Free Thought and Free Labor

Free Thought and Free Labor September 3, 2012

It’s Labor Day, the day set aside to remember the workers of America and all they’ve fought for over the years. It also seems like a good day to remember the close ties between the freethought movement and the Labor movement. Although in recent years this relationship has waned, it was once central to the understanding of freethinkers.


Let’s start with the patron saint of the freethought movement, Thomas Paine. To begin with, Paine always made a point to write in a way that any member of the working class could understand. This is what made him so influential, but also what made him so dangerous.

Paine was ahead of his time in protesting unfair labor practices and calling for progressive taxation to benefit the working classes. Shortly after being freed from Luxemborg prison in 1797, Paine published a pamphlet titled Agrarian Justice, in which he called for a redistribution of wealth through taxation from the upper to the lower classes. Paine was not a proto-Marxist, but a canny observer of society:

…the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labour that produced it; the consequence of which is, that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.

After Paine’s death, his self-appointed disciple Richard Carlisle focused most of his efforts on the working classes. Some of those influenced by Carlisle made it to America, notable Robert Owen and Frances Wright. These would form the core of the new Freethought movement.

Education as the Great Leveler

For Owen and Wright, the connection between labor and freethought was absolute. They published the Free Enquirer, America’s first freethought paper and staunchly pro-labor. Together they took over the leadership of the New York wing of the Working Man’s Party, the first labour-oriented political organization in the United States. They worked with George Henry Evans, a self-proclaimed infidel and publisher of the Working Man’s Advocate, America’s first labour newspaper.

Frances “Fanny” Wright was the most prominent, and the most infamous, member of the movement. She was known for her oratory, and her speeches packed the converted church she’s named “The Hall of Science.”

I have made human kind my studv, from my youth up; the American community I have considered with most especial attention; and I can truly say that, wherever the same are not absolutely pressed down by labour and want, I have invariably-found, not only the best feelings, but the soundest sense among the operative classes of society. I am satisfied, and that by extensive observation, that, with few exceptions, the whole sterling talent of the American community lies (latent indeed, and requiring: the stimulus of circumstance for its development,) among that large body who draw their subsistence from the labour of their hands. [“Address to Young Mechanics,” Course of Popular Lectures, p 200]

Wright’s goal was to empower the workers of America by bringing them free education. The Hall would offer debates, lectures and classes, and the freethinkers would push for universal public education. Fast forward sixty years, and Robert G. Ingersoll notes the advances that had been made in that direction:

I believe there is to be a revolution in the relations between labor and capital. The laboring people a few generations ago were not very intellectual. There were no schoolhouses, no teachers except the church, and the church taught obedience and faith — told the poor people that although they had a hard time here, working for nothing, they would be paid in Paradise with a large interest. Now the working people are more intelligent — they are better educated — they read and write. In order to carry on the works of the present, many of them are machinists of the highest order. They must be reasoners. Every kind of mechanism insists upon logic. The working people are reasoners — their hands and heads are in partnership. They know a great deal more than the capitalists. It takes a thousand times the brain to make a locomotive that it does to run a store or a bank. Think of the intelligence in a steamship and in all the thousand machines and devices that are now working for the world. These working people read. They meet together — they discuss. They are becoming more and more independent in thought. They do not believe all they hear. They may take their hats off their heads to the priests, but they keep their brains in their heads for themselves. […] [Eight Hours Must Come]

Flower on the Chain

Old “Injure soul” picks up on another point about the alliance between freethought and labor: the role of the churches in justifying and supporting the inequalities between the owners and the workers. It’s the same idea that Joe Hill picked up on when he wrote his famous song “The Preacher and the Slave (Pie in the Sky)” ’round about 1910:

The final verse mirrors a quote from Ingersoll: “Labor is the only prayer that Nature answers: It is the only prayer that deserves an answer—good, honest, noble work.” (Appeal to the jury in the trial of C.B. Reynolds)

Sadly, the alliance between freethinkers and laborers doesn’t seem to have fared well. I suspect that this comes from the Cold War, when capitalism, Christianity and country were all lumped together in defiance of the red menace. Still, it’s good to reflect on what was, and perhaps what may be again. So let’s let Ingersoll have the last word on this Labor Day:

The laboring man, however, ought to remember that all who labor are their brothers, and that all women who labor are their sisters, and whenever one class of workingmen or working women is oppressed all other laborers ought to stand by the oppressed class. Probably the worst paid people in the world are the workingwomen. Think of the sewing women in this city — and yet we call ourselves civilized! I would like to see all working people unite for the purpose of demanding justice, not only for men, but for women.

All my sympathies are on the side of those who toil — of those who produce the real wealth of the world — of those who carry the burdens of mankind. [Eight Hours Must Come]

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