Political Science Quarterly, Vol. LII, 407-420.


Joseph Schafer
The State Historical Society of Wisconsin

In June 1935, the Political Science Quarterly published the first of two articles by Carter Goodrich and Sol Davison on the theme " The Wage-Earner in the Westward Movement", the second article appearing in March 1936. In presenting their findings the authors refer to their conclusions as "tentative" and profess merely to believe that no "significant number of American wage-earners did in fact escape as individuals' -- or in organized groups -- ' to lands that [were] free.' " They also concede that "the abundance of western land drew away many thousands of potential wage-earners who might otherwise have crowded into the factories 'from the hill towns of New England' and 'from the exhausted farms of New York and Pennsylvania' ", and they comment: "Though here the 'safety valve' was the farmer's rather than the worker's, we need not doubt that its operation tended to hold up the level of industrial wages." In short, so restrained appear the pronouncements of these writers that their readers are authorized to hold fast to all aspects of the safety-valve theory save that single feature which assumes that free or cheap lands in the West constituted a city-of-refuge for industrial laborers of the eastern cities.1

Goodrich and Davison, however, obviously believe that their research is conclusive on that one point. They "cannot . . . accept the safety-valve doctrine in the direct and literal form in which it has been stated by Turner and his followers", which "seems to have had no basis more substantial than the political debates over the homestead acts and the hopes and aspirations of Greeley and Evans, and can hardly be maintained unless new and concrete evidence is brought forward to its support." (My italics)

The gentlemen are to be commended for the judicial tone they maintain throughout the articles, though serious doubts must be entertained about the validity of their methodology. This, in a word, is an attempt to prove a negative by means of negative testimony, employing mainly the argumentum ex silentio always in logic a dangerous expedient.

They concede that the popular belief of statesmen, politicians, philosophers, editors and the general public favored the validity of the safety-valve theory in its fullest extension. They also admit that all or nearly all historians have been of the same opinion. They even quote such outstanding land and labor specialists as Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Karl Marx on the same side of the question. But all this positive testimony they firmly set aside as illusory when the newspapers are found to be silent on the subject of the migration of workers to the West and the few records of colonizing movements studied are also indecisive.

The authors, indeed, profess to have used material held by a number of the state historical societies in the West, mentioning those of "Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oregon, California" and Missouri. But so far as their footnotes reveal them, the only manuscript sources canvassed were one in Minnesota containing the testimony of a single individual, E. M. Drew, to the inefficiency as colonists of "mechanics", certain records in Kansas relating to the emigrant aid colonists from the East, and papers on the founding of Greeley, Colorado.

It is not my purpose to traverse in detail the course of the investigation Goodrich and Davison describe, though it would be pertinent to call attention to several notable omissions from their roll of adherents to the safety-valve theory. It is strange to find a study covering so much ground in the form of quotations from early and recent proponents of the doctrine which makes no mention of Benjamin Franklin. For where is there a clearer statement of the theory than that which Franklin predicated on his own observation in Pennsylvania and the other colonies?

In his "Observations on the Peopling of Countries", written at Philadelphia in 1751, Franklin says:

"So vast is the territory of North America that it will require many ages to settle it fully; and till it is fully settled labor will never be cheap here where no man continues long a laborer for others but gets a plantation of his own, no man continues long a journeyman to a trade but goes among these new settlers and sets up for himself, etc. Hence labor is no cheaper now in Pennsylvania than it was thirty years ago, though so many thousand laboring people have been imported."2

Franklin also saw, what Turner elucidated in our own day, that the American colonies were a "frontier" for Europe; that the cheap lands overseas maintained the level of laborers' wages in England on a higher plane than in continental Europe. "This salutary effect", says Franklin,

"will be produced even without emigration, and will result from the mere possibility of emigration. . . . But the rise of wages will not be equally felt by the different countries of Europe. It will be more or less considerable in proportion to the greater or less facility for emigration which each affords." 3

The above was written after the French and Indian War but prior to the Revolution. The venerable philosopher returned to the same subject again and again, significantly in a discussion of who should emigrate to America, which can be dated after the completion of the Articles of Confederation, probably 1783-1785. Europeans need not look to the confederation government to foster manufactures with bounties, etc. Nor, in general, can such favors be expected from the separate states. Where tried the results have usually been disappointing, "labor being generally too dear there, and hands difficult to be kept together, everyone desiring to be a master, and the cheapness of lands inclining many to leave trades for agriculture."4

In the same article Franklin says, that since

the propriety of an hundred acres of fertile soil, full of wood, may be obtained near the frontiers in many places for eight to ten guinies [sic], hearty young laboring men, who understand the husbandry of corn and cattle, which is nearly the same in that country as in Europe, may easily establish themselves there. A little money saved of the good wages they receive there, while they work for others, enables them to buy the land and begin their plantation in which they are assisted by the good will of their neighbors, and some credit. Multitudes of poor people from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany have, by this means in a few years become wealthy farmers who, in their own countries, where all the lands are fully settled and the wages low, could never have emerged from the poor condition wherein they were born.

This shows how Franklin's economic theory grew directly out of his observation of the course of social development in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in America.

And, if Franklin's observations, for lack of space or other reasons, had to be ignored, and if Jefferson's expressed conviction that imported handicraftsmen would "after a while go to the plow and the hoe" seemed too insignificant to mention, how can a scholar who deals with fundamental documents of American economic and social history pass over Hamilton's Report on Manufactures? That remarkable exposition of the country's opportunity to diversify and increase its productions recognized the primacy of agriculture and pointed out means of supplementing farm production with a variety of manufactures for which the country was suited and for which necessary labor could be found without drawing it away from the farms. Hamilton had the idea that a vast unused labor source resided in the women and children, a conception which is less popular in our own day than it was in 1790. He believed also that the labor of adult males was only partly utilized in farming operations which in winter were so largely suspended. He evidently wanted to expand winter industrial activities and utilize farm labor therein.

But the great secretary envisioned also another source of labor supply independent of the farms and the women and children. He writes:

The desire of being an independent proprietor of land is founded on such strong principles in the human breast, that where the opportunity of becoming so is as great as it is in the United States, the proportion will be small of those whose situations would otherwise lead to it, who would be diverted from it to manufactures. And it is highly probable . . . that the accessions of foreigners who, originally drawn over by manufacturing views, would afterwards abandon them for agricultural, would be more than an equivalent for those of our citizens who might happen to be detached from them.

Implicit in this statement is the full round of concepts that enter into the safety-valve theory. Hamilton assumes that land will generally outbid in attractiveness other wealth-producing opportunities, and that therefore special inducements will have to be provided in order to toll a reasonable proportion of the laboring classes into industry. The tariff for protection would enable American manufacturers to add extraordinarily high wages to cheap food as inducements to foreign labor to come over to this country to seek employment. These, together with Americans who were still at loose ends, the surplus help from the farms, and a heavy draft upon woman and child labor could equip a large number of special industries. Cheap land would not only provide an outlet for those native laborers who from time to time should become able to take advantage of it, but it would act as a magnet to draw to our shores the foreign workmen whom he expected to attract into industry in the first instance but who would ultimately, as Jefferson put it, " go to the plow and the hoe."

Without stopping to inquire if Hamilton's expectations as to the influx of foreign laborers were realized, and on this point Pennsylvania and federal statistics of immigration furnish conclusive evidence, let us see if Goodrich and Davison's challenging demand for "concrete evidence" in support of the safety-value theory can be met.

Admittedly, the case cannot be settled by an appeal to the newspapers, either those in the industrial cities or those on the frontier. Newspaper editors had certain ranges of news interest which obviously excluded the quiet removal or the silent infiltration of individual laborers, and -- as these writers have discovered -- large social movements involving the transfer of considerable numbers at a given time, which might have been news, were exceedingly rare. The normal case of migration westward from eastern cities, as also of the transfer to America from European centers of emigration, was doubtless the movement of single individuals or families, or of two or three related or friendly units. A canvass of numerous instances of arrivals in Wisconsin is the basis for this generalization. Directed emigrations, of course, constitute an exception to the rule and such there were, both from the East and from Europe. Almost every community, sixty years ago, had in it clusters of families who were connected by ties of blood or of propinquity. Landsleute from Germany, fellow citizens from Maine or Vermont, were apt to stick together, unless they knew too much evil of one another. But it was rare that they had entered their western community at the same time and in the same company. One would pioneer the way; his letters drew another; the two drew a third, a fourth, a fifth, a tenth, or, as in the case of one of the Illinois counties, a hundredth, all from the same neighborhood -- in that case a single county of Maryland.

Wisconsin had a number of farm settlements begun by foreigners who came under planned and directed movements. There was the Dane county English colony, recruited from Liverpool mill hands, the Racine county English settlement started by mill hands from South Crossland, the Columbia and Marquette county English settlement made originally by unemployed potters from Staffordshire, the southwestern Wisconsin English settlements (several of them) made up almost entirely of miners from Cornwall and Cumberland. Irish settlements, a sprinkling of them, were seemingly accidental but, in fact, resulted from the employment of numbers of Irish on construction projects, especially the building of railways, and their seizing the opportunity to use earned wages in taking up near-by land and becoming farmers. One of the best examples of planned colonization in Wisconsin is the community of poor people sent over by Canton Glarus of Switzerland in 1845 and called New Glarus. But there were also Dutch colonies, Belgian colonies, Luxembourger colonies, Bohemian, Polish and Italian colonies. Welsh, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish colonies also appear on Wisconsin's social map, and there was a colony of Icelanders!

From the East, Wisconsin drew the founders of Kenosha, the founders of Beloit and groups of settlers in other "Yankee" towns; from Missouri, Kentucky and southern Illinois came the bulk of the earliest lead miners to southwest Wisconsin, not, however, in groups but as individuals. The Germans who poured into the state at a great rate beginning as early as 1844 (though some had arrived earlier, the pioneer company coming as a religious community) generally, as indicated above, arrived either singly or by twos or threes. Nevertheless, they formed many colonies through the impulse of gregariousness, accretions taking place wherever beginnings had once been made.

The question for us to settle, if possible, is what proportion of the farming settlers in a western state like Wisconsin can fairly be classed as wage-earners. Of course, a preliminary inquiry is concerned with the definition of wage-earner. The writers whom we are following have nowhere clarified that point. Obviously desiring to limit the designation to factory workers, to exclude independent craftsmen and to ignore those who earn wages in rural employments, they concede on occasion that the designation covers craftsmen who may be earning wages.

It is true that the craftsman's status varies greatly under varying circumstances. On the one hand, he contributes the skilled labor, for hire, on which the success of practically every manufacturing enterprise depends. On the other hand, as a blacksmith he may become the head of an independent and profitable machine shop, as a tailor he may rise from his settle to be a merchant manufacturer, as a shoemaker develop -- with the aid of apprentices and journeymen -- a prosperous community trade; the exceptional carpenter hopes to become a master builder conducting a contract business, and so on. But all of these craftsmen were once merely wage-earning skilled workers, and though many of them may have gone "to the plow and the hoe" from their own personal shops instead of from a master's employ, that after all would represent a stage on the road from wage-earner to farmer. In fact, probably a majority of the craftsmen who worked on their own in western villages, towns and rural neighborhoods did so because they preferred to be independent, not because they could earn more than by working steadily for a master at a stated wage. There seems to be no good reason, except in extraordinary cases, to exclude such persons from the wage-earning category.

When Charles Fenno Hoffman tells us that the keen and vivid frontier farmer he met near the Illinois river on his western tour had been, a few years earlier, "a pale mechanic" in New York City; when the successful Scotch farmer encountered by James Stuart near Jacksonville, Illinois, about the same time is described as an Edinburgh craftsman, who had worked many years at his trade in New York City until a depression cut off the supply of work, may we not claim those men as wage-earners who turned to farming? That seems justifiable, especially since we are assured, by these foreign observers, agreeing with Franklin a century earlier, that "every industrious and sober character" can have "the means of purchasing a good estate with the accumulated savings of three years service"; and since we are also assured that "when competition depresses wages, operatives commence farming."

Farm labor in America has been of diverse origin. Without stressing the indentured element, which might be anything from a London waif to a highly trained craftsman, a merchant, or even a "gentleman" fallen upon evil times, we may regard farm labor generally as the most accessible means of getting a start in life just as land was the chosen opportunity to develop a property. It is significant -- indeed, fateful -- that America has not yet developed a class of farm laborers. During the period when the West was being settled men of every social description and previous occupation who wanted to earn a little money and who felt strong enough to tackle farm work hired out unhesitatingly to labor in the fields alongside of the owners of the farms.

The farm "hired hand" was both apprentice and budding capitalist. His purpose in probably nine out of ten cases was to become himself the owner of a farm, a simple process in the period of the open frontier. Two or three years' savings enabled the young hired man to marry and rent a farm to work on shares, and renting led either to a purchase near-by or to a good start farther west. This was the career of social and economic honors made successfully by so many thousands of our rural fellow citizens that "judicial notice" of the process should be taken by historians.

Let no one deceive himself into thinking that factory workers did not become farmers in the manner here indicated. The fact is, any person who was seriously bent on securing an independent property and home, an ambition which was all but universal so long as the opportunity lasted, was willing to undergo the sanative fatigues and mild hardships involved in that process. Could we have a true picture of the movement of eastern industrial workers, it would doubtless bear a close resemblance to the corresponding movement of foreign immigrants. That, as described in 1847 by a German then residing near Chicago, was as follows: A large proportion of the German immigrants were stopping in the seaboard cities. That was true especially of craftsmen and unattached men who had no plan for going west. Many of the indigent stopped near the eastern cities to work on farms. Others moved west till their funds gave out, then stopped to work. In a couple of years, he says, they would be equipped to go west and buy land, or to go into business where they were.

Mackay, in 1848, learned at Lowell, Massachusetts, that the young women who worked in those famous mills saved their money until it amounted to several hundred dollars, then married and went west with their husbands to make independent farm properties. His statement is, of course, too sweeping, for doubtless only an appreciable portion of the workers followed the course indicated. However that may be, the Lowell case must be reasonably typical, for New England farm boys, as well as girls, were in factories and they were also engaged in a score of other occupations that yielded money to begin farming in the West. The thronging Yankee emigrations to Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota in the forties and fifties carried to the West multitudes who, brought up on farms, had gained experience elsewhere in the course of getting ready to farm on their own.5

How do we know that this is true? The answer to that question is the crux of my criticism of all the work so far published designed to discredit the safety-valve doctrine. It is only by studying the western farmers on the ground that one can be sure of obtaining the facts about their origins. Two sources exist for that study. One of these, the manuscript federal census, Goodrich and Davison excuse themselves for neglecting. The other, county histories, they profess to have consulted but with no evidence that they used the vital material they contain, namely, the biographical sketches of farmers.

The proof that craftsmen and laborers earned farms for themselves in the West can be amassed from those sources to any desired extent. The census should be regarded as the ultimate and most nearly universal basis for the study of population elements, changes in the social complex of communities, interior migration, and occupational changes. True, the censuses are not yet in condition to be used with facility, but one who is willing to perform heavy labor in exchange for definite, reliable information will always find them available. To prepare an index of the census names for a given township, or even a county, is not a monumental task. Such local studies have been found useful because lists of names from one census compared with such of them as could be identified in a later or earlier census determine the proportion of the laborers of an earlier date who figure as farm owners at a later, and vice versa. The test was applied in a sufficient number of towns in different parts of Wisconsin to make the results representative. They show that, among the farmers of 1880, from 25 to 60 per cent had been laborers or craftsmen thirty years earlier.

Moreover, referring to the farm "hired man" element, always in our period the prophecy of new farm owners, it can be said that wherever a farming township has been canvassed censuswise, and these are numerous, the presence of future farmers to a considerable number was revealed. Also, the census by proving, in the case of Irish immigrants through the ages of the children, how slow was the progress of families from the east coast to Wisconsin inferentially proves how long a time had been required for a laboring man to earn the wherewithal to begin farming. The Irish families of one county in Wisconsin in 1850, to the number of 286, had 184 native-born children of whom only 91 were born in Wisconsin. The average age of the 93 who were born elsewhere in America was 9.3 years.

The second source, county history biographical sketches, is excellent in some cases, useless in others. The early (1880) series of these books for Wisconsin is extremely unsatisfactory because the sketches were obviously prepared with the genealogist in mind rather than the social historian seeking background facts about the lives of persons sketched. A much better type of book is that prepared for Minnesota counties, also about 1880, under the editorship of Edward D. Neill. From them it was easy to determine which of the farmers sketched had actually earned their farm beginnings. Dakota county, for example, in 1880 had 1977 farms. Neill's history (1881) sketches the careers of 355 farmers, or 17.9 per cent of all in the county. Of that number 179, or just over 50 per cent, earned their farm beginnings, 55 as craftsmen, 56 as farm hands and renters, 68 as common workers at varied labor. Many of the last named class were Irish.

Similar, though not quite such striking, results issued from a canvass of local records for portions of a county in Iowa, another in Nebraska, a third in Kansas, a fourth in Illinois. Summing them all up, it becomes probable that nearly or quite one third of the middle western farmers, around 1880, had earned their farms as common or skilled laborers. At later periods, as would be expected, the proportion was lower, many having inherited farms from pioneer parents. Another variation arose from the character of the population, foreign-born settlers being earners in more cases, native-born in fewer. Seemingly, however, the laboring element was nowhere absent from farming communities.

Goodrich and Davison quote the testimony of a single Minnesota witness for the purpose of casting doubt on the ability of craftsmen to become successful farmers. To one knowing western rural society such an argument verges on the absurd. Fortunately, there is no dearth of material to prove the contrary. "Most of the settlers hereabout", says De Haas writing in 1847 concerning the townships of eastern Fond du Lac county, Wisconsin, "among them those who have developed the finest farms, were formerly handicraftsmen, this one a carpenter, that one a shoemaker, a miller, mason, etc. Several were formerly tailors."

Accompanying that statement was a sage remark of this ex-schoolmaster on the conditions of success in pioneer farming:

Let no one come hither who does not expect to labor industriously and who does not take pleasure in cultivating the soil and in caring for livestock. But let no one remain at home because he understands too little of land tillage and care of stock. The whole business is here so simple, and experienced neighbors, with such obliging readiness, will instruct him who is anxious to learn, that a good farmer will quickly be made out of the most inexperienced immigrant who is genuinely teachable.6

The "husbandry of corn and cattle" until recently was a simple, easily acquired business. The historian who knows only the highly specialized and scientific agriculture of the modern time cannot understand how it would have been possible for rurally untrained mechanics to make a success of farming even if they could have saved the necessary money to begin operations at the frontier. As this writer shows, the only requisites were a willingness and ability to work hard, and a desire to learn. No long apprenticeship was needed to manage an ox-team, to guide the plow, scatter seed by hand, and harvest the ripened grain with the cradle scythe, but all those operations called for good health and sound muscles.

And so far from the handicraftsman being unequal to the problems of the farm, his training in the doing of a few things with finished thoroughness and his ideals of accomplishment tended to guarantee for him, given the necessary physical equipment, unusual success in agriculture. The best farmer of my native community in southwest Wisconsin was a Bavarian villager who had learned and practiced the craft of dyer before beginning to farm on a piece of raw land; but he had the good sense to "hire out" to a Yankee farmer several years before beginning on his own.

Critics of the safety-valve theory have hitherto seemed loath to recognize such evidence as an answer to their contention that the frontier did not significantly affect the labor problem. In fact, some of them make such heavy demands upon the "safety valve" that there would be no possibility of satisfying them. They ask: "Did enough persons leave city employment or were enough diverted from it to prevent explosive unrest?" They find plenty of unrest in industrial labor circles and therefore object that the safety valve, if it existed at all, often failed to work. Well, there was unrest at times even among frontier farmers. Yet, is it not clear that, if the doctrine of relativity applies, as it must, to "explosions" as well as to other human affairs, then the frontier safety valve was not only a reality but a notable success? It helped to prevent the occurrence in America of actual revolutions like those of the 1830's and the 1840's in continental Europe, in which laborers and mechanics were deeply involved;7 and also prevented such oppression of the laboring classes as they suffered in England. Chevalier wrote: "In Europe a coalition of workmen can only signify one of these two things: raise our wages or we shall die of hunger with our wives and children, which is an absurdity; or, raise our wages or we shall take up arms, which is civil war. . . . But in America, on the contrary, such a coalition means, raise our wages or we go to the West."8 Had he omitted the idea of "coalition", so far as American labor was concerned, the remark would have been sound.

Did the representation of former laborers and craftsmen among the owning farmers of the western states, as we have found them through local studies, affect the situation of industrial and other labor? To ask this question is to be compelled to answer it in the spirit of Benjamin Franklin writing 186 years ago: Until the land was fully settled, labor could not be cheap. And if, as Goodrich and Davison concede, the frontier "tended to hold up the level of industrial wages", their elaborate argumentation falls to the ground, for wages are the proof of the safety valve's reality.

The condition of American industrial labor has been by no means ideal. Yet, despite the disruptive effects of the successive immigrations and the near disaster incident to recurring depressions, a gradual if irregular advance in wages and in working conditions has been achieved latterly, of course, principally through effective organization. Were it not for the safety valve, which operated from the beginning of our national history, it is permissible to ask if American employers, served during many years by such a strong and steady influx of cheap labor from abroad, would have been more considerate of their employees than were the employing classes in France, Germany and England. Here is another question that statistics cannot answer. It is certain, however, that the effect of what has been called the safety valve has been largely psychological, operating alike upon laborers, employers and the general public.