- Alexander Hamilton’s son dies in a duel that takes place in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1802.
- Alexander Hamilton responds by helping to pass a law that makes dueling illegal in New York.
- Alexander Hamilton dies in a duel that takes place in Weekhawken, New Jersey in 1804.
The proper function and size of government is a seemingly infinite debate that, at least among politicians who favor rhetoric over reason, has made little headway. But it’s difficult to conceive how basic workplace safety regulations, assuming they are rigorously enforced and substantiated by solid evidence, could be anything but beneficial to the average worker, who is too often a victim of authoritarian employers solely concerned with financial profit. The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh resulted in over 800 deaths that could have been easily prevented. Indeed, we here in the United States and specifically in the great state of New York have a historical model that demonstrates how government regulations can improve working conditions practically overnight.
On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in a building located one block from Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Historian Robert A. Slayton describes the horror of the event in Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith:
James McCadeen, a worker in a nearby building, “saw a girl come to the edge of the roof and stand for a minute. Her hair was in flames. I couldn’t look anymore.” That anonymous victim was joined by many more, who made the impossible choice between being burned alive or jumping to their deaths. Some of them, facing an alleyway, plunged onto a spiked wrought-iron fence and were imapled.
A New York Times reporter came upon a headless and charred trunk on the sidewalk and inquired of a nearby policeman if it was a man or a woman. The grizzled veteran, who claimed he had worked other New York calamities but they were nothing like this, responded, “It’s human, that’s all you can tell.”
Although it’s true that “accidents happen,” in this instance, the conditions of the factory virtually guaranteed that many workers could not escape in the event of a fire. The back entrance to the building was locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. The door to the staircase opened the wrong way, thus making it difficult for a rushing horde of people to squeeze into the stairwell. The fire escape collapsed as soon as few people tried to step on it. No fire drills had ever been conducted because the factory owners didn’t want to waste time with safety precautions when they could be making money. There was a fire hose, but it barely worked. It took only 30 minutes for 146 workers, most of them women who earned meager pay, to die.
In June of 1911, the Factory Investigation Commission (FIC) was created and Robert Wagner (who would later serve as a U.S. Senator from 1927 to 1949) was named its Chairman and Al Smith (who later ran for President against Herbert Hoover in 1928) its Vice Chairman. The FIC traveled throughout the state, conducted hundreds of interviews, and compiled thousands of pages of testimony. The sweeping investigations discovered, among many other abuses, the horrendous conditions of the canning industry, in which young children, some of them only three years old, worked from 4am to as late as 10pm every day.
In response to their investigations, the FIC created 32 bills, many of which became law. The regulations are now commonplace across the United States. As Slayton explains,
Today doors must egress to the outside, and there is always a panic bar that can be slammed with a foot or shoulder. The commission required that all doors and windows leading to fire escapes be marked with crimson paint, although their original concept called for “a clearly painted sign marked ‘exit’…and in addition, a red light shall be placed over all such exits.” Today’s version is the bright red exit sign we see everywhere…
Fire drills…were also mandated for the first time [and]…sprinklers became mandatory in factories.
All of these new requirements were met with opposition from factory owners who claimed they could not afford the additional costs. Yet somehow, magically, hundreds of thousands of profitable factories still exist in the U.S. today.
Any conversation about individual liberty must acknowledge the tendency, both in the United States and throughout the world, both historically and in the present day, for some business owners to have little regard for their workers, sometimes even to the extent of killing them via negligence. If no powerful entity exists to combat this corporate authoritarianism, then all notions of liberty become mere fantasies totally divorced from everyday reality. The tragedy in Bangladesh is an important reminder of how far we’ve come and of how we went about bettering the lives of millions of workers across the country.
Walter Stahr, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man
William H. Seward simply doesn’t receive the attention due him. His commitment to the abolition of slavery was marrow-deep, even to the extent of violating laws and opening up his home to fugitive slaves.
It’s easy to see how to do away with what we call crime. It is not so easy to do it. I will tell you how to do it. It can be done by giving the people a chance to live— by destroying special privileges. So long as big criminals can get the coal fields, so long as big criminals have control of the city council and get the public streets for street cars and gas rights, this is bound to send thousands of poor people to jail. So long as men are allowed to monopolize all the earth, and compel others to live on such terms as these men see fit to make, then you are bound to get into jail.
The only way in the world to abolish crime and criminals is to abolish the big ones and the little ones together. Make fair conditions of life. Give men a chance to live.
I think another great problem…is the fact that everything has become so impersonal. Everything is so large and so big and you feel that you don’t play any role anymore, that you can’t effect things. You can’t effect what the government does. It’s so big and it’s so large and it’s so far away. It spends a great deal of money but you are just a small cog.
…I think perhaps that’s the major problem we have within government but I think the great problem that all of us have in society is how we’re going to come back to the idea that the individual is important and that society exists for him and government exists for him and he doesn’t exist just for the rest of us.
William F. Buckley, Jr., addressing the people of New York City during his Mayoral campaign in 1965.
Source: The New York Times, November 2, 1965