Wrongs That Working People Suffer
June 6, 1872 — Ratification meeting of the Equal Rights Party, Cooper Institute, New York
It is an unusual — I may, perhaps, say, an unprecedented — thing for a person bearing a nomination for the highest office in the gift of the people, to appear before them as an advocate of the cause represented by such nomination. But the movement which the Equal Rights party has inaugurated is itself also unprecedented; and this fact is sufficient apology, if, indeed, apology be needed at all, for my appearance before you to-night. besides, as you well know, I am not much given to the habit of conforming to conventionalities. In fact, if there be one thing that I hold more lightly in esteem than any other, it is the doing, or the refraining from doing, anything, simply because it is in accordance with an established custom so to do. The greater question with me is, is it right, and if the answer be in the affirmative, or the negative, it is the final arbitrator. The grand effort which is about to be put forth in the interest of humanity, demands the best and most self-sacrificing devotion of every living soul which can feel and appreciate its great need; and to promote such a cause I am willing to depart widely, if it need be, from the well-beaten track of all my predecessors and contemporaries, and stand boldly before you, advocating the cause which is equally dear to all our hearts, and urging upon you all to lose no opportunity to help on the glorious work.
But what is this work? What is humanity suffering, from which it needs to be redeemed?
I do not know that it can be more succinctly, and at the same time, so comprehensively set forth, as it has been done in the platform constructed by the People’s Convention in Apollo Hall, on the 10th of May. It is true, however, that this platform relates more specifically to methods than to the reasons for them, or to the results to be gained by them. Therefore, we ought perhaps to inquire into the diseases by which we are afflicted; and also into the conditions to which our methods look forward. The theory of our government justifies the position that every human being is in the eyes of the theory, equal in life. Admitting this, there is no escaping the fact, that the uses of government would be to foster, protect and promote the possession of equality. How does the condition of society reply to this standard for government? Is there anything that even approaches to equality in any of the various phases of life? I unhesitatingly answer, no! Look where we may, to whatever class of people or condition, and in place of equality , we find the greatest, gravest, aye, the most terrible distinctions, existing in every thing with which law has ought to do. Everything is made to turn upon the rights of property, and nothing upon the rights of humanity.
The monarch was once the point around which all legislation evolved. In this country, this has been so far changed, that, for the man king, is substituted the king, capital; while we all remember that, not many years ago, cotton, through slavery, was king. But we also remember that this king was dethroned, and the throne itself washed away by a torrent of human blood. But behind the place where its gaunt form stood, stands another, now revealed by its destruction, with still more subtle grasp upon the vital life of this country, and that king is wealth. To its demands the entire industry of the country is compelled to pay tribute; to its decrees, every industrial knee is compelled to bow; at its beck and nod, every busy hand stays its task and trembles lest its task shall be completed. This king, though so newly installed, already thinks itself so firmly seated upon the throne, that it even goes to the length of ignoring all law, which the politicians enacted, by which to catch the votes of the laborers.
The Legislature of the State of New York, on the 20th day of May, 1870, passed the following law:
“Section 1. On and after the passage of this act, eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work, for all classes of mechanics, workingmen and laborers, excepting those engaged in farm and domestic labor; but overwork, for an extra compensation, by agreement between employer and employee, is hereby permitted.”
Now this stands to-day the law in this State. But are its decrees respected by king wealth? But this, even, is not all the law held in contempt. The Congress of the United States passed a law similar in its provisions to this one of this State. Nothing, however, is sufficiently authoritative to commend itself to this despot that is attempting to ride rough shod over every right of the workingmen, which interferes with the immense revenues it is accustomed to toll from them.
But this superiority to law is even surpassed in insolence by the bravado with which it is assumed that you, and not it, are the law breakers and defiers. When workingmen come together and jointly agree to demand that the law shall be respected, in their behalf, this presuming tyrant prates to you in the most approved style of hypocritical cant, of your obligations as peaceable, law-abiding citizens.
When I consider what the working people of this country have endured, I am lost in wonder and astonishment at their patience and forbearance; not that they have simply remained thus patient and forbearing, but that they have not long since risen in their sovereign might, to do and redress their own wrong in the most summary and thorough manner. But has their forbearance earned them any consideration? No! but on the contrary it has encouraged the despot to attempt still greater demands, to make still more extensive exactions year after year. If he wants more rent, larger profits, greater discounts, more mortgages, more costly residences, more sumptuous equipages, more servants to answer its call, in a word, more of every thing that by your labor you can furnish them, for you do furnish and pay for them all in the end; and this fact should be borne more in mind when this despot is to be approached by you.
You should know that instead of this power being your master, it should be your servant. Since all it is it owes to you. Let this fact permeate every thought of your souls, and never again permit yourselves to approach this king with doffed hats or upon bended knee. I would have every workman or workwoman feel that he or she is equal in all respects to any wealthy person who lives upon the alms of industry; upon which every one who does not labor does live. Such are in no wise a whit better than your meanest paupers.
But to return to the demands of labor. In this city there have been perhaps, as many as fifty thousand men upon strike, to compel the enforcement of the law which I have quoted. Some trades have succeeded, others have not as yet; while others still are being caught by compromises. Now, I say, if it is right to compromise, it is wrong to strike. They who having struck in consent with the general movement, compromise without the consent of the movement are traitors, just as much traitors as if they had sold themselves to the enemy upon the eve of a great battle. It is the right of those who do not wish to strike, to remain quietly at their work, and no man has any right forcibly to interfere with them; but a deserter is not entitled to any consideration.
But this King offers compromises to be accepted in lieu of full justice. When the law says a pound of flesh and not a drop of blood, it wants to take a portion of blood; when the law says, eight hours, it proffers you nine hours. Do you know, that in admitting the nine hours, where it has until now exacted ten, it admits the justice of all that is claimed. If it be not right for the King to exact ten hours, when the bond provides but eight, how can it be just to attempt to reply to this, but I trust their logic may fall upon already convinced ears.
I know all the hardships it may be necessary for some to endure. I know how cruel it is to see those dependent upon the weekly wages for the comforts of life, deprived of them. But we should remember that unless we have the courage to endure even to death, we are not worthy to county ourselves the sones and daughters of the men and women, who barefooted trod the wintry roads of Valley Forge, blood marking their way. It would have been easy for those heroes of the revolution to have sold themselves for British gold and thereby obtained relief: it is easy now for you to sell ourselves for the gold of this King. But had they sold out, or deserted to their foe, you, of to-day, would not have had even the blessings you now enjoy. Even so it is with you. If you do not now show the same determined devotion to freedom and justice, you will not be able to bequeath to your children that for which they will look back to you as now we look back to our fathers. Stand firm, then, in your demands. Yield not a single inch: and even [if] it require you to walk the streets of this opulent city without shows, remember that you but imitate your noble, your valiant fathers; and that as they by their steadfastness won their causes, so also will you, by similar steadfastness win your cause.
I would not be understood as advocating violence to gain your ends. I would have every conceivable method tried, and proven a failure before resorting to the final one. I would have every laborer in the country demand that eight hours would constitute a day’s work, and stick to the demand, until this proud king is willing to do them justice. But if, after doing everything, you still fail to compel it to respect the law, why then, take the execution of it into your own hands: and such being your right may also become even your duty.
But for a moment, laying aside this part of the subject, permit me to tell you that for all the wrongs that working people suffer, they are themselves chiefly at fault. You should not lay all the blame upon the shoulders of this king. It is all your own work. You have created this king, placed it upon the throne, and more even than that, it is you who maintain the throne. Every year at every election you vote that this king shall continue to rule over you; shall continue to rule over you; shall continue to euchre you out of all you earn. It was, as it were, but yesterday, when you showed “Long live this king!” — and to-morrow you will again resume the old cry; to-morrow you will march to the polls and cast your votes as this king commands, and the next day again cry out against his despotism.
In this city there are one hundred and twenty-five thousand workingmen’s votes; but is there a workingmen sent to Albany? or to Washington? No; you have set the satellites of this king up and down there; who; after getting there, turn upon and laugh at your foolishness. You may not like these things; they may not be palatable, but nevertheless they are true, and if they are bitter pills, it would do you good to swallow them and permit them to cleanse your system of this capacity for truckling to this king.
To-day you cry “down with this king!” I advise you upon the next election day to not only utter the same cry, but to also by your votes re-echo it until its resoundings shall shake the throne upon which it sits. But I desire to call your attention to a fact of which perhaps you have not seriously thought. Who, let me ask you, have produced all the wealth which this country possesses? Have they who hold and al lit theirs? You know better than that. You know that all our Vanderbilts, Stewarts and Astors have neve earned as much as the weakest man among you. Have they, then, an equitable title to what they possess?
I will admit, if it please them, that it is possible they may have a legal title, though there may be good reason to question even that; but an equitable title, never! The wealth that these persons hold, in equity, belongs to those who produced it. Who has done this? Why, the people have done it, and it belongs to the people, and to them, in good time, it must be surrendered. All these people know all this, and the wiser of them are forestalling public judgment by expending large sums in investments made in the interests of these so-called lower classes. They also are aware that the time is near at hand when their accumulations will be taxed out of their hands. If a person owning ten thousand dollars in property, which he produced, is taxed on per cent., Mr. Stewart, who has his half a hundred millions, must be taxed, says, twenty-five per cent — under such a system how long would his wealth last? But it is not the Stewarts alone, nor chiefly, who rob the industries. They may take their thousands of dollars annually, but there is another class which takes its millions. I mean the bondholders. For the twenty-five hundred million dollars that they people are said to owe this class, it is demanded, that there shall in interest and principal, be returned nearly five thousand millions. Now how do we propose to escape this extortion? In this way: The people owe this debt in interest-bearing bonds; these they propose to pay at once in National currency, and thus stop the yearly drain upon the producing classes of one hundred and fifty million dollars. Will this do one any injustice? No! The money lenders will have received the face of their loan; while the people will have transformed an interest bearing debt into a non interest bearing debt; a redeemable indebtedness into a permanent circulating medium, which the faith and credit of the people will always make current. Thus, at one stroke, will the gold and interest despots be forever dethroned.
These are but portions of the work that the people must perform, before there will be any such thing as industrial equity possible; but they are important portions. Now the question arises, what will the people do to help this their redemption along, toward consummation? We all know that all political movements require a money support. This one, looking to Equal rights for the people cannot expect, especially in its early stage, any aid from wealth. This will not come until it shall be a necessity for wealth to enlist in the cause to save itself; that time will come; but until it does come, the movement must look to those, in the direct interest of whom it is inaugurated. Is the end to be gained worthy of this support? For years those of you who are now called upon have given up your all, in the demand made by the means of the systems that this movement will overturn. When this is accomplished, the millions are paid into the roads of Wealth, will remain in the pockets of industrial people; and instead of there being the very rich few and the very poor many, all will be rich enough to have all the comforts that wealth and enjoyment demand. I say, that to attain to such a condition should enlist the aid of every laborer in this country; and I further add that if the industrial classes come to the support of this movement in the manner it deserves to be supported, the entire revolution can be peaceably accomplished by the next election; and I know they will come to its support. I know that the true policy of their redemption has been felt in many a heart, and spreading from these, all the noble hearts in the country, which have been borne down by toil, will catch up the glad inspiration, and, bearing it along its path as it proceeds, shall grow broader and wider, until it shall have swept over the whole land; and when its course shall have been ended, not so much as a single arbitrary inequality, not a single injustice, shall be left in power to prey upon the laboring masses.
Source: Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, June 22, 1872.
Also: Selected Writings of Victoria Woodhull: Suffrage, Free Love, and Eugenics, ed. Cari M. Carpenter (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press) 2010, pp. 90-97.