An 1854 Petition Suggests the Links Between Working-Class Land Reform and Antislavery

By Sean Dwyer Griffin

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The relationship between antislavery and land reform may not seem obvious at first, but in the minds of the thousands of urban working-class residents who looked to “the Freedom of the Public Lands” as their salvation from their status as permanent wage-earners, the two reforms were inextricably linked.

I located this antislavery petition while conducting research on a related topic, the antebellum land reform movement, in the National Archives. Although the Archives holds thousands of antislavery petitions from organized groups and ordinary citizens, this one stood out to me largely because of the way its authors identify themselves: as “democratic citizens” of the Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick sections of Brooklyn. Now known for hipsters and soaring rents, in the mid-1850s these neighborhoods were at the forefront of rapid urban change, marked by industrialization, immigration, and — most alarmingly to the land and labor reformers of the time — by concentrations of workers solely dependent on wage labor for their living.

The relationship between antislavery and land reform may not seem obvious at first, but in the minds of the thousands of urban working-class residents who viewed the “Freedom of the Public Lands” as their salvation from a status as permanent wage-earners in overcrowded cities, the two reforms were inextricably linked. The aspirations of many urban wage workers were captured in the phrase “Vote Yourself a Farm,” the slogan of the period’s most significant land reform organization, the National Reform Association (NRA). The document here, while not identified as emanating from the NRA, contains the names of several prominent National Reformers, including Lewis Masquerier (the subject of a future post). The National Reformers are also thought to have coined the term “free soil” — a term soon to be adopted by the political party formed by ex-Democrats and others who sought to prevent the further expansion of slavery into the territories.

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The program of the land reformers, who hoped to acquire free or low-cost homesteads in the territories, thus faced an existential threat from slaveholders intent on expansion, who demanded the right to take their enslaved property into any territory they pleased. In what the petition terms “the repeal of the Missouri restriction” — a reference to the Kansas Nebraska Act passed earlier that year, which had overturned ban on the expansion of slavery north of the 36°30’ line established by the Missouri Compromise — land reformers saw their program of reserving the unsettled territories for “free labor” directly threatened. Just as onerous to the petitioners here was the fact that they, like many northerners, felt themselves to have “submitted to the degredation [sic] and meanness of becoming slave catchers” with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which placed federal authorities in charge of special courts set up to try runaway slaves and required ordinary citizens to aid in their recapture and return.

As Mark Lause and other scholars have recently shown, the efforts of the National Reform Association and other land reform groups were spearheaded and directed by working-class reformers in New York and other eastern seaport cities. Skilled workers like printers, tailors, and shoemakers were often among the first to feel the effects of increased competition in the wake of the period’s frequent economic downturns, along with the overcrowding, poverty, and unsanitary conditions associated with rapid urbanization. Although New York City had long been the linchpin of an economic alliance between southern slaveholders and the northern shippers, merchants, financiers, and insurance brokers that enabled the global cotton trade, by the 1850s the metropolitan area was also a center of an emerging manufacturing-based northern economy that was much less dependent on slave-grown commodities like cotton. The three neighborhoods represented by the petition, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Williamsburgh (as the latter was then usually spelled), were at the heart of an emerging pattern of “metropolitan industrialization,” marked by concentrations of small manufactories. Still in the process of becoming part of the independent “consolidated city of Brooklyn and Williamsburgh” in the mid-1850s, the waterfront wards of these neighborhoods were home to shipyards, iron foundries, breweries, chemical manufactories, glass- and ceramics-makers, and print shops, as well as the modest homes of workers who made their living by them.

If the movement for free homesteads suggests how self-interest could drive otherwise ambivalent constituencies to embrace antislavery, a recognition of the movement’s working-class base and ideological origins in the Democratic Party also cuts against the grain of much of the recent scholarship on antislavery. Historians have often painted northern Democrats as the willing dupes of the “Slave Power,” and the Democratic Party’s urban working-class constituents as particularly (if not universally) hostile to the cause of abolition. There is, of course, more than a grain of truth to this portrayal; a number of northern Democratic “doughfaces” in Congress proved themselves to be the reliable tools of southern slaveholders throughout the period, northern labor leaders often voiced opposition to the abolition movement, and working-class mobs attacked abolitionists during abolition riots in New York and Boston in the 1830s and African Americans during the Draft Riots of 1863.

Recent work by scholars like Sean Wilentz and Jonathan Earle, however, has pointed to the role of Democrats like Thomas Morris, John P. Hale, and William Leggett in creating an antislavery constituency in the North. Meanwhile, a burgeoning literature on the relationship between “slavery and capitalism” has largely ignored a phenomenon once thought to be central to the rise of the latter, the creation of a labor force of wage-earning workers. One has to go back much further into the literature to recover the linkages, once commonly asserted, between northern wage workers, labor reformers, and the political coalition against slavery that eventually came to fruition with the emergence of the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Another clue to the class and occupational make up of the petition is provided by the first signature on the petition, that of Lewis Masquerier. Future posts will delve into the fascinating, if erratic, career of this unlikely antislavery reformer; highlight Brooklyn’s unique industrial history; and continue to flesh out the connections I have spelled out here between the labor movement, land reform, and antislavery in the 1850s.

The full text of the petition follows below.

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Memorial for the support of Liberty!

To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States in Congress assembled.

We, the undersigned, of the democratic party, citizens of the Greenpoint portion of the consolidated city of Brooklyn & Williamsburgh and the town of Bushwick, state of New York, and also a portion of the sovereigns of the United States, in whom our governments “live, move and have their being,” respectfully confess, that it was with much compunction of conscience, and for the sake of Union and Peace, that we submitted to the degredation [sic] and meanness of becoming slave catchers or to be so heavily fined, under the “fugitive slave law”; but, since we find, that submitting to a wrong only introduces another, that southern Senators, though too proud to catch slaves themselves, yet would expel a northern one for declaring he would not catch them, that the cabinet is striving to make slave states out of the territories and foreign conquests, and that the slave-holding squatting settlers are arming against the free ones, we, therefore, demand the instant repeal of the “Fugitive Slave law,” and the repeal of “the repeal of the Missouri restriction,” so as to restore us where we were previously under the constitution. And if fugitives can not be returned under that palladium of liberty, “the trial by jury,” proving the fact, and the “habeus corpus,” which have cost so many bloody revolutions, it proves that the public conscience of the free states is outraged by the peculiar institution, and that the only remedy of the evil, is its ultimate abolition. Witness our names this 4th day of July 1854.