Proposal for the Eight Hour Work Day

8hoursday_banner_1856On September 9, 1868, the Atlanta Constitution published a portion of a speech that Henry McNeal Turner was to deliver on the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives. In the speech, Turner was to advocate for the “eight hour bill” pending before the House.  In submitting the speech for publication, Turner noted that the speech itself was not completed and several of his strongest points “had not been made.” However when he learned that the House intended to vote him and other African American members ineligible to serve in the legislature because of their beliefs that blacks could not govern, he stopped writing it expecting not to deliver the speech or believing the House or Senate was not “far enough advanced to consider this matter as it should be, and act upon it intelligently.” He was right on both counts. Below is the speech as printed in the Atlanta Constitution. 


Mr. Speaker:  The bill before this House, which I had the honor of introducing a few days ago, may, from slight attention, appear to some gentlemen on this floor quite amusing, if not ridiculous.  But I desire, in paving my way to a practical consideration of the subject, to state an already familiar fact, that this is an age of progress, an age of improvement, an age of great moral and political ideas; yes, may I not in candor say, the vanguard age of the world.  For since the day when the umbrageous curtain of moral depravity… the appalment of earth and the astonishment of Heaven, man’s dimless intellectual faculties down to the present, no brighter day has ever dawned upon the world’s great drama than the one in which we live.  The resources of the mind are contending with the blind fetters of stupidity and human genius clamors in the articulutive notes of all languages and tongues for releasement from the chains of ignorance.  Thus, the crooked is being made straight and the hitherto rough is being made smooth, the wrongs of ages is being righted, and false notions though hoary with years, are hourly crashing to the ground, and vanishing like vapor before the rising sun.

The question under consideration may be considered a novel one in this State, if not in most of the Southern States, and yet, I assume that there is not a question now engrossing the attention of our public men of both, or either party, that embraces more truth, more facts, and more good solid reason why it should meet with universal sanction, than this seemingly trite and simple question, viz: “Shall a man work himself to death to live?”

I feel a confidence in the ultimate triumph of the measure incorporated in the bill now pending for discussion. Why? Because it is no new question, no utopian dream, no fanciful idea to lull the energies of the toiling masses.  It is to-day, a grand national fact, embodied in the statute laws of our present enlightened Congress.  In the first place, the passage of this bill is asked for as an experiment in our legislation.  It ought, at least, to have a trial.  It can do no harm, but may accomplish much good.  The working men of the State ask for its passage, not so much as a peremptory rule, as the recognition of a principle. They feel as I know, that the labor of one-third part of a day, (or twenty-four hours, if you chose) ought to be sufficient to give daily bread, and keep the world industrially moving.  They believe, fully that the experiment will not only result in their advantage, morally, socially, and intellectually…….but that the interest of capital, as represented by employers will be benefited in the end.

A very potent reason for the passage of this bill, is, that there may be a uniform standard through the State governing manual labor, and manufacturing employees.  In most of the States, ten hours is regarded as a days work.  But I find by consulting Irwin’s Code, that there is no ten-hour rule to apply even to our public works.  Section 1873 most positively declares the hours of labor shall be “from sun rise to sunset,” except the time allowed for meals, with the boss may limit to his own discretion.  And without impugning the honesty of the motives of the framers of the law, I am forced by every philosophic consideration to pronounce such a statute as brutal and as inimical to freedom and happiness of the laborer, as the worse forms of slavery ever were.  Custom, however, in several districts of our State has, by common consent, fixed the hours of a day’s work, ranging respectfully from eleven to twelve, and from sunrise to sunset, and in the winter season from day dawn to night dawn.  So adverse are these customs that in cases where a man has been engaged to work for another by the day, without a contract specifying the precise number of hours, he is obliged in the event of a controversy, to place experts on the stand to prove what is the usual practice in the locality where he has been employed. – This bill obviates the most onerous difficulty.

The law regulating the interest on money in cases where no specific rate has been agreed upon is in many respects analogous.  The term of eight hours has been fixed upon, because while it is the national tenure of laboring hours, it is also the healthful or hygienic limitation of a day’s labor, wherever this rule is habitually violated or exceeded, the man’s life is shortened, and he suffers mentally and morally as well as physically.  The demand for the laborer and mechanic not to be required to work more than eight hours each day, is supported by unerring instinct and by the weightiest consideration of expediency, justice and the hitherto premature decadency of humanity.  I furthermore find myself sustained by a number of able writers and philosophers of unquestionable ability in this proposition.  Cresy’s Encyclopedia of Civil Engineering, chap. ix. “ on Mechanical agents,” page 1087, has the following declaration, to-wit: “ By the term daily labor, is meant the work performed during twenty-four hours, the effective duration of which is only a portion of that time, the remainder being employed in rest and taking meals. Animals of all kinds require that their work should be moderate and regular, and the machine which the drive or put to motion should never call forth more exertion than is natural for them. The limit of this action is indicated by the lassitude which the mover evinces, and which may term the DAILY FATIGUE.”

Daniel Bernoulli imagined that the degree of fatigue was always proportioned to the action which produced it so that whether the man was employed in walking, carrying a load, drawing or pushing, working at a windglass, or raising a weight, he always produced with the same degree of fatigue, the same quantity of action, and consequently, the same effect, and that the daily labor of a man estimated as raising 1, 72(6/8), 000 pounds one-foot high.  This estimate would be equal to 60 pounds raised that height every second when his daily labor was eight hours only.

William J. Rankin McQuorne, Professor of Civil Engineering in the University of Glasco, in an able article contributed by him to the Encyclopedia Britannica, volume 14, page 417, says: “The mechanical daily duty of a man or beast is the product of three quantities – the effort, the velocity, the number of units of time per day during which work is continued.  It is well known that for each individual man or animal, there is a certain set of valves of these three quantities, which make the product of a daily duty, a maximum, and that any departure from these valves diminishes the daily duty.”  The article from which I am quoting, concludes thus: “The past time of working per day for man and all animals, is one third part of a day, or eight hours, a conclusion in accordance with tested experience.” This view is also adopted by a contributor to Appleton’s American Encyclopedia, Article Mechanic’s, vol. II, page 327. “A Man acting by muscular power or weight, and quadrupeds, are animate motors moving powers. The best continued practical working effect of animate motors is obtained when the working hours do not exceed one-third of the twenty-four.”

When…..performed by working men of mechanics, the average term of day labor is but eight hours.  In demonstration of this assertion I will state that iron moulders in the State of New York, whose work is of this description, make eight hours the rule.  In the mines of the Pacific coast, and the Sierras of that region, the mines far distant from physicians, and forced to adopt the best precautionary means for maintaining health, have, by common consent, agreed upon the eight-hour rule.

This fact, is warranted by the severest experience, led by the General Assembly of California in February, 1866, to pass the bill defining eight hours to be the period of a legal day’s work.  In Australia, also, universal experience has led to the establishment of the same rule.  But let us adduce a few examples:  Elisha Burritt, the learned blacksmith of Worcester, Mass., assigned for himself the same time for labor, and around who brow clusters grander results for a measure or a habit pursued though a triumphant life.  Chevaller Brunsen, of Germany, has also said that eight hours were sufficient for a day’s work.

The marching time for armies is also thus limited, from 12 to 17 miles being the distance made day by day; whenever forced marches are had, straining out by a most vigorous effort 40 or 50 miles a day.  Long periods for rest and recuperation must ensue, or a large part of the army will be disabled by sickness.  The Encyclopedia Britannica makes a similar declaration in respect to the progress made by caravans.   It says, (see articles on caravans) from seven to eight hours a day seems to have become a usual day’s journey for caravans, so that, estimating the slow and unwieldy gait of a camel at two and half miles an hour, the average rate of travel would be from 17 to 20 miles a day.  Tradition, if I may not call it reliable history, informs us that Solomon, when he was building the Temple of the Most High God, promulgated a decree for the men employed upon that great work to observe, as follows: “Eight hours shall be dedicated to labor, eight hours to rest, recreation, refreshment, and the worship of Jehovah, and eight hours for sleep.”

Let us next notice some of the customs in several of the European and Asiatic countries, which I will do as concisely and as pointedly as time will allow me.  But before proceeding to this historical review, allow me to state that the framer of our beings never intended that man, under any circumstance, should wear and toil out every moment of his existence for a little bread to eat, and a few garments to cover his nudeness.  This is a false idea handed down from one generation to another, by men who chief pride and ambition is to acquire wealth, though it be at the sacrifice of health and of life.  If men would think more and work less, he would be bettered in all respects ten times more rapidly than it is.  The trouble is, we absorbed the intellectual in the physical, instead of the physical in the intellectual.

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