March 31, 2011


American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $26.

Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. By Albert Marrin. Knopf. $19.99.

     Revolutions, whether peaceful or violent, do not occur because of a single event. They are the product of many occurrences, generally over many years. But certain individual events capture the public imagination, contemporaneously or when history books are written, and come to symbolize revolutionary fervor – whether accurately or not. Both the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the Triangle Fire of 1911 have assumed these near-mythic proportions, to the point that both events have particular resonance today: the Boston Tea Party in the name “Tea Party” chosen by a decentralized group of political protesters determined to shake up the U.S. election system, and the Triangle Fire because, a century after its occurrence and the huge boost for unions that resulted, the union movement itself has come under widespread attack for padding payrolls and providing excessive benefits to union members at the expense of society at large.

     American Tempest does a good job of putting the December 16, 1773 protest in the context of the protest movement as a whole at the time. Historian Harlow Giles Unger shows that, like today’s Tea Party movement, the one that culminated in the Boston Tea Party was in fact made up of many occurrences in different places. And in fact there were two Boston Tea parties, the second several months after the first. Furthermore, although Unger’s book mentions the expected Founding Fathers (Presidents-to-be George Washington and James Monroe, eventual Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, and many others), it also points out that most participants in the first Boston Tea Party were deliberately anonymous and remained so, wanting not only to escape British justice but also to make it clear that the destruction of tea was a citizens’ tax-protest movement rather than the action of a few specific disgruntled individuals. Given the high interest in self-promotion and publicity of many modern Tea Party supporters, this determined anonymity is one of the hardest things for a modern readership to understand, but the gap is worth bridging, for it shows how the Boston Tea Party so rapidly became symbolic of a group of colonies determined to fight against “taxation without representation.” That phrase itself is so widely misunderstood today that the District of Columbia, which under the Constitution has no senators or congressional representatives, has placed it on some of its license plates as a protest – and gotten the entire phrase backwards (the plates say “Taxation without Representation,” which means they support this approach, rather than “No Taxation without Representation,” which was the colonists’ rallying cry). Unger picks up so many details that those not interested in historical minutiae may find his book tough going, although it is generally well written and moves along briskly. For instance, modern readers would likely think the tea tax was a huge one, along the lines of current taxes that today’s Tea Party members (and others) are protesting. Not so: it was a mere one-tenth of one percent for a typical cup. The colonists objected not to the size of the tax, not even to taxes in general (which they accepted as necessary “to provide for the common defense,” among other things), but to the imposition of the tax from distant England without any involvement of or consultation with the colonists themselves. Theirs really was a principled stand, not one designed to save them a great deal of money. Unger provides interesting commentary on the disparate interests that were united by the forces that led to and emerged from the Boston Tea Party – the alliance among, for example, strongly pro-independence Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry and Paul Revere and wealthy, respected and (for a considerable time) distinctly pro-British John Hancock. Unger’s detail-oriented portrayals of these people help make history come alive – the fact, for example, that Adams was bankrupt and a convicted embezzler. Indeed, it is the details that provide much of the book’s interest – for example, Unger’s note that the Tea Tax was Britain’s fourth attempt to tax the colonies, not its first. There may actually be too much to absorb in this book for the casual reader, but those with an interest in American history and the roots of today’s Tea Party movement (roots of which many modern members are likely unaware) will find American Tempest fascinating reading.

     The American Revolution was in many ways a civil war, as Unger points out. And there was another type of civil war on the streets of New York City in the early 1900s, this one between factory owners and managers, on the one hand, and their largely immigrant workers and their supporters, on the other. Unlike the Boston Tea Party, which resulted in no deaths (directly), the war during which the tragic fire at the Triangle Waist Factory (sometimes called Triangle Shirtwaist Factory) occurred claimed lives and caused numerous injuries. “Both sides turned to the underworld for help,” writes historian Albert Marrin in Flesh & Blood So Cheap. “Employers hired Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond and his goons to protect them and their scabs, and beat up strikers and union leaders. The unions paid the ‘king of the East Side gunmen,’ Jacob ‘Little Augie’ Orgen, and his thugs to protect picketers and union leaders, and batter employers and scabs.” These were, in a sense, glory days for union organizing, when New York was a rough-and-tumble city filled with barely literate immigrants of whom employers could and did regularly take horrible advantage. The activist unions of that day were a far cry from what “establishment” unions were later to become as their power grew, culminating in the 1950s in arrangements in which management and labor – especially in such major industries as automobile manufacturing – worked together to, it seemed to some people, gouge the rest of the country, entering into ever-richer deals for union members until those workers ended up with pay and benefits packages of which most other Americans could only dream. But Flesh & Blood So Cheap takes place at a much earlier time, and the Triangle Fire occurs only on page 111 of this book’s 182 oversized pages. The earlier chapters set the scene, exploring the era of substantial immigration into New York, the use of impoverished workers – mostly women, most of them Italians and Jews – to produce clothing under horrific conditions for pitifully small wages, and the eventual awakening both within the garment industry and outside of it of a movement to protect workers’ rights and allow employees to have some power to balance that of management. Marrin’s book is written for younger readers (ages 10 and up), but it does not talk down to them or mince words, quoting (for example) a newspaper subhead, “Some Impaled on Pickets,” to show what happened to a number of women trying to escape a clothing factory blaze that occurred before the Triangle Fire. “The science of fire prevention was as advanced as that of firefighting,” writes Marrin, showing all the prevention elements built into the Asch Building, where Triangle operated – elements that either did not work properly or were undermined because, notoriously, doors that would have let workers escape the factory floor were locked. Marrin offers portraits of many individual Triangle employees – some of whom survived, some of whom did not – and of others involved in the events of the time, from leaders of the movement for women’s suffrage to New York Fire Department Chief Edward F. Croker, “among the bravest of the Bravest,” who “would not hesitate to charge into a burning building as the roof seemed about to collapse to see if it was safe to let his men enter” – but who was devastated when he saw the results of the Triangle Fire. “We will never know for sure what started the Triangle Fire,” explains Marrin. “Most likely, a cutter flicked a hot ash or tossed a live cigarette butt into a scrap bin.” But the cause matters less than the result: 146 people dead of the 500 Triangle employees at work that day – including 130 women. Marrin does a fine job of exploring aftereffects of the fire, from the unsuccessful attempt of Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris to resume business elsewhere to the eventual death, as recently as 2001, of the last survivor of the fire (at the age of 107). Flesh & Blood So Cheap is a one-sided book in which unions and their political backers, such as New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, are the heroes, and businesses and their owners are the villains. And the book ends with a warning that the lessons of the Triangle Fire, although learned in the United States, have not been absorbed in the rest of the world, where inhumane working conditions continue to lead to factory fires and deaths. The advocacy is laid on a bit too thickly at times, but the Triangle Fire was so horrific and the working conditions in factories of the time so awful that the author’s approach is generally justifiable. And Marrin does not shrink from showing how corrupt many unions became in the decades after the Triangle Fire. Flesh & Blood So Cheap is scarcely an uplifting book, and for that reason may be a tough read for many people, especially younger readers. But it is a well-told story of a pivotal time in the development of American capitalism and the union movement – subjects that are rarely taught in much depth, if any, in schools today, but that students may well find influencing their lives for many years after they complete their education.

No comments:

Post a Comment