Oppressive Burdens on the Mechanical Classes


…Such are some of the considerations, which show the general utility of scientific education, for those engaged in the mechanical arts. Let us now advert to some of the circumstances, which ought, particularly in the United States of America, to act as encouragements to the young men of the country to apply themselves earnestly, and, as far as it can be done, systematically, to the attainment of such an education.

And, first, it is beyond all question, that what are called the mechanical trades of this country are on a much more liberal footing than they are in Europe. This circumstance not only ought to encourage those who pursue them, to take an honest pride in improvement, but it makes it their incumbent duty to do so.

In almost every country of Europe, various restraints are imposed on the mechanics, which almost amount to slavery. A good deal of censure has been lately thrown on the journeymen printers of Paris, for entering into combinations not to work for their employers, and for breaking up the power-presses, which were used by the great employing printers.

I certainly shall not undertake to justify any acts of illegal violence and the destruction of property. But when you consider, that no man can be a master printer in France without a license, and that only eighty licenses were granted in Paris, it is by no means wonderful that the journeymen, forbidden by law to set up for themselves, and prevented by the power-presses from getting work from others, should be disposed, after having carried through one revolution for the government, to undertake another for themselves. Of what consequence is it to a man, forbidden by the law to work for his living, whether Charles X or Louis Philip is king?

In England, it is exceedingly difficult for a mechanic to get what is called a settlement, in any town except that in which he was born, or where he served his apprenticeship. The object of imposing these restrictions is to enforce on each parish the maintenance of its native poor; and the resort of mechanics from place to place is permitted only on conditions, with which many of them are unable to comply.

The consequence is, they are obliged to stay where they were born, where perhaps there are already more hands than can find work; and, from the decline of the place, even the established artisans want employment. Chained to such a spot, where chance and necessity have bound him, the young man feels himself but half free. He is thwarted in his choice of a pursuit for life, and obliged to take up with an employment against his preference, because there is no opening in any other.

He is depressed in his own estimation, because he finds himself unprotected in society. The least evil likely to befall him is, that he drags along a discouraged and unproductive existence. He more naturally falls into dissipation and vice, or enlists in the army or navy; while the place of his nativity is gradually becoming a decayed, and finally a rotten borough, and, as such, enables some rich nobleman to send two members to parliament, to make laws against combinations of workmen.

In other countries, singular institutions exist, imposing oppressive burdens on the mechanical classes. I refer now more particularly to the corporations, guilds, or crafts, as they are called, that is, the companies formed by the members of a particular trade. These exist, with great privileges, in every part of Europe; in Germany, there are some features in the institution, as it seems to me, peculiarly oppressive.

The different crafts in that country are incorporations recognised by law, governed by usages of great antiquity, with a fund to defray the corporate expenses, and, in each considerable town, a house of entertainment is selected as the house of call, or harbor, as it is styled, of each particular craft. Thus you see, in the German towns, a number of taverns indicated by their signs as the Masons’ Harbor, the Blacksmiths’ Harbor, &c.

No one is allowed to set up as a master workman in any trade, unless he is admitted as a freeman or member of the craft; and such is the stationary condition of most parts of Germany, that I understand that no person is admitted as a master workman in any trade, except to supply the place of some one deceased or retired from business. When such a vacancy occurs, all those desirous of being permitted to fill it present a piece of work, executed as well as they are able to do it, which is called their master-piece, being offered to obtain the place of a master workman.

Nominally, the best workman gets the place; but you will easily conceive, that, in reality, some kind of favoritism must generally decide it. Thus is every man obliged to submit to all the chances of a popular election, whether he shall be allowed to work for his bread; and that, too, in a country where the people are not permitted to have any agency in choosing their rulers.

But the restraints on journeymen, in that country, are still more oppressive. As soon as the years of apprenticeship have expired, the young mechanic is obliged, in the phrase of the country, to wander for three years. For this purpose he is furnished, by the master of the craft in which he has served his apprenticeship, with a duly authenticated wandering book, with which he goes forth to seek employment.

In whatever city he arrives, on presenting himself, with this credential, at the house of call, or harbor, of the craft in which he has served his time, he is allowed gratis a day’s food and a night’s lodging. If he wishes to get employment in that place, he is assisted in procuring it. If he does not wish to, or fails in the attempt, he must pursue his wandering; and this lasts for three years, before he can be anywhere admitted as a master.

I have heard it argued, that this system had the advantage of circulating knowledge from place to place, and imparting to the young artisan the fruits of travel and intercourse with the world. But, however beneficial travelling may be, when undertaken by those who have the taste and capacity to profit by it, I cannot but think, that to compel every young man, who has just served out his time, to leave his home, in the manner I have described, must bring his habits and morals into peril, and be regarded rather as a hardship than as an advantage. There is no sanctuary of virtue like home.

You will see, from these few hints, the nature of some of the restraints and oppressions to which the mechanical industry of Europe is subjected. Wherever governments and corporations thus interfere with private industry, the spring of personal enterprise is unbent. Men are depressed with a consciousness of living under control. They cease to feel a responsibility for themselves, and, encountering obstacles whenever they step from the beaten path, they give up improvement as hopeless.

I need not, in the presence of this audience, remark on the total difference of things in America. We are apt to think, that the only thing in which we have improved on other countries, is our political constitution, whereby we choose our rulers, instead of recognising their hereditary right. But a much more important difference between us and foreign countries is wrought into the very texture of our society; it is that generally pervading freedom from restraint, in matters like those I have just specified.

In England, forty days’ undisturbed residence in a parish gives a journeyman mechanic a settlement, and consequently entitles him, should he need it, to support from the poor rates of that parish. To obviate this effect, the magistrates are on the alert, and instantly expel a new comer from their limits, who does not possess means of giving security, such as few young mechanics command. A duress like this, environing the young man, on his entrance into life, upon every side, and condemning him to imprisonment for life, on the spot where he is born, converts the government of the country—whatever be its name—into a despotism…

Edward Everett

An Essay on the Importance to Practical Men of Scientific Knowledge,
and on the Encouragements to its Pursuit. – 1831*

*compiled from a discourse delivered by the author, at the opening of the Mechanics’ Institute in Boston, in November, 1827; an address before the Middlesex County Lyceum, at Concord, in November, 1829; and an oration before the Columbian Institute at Washington, in January, 1830.

—Jeff Burks

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4 Responses to Oppressive Burdens on the Mechanical Classes

  1. LostArtPress says:


    These two essays are a nice counterpart to the rose-colored glasses view in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.”

    I think it’s good to remember: No matter what time you lived in, things sucked.

  2. Andy in Germany says:

    The bit about Germany was interesting: even today a carpenter must have a ‘Meisterbrief’ to be self employed. Fortunately it isn’t done on election any more but you still need to make a piece of furniture that is considered to be good enough, and it costs €20 000 on average for the two year course (which you can only do after you’ve done a three year apprenticeship), and then you have to get the machines for the workshop and pay off the debt for the next ten years, by which time the machines are too slow to compete, so you start over again…

    You also have to be capable of doing mathe practically to engineering levels, which is why a lot of companies in Germany produce furniture that is very exact but boring.

    I’m currently working on ways to get around this. This is not making me very popular in some circles…

  3. Paleotool says:

    Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:

  4. I have worked with French and German journeymen timber framers. Impressively skilled craftsmen. For what it’s worth, those cultures have sustained a strong traditional craft culture. The situation in England in the 1830’s was directly attributable to the policies resulting from enclosure. By contrast, the US never developed a widespread, coherent crafts education movement. The few craft schools we do have are elitist and expensive.

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