Child Labor and Women’s Suffrage Debated
The constitutional convention in Bismarck in 1889 has discussed and debated many issues during the long sessions. A sampling of the debates on two of the major issues, child labor and women’s suffrage, indicate the lively disagreements.
Should a provision be included that prohibits children under the age of 15 from working in mines, factories and workshops?
Lorenzo D. Bartlett, a Dickey County Farmer:
If you want to save the country from tramps and vagabonds, give them work to do while they are young. I went into the world and worked for myself ever since I was a little boy. I grew up one of the strongest men in the country I lived in. I tell you, get boys and girls that don’t do any work till they are fifteen years old, and you will fill your country with tramps and vagabonds. There is a certain part of the population that will go to school, and if they are inclined that way, there is where you will find them. Work, labor is what makes useful men and women.
John W. Scott, a lawyer from Valley City:
I don’t think it wise to incorporate this section in the Constitution. I don’t think it wise to limit the age at which a child may begin work. In the case of some children it is absolutely necessary that they work for themselves. They are without mother or father, and if we prohibit them from working we may be working a serious injustice. We have not many factories and workshops in North Dakota yet and are not likely to have for years to come. I think the whole matter should be indefinitely postponed.
Albert Parsons, a railroad employee from Mandan:
My father was a Yankee farmer in Vermont, and by hard work he has managed to acquire a moderate fortune. He told me this—he said, “Young man, try to profit by the hardships that I have gone through. Try to have your children well educated.” I wish to see our citizens grow up educated. I desire to have ignorance banished from our land if possible. I wish that we shall have educated voters—desire to see our people prosperous and happy. The Legislature by supplementary action can go on and make provision for those who are not in such circumstances as to be able to maintain themselves in schools, and I believe every true hearted citizen will support measures of this kind.
William Lauder, a Wahpeton lawyer:
If we have no factories this provision can do no harm. But we expect to have some here. This does not prevent boys from working in the harvest field and working out of doors where they will breathe the pure air. These employments are healthful and right. This section aims to prevent the crowding of boys and girls into factories where they are dwarfed, and their health injured, and they are prematurely broken down. The gentleman from Burleigh says a boy of 12 can nearly do the work of a man. That is the difficulty. Because a boy can do that he is often required to do the work of a man. Boys should not be required to do that, and it should not be put into the power of any person to work them like so many cattle in the shops. That is just what this section means, and the same thing will be tried here without doubt when our cities grow up and factories are established.
Editor’s Note: The proposal was adopted but the age reduced from 15 to 12 years of age.
Should the constitution provide for women suffrage, the right to vote?
Lorenzo D. Bartlett, a Dickey County farmer, believed the matter should be left to future legislatures:
Do you believe for one moment that where a man and woman are living together and they are both seeking for greatness — has not your life’s experience taught you that they do not get along well together? Are you not aware of the fact — every gentleman here—that in such a case they won’t pull in unison together. They may be both republicans or both democrats together, but the moment there is a discord, and unfortunately it will come in a great many cases, that very moment if the man is a republican the woman will become a democrat, or if the man is a democrat the woman will become a republican. That is the history of the world, and there will be bickering. Anything that brings discord and sorrow into the family is not for the best interests of the people.
William S. Lauder, a Wahpeton attorney, believed suffrage should be guaranteed in the Constitution:
It has been argued here that if the elective franchise was granted to ladies, the result would be unhappiness in the home, and to prove that position it was presented before you as a consideration that would influence your votes that at a large gathering of ladies that met at St. Paul some time ago, they were described as being very unhappy in appearance. Is there any reason why these women should be happy when they are deprived of their just rights and privileges, and are compelled to obey laws in which they have no right to cast a vote or say whether these laws shall prevail?
Editor’s Note: The convention left the suffrage matter to the legislatures which would convene once statehood was achieved.
Did You Know . . . ?
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention made education free from grade one through college. They wrote, “The legislative assembly shall provide at their first session after the adoption of this constitution, for a uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, beginning with the primary and extending through all grades up to and including the normal and college courses.”
The delegates wanted schools to teach more than facts. They wrote into the state constitution, “In all schools instruction shall be given as far as practicable in those branches of knowledge that tend to impress upon the mind the vital importance of truthfulness, temperance, purity, public spirit, and respect of honest labor of every kind.”
Delegate Albert Parsons of Mandan spoke out often for working people. In addition to fighting to raise the minimum age at which children could be put to work, he wanted the rights of working people protected with laws that would make it illegal to “blacklist” someone—which meant that a worker who spoke up would be put on a list as a troublemaker, a list passed around to all businesses.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.