The following article was written by Dyer Lum and published The Alarm, June 13, 1885.
An Appeal to the Wage Slaves of America.
Should American Workingmen Arm Themselves?
An Old Soldier Utters a Cry of Warning.
Private Capital Demands Its Pound of Flesh at the Point of Bayonet.
Slaves or Freemen? Which?
Comrades. You have heard the cry “To arms! To arms!” What reply shall we give?
Shall we ignore it with a sneer as the vaporings of European revolutionists who do not understand the genius of our institutions; shall we deride it as the catchword of professional agitators; shall we continue to flatter ourselves that as Americans – sons of patriot sires – we have no wrongs which we may not redress by the ballot?
Let us face the problem. Let us ask ourselves if there be indeed any valid reasons for alarm. Let us consider for a moment whether as with advancing years, our position is growing brighter or more hopeless, whether great famine and distress lurks near our door ready to swoop down upon our loved ones.
In all our industrial centres the Red Flag of the International is unfurled, from every quarter comes the wail of despair from the pinched lips of starved wives and children, and the low muttered curse of the idle bread winners; on every breeze is wafted these signals of social discontent, and men find their skill, their will, their brawn powerless to protect their dependent ones.
It is not a European question, but an American one I ask you to consider. How near are you to the same brink? How many weeks of enforced idleness separate you from utter destitution? 52? 26? 13?
You work for wages. Are they increasing?
Is your position a guaranteed one, or is it dependent upon the state of the market or the law of demand? Are you to-day satisfied or are you hoping for something better?
In fact, it is a personal question. A very few years ago such questions would have been idle, to-day they find receptive ears. Is there not in this fact a pregnant opening? Do you not realize yourselves that times have changed since our civil war, if your memory goes back beyond that event?
You are a mechanic. Have you the opportunity now that there was then for the man of small means to start in business for himself? Is not the small manufacturer, the small trader being driven to the wall? Can the capital of a few hundred dollars compete with that of millions? Is not your routine in life becoming a fixed one?
Let us leave on one side all theoretical questions of abstract rights for the present.
You feel the lines drawing yearly more closer which hold you in the rut of wage labor; you realize more and more the lack of opportunity to escape by raising yourself above your comrades; you look ahead to old age and can see no relief unless it be a seat beside a son’s or daughter’s hearth, who is following the same weary round where your strength was worn out.
As an American you, of course, read the papers. You read of strikes and lockouts, of suffering communities struggling for better remuneration, of families in need of the common necessaries of life. In your walks you meet idle men who would work as gladly as you if the law of demand would permit. You are familiar with the tenement-house quarters of our cities, perhaps necessarily so. You know its influence on health, on the morals of your children, on the happiness of your family circle.
As an American I ask you is this continued discontent cropping out everywhere the necessary outcome of our republican institutions? Is there virtue in the Constitution to heal the growing division between capital and labor; is there power in legislation to remove the causes which compel you to bring up your children in a human bee-hive; will the ballot restore the faded cheek of your wife or preserve the bloom of health on the faces of your children?
Let us consider these questions first.
Let us weigh existing “remedies” before considering new ones.
Was your father a wage worker before you in this land of the free? Is your condition better? If so, has it been acquired by means of your political freedom?
You may attend church. Has religion done aught for your economic condition other than teaching contentment and submission? You know it has not, neither do you look to it for such relief.
Is it not equally true that political freedom has done absolutely nothing to better your economic condition? You know that neither the realm of religion nor politics intersect that of economy under our present system.
You have mental freedom but long years of conflict and bloodshed were necessary to establish it. You fully recognize the right of every one to the free use of his reason; that there can be no greater blasphemy than the denial of freedom of thought; that what was once the prerogative of God is now the treasured right of self. In the world of mental relations you deny authority and proclaim liberty; in other words – Anarchy, the absence of government, self-rule.
You have inherited this as your birthright. The men who wrested this from the hands of authority did not obtain it by prayer, but by revolt. They relied on force to extort it from authority.
You also inherit political freedom. Our fathers (for the writer is of Puritan and Revolutionary descent) achieved it by their swords. It is a legacy of which we are proud, nor would I undervalue it. Not, on the other hand, should we overvalue it.
Mental freedom! Political freedom!
These are acquired. We need not contest for them; they are ours.
But economic freedom?
Have you advanced toward that? You are nearer it because of the previous conflicts; these issues are removed, and you are now face to face with this alone. Otherwise they have not helped you.
Is it not the direct line of progress?
The world’s workers have risen slowly from slavery to serfdom, from serf to wage labor. Is this the end? Do you believe the onward march of personal freedom will stop short of emancipation – liberty? Ask yourself the question. Interrogate your discontent, your cravings, your wife’s blanched cheek, your child’s peevish wail, who like you feels something is wanting in the normal condition of happiness.
“But we can do nothing!”
Stop! Do you admit that economic freedom is desirable? That control over the means of labor — and thereby over your life, that of your family, your material well-being – should not be vested in the hands of a few?
Do you believe that you have a right to labor – that you should not be held subject to arbitrary states of the market? Will you assert that you have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that whatever condition renders this right nugatory is unjust? Do you deny the right of the possessor of wealth to hold in his grasp the means of life and to permit you their limited use only so far as it may conduce to his profit?
Is not possession of the means of life as necessary to your well-being, to liberty, as free thought and a free ballot?
This admitted, what follows?
When our ancestors asserted a right they stood ready upon a suitable occasion to maintain it. We believe the right we assert to be an outgrowth from the tree they planted and watered with their blood.
We have agreed that the end is a desirable one. We have settled the why and the how comes next in order.
The occasion will never arise if all refuse to look for it. But thousands of your comrades are already convinced. Here is one step gained. If you are in sympathy with them, if you believe in your theoretic right to labor, not as a boon to be craved, a sop to be thankful for – but as a social right, join with your comrades who believe likewise. In the first place learn to know each other, organize meetings for the discussion of these questions, seek to understand the philosophy of the labor movement, sift the arguments pro and con, study Socialism, what it proposes, its methods and aims. In all cases preserve your personal independence, hold fast to the cardinal principle of liberty, and not overthrow one tyranny to erect another.
Be your own man. Seek to own yourself.
In the second place you will begin to see that the conflict between labor and capital is not to be settled by the shrieks of armed plunderers who fear the coming day of judgment; not to be allayed by double-leaded editorials of journals dependent upon these plunderers for their bread and butter; not to be quieted by rose water sermons from mealy mouthed gospelers preaching to rich pew holders.
Before settling the How, before the inevitable OCCASION shall arise, you need arms. Already the blood of your comrades has been shed, wives widowed and children made fatherless. On every hand you witness an increased reliance on the militia to protect “invested rights.”
You are not blind. You see all these signs of the times. You are a witness of this increased reliance on force to uphold American freedom. You see the old garment of the constitution stretched to cover emergencies never dreamed of by its framers. You are forced to reflect that graver issues are now before us than the legislation of the last century had knowledge of and demanding a new and different settlement. You, like thousands of others, have vaguely felt that that antique work is not as elastic as human progress, that as a reservoir of the political wisdom of the eighteenth century it may be a matchless work of art, but when it becomes a dam to the engine of progress toward freedom, you like thousands of others, will be tempted to join in their cry and damn the constitution!
The necessity for arms is thus answered on every hand by the signs of the times — it is in the air!
Finally — THE OCCASION.
When Paul Revere galloped out from Boston in April 1775 to carry the news that the British were moving in force, he was told by a soldier “Do not make so much noise.”
“Noise,” replied Paul Revere, “you’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.” So he galloped on from house to house, arousing the inmates from their slumber to immediate action. The farmers grasped their flintlocks. Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill followed.
If the great railroad strike of 1877 were to be repeated to-day would it not be such an occasion? Let another commercial panic — those periodical visitations of a bourgeois providence- throw vast numbers of our workers into idleness, would not a spark as small as the firing of the militia on the unarmed populace of Lemont be an occasion?
We are told that panics and commercial depressions are necessary, and must be accepted. When armed, we will not only accept it — but wait for it!
Hungry bellies will make occasion!
Have no fear that the occasion will not arise – it will arise. Then you – though now undecided and satisfied that your pay is secure — homeless and hungry will be looking around to see where you can seize a gun and join your more far-sighted comrades.
You realize that the discontent of labor is growing in intensity, in bitterness, that it expansive power will be greater the longer it is repressed.
Here we all agree.
You realize that the avaricious greed of the capitalist is also increasing in like ratio, that the greed for wealth was never greater, never more disposed to stalk over all obstacles for individual enhancement; never more reckless of human suffering and misery; never more ostentatious in its display of luxury.
Here, again, we all agree.
Under such conditions will not the possession of arms be a provident forethought?
Get them now, before your economic masters use the ballot to deny you even that privilege. It will not be money thrown away. A rifle or revolver is “a handy thing to have about the house.” Some day you may meet a robber; who knows? You may find it a convenient article against the banditry of “law and order” — some thief who has robbed you may be tempted to enforce a new demand upon you.
It is well to be prepared for emergencies!
Sons of patriot sires, greater perils than your fathers faced are before you! Will you shirk the assertion of a right, neglect preparation for the maintenance of what you believe, dodge the inevitable issue that must be fought out on American soil? Be not alarmed lest some views you are not prepared to admit will triumph. Neither you nor I can forecast the exact course of progress — we can but do our share to remove barriers. Humanity is greater than leaders; the wisdom of the whole will prevail over any folly of a few. Trust Humanity.
Those who control our labor can and do control our votes. Economic bondage destroys political freedom. To arms! To arms! Va victis!