Pieces People Ask For/The Labor Question


Let me tell you why I am interested in the labor question. Not simply because of the long hours of labor; not simply because of a specific oppression of a class. I sympathize with the sufferers there: I am ready to fight on their side. But I look out upon Christendom, with its three hundred millions of people; and I see, that, out of this number of people, one hundred millions never had enough to eat. Physiologists tell us that this body of ours, unless it is properly fed, properly developed, fed with rich blood and carefully nourished, does no justice to the brain. You cannot make a bright or a good man in a starved body; and so this one-third of the inhabitants of Christendom, who have never had food enough, can never be what they should be. Now, I say that the social civilization which condemns every third man in it to be below the average in the nourishment God prepared for him, did not come from above: it came from below; and, the sooner it goes down, the better. Come on this side of the ocean. You will find forty millions of people, and I suppose they are in the highest state of civilization; and yet it is not too much to say, that, out of that forty millions, ten millions at least, who get up in the morning and go to bed at night, spend all the day in the mere effort to get bread enough to live. They have not elasticity enough, mind or body, left, to do any thing in the way of intellectual or moral progress.

I believe in the temperance movement. I am a temperance man of nearly forty years' standing; and I think it one of the grandest things in the world, because it holds the basis of self-control. Intemperance is the cause of poverty, I know; but there is another side to that : poverty is the cause of intemperance. Crowd a man with fourteen hours' work a day, and you crowd him down to a mere animal life. You have eclipsed his aspirations, dulled his tastes, stunted his intellect, and made him a mere tool, to work fourteen hours, and catch a thought in the interval ; and, while a man in a hundred will rise to be a genius, ninety-nine will cower down under the circumstances.

That is why I say, lift a man, give him life, let him work eight hoars a day, give him the school, develop his taste for music, give him a garden, give him beautiful things to see, and good books to read, and you will starve out those lower appetites. Give a man a chance to earn a good living, and you may save his life.

If you want power in this country, if you want to make yourselves felt; if you do not want your children to wait long years before they have the bread on the table they ought to have, the leisure in their lives they ought to have, the opportunities in life they ought to have; if you don't want to wait yourselves,—write on your banner,' so that every political trimmer can read it, so that every politician, no matter how short-sighted he may be, can read it, "We never forget! If you launch the arrow of sarcasm at labor, we never forget; if there is a division in Congress, and you throw your vote in the wrong scale, we never forget. You may go down on your knees, and say, 'I am sorry I did the act;' and we will say, 'It will avail you in heaven, but on this side of the grave never.' "So that a man, in taking up the labor question, will know he is dealing with a hair-trigger pistol, and will say, "I am to be true to justice and to man: otherwise I am a dead duck."

Wendell Phillips.