THE LABOR LEAGUE81
John Pope Hodnett, President of the Labor League, delivered the following Address at the Executive Mansion in the presence of the President, surrounded by white and colored delegations, and by the officers of the Executive Mansion.
MR. PRESIDENT: In a country like ours men are likely to forget the main object for which governments are created, and after a long continuance of power in their hands to abuse and distort the power given them from its proper channels, and generally become oppressors instead of benefactors of the people from whom all power springs,—for the people are the law making power of this Country, and all power springs from them.
This delegation of the Labor League is a representative body of white and colored working men, of all races and creeds, who call to pay their respects to the President of their Country. They want no offices, they have no axes to grind,—they are here for other and for nobler purposes. They come to strengthen your hands in the good work of reformation, and to ask you to aid them in developing the great natural resources of our infant republic. At present the industrial elements of our republic are unemployed, and the once busy hum of mechanical and laboring industry which was so long heard in our flourishing cities is now hushed, and the avalanche of American pauperism created by the enforced idleness of millions of American working men takes the place of industry, frugality, wealth, and personal independence!
A nation like ours, constituted and built up by labor, upon which all the elements of success revolved, and upon which the business and the capital of the country depends, cannot sustain itself without the employment of the masses, who are in reality its only wealth, to develop its unlimited resources. We are not like any one of the European countries where the soil has been utilized until the very marrow has been withdrawn therefrom. On the contrary, our virgin soil has not yet been wedded to universal husbandry, and generations yet unborn will flourish on its generous bosom ere decay sets in such as that which works King ridden Europe. Too much stress cannot be laid upon the present misery, the present want, the present starvation—a new word in American homes—of American working men, and the man, or the President who solves the problem of labor by opening up national improvements to employ the unemployed of his country will go down to history as the next benefactor of labor to Abraham Lincoln who emancipated four millions of laborers in the south, and called a new nation into existence. For the first time, Mr. President, in the history of the republic the working men recognize the fact that neither color nor creed protects them from the heavy hands of injustice; that the public corruptionists, the organized monopolists, the public officials who betray all alike, white and black, native and naturalized; and feeling and knowing these things we have clasped hands for mutual protection and proclaim to you that we have been plundered and pauperised by profligate corporations and corrupt public servants. We look to you for the restoration of public honor and public virtue. By vice and corruption labor becomes degraded and pauperised. By public virtue and public honor alone can the nation flourish and labor prosper. When we consider how much a President of the United States can do for his fellow men we are not saying too much in calling you in the language of the Indian “Our Great Father,” for if ever there was a man who has had a chance to be a “Great Father” to his people beyond all controversial historical events you are that man, and you can only become a “Great Father,” a great benefactor to your countrymen, by aiding the laboring classes of the United States out of their present enforced idleness and involuntary pauperism. Labor is the source of all wealth, of all power, and of all greatness. Labor commences at the birth of man, and ends only when the earth closes over his coffin. Before this country was settled by the white man the Indian held it, and for want of labor what a barren wilderness the Pilgrim fathers found it! Look at it today—what a contrast it presents! And let me ask, what made it the present paradise it is? I answer, “Labor!” And now the creator of this republic is to be destroyed by the despotic hand of monopolizing the capital! But, Mr. President, if the creator is to be destroyed then the creator’s work, the republic itself, must also fall! Napoleon the First created the empire of France; it was his own conception; it was his own idea. The despotism of Europe vanished before his genius as the wilderness does before the sublimer genius of Labor! When Napoleon fell, France—his France—also fell! So it will be with this country. As labor was its creator so it is its strength and freedom, and when labor falls the republic must fall with it, for it created the republic, and under its fostering care it has flourished for one hundred years, and by its prosperity and protection can the republic also prosper, and the arts and sciences abound.
The greatest rulers of nations were those who, regardless of consequences protected the industries and subserved the rights of the people, which are only the rights of labor. What does the soft, silk-fisted banker do for this country? Point to me a canal he has built; point to me the steam boat, or the machine he has created or invented.
On the contrary he produces nothing, invents nothing, and, if left to himself without the aid of labor would actually starve. Labor therefore is the creator of all capital, and all capital that does not subserve itself to labor is a curse to the country, and becomes a means in the hands of designing men to enslave the people who created it.
We read in history that Queen Mary had her regular hours of labor, and had one of her maids of honor read history to her while she labored with her needle; and our own Washington and his lady are examples of industry and painstaking labor for all American households to copy from. Judson says, “labor also induces men to be better citizens. Idleness leads to vice and crime. Indolence is no part of ethics or theology, nor is it recommended by pagan or Christian philosophy, by experience or common sense. Man was made for action.”
“Noble, sublime, and god-like action. Let him see well to it that he does not thwart the design of his creator, and plunge headlong into an abyss of misery and woe.”
Jefferson says, “sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others, or have we found angels in the form of Kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.” And he also says in closing his inaugural address (and I think it would be well for all presidents to study this profoundest of all American statesmen, who is the only man in America erudition who stands side by side with the great Commoner, Edmund Burke) still one more thing, fellow citizens, a wise and frugal government, which will restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of Labor the bread it has earned!”
The men by whom you are now surrounded represent in themselves and their associates those who have been robbed by the contractors of the Board of Public Works of this District, and laborers are today starving in our Capital while this District owes them over $15,000 for labor performed! Thus unpaid labor to which all the avenues and streets are indebted for their present appearance and cleanliness, and without whose sweat and toil they would have remained in the same rude state that major L’Enfant left them in the days of Washington.
There are now 20,000 men in this District out of employment, in a state of utter destitution, half clad, half fed, and forced, in many cases, into unwilling mendicancy for want of work to sustain life. We ask you in the name of God! in the name of American Centennial Independence! to embody in your message to Congress a recommendation for the payment in full of all the demands of the laborers of this District on the government, an adequate appropriation to carry on the improvements, and enable the 20,000 men who are now idle to follow honest avocations by the sweat of their brows, and make this City the first Capital of the world to show to the Kingly despotism of Europe that a free people can also excel in magnificence, and that the Capital of their country can be mentioned by travelers as the most picturesque and the most elegant city of the civilized world, as it was intended by Washington its founder it should be. This District presents an anomaly. It is the seat of government of the United States. It is the source from whence the laws emanate, and yet its citizens have no political rights! No suffrage! The people here are the mere serfs of a few masters placed over them without their consent, and in fact, here at Washington we live under a little despotism formerly unknown to American institutions. There are today no Kingly governments that would dare deprive the people of the capital cities of the natural right of suffrage, still we are deprived of that right in the 19th Century—one hundred years after we won our independence! This, Mr. President, is something you should call the attention of Congress to, and not allow the District to remain without its legal liberty any longer! This District of ten miles square is the only black spot upon the sun of American liberty. And it is a disgrace to the American republic to have two hundred thousand slaves at its Capital City, and all its other cities free as the wind. Do this and all mankind will celebrate your advent to the Presidency, and the people of Washington, and of the whole Country shall call your name holy for all time to come.
I, also in behalf of the whole mass of American white and colored Workingmen, ask you to embody in your message to Congress a request, asking them to pass such measures as shall inaugurate a system of public improvements throughout the whole country, such a system as will benefit the country as well as adequately employ and compensate the now unwillingly-idle millions of American mechanics and laborers, and also for the imposition of such a tariff on foreign imported articles as will protect our infant manufacturing industry against the unremunerated pauper labor of Europe.
I am requested by the Central Council of the Labor League to convey to you their thanks and congratulations upon your prompt withdrawal of the military from the legislative precincts of the conquered states. Instead of blows, insults and curses let us extend the hand of American brotherhood to the erring children of the South who have wandered away from the teachings of their fathers, and who can only be brought back to their first love by the wooings of affection, and the teachings of “meek eyed peace” so ably demonstrated in your recent master stroke of policy. Verily may it be said, Washington founded, Jefferson educated, Jackson defended, Lincon emancipated, Grant conquered, but Hayes united and saved the whole Union!
Your idea of an independent Cabinet, rising above party, which at most is only the representation of one section of the country, carries out practically the idea of Washington who said in his farewell address:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual, and sooner or later, the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than competitors, turns this despotism to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.” Therefore, Mr. President, we extend to you the honest hand of labor and bid you God speed on your mission of peace. Workingmen in this country want no war, for should war come they, and they alone, would be the sufferers; they, and they alone, would do the fighting; they, and they alone, would be the slave on both sides. What workingmen want is work. What the American people want is an honest administration, and a president like Jackson who will protect their interests against the encroachment and power of capital. God has now given you the power to be that man if you will it yourself, for “where there’s a will there’s a way.” In you today are concentrated the hopes of the whole millions of American workingmen, and I may add the hopes of mankind, for this country is the harbor of the oppressed, and a beacon to struggling nations for freedom throughout the globe. The president who saves the country from the grave dug for it by encroaching monopolists will go down to history by the side of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, and the man who has the chance and does not avail himself of it may only be remembered for what he could but would not do. May God serve your hand for the right! May God strengthen you against the enemies of the American people! May God, who has placed the helm of the ship of State in your hands, guard you from the rocks and invisible dangers ahead, and hedge you about with honest, god-fearing men! May you perpetuate in living example the model President of Washington’s republic, and all mankind gazing upon our unrivalled greatness in the arts and sciences, and modern freedom shall chant the inspiring words of Berkeley:
“Westward the course of Empire takes its way:
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day:
Times’ noblest offspring is the last.”
Washington, March 26th, 1877.
Rutherford B. Hayes Papers,
Rutherford B. Hayes Library,