step 2: Compare and Contrast
Compare a range of factors that affected slaves working on plantations and wage workers working in factories using this worksheet.
Step 3: Discuss Conclusions
In small groups compare your findings. What similarities do you find? What differences? How do you account for these differences and similarities? What conclusions do you draw?