Reminiscences of an octogenarian in the fields of industrial and social reform/02

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Joshua King Ingalls

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As already stated, at the age of fifteen, I went to Providence, and obtained a place in the Bleaching and Callender works. I boarded with a family which came from our neighborhood, and whose members attended the Methodist Church in Chestnut Street. I was induced to attend the Sunday School, and was given a class to teach. It was while trying to make plain to young minds, the lessons in the "Union" question books, that I first became impressed with the absurdity of the claims put forth for the inerrancy of the Bible, and of the contradictory character of the tenets of the church generally. In the school, and during the sermons, which I weekly listened to, I gradually became a chronic critic of everything I heard or read upon the subject of religion. The bias of my early training constantly [9] sought to assert itself by the suggestion that such attitude of mind was improper if not wicked. For several years this tendency to criticism increased, and naturally disposed me to argument. I often astonished, and no doubt pained my best friends by suggesting subjects of doubt and misgiving as to the truth of their beliefs.

I remember that while teaching my class, the pastor came to me one day, and sought to ascertain my method of instruction. I explained that the books gave, or suggested the answers, and that it was merely necessary to see that the children recited these verbal answers. He seemed satisfied, but said that I should not confine myself wholly to the printed questions; but should ask others, and that he wished I would question the children as to their home-teaching: whether they had family prayers, grace said at meals, reading of the Scriptures, and so forth. As I was beginning to doubt on general principles, the utility of these formalities, being acquainted with the views of the Friends or Quakers, and as I naturally revolted at playing the part of spy on the private home, I was at a loss what to say to him, but calling to mind that his son, a bright boy of eight or nine years was in my class, I gave consent, though not without mental reservation. So, when the lesson was through, and the tine of closing had not arrived, I called the boy to me, and quietly put the questions to him. And really I was not surprised that every one was answered in the negative.

It was about this time. I began to be interested in political affairs. Gen. Jackson was entering on his second term as President, and the questions of the Tariff, of nullification, and of the United States Bank (Biddle's) created great excitement among the people. But while my untrained thought was mainly in approval of the General's course it was his attitude in regard to the public lands, and his proposition to hold them simply as a trust for the actual settlers, and to abandon the idea of deriving a revenue from them, which completely won my heart.

The contrary policy had been followed from the formation of our government. Hamilton, the first Secretary of our Treasury, had thought to build up a landed aristocracy upon that basis, and to pay off the national debt, by sale of these lands, to native and to foreign purchasers, who wished to establish large estates. He ruled [10] that only those who could purchase a mile square could deal directly with the Government, and that the hardy pioneers who were to settle and improve these lands, must hire or purchase of forestallers, unless they were prepared to buy six hundred and forty acres (640), requiring eight hundred dollars ($800) to be invested in land at the start; a sum, it is safe to say, scarcely one in one hundred of those possessed, Who sought to better their condition, by emigration. This policy was not changed until the administration of Thos. Jefferson and mainly through the persistent exertions of Gen. Wm. H. Harrison, at that time delegate in Congress from the North-west Territory. As former governor of that Territory he had seen the direful effects of Hamilton's system of reducing the pioneers to the dependent condition of tenants or of debtors to speculators, who stood between them and the soil, through favor of the laws, or of those who administered them. I did not at that time apprehend the true nature of land ownership, that of occupation and use; but the injustice of giving the public heritage to a privileged class to perpetuate the dependency of the workers, and for purposes of wild speculation was apparent, and I could but feel that the old General was the true friend of the industrious poor, and of the whole people.

At this time too, there was great activity among the workingmen, and strikes were organized in many cities simultaneously to obtain the ten hour system. The bosses, and manufacturers combined against it. It was fruitless or nearly so. Seth Luther, of Rhode Island, Dr. Douglas of Connecticut, and ex-Rev. Jacob Frieze were among the leading spirits of the movement[1]. The establishment in which I worked, of its own motion, after the strike had failed, extended the hour of dinner from three quarters to one hour, and reduced the length of the day in summer to seven o'clock instead of sunset. Some other trades adopted eleven hours. I felt thus early a deep interest in the labor question, and my sympathies were enlisted upon the side of the workers. The question of manhood suffrage was also connected with the movement in Rhode Island. At that time only owners of real estate, and their eldest sons were entitled to vote. This latter question continued to be agitated after the ten hour question was allowed to slumber, culminating in 1841 in the Dorr Rebellion. [11]

It was impossible that I should have failed to be stimulated by these occurrences, to the consideration of the nature of government, and the effect of legislation generally on the condition of the working people.

When scarcely in my teens, I had heard my school teacher explain the operation of the interest problem, and that it proceeded by geometrical progression, since by using the money paid as interest, and again investing it, it fulfilled the conditions of a duplicate ratio. I had learned enough of arithmetic to know what that meant, and was astounded to find that neither my teacher, nor any of the pupils had the least conception of its enormity and injustice. In thinking upon the subject of labor and capital at the period (of agitation) previously referred to, I imagined I had discovered the cause of the disadvantage in which the former stood to the latter; and seeing the stupendous power of wealth accumulated on the one hand, and the increasing dependence of the worker upon the other, thought the solution reached, and that it was only necessary to inaugurate a reform, to which all the force of morals, and of religion would be given, to redress the wrongs of labor, and give to all the just fruits of their toil. It seemed an easy thing to do to show the workingmen, and religious and moral people, that interest was derived from the profits which capital obtained from the production of labor, and that to remedy the ills of the toilers, it was only necessary to apply the principle of anti-usury so clearly maintained by the Bible, and by the old moralists, to settle the labor problem, and introduce the millennium, when "distributive justice should pervade the industrial World." After sixty years of endeavor, I have found how difficult it is to induce the respectably pious, and exemplary moral to think, much less act, on the lines of industrial reform. With youthful expectation, I began to talk to working men on the subject, but found none who could understand me. Their leaders told me, it would not do to introduce such subjects. I sought to enlist religious people in it, but with no better success. Clergymen who should have known better, and possibly did, told me that the Scripture denunciations against usury meant illegal, not lawful interest. It was quite ten years, before I found a single individual who expressed sympathy with my view, or would give serious consideration to the subject. [12]

[1] Seth Luther: author, orator, labor activist, supporter of Dorr, correspondent of G. H. Evans; Charles Douglas, of New London, another Evans cohort, land reformer, and publisher of several workingmen's papers; Jacob Frieze, Universalist minister, author of A Concise History, of the Efforts to Obtain an Extension of Suffrage in Rhode Island.