History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

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TENNESSEE WORKING MAN DESCRIBED AS FREE SPIRITED, ARISING FROM FRONTIER PAST

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

    

     The Tennessee working man is free spirited, carrying over into his new industrial surroundings the qualities of the small farmer and tenant. His employer tends to think and act in terms of land ownership. In general, the relationship between employed and employer rests on a man-to-man footing, in the old tradition of farmers' lands. This one fact must be dealt with which would lead into any discussion of the Tennessee working man, his past, present, and future.

     Until at least 1820 the Tennessean lived in a frontier region. Of his 422,000 neighbor Tennesseans, one-fifth were Negro slaves. The largest city, Nashville, had but 3,000 persons and throughout the State only 7,680 devoted themselves to manufacturing, mostly of locally utilized necessities. From the mountain coves of East Tennessee to the Mississippi bottomlands, the remainder of the working men - roughly 100,000 - were engaged in farming.

     Great plantations, worked by slave gangs were based on a cotton economy and were slow in obtaining a grip in Tennessee. Only the bottomlands of West Tennessee were ideally suited to the plantation, but even here the people were too typically backward in character to fall sincerely into the system. The Tennesseans of pre-Civil War days were inclined to continue the small farming practices of his pioneer fathers. The census of 1850 showed 118,941 farmers, none of whom were classified as planters. In great contrast are the census figures of South Carolina for the same year: 8,407 planters, as against 32,898 farmers.

     In the mountains of East Tennessee, frontier conditions were slack; few slaves were owned and the farmer found it necessary to do all tasks about his farm with only such help as his family could give. And as for most of the necessities, he became accustomed to the "make it yourself or do without" situation.

     Craftsmen were of such importance in early Tennessee towns that they are estimated to have constituted at least 10 per cent of the population. But two factors were at work to destroy the prominent craftsman class. As a rule, the artisan who had come into the State worked at his craft only long enough to buy land. It seemed that the apprenticeship program was failing rapidly in this new country. Newspapers of the time carried many advertisements offering rewards for the capture of runaway apprentices. But few were returned to their masters; the displeasure of the people was against it.

     In Middle and West Tennessee Negro slaves began to assume increasing importance. As early as 1808 Montgomery Bell, of Nashville, advertised for "ten Negro fellows" to man his iron works on the Harpeth River. Even earlier a few slaves were employed in crude mining operations in East Tennessee. Nashville and many smaller towns kept Negroes for civic repair and forager work. With the coming of the steamboat and railroad, large numbers of company-owned Negroes furnished the unskilled labor. Very soon Negroes began filtering into the artisan class as well. So many white craftsmen had become landowners that by 1802 "when General James Winchester built his stone house, Cragfont... near Gallatin... he had to import working men from Baltimore to do the interior finishing." Most of the ant-bellum homes, churches, and public buildings were the work of slave artisans and laborers. The slaves were successor to brick making and brick laying, carpentry, blacksmithing, and metal working. Primarily, however, they were agricultural workers or domestic servants.

     The white farm hand at that time could draw $8.67 per month with board. A day laborer got 58 cents per day, 43 cents if he boarded in. Carpenters readily received $1.38 per day, and female domestics, of whom there were few, $1.00 per week. Behind all these was the threat that the work they did could be equally well done by the slaves, who could be hired from their masters or owned at two-thirds the cost of white labor.

     Reconstruction for the South meant a readjustment for the Tennessee working man. Faced with uncultivated fields and run-down industries, a second pioneer period was inevitable.

     Many of the freed Negroes migrated to the cities in search of work, or to the North. They made places for themselves in a few industries - mining, iron - and steelwork, the railroads; and in service and trades - as domestic servants, laundresses, and porters. However, they returned to the soil as hands or "croppers" and later as tenants.

     The small white farmer rented land, if his own had been lost, and began life again in the only manner he knew. Money was scarce; capital was in the North. The landowner needed a cash crop to meet his obligations, but the tenant, Negro or white, saw little cash from one year's end to another. His family of from six to ten persons, lived in a dilapidated shanty, and worked from dawn to dusk. His debt was to the commissary, which in turn was in debt to the wholesaler. The owner himself could buy in no way but on credit. The result was a vicious circle from which it was difficult for either the tenant or the landowner to escape. This condition grew in West Tennessee and to a lesser degree in the middle counties. Tenant-operated farms constituted 30 per cent of those within the State by 1890 and had increased to 40 per cent in 1900.

     By 1900 the same primary forces were at work in East Tennessee. Mills, factories, and mines attracted small farmers from long-gone mountain farmsteads. Although the pay was low and conditions deplorable in light of the present day, the worker at least did not face extended starvation for himself and his family.
 

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