The Labor Question

Maria Sanford, who was a history professor at Swarthmore at the time, gave this address at the July 24, 1878, session of the Pennsylvania Teachers’ Association meeting.1 Given the topic, it’s notable that Sanford had previously also taught a Junior course on John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, possibly supplemented with lectures about American Whig economist Henry Carey.2

The burning of Pittsburgh’s Union Depot during the 1877 Great Railroad Strike

Labor issues were quite salient in 1878 Pennsylvania. An 1873 financial panic had precipitated a severe recession that struck railroads especially hard. With the growing importance to the economy of permanent wage labor, this downturn became America’s first experience of widespread unemployment.3 Workers’ reaction led to the country’s first major labor action, the 1877 Great Railroad Strike, which was contested with particular bitterness in Pennsylvania.4 Coming only a few years after the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, Americans feared the prospect of Marxist-inspired labor violence.

Sanford analyzes the situation, not as an economic question, but through her audience’s perspective as citizens and teachers. She frames the underlying dynamic as a centuries-long struggle between the privileged few and the mass of humanity, which America’s founders had hoped to overcome by giving all a share in government. Republican Rome, however, offers a lesson in how growing wealth inequality can lead the privileged abandon respect for labor and the cultivation of republican virtues in favor of the pursuit of greater wealth. She argues that America could suffer the same fate unless the founders’ principles are adapted to the new conditions, so long as the adaptation does not lead to anarchy and to equality at a degraded level. Sanford briefly addresses the rioting laborers, whom she sees as having followed a small number of agitators, before turning her attention to the wealthy. Although she won’t condemn wealth per se, she is strongly critical of those who disdain labor, pursue idle wealth, and perceive themselves as better than ordinary workers. This group represents a greater threat to American society and its republican government.

The Labor Question

I shall not attempt in this brief hour an exhaustive analysis of the question which may rightly be considered the most important one not only of our politics but of morals and of social life. It is a question demanding the profoundest thought, and the most careful study, not of statesmen alone, but of every citizen, and especially of those whose business it is to form the character, direct the thought and awaken the conscience of the rising generation. It is then in its relation to us as citizens and as teachers that I shall speak this morning of the Labor Question, desiring most of all to bring home to the heart a sense of its importance and of our personal responsibility concerning it. I but give my thought, hoping that in your minds it may awaken a better thought, and each speed on and on until a glorious work shall be accomplished.

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Lessons in Manners and Morals

Maria Sanford, who was a history professor at Swarthmore at the time, gave this address at the August 10, 1875, session of the Pennsylvania Teachers’ Association meeting.1 Whitney reports that she would frequently lecture on this topic at teachers’ institutes.2

Lessons in Manners and Morals

I do not need to prove by labored argument that good manners and good morals are valuable; the fact is conceded by all. Nor is it necessary to show that teaching morals and manners is part of the legitimate work of the school-room. This point has in theory long been admitted; it has been orthodox doctrine from the times of the fathers; and the skepticism of our own day, which has questioned all things and denied the most ancient traditions, has still recognized as sound the theory that children should be taught not only how to think but also how to live. Nor is it an obsolete doctrine, forgotten, crowded out by present, vital issues. The moral bearing of education is constantly kept before us; we are urged to educate the masses that they may make not wiser but better men and women; and the strong argument for compulsory education is the prevention of crime. Where we fail, is in the practical application of the doctrine we profess to believe.

We present the subject at our institutes, discuss it at our conventions, but there, alas! we leave it. Like the Civil Service Reform among the politicians, it is in the platform but not in the practice. 3Civil service reform was one of the major policy issues in the late 19th century. The period’s political contests were characterized by broad popular participation, encouraged, in part, by the hope of being awarded patronage positions, and financed by office-holders’ kickbacks to party bosses. I do not deny that some spasmodic attempts at moral culture are made by most of us, but I believe that we all follow too closely the example of the old minister who, firstly, took a text; secondly, departed from his text; and thirdly, kept away from it.

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