Mechanics' Institute of Little Rock
In September 1858, a group of white workingmen in Little Rock (Pulaski County) formed one of the state’s first labor organizations, the Mechanics’ Institute, which sought to protect white workingmen from un-free or “degraded” competitors—free Negroes, slaves, and inmates at the state penitentiary—who were forcing down wages. The Mechanics’ Institute sought a political solution to the workingmen’s competitive troubles, calling on the Arkansas General Assembly to “stop permitting free negroes to reside among us,” limit the work of slaves to agricultural and domestic pursuits, and convert “the employment of convicts in our State prison more exclusively to the manufacture of such goods and articles as are not manufactured here.” In demanding these reforms, the Mechanics’ Institute enunciated a version of the free labor ideology that fueled the growth of the Republican Party in the North in the 1850s. Surprisingly, the Arkansas General Assembly took steps to satisfy two of the Mechanics’ Institutes three demands—passing a measure to remove free blacks from the state and leasing the state’s convicts to someone who promised to work them at pursuits that did not offend the free white workingmen of Little Rock. Only the demand to limit the work of slaves went unmet.
There are no membership rolls for the Mechanics’ Institute, but A. J. Ward served as president. A carriage maker born in Connecticut who had spent several years in Memphis, Tennessee, Ward quickly built a prosperous shop in Little Rock after his 1857 arrival. The other officer was Recording Secretary E. Waugh Crowl, a carpenter who had been born in Maryland. The other four known leaders of the Mechanics’ Institute were Charles O. Haller, F. M. Conway, A. J. Wagner, and R. E. Stack. Although the size of the movement remains unknown, critics never questioned the right of these men to speak on behalf of the city’s white workingmen.
The least controversial of the Mechanics’ Institute’s demands was the eviction of free blacks from the state. A movement to evict free blacks was already under way when the Mechanics made the demand. Plantation owners, politicians, and small farmers feared that free blacks served as bad examples to those who were enslaved and might even incite insurrection. With widespread popular support, the Arkansas General Assembly easily passed a measure in 1859 giving free blacks six months to leave the state and punishing those who refused to do so with enslavement. Although the state would postpone enforcement of this law in 1860, and the law would never take effect, the passage of the law caused a high percentage of the state’s free African Americans to sell their property and leave the state. According to the 1860 census, there were no free black men in Little Rock.
The approximately 100 inmates at the Arkansas penitentiary offered more competition to the free white workers of Little Rock in 1858 than did free blacks. The Mechanics’ Institute complained that the directors of the penitentiary were working the inmates as “carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, shoemakers, upholsterers, coopers, wheelrights [sic], painters, carriagemakers” and that the penitentiary’s workshops were “producing every variety of article for sale or barter in town.” The state legislature responded to the Mechanics’ demands (and financial pressures) by enacting a convict lease system in early 1859 and awarding the contract to A. J. Ward, the president of the Mechanics’ Institute, who promised to put the convicts to work in pursuits that would not compete with Little Rock’s workingmen.
Only the Mechanics’ demand to limit slavery to agricultural or domestic pursuits generated any opposition. Urban slaveholders, especially widows, often preferred to have their slaves “hire their own time”—that is, allow slaves to find their own work and support themselves in return for periodic payments. These slaves, according to the Mechanics, degraded the labor of free white workers, forcing down wages and causing artisanal pursuits to be associated with African Americans. The most outspoken opponent of the Mechanics’ proposal was the Arkansas True Democrat, a newspaper edited by Richard H. Johnson and aligned with the ruling faction in Arkansas politics. Johnson conceded the principle that free white labor should not be forced to compete with slave labor, but he denied that slaves were capable of mounting such competition: “Slave labor cannot compete successfully with white labor in any of the trades. The slave lacks the intelligence. The mechanics of the south have never suffered by such competition.” Johnson also noted the similarity of the Mechanics’ Institute’s proposal to the “abolitionist” ideas circulating in the North: “The movement, carried to its full extent, would abolish slavery in the south. If the mechanics can justly complain of the competition of slave labor, those engaged in every other form of industrial pursuit can complain of the same with equal justice—there are even those who can complain of the negro upon the farm.”
While political leaders of all stripes had stepped up to support the campaigns to alleviate the city’s workingmen of competition from convict labor and free blacks, the Mechanics’ fight against competition from slaves elicited no such backing. The white workingmen of Little Rock were small in number as a portion of the state’s voting population, and the state’s politically powerful planters opposed all efforts to limit what they could do with their human property. The Mechanics’ Institute quickly realized that its proposal stood no chance of passage during the legislative session to begin later that fall and, with the end of the legislative session in early 1859, the organization disappears from the historical record.
For additional information:
Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
Lack, Paul D. “An Urban Slave Community: Little Rock, 1831–1862.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 41 (Autumn 1982): 258–287.
Pierce, Michael. “Mechanics of Little Rock: Free Labor Ideas in Antebellum Arkansas, 1845–1861.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 67 (Autumn 2008): 221–244.
Taylor, Orville W. Negro Slavery in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated: 01/20/2022