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Working Life

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Laws shaped working life in America from the Revolution until the eve of the Civil War in many ways. Several events occurred both during and after the American Revolution that changed society in the new world, including; the Stamp Act and the Declaration of Independence. In order to successfully view the changes between the Revolution and the Civil War, one must understand the culture over this lengthy period of time.

The American Revolution began in 1763 and ended in 1783. Throughout this time the British was attempting to impose taxes on the American colonies, forcing them to trade with and pay taxes to the British Empire. This tax was later referred to as the "Stamp Act". The colonies fought to maintain their independence through movements such as the Boston Tea Party. When Britain placed a tax on tea that was being imported in Boston, Boston dumped the tea. The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was a war of independence for the colonies from Great Britain. After a year of being at war, the Declaration of Independence (1776) was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, which would allow the colonies to break free of the terms of the British and become its own union. By separating from England, this allowed the colonies to become self sufficient in their workforce, laws and taxes. This process also allowed the money collected in taxes to stay within the country.

Immediately following the end of the American Revolutionary War, unskilled workers began looking for work. Many of these workers had fought in the war, and had not become skilled in their trades. Unskilled workers were paid at a much lower rate than skilled workers. "While John Jay complained bitterly in 1784 of 'the wages of mechanics and labourers, which are very extravagant,' the pay for unskilled workers hardly ever exceeded fifteen shillings a week- barely subsistence level." (Dubofsky & Dulles, pg. 18). Skilled workers began to form into separate societies, to allow for collective bargaining amongst the skills of the respective trades, showing the beginning of the labor force migrating to unions for certain benefits. "Almost every important trade in such cities as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston had such a society by the 1790s, and in some instances there were organizations of broader scope- the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in New York, the Associate of Mechanics of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the Albany Mechanics' Society." (Dubofsky & Dulles, pg. 22). These various groups allowed skilled workers to demand higher rates and other compensations in the various cities.

Over the next 40 years, unskilled laborers were able to demand higher wages from companies that could not pay rates for the skilled labor. Seasonal laborers were in high demand and often earned more than unskilled laborers. These differences in pay resulted from seasonal workers being part-time. Once the work was complete the company easily let the workers move on to their next job with another company. Unskilled laborers wanted more permanency which would require the company to present them with a new position once the work was complete. "Although wage rates rose for journeymen and unskilled laborers between 1790 and 1830, seasonal and intermittent unemployment undercut these gains." (Stansell, pg. 6). Several companies started advertising for skilled workers in competing cities in order to attract growth. Often these advertisements would include promises of additional compensation, in addition to money. This was beneficial to the companies as well as the cities themselves, as they were brining more people into the area to help boost the economy. The workers were able to gain higher wages in some cases as well as the ability to relocate or travel to see to the needs of their family. "The contractors building the City Hall in New York in 1803 were forced to advertise for stonecutters in the papers of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston, and to promise high wages, repair of all tools, and to assure that, although there was yellow fever in other parts of the city, the workingmen need have no fear of it." (Dubofsky & Dulles, pg. 25). Although many cities had advertised in neighboring cities, New York was among the most successful in this advertising method. "By 1820, New York had become a center of capitalist development, a staging ground for the great transformations of the industrial wage system." (Stansell, pg. 4). This proved to be a major turning point for the city in terms of growth and economy. New York was able to set the stage for population and class growth that would follow through to the rest of the country.

Women searched for various roles after the American Revolution as well. Many women who lost their spouses during the war or women whose spouses had left them searched for work in various forms. "Thus the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows (SRPW), the earliest female charity in the city, agreed to loan five dollars to a Mrs. McLeod 'to assist her in setting up a little shop.' In 1804, however, with an eye sharpened toward improving as well as relieving the poor, the society's ladies resolved to withhold their help from any widow who was found vending liquor." (Stansell, pg. 14). The SRPW, although a relief group, had strict rules for whom they chose to help. This was beneficial to the women who were able to receive the help and assistance. This proved to be one of the major turning points for women in the work



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