"An epoch in the history of the nation is here marked, and from it will be dated the beginning of political discussion, and social movements which are destined to enlist the profound attention of thinking minds throughout the civilized world."
-J. A. Dacus, on the Great Railroad Strike, 1877
Rapid industrialization during the nineteenth century revolutionized commerce, communication, politics, and American social life. But in the wake of such transformation, one emerging group was left behind: the common laborer. When workers finally revolted in 1877, their cause, which became known as the Great Railroad Strike, marked the first national labor event in United States history and served as a turning point for the American labor movement. Although the strike itself failed, it evoked further labor upheaval, organization of American workers, and long-term political and social change.
The Changing Nature of Labor
Strikes have existed as long as employed labor; records reveal strikes on the Egyptian pyramids thousands of years ago and the first documented strike in North America occurred in 1636. Yet in the early 1800s, strikes in the United States were local, unorganized, and often illegal. Prior to the Second Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, the vast majority of laborers were self-employed farmers or artisans, so there was little need for strikes.4 In the event of a dispute, workers merely stayed home until terms were settled; these "turn-outs" were largely peaceful. Yet as the nineteenth century progressed, the nature of labor changed dramatically. The factory system increased demand for labor in urban areas, and rural Americans, drawn by the offer of a steady wage, saw industrialization as their chance to find a better life. At the same time, an influx of European immigrants arrived in Eastern cities, expanding the available labor force and stimulating further industrial development. In 1800, just eleven percent of laborers worked outside of agriculture, but by 1900, this figure climbed to eighty percent.
Following the Civil War, the railroad industry took the lead in industrial growth. In 1850, less than 10,000 miles of tracks existed, but by 1877, 79,000 miles crisscrossed the nation. Fueled by government subsidies and land grants, during the 1870s the railroad industry became the largest commercial sector in the United States.10 The Chicago Tribune called it "the very heart and life of the modern system of commercial existence." As railroads expanded, their political and economic power grew as well. Railroad lobbyists were ubiquitous in both state and federal legislatures. A British ambassador described the companies' influence in 1877: "The power wielded by [railroad] corporations in this country is almost incredible …they ignore entirely the principle that property has its duties as well as its privileges."12
In contrast, workers lacked political and economic power. Emigration from Europe to