The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 by David Montgomery

David Montgomery had a unique perspective from which to write The Fall of the House of Labor. Having spent several years in the workforce and involved in labor politics during the 1950s, he saw the culture and the challenges of labor movements first hand. Montgomery continued his activism for worker’s rights even after he established himself as a respected academic.[1] Montgomery’s time in the Communist Party also contributed to his view on Labor issues.[2] In creating the school known as “New Labor History”, along with historians E.P. Thompson, David Brody, and Herbert G. Gutman, Montgomery moved labor history from economic history to social history. He further cemented that position by writing The Fall of the House of Labor.

Montgomery states in his introduction, “The human relationships structured by commodity production in large collective enterprises…generated bondings and antagonisms that were…the daily experience of everyone involved.”[3] To study labor history is not only to study the economics of production, but the individuals who produced. The daily lives of workers both at work and at home are integral to the history of labor in the United States. Montgomery never separated the two. He also insisted that it is not only important to see the individual, but to heed the wide variety of individuals as well, “Before the 1920s, the house of labor had many mansions.”[4] From the lowest unskilled labor to the highly skilled artisans, “labor” encompassed a diverse array of characters and types alike. In some cases, this diversity could be wielded as strength, but in many ways, it was what caused the downfall of organized labor after 1920.

The first third of the book examined the different classes of laborers through individual positions. In so doing, he gave the reader an invaluable insight into the lives of the workers, while also demonstrating the importance of those lives to his work. Though workers of all levels came together briefly enough to give the Socialist Party some prominence in the 1916 election, they could not hold long enough to institute true lasting political change.[5] By the time of the 1920 Presidential election, the fervent patriotism that grew from World War I, coupled with a growing fear of Bolshevism created an atmosphere of distrust of the labor unions, and they were not able to unite against the growing tide of anti-unionism. The organizations fell to open-shop drives and nativist propaganda.

Additionally, the institution of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” created further divisions. Taylor studied organization of production and sought to increase industrial efficiency. His ideas were implemented with the addition of a new layer of management on the factory and shop floors. This new layer created yet another class within the working class.[6] Later in the book, Montgomery shifts from the individual to the whole, arguing that “social engineering had to be applied to the whole matrix” of the workers’ lives in order to “do more than simply increase the operative’s productivity.”[7]

With all of the various components arrayed against Labor, it is no wonder that the “House of Labor” fell after the 1920s. The only surprise might lie in that it held out as long as it did against a prolonged and profound assault that one reviewer called “the protracted socio-economic equivalent of a nuclear attack.” The combined power of industro-capitalists coupled with public perception and fear of Communism/Socialism/Bolshevism all but doomed the Labor movement. Governmental repression and strong anti-immigration legislation also played a part. “In the tight repression of the Coolidge era, all but a radicalized handful of workers reported quietly to whatever jobs they managed to hold, discarding wartime aspirations as the folly of youth,” and concentrating their efforts on their home lives instead of their working conditions.[8]


[1] “In Memoriam: David Montgomery,” Yale News, December 8, 2011, accessed March 22, 2012, http://news.yale.edu/2011/12/08/memoriam-david-montgomery.

[2] Jon Wiener, “David Montgomery, 1927-2011 | The Nation,” David Montgomery, 1927-2011, December 2, 2011, accessed March 22, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/164954/david-montgomery-1927-2011.

[3] David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 1.

[4] Montgomery, 6.

[5] Ibid, 254.

[6] Ibid, 178-179.

[7] Ibid, 170.

[8] Ibid, 464.

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America by John Demos

John Demos is an historian of another age. He was trained during a time when historians were struggling to be recognized as more than mere stenographers of past events. As a result, narrative history was shoved aside in favor of a more (if not almost purely) analytical approach that stressed interpretation of the stories rather than the telling of them. This was unfortunate as he “had been drawn to history by the stories.” As the subtitle to this work suggests, however, he has come back to that love of story and expressed it through The Unredeemed Captive: A Story from Early America.
Demos’ work tells the story of the Williams family. Theirs is a story that was central to the history of colonial America. Settled in Deerfield on the Massachusetts frontier, John Williams (d. 1729), respected Puritan pastor and community leader, and his family struggled to build a life on the edge of the vast American wilderness. They faced hardships both environmental and physical. The greatest of these occurred 28 February 1704, when the French directed a raid against the community of Deerfield. The raiding party included French troops as well as a great number of Indian allies. Two of Williams’ children were killed outright; four others were captured along with him and his wife. His wife, Eunice, was killed along the way, but the others all survived the arduous trek to Canada. Over the course of almost three years all were ‘redeemed’ or returned to Massachusetts, except for the youngest daughter, also named Eunice. She chose to stay and make her life with the Mohawk family that had adopted her.
This book is ostensibly the story of the raid and capture, the redemption of John Williams and four of his children, and subsequent attempts to redeem Eunice. While focusing primarily on this one family, Demos managed also to tell the larger story of the early colonies. He used a wealth of primary sources, including letters, journals, public notices and legal records. In staying true to his narrative form, he weaves those into the story at times as if they were dialogue. This makes the story come alive in a way that reads much like decent fiction.
Demos does not shy away from the analytical, however. He goes beyond what is merely recorded in the sources to interpret the larger picture of colonial Massachusetts. One of the most salient examples is the third chapter, his study of Williams’ writings during and immediately after his captivity. Demos goes beyond the text in front of him and interprets them through a contextual filter. In so doing, he gives a much more intimate portrayal of Williams, while at the same time widening the scope to show Williams as a product of his time and place.
The second half of the book is taken up with Eunice’s life in Canada. After being adopted by a Catholic Mohawk family, she chose in turn to adopt their ways, language and religion. Eunice was baptized a Catholic (and rechristened Marguerite), much to the horror of her Puritan family that saw Catholicism as grievous sin. She married a Mohawk man and raised a family with him. John Williams never gave up his hope of redeeming her to her old family. Eunice never gave up her new family. In telling this part of the story, Demos relied on, admittedly scant, tribal records and personal papers. Yet he managed to recreate a realistic portrait of her community and family.
Demos managed to achieve his goals of telling a story and doing so from a point of view not wholly European. Through the life of John Williams, he was able to describe a larger colonial story. Through Eunice, he told the story through the eyes of those facing colonization. Through the French officials in Montreal and Quebec, Demos was able to add the additional voice of those North of the border. Unredeemed Captive is at once a story highly personal and yet hugely representative of early America.