WORKING MAN DESCRIBED AS FREE SPIRITED, ARISING FROM FRONTIER PAST
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.
This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
The Tennessee working
man is free spirited, carrying over into his new industrial surroundings
the qualities of the small farmer and tenant. His employer tends to
think and act in terms of land ownership. In general, the relationship
between employed and employer rests on a man-to-man footing, in the
old tradition of farmers' lands. This one fact must be dealt with which
would lead into any discussion of the Tennessee working man, his past,
present, and future.
Until at least 1820 the Tennessean lived
in a frontier region. Of his 422,000 neighbor Tennesseans, one-fifth
were Negro slaves. The largest city, Nashville, had but 3,000 persons
and throughout the State only 7,680 devoted themselves to manufacturing,
mostly of locally utilized necessities. From the mountain coves of East
Tennessee to the Mississippi bottomlands, the remainder of the working
men - roughly 100,000 - were engaged in farming.
Great plantations, worked by slave gangs
were based on a cotton economy and were slow in obtaining a grip in
Tennessee. Only the bottomlands of West Tennessee were ideally suited
to the plantation, but even here the people were too typically backward
in character to fall sincerely into the system. The Tennesseans of pre-Civil
War days were inclined to continue the small farming practices of his
pioneer fathers. The census of 1850 showed 118,941 farmers, none of
whom were classified as planters. In great contrast are the census figures
of South Carolina for the same year: 8,407 planters, as against 32,898
In the mountains of East Tennessee, frontier
conditions were slack; few slaves were owned and the farmer found it
necessary to do all tasks about his farm with only such help as his
family could give. And as for most of the necessities, he became accustomed
to the "make it yourself or do without" situation.
Craftsmen were of such importance in early
Tennessee towns that they are estimated to have constituted at least
10 per cent of the population. But two factors were at work to destroy
the prominent craftsman class. As a rule, the artisan who had come into
the State worked at his craft only long enough to buy land. It seemed
that the apprenticeship program was failing rapidly in this new country.
Newspapers of the time carried many advertisements offering rewards
for the capture of runaway apprentices. But few were returned to their
masters; the displeasure of the people was against it.
In Middle and West Tennessee Negro slaves
began to assume increasing importance. As early as 1808 Montgomery Bell,
of Nashville, advertised for "ten Negro fellows" to man his
iron works on the Harpeth River. Even earlier a few slaves were employed
in crude mining operations in East Tennessee. Nashville and many smaller
towns kept Negroes for civic repair and forager work. With the coming
of the steamboat and railroad, large numbers of company-owned Negroes
furnished the unskilled labor. Very soon Negroes began filtering into
the artisan class as well. So many white craftsmen had become landowners
that by 1802 "when General James Winchester built his stone house,
Cragfont... near Gallatin... he had to import working men from Baltimore
to do the interior finishing." Most of the ant-bellum homes, churches,
and public buildings were the work of slave artisans and laborers. The
slaves were successor to brick making and brick laying, carpentry, blacksmithing,
and metal working. Primarily, however, they were agricultural workers
or domestic servants.
The white farm hand at that time could
draw $8.67 per month with board. A day laborer got 58 cents per day,
43 cents if he boarded in. Carpenters readily received $1.38 per day,
and female domestics, of whom there were few, $1.00 per week. Behind
all these was the threat that the work they did could be equally well
done by the slaves, who could be hired from their masters or owned at
two-thirds the cost of white labor.
Reconstruction for the South meant a readjustment
for the Tennessee working man. Faced with uncultivated fields and run-down
industries, a second pioneer period was inevitable.
Many of the freed Negroes migrated to
the cities in search of work, or to the North. They made places for
themselves in a few industries - mining, iron - and steelwork, the railroads;
and in service and trades - as domestic servants, laundresses, and porters.
However, they returned to the soil as hands or "croppers"
and later as tenants.
The small white farmer rented land, if
his own had been lost, and began life again in the only manner he knew.
Money was scarce; capital was in the North. The landowner needed a cash
crop to meet his obligations, but the tenant, Negro or white, saw little
cash from one year's end to another. His family of from six to ten persons,
lived in a dilapidated shanty, and worked from dawn to dusk. His debt
was to the commissary, which in turn was in debt to the wholesaler.
The owner himself could buy in no way but on credit. The result was
a vicious circle from which it was difficult for either the tenant or
the landowner to escape. This condition grew in West Tennessee and to
a lesser degree in the middle counties. Tenant-operated farms constituted
30 per cent of those within the State by 1890 and had increased to 40
per cent in 1900.
By 1900 the same primary forces were at
work in East Tennessee. Mills, factories, and mines attracted small
farmers from long-gone mountain farmsteads. Although the pay was low
and conditions deplorable in light of the present day, the worker at
least did not face extended starvation for himself and his family.