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Radical Mainers: Mechanics Form the First Labor Party in Maine

The Making of Maine’s Working Class: Mechanics Form the First Labor Party in Maine

by | Jun 11, 2021

By the spring of 1831, artisans in Portland had finally had enough of both major political parties. Working men in the port city (pop. 15,000) thought their class interests were being ignored as the economy became industrialized and increasingly stratified along class lines. That March, several Portland mechanics met to discuss the creation of what became the Working-Men’s Institution, the first labor party in Maine. The preamble to its constitution read, in part:

We, citizens of the town of Portland, denominated the Working Class of the community, being fully convinced that the Working-men have not received that attention which their usefulness and industry deserve … and also taking into consideration the injurious effect of being swayed against their own interests, by the leading characters of the two political parties that have usurped the power of forcing their own favorite candidates on the public, contrary to the wishes of the great body of the people, being enabled to effect their election by taking the advantage of, the indifference and neglect of the Working-class, which we consider to be an infringement of the rights of a free and independent people.

The party’s founders vowed it would not endorse any candidate unless they supported a range of policies that included equal and universal public education; equal taxation of property; the establishment of laws plainly written, so the common people could understand them; direct election of public officials; and regulation of chartered corporations, so wages for workers “rise in proportion as the profits of the Corporation increase.”

On June 17, 1831, the organizers issued a call to all workers in Cumberland County to send delegates to the party’s first caucus, scheduled to take place in Gray on July 4th. “Call on the Spirit of ’76!!!” — the party’s rallying cry — referred to what they believed were the Revolution’s unfilled promises of liberty and equality for all. Working men gathered at local taverns to prepare for the convention. Ignoring “the sneers and frowns” of the major parties’ partisans, they printed and distributed handbills county-wide. About 80 delegates responded to the call, and on Independence Day the Workingmen of Cumberland County nominated their candidates for the Maine Legislature.

“Working Men’s” parties emerged all over the Northeast as working people faced the brutal realities of industrialization under capitalism. Cutthroat competition drove down workers’ wages as well as the prices craftsmen could get for their wares. Wealth rapidly accumulated in the hands of a privileged few. Meanwhile, the big political parties competed to serve the interests of the upstart industrialists, bankers, merchants and traders.   

Democrat Andrew Jackson’s rise to presidential power in the late 1820s coincided with a major expansion of white male suffrage that put political focus on the plight of the “common man.” Although Jackson did little to materially improve the lives of working people, he spoke the language of the aggrieved working man and farmer in his diatribes against banks and the rich.

To Jackson’s Democrats, the federal government was a threat to their individual liberty. They considered government intervention in the economy a scheme to benefit the merchant capitalists at the top and the poor at the bottom at the expense of the “producing classes”: small-scale farmers, independent artisans and mechanics. There wasn’t much room for working men in the Whig Party either, dominated as it was by big businessmen and professionals, with support from Protestant moralists and the emerging urban middle class.

Historian Bruce Laurie observed that both parties promoted “free laborism” — policies that sought a harmonious relationship between capital and labor, free from government intervention. Whigs and Democrats believed competition and rugged individualism would create a meritocratic society and provide “economic independence for diligent and industrious farmers and workingmen.” Neither party had any use for labor unions.

“Whigs saw unions as ‘plunderers’ and to Democrats they were ‘monopolists,’ little better than large employers and considerably more dangerous,” wrote Laurie. “The laws of supply and demand set wages and could not be breached anymore than freedom of contract, which gave workers the right to work as many hours a day as they wanted.”

On President Jackson’s watch, the livelihoods of working people continued to decline. In the 1820s, a family of three needed $330 a year to stay out of poverty, which all but “unskilled” laborers and the “most degraded craftsmen” earned, Laurie noted. Thirty years later, a living wage was $500 a year, but urban journeymen averaged only $300 a year. One study of self-employed artisans in Newark, New Jersey, found that in 1840, one in five owned a shop, but by 1860, only one in 10 did. Artisans and journeymen were rapidly swelling the ranks of the working class, and the conditions for labor agitation ripened.

Early labor organizations formed following a series of strikes in the late 1820s and early 1930s among construction workers in Boston and Philadelphia demanding a 10-hour work day. Although the striking workers were defeated in both cities, movements for shorter work hours spread throughout the region. The flurry of labor organizing in New Jersey led the Newark-based Village Chronicle to breathlessly write in 1830: “From Maine to Georgia, within a few months past, we discern symptoms of a revolution, which will be second to none since ’76.” Critics of the movement derisively referred to the working class activists as “workies,” rabble, levelers and “dirty-shirt parties.”

The mechanics in Maine advocated for several reform initiatives. Among them was the abolition of imprisonment for debt, since artisans were seldom paid on time, and when they were paid it was often with bank notes that had depreciated in value, which made it harder to settle the original debt. The debtor in Maine, wrote one artisan in the Mechanics Free Press in 1831, “lives and breaths only at the mercy of his creditor; and is a slave in the worst sense of the word; being unable to acquire property, to provide for a family, to educate his children,” serve in the military or on a jury, or even vote. The Maine Legislature finally eliminated jail time for debtors in 1831, two years before Congress did the same.

Early Maine labor organizations also fought to end capital punishment (finally abolished here in 1887) and the militia system, which forced workers to periodically forgo wages in order to train for military service. Wealthier men could simply pay a fine to avoid those obligations. Historian Jaques Downs described these militia gatherings as more like keg parties than military drills, with “contests, fights, much drinking, buying and selling,” as well as “haranguing by itinerant Bible salesmen.” In 1844, Maine’s Legislature finally did away with the militia system, except in the event of public danger.

As corporations were formed to run banks, provide insurance, manufacture products and construct roads and canals, businessmen began to accrue wealth in the form of stocks and bonds. Portland’s mechanics pointed out the inherent unfairness of a system in which workers were taxed on their homes while the wealthy avoided levies on their financial riches. Many workers connected this regressive tax system to the sky-high rents in Portland. As one artisan wrote in the Eastern Argus in 1831, “individuals … have suffered by the all-grasping disposition of their landlords,” and renters oppose “the method pursued by our Assessors in taxing houses to the occupant instead of the owners.” Others railed against private toll bridges and turnpikes, arguing that such infrastructure should be the common property of the state.

Despite the passion of its founders, the Working-Men’s Institution failed to spark a political revolution, and Democrats managed to quash the effort of a few mechanics to nominate their own candidates for state office in 1831. This story would be repeated many times over the next two centuries as workers in the U.S. repeatedly tried and failed to organize a political party along working-class interests.

Historians continue to debate why a labor party has never taken root in this country. They cite factors ranging from the structure of the U.S. political system to racial, religious and ethnic divisions. Laurie wrote that Working Men’s parties failed for several reasons, including poor organizing and the fact unions and cooperatives were relatively new concepts back then, and thus lacked wide public support or an activist base from which to expand.  

A coalition emphasizing equality for the “producing classes” was also inherently contradictory. While farmers, masters, journeymen, and even small business owners may all have supported some reforms, in other areas their interests diverged. Unlike the more radical industrial unions that followed, early labor activists did not call for public ownership of infrastructure or worker control of the means of production. They championed private property rights and were suspicious of government involvement in the economy. Unable to convincingly articulate the key differences between the interests of workers and employers, the mechanics’ zeal for reform was easily redirected back into the pro-capitalist political parties.

In the 1832 election, many Maine workers chose to re-elect Jackson, who got more votes in this state than Whig Henry Clay and Anti-Masonic candidate William Wart did combined. Maine historian Charlie Scontras pointed out that Jackson’s “crusade against monopoly and privilege, symbolized by his attack on the Second Bank of the United States,” convinced farmers, mechanics and laborers to vote the Democratic ticket that year. Many still believed a laissez-faire government would better guarantee “equal rights for all and special privileges for none.”

“The attraction to Jackson was thus not based on government passing laws on behalf of workers, but rather one based on the idea of equality of opportunity by resisting or repealing ‘class’ legislation of any kind,” Scontras wrote.

The battle in the political arena may have been over, but in the 1830s and ’40s, Maine workers resolved to continue the fight for a shorter work day, even if they had to organize and strike to get it.

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