LEISURE BY LAW.
[FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.] New York, April 6, 1866. THERE was a very large meeting, a mass meeting of workmen, here last evening in Union Square. This square, which is the scene of so many of our open-air meetings, is a large open space at the junction of Broadway with two avenues, the point of junc- tion being crossed by Fourteenth Street, one of the widest in the city. Thither the workmen's societies and trades' unions tended early in the evening, with banners, music, and torches, and not without that now constant nuisance at all our city public meetings, a cannon, large enough from its frequent discharge to disturb a circle of a mile in diameter, and to make much of the speaking inaudible at irregular intervals. It was somewhat noteworthy that this meeting, being of real workmen, three of the four stands or platforms put up for the speakers and officers came down. early in the evening with great crash and ruin, mingling
chairmen, beams, secretaries, planks, speakers, and tables in confusion both alarming and ridiculous. Luckily no one was seriously hurt ; but the carpenters and joiners had a good opportunity to be ashamed of their craft, and furnished occasion of reproach and opportunity for a good point to the opponents of the object of the meeting. This was that reduction of the hours of labour the agitation of which has attracted some attention in Europe during the last few months, and which is called "The Eight Hours' Movement." What the agitators seek is the enactment of a law by which the day of " a day's work" shall be declared to mean eight hours, whereas now it means ten. Fifteen or twenty years ago it meant twelve, the reduction then having been accomplished by very much the same kind of agita- tion as is going on now. The movement in both cases is of a kind very likely to be misunderstood by one observing it from a distance ; and it has been misunderstood in England, where I have seen it commented upon as an endeavour to restrict labour, and to compel leisure by law. The writer of one of the articles in my eye speaks of the movers on the previous occa- sion as having " recommended a legislative provision limiting work to ten hours," and of the present movers as seeking to " interfere with private freedom to an extent hitherto un- precedented, annul the right of making contracts, and equalize so far as they can industry and idleness;" also of "a com- pulsory cessation of work everywhere and among all classes at four o'clock in the afternoon." All this is said in no invidious or censorious spirit, but it is worthy of special notice, from the total, the radical misapprehension upon which it is based, not only of this eight hours' movement, but of the feeling in this country as to private freedom, the personal irresponsibility of the individual citizen as to his personal affairs. An attempt at revolution in the United States is almost inconceivable ; a revolution being, as I take it, an attempt, more or less violent, and resting upon a pos- sible appeal to force, at the subversion of a form of government or a dynasty, within the limits of a nation ; and not a war of separation or independence like ours of 1776, or that of the seceding slaveholders. But if anything could provoke a revolu- tion here, it would be the attempt to restrain personal freedom in the manner above supposed. It would be a revolution that would be finished in a day, for the whole people -the Yankees I mean, for what the foreigners of other races would bear in this way I cannot say-would be on one side, and the few men who attempted the restriction on the other. In fact that there should be such an attempt is not a supposable case. It might do in France, or among some other peoples on the Eastern continent, but among the sort of Anglo-Saxons that we have here the idea of such a thing is preposterous. Why, we will hardly submit here to legislation which interferes with our personal freedom for the sake of saving our lives and those of our wives or children. It is against the laws of most of the States, if not of all, to walk upon a railway ; the laws having been passed only after the occurrence of many fatal, and many more grievous, though not fatal, accidents due to the practice forbidden. But the law is not enforced, and cannot be. Men say, "If I choose to risk my own life, that's my look-out. I know that, as I am doing what is contrary to law, I have no claim for damages if any harm should come to me, and more, that I am liable for any damage that I cause. But I take my chance, and it's my business. The Government is not my keeper."
And so men walk upon the tracks with the printed law against it staring them in the face, and no one ever dreams of enforcing it.
Nor has the idea of limiting work to eight or to ten hours, of interfering with private freedom, or of securing leisure by law, ever entered into the head of any sane man here, I am sure. The attempt is for something much more in accordance with the spirit of our people and of our government, if not more reasonable and simple.
The case is just this. Before the first ten hours' enactment a day's work was, not by law but by custom, twelve hours, that is, from six o'clock in the morning to six in the evening, with the
midday hour for dinner, sometimes called " nooning," taken out. After the enactment in question a day's work was defined by the law to be ten hours' work, exclusive of any deduction whatever, that is, for instance, from seven o'clock to twelve, and, the inter- vening hour for dinner not being counted, from one o'clock until six. But this law, which soon prevailed all over the country, did not aim in any way to limit the hours of work, to prevent employers from keeping their shops open and their business goibg for as many hours a day as they pleased, or to ensure leisure to the workpeople. It merely defined a legal day's work. That is, when a journeyman engaged himself to a " boss," i. e., a master workman, or a char- woman came to your house to work, by the day," a day meant ten hours' work, and not eleven or twelve ; and if the boss or the house- keeper wished the work to go on faster than ten- hours a day would make it go, extra pay or more bands were required. I do not know the custom with you in regard to mechanics' work, but here, if a plumber, carpenter, painter, or what not, does work for you, he sends in a bill charging you with so much material, boards and nails, for instance, and then with so many days' work for journeymen, and so many for helpers or apprentices. By the law as it now stands, you have a right to demand that those days shall consist of ten hours, but they dock you of some of the time by counting from the hour when they start from the shop, and by leaving their work in time to get back to the shop at six o'clock. This law settled that in dockyards and all like public places the legal day's work should be ten hours long, and in fact that under all circumstances, when a contract, for labour was made, a day meant ten hours, unless there were special agree- ment to the contrary. This saved a. great deal of trouble, protected people dependent upon their labour against grasping employers, and gave the working classes an hour, at their choice, to devote to recreation or the care of their families. It was a
valuable law, too, in regard to the building of houses, ships, roads, &c., by days' work, instead of by contract. With us anything made by days' work, as it is called, is always looked upon as being much more likely to be thorough workmanship than if it is made by contract ; because if a man is paid by the day he takes his time, if by contract or the job, he gets through it as soon as he can, and with no more labour than is absolutely necessary. It is very common to see a house advertised for sale with the statement that it was " built by days' work " as a recommendation. In this case you can look out for yourself, and see that the workmen of all kinds employed upon your house work thoroughly for you for ten hours a day ; if they do not, you can dispute their employer's bill.
The eight hours' movement, it will be seen, is simply an attempt to reduce the legal day from ten to eight hours, so that when people engage to work it shall be understood, without any specification whatever, that a day's work is eight hours. But there is no thought of such a thing as attempting to prevent em- ployers from asking men to work ten hours a day, or twelve, or fourteen, for that matter, or the men from consenting and working at loom, bench, or anvil, as long, day after day, as they find it to their interest to work. The notion of the writer of the article in question is, that there is an intention to " prohibit, under penal- ties, longer hours in factories or places where many men are en- gaged, that the prohibition is to extend to all ages, and is designed to operate in every department of labour," must certainly have
come into his head from the ateliers of France ; it never came from here. Attempt to enforce it upon a Yankee, that he shall
not employ workmen, or work himself, more than so many hours a day ! Talk to him about it, and it would be so ridi- culous to him that he would hardly laugh at it. All that the existing or the proposed law is designed to do, is simply to put a stamp on time as the mint puts it on silver. Such a coin is a legal dollar—so many hours is a legal day, but what a man shall do with his days or his dollars, how many he shall spend and how many he shall keep, or how much he shall give for so much of something else, is his own business, and is just that sort of private, perional business with which a Yankee will permit no interference whatever from any quarter.
Yet another mistake is (very naturally) made by the same writer, in saying that "the friends of the movement, it must be remembered, do not talk nonsense about men earning as Much in eight hours as they would in ten." Now this is just the nonsense that they do talk ; whether we accept the word earning in the sense of getting, or that of rendering value fOr by labour. What they claim, in brief, is that the legal day's work shall be eight hours instead of ten,' and that for the eight hours they shall re- ceive just as much money as they are now receiving for the ten ; and they pretend that they will give as much in return. One of the prominent speaiers last evening (and ho is a man who, not seeking office for himself, can do much to defeat any candidate for the Legislature, either at Albany or at Washington? said, "The man who works but eight hours a day can accomplish more than the man who works ten hours a day," and this is the position taken by the advocates of the movement, who, ,I am sorry to say, are generally demagogues. Neither now nor before was there any intention to sacrifice gain to leisure, but only to get the same or more pay for less work. The employers as a body and the most thoughtful of the workmen are all agaiest this movement, and you may well ask what it can come to but a reduction of wages to correspond to the reduced length of the legal day. It looks like nothing else now. The shipbuilders of New York have resolved to stop work in their yards for six months at least, if the men strike for an eight hours' day and present wages-4 dols. and 50 cents a day, with gold at 127, and living no dearer in paper than it is in London iu coin, tip-top sirloin cuts of beef, for instance, at 28 and 30 cents a pound in currency. The shipping merchants have consented to sustain the shipbuilders, and the feeling of the community is decidedly against this eight hours' movement. The Bills brought in by its advocates have been thus far lost in all the State Legislatures, two of them, howater, consenting if New York would. But New York did not. •