2021 Republican Party Victory? 1877 = 2021

Wounded GOP
HARPER’s Magazine 1877

On January 13, 2021, the House of Representatives completed a historic second vote for impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) announced he was open to voting in favor of conviction in the Senate. McConnell was clearly trying to protect the conservative core of the GOP as corporate and private donors declare they will no longer contribute to the political campaigns for Trump’s enablers and possibly, the entire party. Likewise, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced that President Trump “bears responsibility” for the riotous attack on the US Capitol. However, McCarthy, also sought to appease Trump supporters by walking a tightrope, holding the President responsible for the riot, but voting against impeachment.

Donald J. Trump earned the votes of 74 million Americans in 2020. Most of those voters live in heavily gerrymandered districts. Even after January 5th certification of the presidential election results, a majority of Republicans believed the presidential election was compromised by fraud in the states. It is increasingly difficult for moderates in both the Democrat and Republican parties to win in gerrymandered politics. This is especially true for members of the House of Representatives. Hardcore Trump supporters comprise 35% or more of voters in red GOP House districts. Republican House members need those votes to stay in power. Some may also fear for their lives and the safety of their family members after threats from Trump extremists.

In 1877, the Republican Party made a compromise to win a victory they believed would save the GOP. In an unwritten agreement, GOP leaders agreed to end Reconstruction in order to win the White House for the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. It was a victory for Republicans, but in hindsight came at a tremendous price.

Ending Reconstruction killed the possibility of redistributing wealth in the South built on slavery along with any possibility of political and social equality for blacks in the former Confederacy. The action also underscored the American status quo built on white supremacy throughout the entire United States. Further, many poor whites were disenfranchised and disadvantaged as Jim Crow became a model for establishing racial hierarchies in America. The Republicans were victorious in 1877, but the party’s ideals of greater equality for all Americans were badly wounded. Hopes that the Civil War and Reconstruction would open pathways to a more equitable America where “all men are created equal” and had the right to profit from their labor died in the shadows of political compromise.

I applaud the Democrats and 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives for voting for impeachment on January 13, 2021. They voted to condemn a president who incited a violent attack on Congress by fueling false claims that he won a fair election that he clearly lost. Moving forward, even if it is painful, today’s Republicans must purge Trump and his hardline supporters from the GOP. Without that, the party will be wounded in ways that will ultimately weaken American democracy and any hope of living up to the country’s ideals. The US needs two healthy parties for democracy to survive.

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The 14th Amendment and Removing Donald J. Trump

Section 3 of the 14th Amendment states:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.

Some scholars and historians point to Section 3 as a more expedient and politically possible alternative to the 25th Amendment or formal impeachment and conviction. Donald J. Trump and his enablers have put the American people in danger. It is important to act quickly. Section 3 is an important tool that should be on the table.

Still, as historian Eric Foner noted in a January 12, 2021 article in the Washington Post, after the Civil War and ratification of the 14th Amendment, the 1872 Amnesty Act reversed Section 3’s intent, making it possible for former Confederates to hold office and take back power in the former rebel states. Section 3 ended up being useless for stopping the implementation of Jim Crow and reestablishing the status quo of white supremacy and government controlled by men that had ruled before the war. The result brought economic stagnation, racial discrimination, and violence to the South for generations. The aspiration for a more equitable society was squashed again for the entire country.

Unfortunately, the United States is built on a status quo grounded in white supremacy. What groups qualified as “white” changed over time, but the foundational idea of racial hierarchy is fundamental. Trumpsterism rests on this foundation. The evidence is in the history that political compromise after compromise over slavery infected every generation from the Declaration of Independence to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Failed compromises and the inability to deal with white supremacy paved the road to the Civil War. The war ended legal slavery, but not white supremacy. In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education decision and subsequent federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act and  Civil Rights Act helped strengthen aspirations for equality, but Supreme Count decisions since have again weakened the path to that ideal, eg: Shelby County, AL vs. Holder, and  Citizens United, among others.

Even with a resolution based on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, Donald J. Trump, fellow seditionists must be tried and convicted under the law.

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Andrew Jackson = Donald Trump? Lessons from the Election of 1824

On March 15, 2017, President Donald Trump told a crowd of supporters that Andrew Jackson was one of his inspirational heroes. “They say my election was most similar to his.” Trump continued, “that’s a long time ago. Usually, they go back like to this one or that one, 12 years ago, 16. I mean, [1824 &] 1828, that’s a long way, that’s a long time ago.” https://bit.ly/3l3zILI

Like Trump, Jackson was a game changer in the American political landscape, first running for president in 1824, losing that election, and then winning the presidency in 1828. Trump may try to take a lesson from Jackson’s playbook if Joe Biden is elected president.

In 1824, even though Andrew Jackson won the highest number of popular votes but not a majority or enough to win the Electoral College, Congress awarded the presidency to John Quincy Adams. Jackson and his supporters cried foul and claimed the election was stolen by corrupt politicians ignoring the will of the people. For the next four years Jackson and his supporters launched unrelenting and mostly unfounded attacks on John Quincy Adams and his party. The strategy worked. Jackson easily won the Election of 1828 with an army of passionate populist supporters who believed they had saved the country from what they alleged were their corrupt, anti-Christian, and elitist opponents.

While the specific issues are different, passionate is also a good word to describe both Republican and Democrat voters in the Election of 2020. Whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump is finally declared the winner, more Americans voted in this election than any election in U.S. history. That is historic.

Demonstrators outside Pennsylvania Convention Center 11/5/2020
Opposing peaceful demonstrators facing each other outside Pennsylvania Convention Center where votes were still being counted 11/5/2020, two days after Election Day

If Biden wins the presidency, will Trump and the Republican Party try to repeat Jackson’s strategy over the next four years? My answer is yes and no.

First, unlike Jackson in 1824, Biden will have won both the popular vote majority and the Electoral College. That makes it clear that voters elected this president (even with the Electoral College’s 270 votes as the final hurdle). Still, Trump and his supporters are already claiming, without providing evidence, that the election was stolen through voter fraud and political manipulation. Trump also continues to say that Biden is corrupt and in the pockets of left-wing radicals in his own party. That sounds very similar to Jackson’s playbook.

Second, it is likely that Trump will continue to seek daily media attention and use it to bully his political opponents, especially Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as well as Democrat members of Congress. However, now 74, it is unlikely that Donald Trump will run for president as the Republican nominee in 2024. His age is one factor and Trump will face numerous legal challenges, and possibly criminal charges, once he is no longer president. Andrew Jackson did not face such issues, thereby strengthening his image as a populist candidate for 1828. The current Republican Party, however, will probably try to distance itself from Trump’s legal troubles.

Instead, the Republicans will look for another candidate that can continue to appeal to Trump’s supporters. Trump’s celebrity and outsider image will be harder to duplicate in another candidate for 2024, but I suspect the Republicans will try.

For the Democrats, the Election of 1824 offers one very important lesson. The accusations that the Democrats are socialists, corrupt, and anti-American will continue. I suspect that Kamala Harris will be the major target of such attacks since she is likely to be a leading candidate for the presidency in 2024. Joe Biden, now 77, has already said he will be a transitional president.

For Americans, the elections of 1824 and 1828 have another lesson. Although most Americans say they want an end to the chaos, be prepared for the possibility of four more years of drama if we do not work to end the divisions among us.

My hope is that very soon most Americans will instead seek civility and consensus. Healing is the only way out of this divisive period in the nation’s history. Healing will take work and commitment from both sides. Perhaps, at the least, there will be more calm and competency in the White House if Joe Biden wins the presidency. Andrew Jackson was a popular president, but he did not build a foundation for avoiding the Civil War. His supporters were happy with the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from the Southeast and further expansion West. They had no sympathy for enslaved Americans. Instead, Jackson’s promotion of populist issues only set the stage for a war that almost ended the United States. I hope that this generation of Americans can do better.

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COVID-19 Big Government Can SAVE Capitalism and American Democracy #LeadershipMatters

The COVID-19 crisis highlights the dramatic failure of “small government” ideology during a national crisis. The Philadelphia Inquirer headline is a chilling prediction that worst is yet to come. State and local authorities in collaboration with private business and charities can only do so much. The federal government, both the Administration and Congress, must take the lead. Collaboration to pass the economic rescue was just the beginning.

The ideology of small government, especially at the federal level, does not work in times of crisis. Herbert Hoover’s and Congress’ response to the onset of the Great Depression more than demonstrate the problem with holding back federal intervention. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration’s failures parallel Hoover’s tragic inaction. Federal leadership at the onset of a crisis is essential for guiding the public’s response, helping state and local governments, and finding short as well as longterm solutions. The rapid pace of corona virus’ spread put the need for big government intervention on steroids.

In 1928, Herbert Hoover was a respected humanitarian admired for his Quaker upbringing and practical skills as a mining engineer. Hoover had never been elected to public office before winning the presidency in 1928. President Warren G. Harding had tapped Hoover as Secretary of the Department of Commerce where he served until taking the presidency. In 1928, Hoover had handily defeated a very skilled and experienced politician, New York’s Governor Alfred E. Smith. That year, many Americans did not want a career politician in the White House.

Over the next three years, however, public sentiment turned and Herbert Hoover was quickly blamed for the Great Depression. Hoover’s conservative Republican ideology of volunteerism and small government made him seem deaf to the stories of suffering across the nation. He refused to consider taking the United States off the gold standard; a move other nations had taken to calm the crisis. Hoover and Congress also turned a deaf ear to the demands of unemployed World War I veterans who marched on Washington to call for early payment of an already promised veterans bonus. Instead, the president told Americans that the economic crisis would soon improve. By the time Hoover and and Congress finally acted by creating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in early 1932, it was too little too late. Encampments of homeless became known as “Hoovervilles.” An empty pant’s pocket turned inside out was a “Hoover Flag.” Americans, looking for action by 1932, gave Franklin Delano Roosevelt the presidency in a landslide.

FDR did not have a plan to solve the crisis, but he confidently assured Americans it was time for a “new deal.” For more than 3 years, charities such as the American Red Cross worked along side local and state officials to offer relief as the nation’s unemployment rate rose to near 25%. Detroit went bankrupt with unemployment near 50%. State and municipal tax revenue plummeted. Roosevelt understood that only the federal government was large enough and powerful enough to make a difference.

In hindsight, FDR’s New Deal did not end the Great Depression, but it did keep Americans from starving or turning to revolution. Outside of federal intervention, FDR also convinced Americans that he understood their suffering and would use the power of the federal government to save the American economy and freedoms.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration seems closer to Herbert Hoover than Franklin Roosevelt. President Trump and his advisors were slow to recognize COVID-19 as a serious threat. As late as February many said it was a hoax that was designed to undermine Trump’s presidency. For several weeks, even after it was clear the novel corona virus was at epidemic levels in China and spreading rapidly in Europe, members of the administration, including the president, told Americans COVID-19 would simply disappear and there was nothing to worry about. Sounded like Herbert Hoover to me. The federal government’s failure to approve a reliable test for the virus was a glaring mistake. This lack of foresight and failure of leadership resulted in a patchwork quilt of state and local governments responding to the growing crisis.

Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the federal government during the Great Depression, and especially during World War II, to SAVE AMERICAN CAPITALISM AND DEMOCRACY. Big government and strong leadership is absolutely necessary during crises of this magnitude. Calling it socialism is simply wrong. There is no better way to secure freedom and capitalism than to secure the future of the American people through the government that THEY OWN. #Leadershipmatters #historymatters

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COVID-19 #StayHome

Red Cross Ambulance Drivers caring for the body of an
H1N1 flu victim in Washington, D.C.
Library of Congress

Today’s easy access to international travel spread the novel corona virus at a very fast pace. Learning from the past and applying modern science will hinder COVID-19’s spread. Simply put, human hosts multiply the virus. Just like in 1918-1919, stopping a pandemic means quarantining those that have already contracted the disease, identifying individuals that are carriers, keeping track of those that have recovered, implementing social distancing policies, and restricting travel. How individuals behave can have a dramatic effect on flattening the curb.

In 1918, St. Louis quickly closed businesses, schools, and put restrictions on the everyday lives of its citizens. (https://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-stlouis.html) The city did not escape the virus, but St. Louis weathered the pandemic much better than Philadelphia where, despite strong advice from public health experts, the city decided to go ahead with a liberty bond parade in late September 1918 that attracted more than 100,000 people to the streets. Consequently, Philadelphia was one of the hardest hit cities in the United States. In October, 2019, Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum opened an exhibit telling the sad tale of H1N1. With no deaths in September 1918, more than 12,000 flu victims died within six months and 20,000 died before the H1N1 virus disappeared from Philadelphia. 20,000 may not sound like a lot in a city of over 1.7 million, but bad decisions by officials that ended in 20,000 deaths from the flu brought fear, economic loss, and heartbreak.(http://muttermuseum.org/)

In Philadelphia, the majority of the dead were under 5 years of age, between 20-40, and over 65. Hospitals were overwhelmed and the city’s economy shut down. Health care workers, police, fire fighters, and caretakers were far too many of the victims. After a slow start, officials warned that only quarantine would stop the virus and launched a campaign, “Spit Spreads Death.” In reality, quarantine did work, but “spit” did not spread the virus. Human contact facilitated the spread of disease. Keeping people off the streets and out of the city’s theaters, public spaces, and off public transportation was the answer.

Unfortunately, the heartbreak and fear that hit Philadelphia and the world in 1918-1919 is now easier to understand. COVID-19 has spread even faster than H1N1. Pandemics are inevitable, but clearly preparation and steps to curb the spread of disease can make a difference.

What can we do? Thank and support our heroic neighbors who are working in healthcare, delivering everyday necessities, and keeping essential businesses open. Pressure government to give these heroes what they need to keep themselves and everyone safe. Demand accurate information from all levels of government and plans to dealing with the crisis. And, #stayhome

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History Students and the 21st Century Skills

History Students and the 21st Century Skills.

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History Students and the 21st Century Skills



@Inside Higher Ed 4/20/15
Digital Studies will not “save” the humanities and social sciences, but we cannot stand still and ignore the digital skills students need to succeed in the 21st-century job market. Moving and still images, mapping, database storage and manipulation, as well as multimedia platforms enhance the study of the fields that are at the heart of a liberal arts education.

Digital Studies help to further engaged learning and application of traditional problem solving and analytical skills embedded in the humanities and social sciences. http://linkis.com/insidehighered.com/7WQIy


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Immigration History on Parade in South Philly

South Philadelphia JROTC, Columbus Day Parade, 2014. photo by Don Groff

South Philadelphia JROTC, Columbus Day Parade, 2014. photo by Don Groff

Living immigration and ethnic history in the October 12, 2014 Columbus Day Parade in South Philadelphia:  As expected, Mummers, high school marching bands, and ethnic heritage societies happily dominated the parade, proudly reflcting the event’s Italian American theme and long history in South Philadelphia.  The members of the South Philadelphia High School JROTC added another welcome story. The legacy of the post-1965 wave of immigration made possible by the 1965 Immigration Act. The faces of these kids reflect the new generation of immigrants coming to South Philly in recent decades. Recent immigrant families seek the same opportunities that Italian Americans drawn to South Philly in the late 19th and early 20th century sought and celebrate. Historical memory should make immigration reform easy. Unfortunately, political dementia too often overrides the lessons of history.

Columbus Day Parade, October 12, 2014. Photo by Don Groff

Columbus Day Parade, October 12, 2014. Photo by Don Groff

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By Larry C. Price

By Larry C. Price

Larry Price is a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist. His pictures of child miners in Africa are heart wrenching. In the early 20th century,  Lewis Hine used similar images of American child workers to advocate for child labor laws. Price’s photographs have the potential today. It is helpful, however, to look at the history of child labor reform in the U.S. to understand how change occurs. It takes more than empathy to protect children from exploitive labor. A comparison of 2 historic strikes by young workers in the U.S. offers some insights into what combination of factors may result in positive change.

Just before 1:00 in the afternoon on July 7, 1903, approximately 200-400 striking textile workers in Philadelphias’ Kensington mills district gathered at Torresdale Park. About half the group were children aged 10-15.  Observers described the other half as “adults,” although many were only 16 and 17. The strikers planned to march through the streets of Philadelphia and then make their way another 100 miles north to New York City. The idea was a publicity stunt conceived by labor activist, “Mother” Mary Harris Jones. She thought that putting the focus on children would help gain sympathy for the plight of the approximately 100,000 striking textile workers employed in the Kensington mill district, of which 16,000 were under age 16.[1]

Another strike by eastern Pennsylvania mill workers 30 years later looked very similar to the 1903 protest, but a closer look reveals important differences. During the spring of 1933, union workers at the Penn-Allen Shirt Company in Allentown, the D. & D. Shirt Company in Northampton, as well as dozens of other small contract shops in the region, went on strike demanding higher pay and shorter working hours. Since 1905, Pennsylvania state law prohibited factory employment for anyone under 14 and generally banned night work. In addition, the state’s 1913 Women’s Labor Law restricted the work-week for women and girls to 54 hours. The strikers charged that the onset of the Great Depression led employers, and desperate workers, to circumvent state labor laws.[2]

Had anything changed? The 1903 “March of the Mill Children” from Philadelphia showcased working children as abused waifs, denied an education, and “raked by cruel toil beneath the iron wheels of greed.”[3] Approximately 20 percent of American children 10-15  worked for wages in the first decade of the 20th century.[4] About 10 percent of all textile workers in the Kensington district were 8-15 and approximately 2/3rds of young workers were girls. Newspapers in 1903 noted the sensational image of children marching for workers’ rights, but most editors and journalists were hostile to the cause. A Cincinnati newspaper called Mother Jones and her marchers, “a gang of lunatics.” Public officials were generally more sympathetic, but still did nothing to end the strike or aid the workers.[5]

In 1933 the press was more sympathetic to the strikers and dubbed the mill workers’ protest a “Baby Strike.” The strikers did not claim this title for themselves, but its use by the press is especially noteworthy.  Somewhat ironically, few participants in the 1933 strike as young as the 10, 11, 12, and 13 year olds involved in the Mother Jones’ march. Still, almost 40 percent of the 1933 strikers were 14, 15, and 16.[6]  Government officials also showed more sympathy by launching an investigation and asking specifically for the young workers’ side of the story. These shifts parallel changing public attitudes about childhood and adolescence.[7]

Approximately 100 children and 100 adults joined the march to NYC in 1903. Consequently, the Kensington strike’s focus changed from a protest over hours and wages for “workers” to one highlighting the abuse of children.  Marchers literally draped themselves in patriotic regalia and some children wore costumes made to look like soldiers’ uniforms from the American Revolutionary War. One boy played a drum and others blew fifes as the group walked and rode in wagons on the way to NYC (Mother Jones stayed in hotels along the way).  Sympathetic observers offered the marchers shelter.  Ninety-degree heat, an uncertain food supply, and other difficult conditions took a toll. The drummer boy complained to a reporter, “I’d like to trade that drum for a good sandwich.” By the time the group reached its destination, “what started out as about two hundred dwindled to several dozen, partly by design, party by attrition.” To make matters worse, petty disputes arose among the marchers and outside contributions were not as generous as anticipated. The New York Times took particular pleasure in describing the march’s disappointments.[11]  Newspapers that depended on young newsies to sell papers to the public generally condemned any attempt to gain child labor restrictions or enforcement of existing laws.[12]

It is not clear how many youngsters stayed with the march until the end (reports also vary as to whether both boys and girls group were included in the group). Nonetheless, the youngsters that stuck with the protest must have felt a sense of personal commitment to the cause. Many came without a parent, so parental coercion was not as important as might be expected. All participants had at least some degree of personal commitment. As one adult marcher bitterly complained, “I would rather work sixty hours a week than to endure this torture.” Danny James, “a very thin and short child” headed the march by carrying a sign identifying the group: “We are Textile Workers.” Other youthful protestors’ placards proclaimed, “We Want to Go to School”…. “More School, Less Hospitals”…. “We only Ask for Justice” …. “We ARE protected by a tariff” …. and “We Only Want Our Share”.[13] The signs were obviously prepared by adults, but child strikers clearly let the statements speak for them. Some on-lookers were surprised that children would assert themselves as strikers. Many people learned about the abuses of child labor for the first time from the young marchers.[14]

On July 23rd, 1903 about 60 children and adults reached Manhattan. Thousands of New Yorkers watched the demonstrators walk up Second Avenue by torch light, and 600 police stood by to maintain order. Mother Jones decided to continue the demonstration  by next taking the group to President Theodore Roosevelt’s vacation home at Oyster Bay. The U.S. Secret Service unsuccessfully tried to convince Jones to abandon the idea, but she did tone down the protest by only taking only 3 child strikers and 2 adult organizers on the quest to speak with the president. Roosevelt ignored the group, and did not respond to a deferential letter Jones had sent on July 15th.  The textile strike was broken within the next few weeks. In the end, the 1903 “March of the Mill Children” looked like a complete failure. Despite its failures, as historian Elliot Gorn argues, the 1903 March of the Children was “an early moment in the long change of consciousness that led to the abolition of child labor in America.”[16]

The 1933 Allentown-Northampton strike highlights those changes. Pennsylvania, similar to most other states, had only nibbled away at the issue of child labor. In 1915, Pennsylvania’s Governor Martin Brumbaugh signed a bill linking education to employment by prohibiting anyone under 14 to work for wages until completing the 6th grade. For children that qualified for work certificates under the new law, work schedules were limited to 9 hours a day and 51 hours per week. The same legislation forbid night work for children and made it illegal to hold jobs in certain “hazardous” industries. In 1925 the Pennsylvania legislature created a Bureau of Women and Children within the Department of Labor and Industry to monitor compliance with the state’s existing child labor law. Children’s participation in the workforce declined throughout the 1920s.[17]

Nonetheless, it took the onset of the Great Depression with its soaring unemployment rate for adults to raise new calls to eliminate child labor. In this atmosphere, the textile workers in Allentown and Northampton went on strike in the spring of 1933. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the strike involved more than 40 separate facilities employing 3,200 workers, 25 percent of whom were 14 and 15 years of age. Like the 1903 Kensington strike, young workers brought their cause to the public by marching, this time in Pennsylvania’s state capital. However, unlike the 1903 Kensington strike, the workers gained support from some of Pennsylvania’s most powerful government officials, especially Governor Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot established a special “Sweatshop Commission” to investigate the strikers’ charges of low pay, abuse, and long hours. The governor stepped into the fight after the mayors of the two communities involved had very different responses to the strike. The mayor of Allentown, Fred Hart, established a sweatshop commission composed of the town’s “leading citizens.” The mayor of Northampton, Charles Fox, blamed the walkout on “agitators” and promised the factory owners “police protection.” Despite Fox’s opposition to the strikers, other Northampton officials criticized the factory owners, noting that if they paid “decent wages,” police protection would not be “necessary.”[18]

In another change from the 1903 strike, newspapers across the county ran articles sympathetic to the strikers. The Toledo, Ohio Leader featured an in depth article on April 28, 1933 with the headline, “Sweatshop Conditions Force Children’s Strike” and the subheading, “Pennsylvania Boys and Girls Are in Revolt Against Bosses; Pay Below Chinese Standards.” The article went on to charge, “Child labor exploited to unbelievable limits by unscrupulous bosses during the depression, has revolted. And America—the richest nation in the world—is witnessing its first strike of ‘baby workers.’”[19] The newspaper correctly identified the high adult unemployment rate during the Great Depression as a significant boost to child labor reform efforts. The article went on to shamelessly promote the strikers’ cause,

“…hundreds of underfed, overworked, and grossly underpaid children, employes [sic] of the shirt and pajama factory sweatshops which infest that district are on strike against wages as low as 15 cents a week and working condition [sic] which would make the overseer of a Soudan slave camp blush with shame.”

Interestingly, the reporter also noted that “the children are engaged in active and effective picketing, and are receiving the support of decent-minded citizens.” He judged the strikers’ demands as “modest, very modest. . . .All they are asking for is the ‘prompt payment of wages,’ a 10 percent increase in piecework schedules, restoration of a recent pay cut [rates had been cut from 6 cents a dozen to 3 cents], and recognition of ‘a union.’”[20]

Pennsylvania newspapers offered more subdued coverage, but were still sympathetic to the strikers’ cause. On April 29th, the Philadelphia Record ran with the headline, “Sweatshop Probe Hears of Hardships of ‘Baby Strikers’.” Even the Winston Salem, North Carolina Sentinel featured a story entitled, “Forlorn Parade of Sweat-Shop Children Protests $1 Week Wages.” The article told the story of “Mildred Sweeney…a thin, snub-nosed little Irish girl, who ought to be thinking of nothing more serious than basket ball [sic]. But Mildred, at 15, has been the sole support of a family of ten for the last year. From 7 o’clock in the morning until 5 in the evening, Mildred trimmed shirts in a factory in Allentown. The highest wages she made in one week for all her long hours of work was $1.10…One week she made just five cents.”  The paper went on to describe how Mildred often came home too tired to eat, with only 50 or 75 cents to show for the week’s work. Owners got away with paying such low wages because workers’  compensation was based on piece work; one-half cent to 2 or 3 cents a dozen trimmed shirts. The piecework system meant that employees like Mildred were often idle during the many hours they spent in the workshops.  “The week that I just got a nickel,” Mildred reported, “I had to go everyday, just like always, and wait to see if there was anything to do. Sometimes we’d wait all day and go home at night without earning anything. But if you don’t come everyday, they fire you.”[21]

The practice of hiring adolescent workers at very low wages became more common as the economic depression worsened. Factory owners escaping high rents in the cities like Philadelphia moved to small towns and hastily set up shop. Local families, hurt by the depression, sent sons and especially daughters to the new factories for jobs. Labor unions and government officials throughout the country blamed child labor for at least part of the nation’s unemployment problem and low wages among adults. In December, 1932 at the U.S. Children’s Bureau’s emergency conference on child labor held in Washington, D.C., out-going Secretary of Labor William K. Doak, worried that children were being employed at the expense of adults. The in-coming Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins agreed.[22]

The Great Depression proved fertile ground for the 1933 “Baby Strike.” On April 28 and 29, the governor’s “sweatshop hearings” were held in Northampton and then Allentown. The scene in Northampton included a dramatic moment when one of the owners of the D. & D. Shirt Company, Nathan Dashefsky, “boasted that he was armed. [Officials] required [him] to unswing his pistol and keep it unloaded during the rest of the hearing.” Dashefsky then told the investigators that he did not believe “employees had the right to bargain … collectively on any matter.” He called all the young workers “liars.” Hale A. Guss, a Northampton borough manager, added further to the hearing’s excitment by charging that the factory owners, Nathan and his brother Harry Dashefsky, used language in front of their young female employees that “only the scum of the earth would use.” Charlotte E. Carr, Deputy Secretary of the State Department of Labor and Industry agreed and noted that several of the girls were embarrassed to tell their stories. Officials decided to hold a separate hearing conducted solely by women investigators, including the governor’s wife, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot.[23]

Cornelia Pinchot and Charlotte Carr summarized the young strikers’ testimonies for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry Industrial Board. Carr told the board that the strikers’ picketing “was followed within complete conformity of the law and that both adults and minors cooperated in this effort.” A controversy arose when Carr noted that factory owners had illegally fired the striking employees. As a result, school authorities in the area took the position that the state’s compulsory school attendance law required that fired workers (strikers?) under 16 return to school, thereby making the strikers truant. The board concluded that since the strikers were involved in a legal labor protest, the state’s compulsory school attendance law should not be used to break the strike. Doing so placed young workers at a disadvantage compared to adults, but board members lamented that they had to take this position, praising the idea of even tougher school attendance laws. The board voted to continue dealing with the issue during the next month’s meeting.[24]

In the meantime, Cornelia Pinchot marched with the young strikers in Harrisburg on May 11th. She also gave speeches in support of the strikers that were littered with sad stories about the girl workers.[25] Throughout the 1930s Cornelia Pinchot acted as a champion for organized labor’s efforts to end sweatshops and the employment of 14 and 15 year olds. During its next meeting, the Pennsylvania Industrial Board heard testimony from education officials arguing that the state’s main interest should be to keep children in school. Members of the board agreed, but were bound by law to protect the rights of workers. On July 12, 1933 the board passed a resolution prohibiting the hiring of young strike breakers at the shops and ordering that minors engaged in a legal strike would not lose their work permits.[26] The board unofficially sympathized with education officials.

In the end, the Dashefsky brothers broke the strike at the Northampton factory. But even before the governor’s sweatshop hearings, workers at the Penn Allen Shirt Company signed a contract including a 10 percent pay increase and recognition of the Clothing Workers Union.[27] At least some of the strikers achieved their goals. But pressure from labor unions and unemployed adults continued to push government officials to do something about the employment of 14 and 15  year olds in the nation’s factories. It is reasonable to assume that the young Allentown-Northampton strikers were caught by surprise when the Pennsylvania legislature passed a new law in 1935 raising the minimum working age to 16. The law also limited 16 and 17 year olds to an 8-hour a day, 40-hour work week. The act also placed restrictions on the kinds of employment for those 16-21. About the same time the state passed a new compulsory school attendance law to age 16. Clearly attitudes had changed, and the scarcity of jobs for adults fueled new pressure for reform at the national level as well. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. This significant legislation included the first federally enforceable restrictions on child labor.[28]

While child welfare advocates celebrated the new laws as a final victory in a long struggle to end child labor, some adolescent workers probably resented the new restrictions on their freedom of choice.

Like many child laborers around the world today, young workers saw themselves as legitimate and autonomous workers with interests and rights similar to adults. Oral histories of adults who worked as children during the period suggest that many former child laborers agreed later in their lives with reformers that school was a better choice than the work place for children and teens.[29]  Nevertheless, it is important to include young workers’ views and experiences as well as the perspectives of adult reformers when tracing the history of labor reform and as we consider policies to protect the interests of young workers throughout the world today.  It is also important to note that adults must have a direct interest in removing children from the workplace in order for  significant change to take place.

[1] Estimates of the march participants varied at the time and in scholars’ evaluation of the event since; on Mary Harris Jones and her labor activism see Elliot Gorn, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Women in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001); for an overview of the Kensington children’s crusade see, Gorn, pp.131-138; C. K. McFarland, “Crusade for Child Laborers: Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children, Pennsylvania History 38(July 1971):283-296; Russell E. Smith, “The March of the Mill Children,” Social Science Review 41(September 1967), pp.300-310; and Stephen Currie, We Have Marched Together: The Working Children’s Crusade (Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 1997); for a handy overview of child labor in Pennsylvania see Kenneth C. Wolensky, “Child Labor in Pennsylvania,” (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, 1998), Historic Leaflet No.43; Mary Harris Jones described the July, 1903 march in her autobiography, The Autobiography of Mother Jones, chapter 10, first published by Charles Kerr in 1925 and available on the Internet at http://www.angelfire.com/nj3/RonMBaseman/mojones1.htm, accessed January 20, 2003.

[2] Mac Parker, “Sweatshop Probe Hears of Hardships of ‘Baby Strikers’, Philadelphia Record, April 28, 1933, newspaper clipping in National Labor Committee Papers, Container 64, Library of Congress, Manuscript Collection, Washington, D.C.

[3] Letter from Mary Harris Jones to Theodore Roosevelt, July 15, 1903, included in Philip Foner, ed., Mother Jones Speaks (New York: Monad Press, 1983), pp.555-556; Gron, The Most Dangerous Woman, p.135.

[4] Robert Willard McAhren, “Making the Nation Safe for Childhood: A History of the Movement for Federal Regulation of Child Labor, 1900-1938,” pp.5-6; U.S. Children’s Bureau, “Child Labor Facts and Figures,” Children’s Bureau pub. no. 197 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1930).

[5] Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, p.139.

[6] The National Child Labor Committee collected newspaper clippings on the strike, National Child Labor Committee Papers (NCLC papers), box 64, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C.; Data on the 1933 strike was gleaned from the 1933-1934 Minute Books compiled for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, RG 16, box 2, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, PA.

[7] On the changing definitions of childhood during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century see for example, Viviana A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (New York: Basic Books, 1985); Joseph M. Hawes, The Children’s Rights Movement: A History of Advocacy and Protection, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991); Gail S. Murray, American Children’s Literature and the Construction of Childhood (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1998), pp.51-207; and Leroy Ashby, Endangered Children: Dependency, Neglect, and Abuse in American History (Boston: Twayne Publishers), pp.79-124.

[8] C. Zoe Smith, “An Alternative View of the 30s: Hine’s and Bourke-White’s Industrial Photos, Journalism Quarterly 60(1983):305-310; George Dimock, “Children of the Mills: Re-Reading Lewis Hine’s Child-Labour Photographs, Oxford Art Journal 16(1993):37-54; Jennifer L. Peresie, “Crusader with a Camera: Lewis Hine and His Battle Against Child ‘Slavery,’” Pennsylvania Heritage 23(1997):4-13; and Robert Macieski, “’Before Their Time’: Lewis W. Hine and the New Hampshire Crusade Against Child Labor,” Historical New Hampshire 55(2000):90-107.

[9] Historians of slavery have found advertisements for runaways very useful for countering claims that blacks were docile and unintelligent; for example see John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, eds., American Slavery: The Question of Resistance (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1971); Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (New York: Vintage Books, 1981, c1979); and Norrence T. Jones, Born and Child of Freedom, Yet a Slave: Mechanisms of Control and Strategies of Resistance in Antebellum South Carolina (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1990); on the regulation of adolescent girls see for example, Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); and Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Policing and Protecting Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[10] Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, p.131; Jones, Autobiography, chapter X.

[11] Currie, We Have Marched Together, p.37; Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, pp.132-134; Smith, “March of the Mill Children,” pp.301-302; New York Times, July 10, 1903, p.1, and July 12, 1903, p.1.

[12] Lindenmeyer, “A Right to Childhood, p.131; Trattner, Crusade for the Children, pp.171-172; Nettie P. McGill, “Children in Street Work,” U.S. Children’s Bureau pub. no.183 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1928).

[13] Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, pp.133-134; Currie, We Have Marched Together, p.30-33; reports of the march are included in the Philadelphia Inquirer from July 8th through 20th, 1903, microfilm, Newspaper and Government Documents Reading Room, Library of Congress, and in the NCLC Papers, box 64.

[15] Currie, We Have Marched Together, pp.34-36; oral histories conducted with mill workers from the Kensington region are included in, Jean Seder, Voices of Kensington: Vanishing Mills, Vanishing Neighborhoods (Ardmore, PA: Whitmore Publishing Company, 1982); Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, p.140.

[16] The quotation from Ruben Dagenhart is from Lowell Mellet, “The Sequel of the Dagenhart Case (also in Robert H. Bremner, et. al., Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History, [Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1971], vol. 2, pp.716-717); and Lowell Mellet, “How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth It Is to Have a Thankless Child,” Labor, Nov. 17, 1923, reprinted in Grace Abbott, The Child and the State: Legal Status in the Family, Apprenticeship, and Child Labor, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938) vol. 1, pp.515-517; see also Lowell Mellett, “The Dagenhart Boys,” clipping, U.S. Children’s Bureau Papers, RG 102, box 9, file 16, National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

[17] The Pennsylvania State Code includes specifics about each of these laws, Pennsylvania State Law Library, Harrisburg, PA; for a brief synopsis see, Wolensky, “Child Labor in Pennsylvania,” p.4.

[18] Budd L. McKillips, “Sweatshop Conditions Force Children’s Strike,” Toledo, Ohio Leader, April 28, 1933, NCLC papers, box 64.

[19] McKillips, “Sweatshop Conditions Force Children’s Strike.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Mac Parker, “Sweatshop Probe Hears of Hardships of ‘Baby Strikers’”, Philadelphia Record, April 29, 1933, NCLC papers, box 64; Dorothy Roe, “Forlorn Parade of Sweat-Shop Children Protests $1 Week Wages,” Winston Salem, North Carolina Sentinel, no date but probably April 28 or 29, 1933, NCLC papers, box 64.

[22] “Doak Says Children Should Not Be Employed,” New York Times, December (no day), 1932, NCLC papers, box 64; for an overview of the Great Depression’s affect on child labor see Lindenmeyer, “A Right to Childhood,”pp.195-202; U.S. Children’s Bureau memorandum, “Effect of NRA codes on Child Labor,” June 5, 1935, Children’s Bureau papers (CBP), RG 102, box 6, file 6; and “NRA Summary,” typed report, CBP, RG 102,, box 10, file 3.

[23] Parker, “Sweatshop Probe Hears of Hardships of ‘Baby Strikers’”.

[24] Minutes of the Industrial Board, Department of Labor and Industry, RG 16, “Meeting of the Industrial Board Meeting, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, April 21, 1933,” pp.75-76.

[25] “Speeches”, Cornelia Pinchot Papers, typed transcript of speech, no date, but probably given several times in April and May, 1933, box 271, file “Speeches, 1933”, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C.; “Mrs. Pinchot Joins March of Strikers,” Lorain, Ohio Journal-Times Herald, May 12, 1933, NCLC papers, box 64.

[26] Minutes of the Industrial Board, June 22, 1933 and July 12, 1933, “Employment of Minor under sixteen years of age where strikes are in progress,” pp. 89-92 and pp.109-110; the full regulation states: “The employment of minors under 16 years of age in an establishment where a strike or lockout is in progress is prohibited, except that this prohibition shall not apply to minors who were legally certificated to work in such establishment before the strike or lockout was declared”, Rule M-38 of the Regulations Affecting the Employment of Minors.

[27] “Allentown Strikers Given Wage Increase,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1933, microfilm, Library of Congress, Newspapers and Government Documents Reading Room, Washington, D.C.

[28] For an excellent summary of child labor and its regulation in the U.S. up to the present see David I. Macleod, “Child Labor,” included in Joseph M. Hawes, editor, and Elizabeth F. Shores, assistant editor, The Family in America: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2001), vol. 1, pp.174-186.

[29] For example see the earlier reference to Ruben Dagenhart and oral histories included in Jacqueline Dowd Hall, et. al., Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

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Good Public Policy and Summer’s Hidden Dangers

whitewater kayaker

Kayaker, Ohiopyle State Park, photo by Don Groff, 2012

Water was rough where tuber went missing,” noted a headline in the August 12, 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer. A similar story in the Washington Post read, “In the Potomac’s grip: Why people drown at Great Falls.”  Both articles warned that each summer the lure of natural waterways also include serious dangers.  Each summer too many people, especially children, teens, and young adults, drown in the nation’s rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams. Alcohol is a factor in some cases, but not all. In recent years, new technologies and wider use of life jackets and other safety equipment have helped to save lives. In the 1930s, public policy also lowered death rates caused by drownings in rivers, lakes, and streams.

New Deal officials and local governments joined forces through the Works Progress Administration and other federal programs to build hundreds of public pools and other recreational facilities in communities throughout in the United States.  Of course the WPA and other New Deal relief program also provided jobs and stimulated local economies, but the swimming pools and other recreational facilities financed with federal help are an excellent example of the good, but largely unrecognized, consequences of spending on public recreational facilities for children and youth.

In 1934, an estimated 450 children and adolescents drowned in the waterways in and around New York City. Drowning deaths, especially among children and teens, were a problem throughout the country. This long history began to change in NYC in the summer of 1936 when the city opened 11 giant new public pools. Built with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the pools were a welcome addition to a summer with record high temperatures.  The largest was in McCarren Park Pool, located in the Greenpoint neighborhood and promoted as holding “up to 6,800 simultaneous swimmers.” Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia proudly dedicated the enormous facility before a crowd of 75,000 people gathered on a warm Friday evening, July 31st, 1936. The highpoint of the ceremonies came at sunset when the mayor flipped on the underwater lights and declared, “Okay, kids, it’s all yours!”

The McCarren Park Pool and thousands of swimming pools and other recreational facilities built in the US during the 1930s as part of the New Deal were visible reminders of a public’s commitment to providing safe public spaces for children, teens, and youth. Drowning deaths in NYC in 1936 fell to under 300.  Like today, rivers, lakes, and streams still had their appeal, but affordable public pools provided safe recreational alternatives for cooling off on a hot summer day.

In recent decades, many cities and communities cut spending on public recreational facilities, especially the high cost of running pools. Even the popular McCarren Park Pool closed in 1984. By then the Greenpoint neighborhood had become a less desirable place for everyone, but the need for safe public recreational facilities did not end. After three decades of neglect and debate, the McCarren Park Pool reopened in 2012 with much fanfare, but also some problems. Brawls and other undesirable behavior initially clouded the facilities’ operation, but a strong no-tolerance policy and support from the surrounding community turned things around. The pool’s reopening helped to make the entire neighborhood a safer place for everyone, and probably saved lives.

The history of New Deal policies that provided new recreational facilities in thousands of communities across the US suggests that providing safe public spaces for young people, especially public swimming pools, is simply good public policy.


“McCarren Park’s Calm Reopening Brings Tight Security and Second Chances.” DNAifo, http://tinyurl.com/mpok283

Drowning-deaths data from reports written by New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, quoted on “Everything About a Pool: The McCarren Park Pool,” The New Big Thing, radio broadcast aired July 4, 2003, http://www.wnyc.org/shows/tnbt/2002/aug/25/.

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