Independence Day recognizes July 4, 1776 as the date when the United States adopted the Declaration of Independence and declared its autonomy from Great Britain. Although the Declaration was adopted a year after the American Revolutionary War started, the United States did not obtain its independence until the war ended in 1783.
While history classes discuss the roles of the American Revolution’s major leaders, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, there is virtually no treatment of labor’s participation.
Colonial society centered on farming, but there were both skilled and semi-skilled workers: in small glass industries, brick and tile yards, potters’ kilns. A thriving lumber industry provided wood for shipbuilding. Bog iron ores were used for manufacturing castings and hollow ware, while rock ores supplied the furnace and forge industries. Fishing and whaling employed thousands of sailors.
In addition to free labor, bound labor was common in the American colonies. Indentured servants -- usually white immigrants -- were required to work from four to seven years in exchange for their passage from England as well as their food, clothing and housing upon their arrival. Other sources of unfree labor included convicts and slavery; black Africans numbered 450,000 by 1775 and were present in all 13 colonies.
Prior to the American Revolution, trade unions did not exist, although in the late colonial period, master craftsmen, especially house carpenters, established organizations for setting prices and wages in the building trades. Moreover, workers formed “friendly” societies for social and charitable purposes. Leaders of these societies often became vigorous advocates for Americans’ political rights in their fight with England. While the vast majority of free workers in the colonies were patriots, others remained loyal to England.
During the American Revolution, labor focused on advancing its political rights instead of securing economic gains. This meant that workers aligned with their employers in this freedom struggle. Many skilled craftsmen, artisans, seamen, laborers, and impressed workers, who were forced to join either the navy or army, were politically active revolutionists after the passage of the 1764 Sugar Act and the 1765 Stamp Act. Radical maritime workers and seamen in New York City established the Sons of Neptune, which fought against British trade restrictions, opposed the Stamp Act and were involved in the Boston Tea Party. This organization may well have encouraged the formation of the Sons of Liberty, a secret society created to protect colonists’ rights while fighting the Stamp Act and the British government’s taxation.
While this latter group’s activities varied in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, they were crucial to the American Revolution’s advancement in these four cities. Furthermore, the work of skilled craftsmen and artisans in the Sons of Liberty, supported by laborers and seamen, was decisive in achieving independence.
Under George Washington’s leadership, the Continental Army, created in June 1775, was comprised primarily of farmers but workers too. Officers from one Boston artillery company were primarily skilled craftsmen. Also, two companies of the Pennsylvania Regiment contained only seven farmers; the 50 remaining men were either workers or common laborers. Moreover, workers such as teamsters, blacksmiths, gunsmiths and artisans from a dozen trades provided the Revolutionary Army with necessary supplies throughout the war.
Because of the need for additional troops, recruitment of unfree labor began in 1777. Indentured servants who enlisted were promised release from their contracts, which drew opposition from some masters. Slaves also were permitted to serve and were promised freedom upon enlistment, which resulted in large numbers joining the Revolutionary Army.
The American Revolution resulted in workers developing greater class consciousness and the power to express their complaints, which carried over into the formation of trade unions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Until 1882, when the first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated, American labor commemorated the Fourth of July as its holiday. This tradition originated in the 1790s when the first trade unions of printers, carpenters and coopers, among others, toasted with the Democratic-Republican Society, stating “the Fourth of July, may it ever prove a memento to the oppressed to rise and assert their rights.”
While history education often focuses on the role of leaders in shaping events, ordinary persons were crucial. The American Revolution’s success could not have occurred without the active participation of laborers.
Dr. Victor G. Devinatz is Distinguished Professor of Management, specializing in labor relations, and was the Hobart and Marian Gardner Hinderliter Endowed Professor (2014-2015) at Illinois State University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.