ORONO — Between 1828 and 1834, workingmen’s political parties were created in more than 60 towns and cities in at least 12 states in the nation, and no fewer than 68 labor newspapers heralded the “uprising.”

In May 1830, New Jersey’s Newark Village Chronicle said: “From Maine to Georgia within a few months past we discern symptoms of a revolution, which will be second to none save that of ’76.’ ”

A few breaths later, the Albany Working Men’s Advocate shouted: “Throughout the vast republic, the farmers, artisans, mechanics, and workingmen are assembling . . . to impart its laws and administration those principles of liberty and equality unfolded in the Declaration of Independence.”

Not far removed from Lexington and Concord, the “Spirit of ’76” and their revolutionary heritage, mechanics (defined as those who labored with their hands) and farmers in Maine and elsewhere were sensitive to increasing disparities in power and wealth that threatened their status as free and independent citizens of the new republic.

Maine mechanics and farmers viewed themselves as the “bone and sinews” of society and true “producers” of the wealth enjoyed by its members. As “producers,” they belonged to the class that did useful work and lived by their own labor and not the labor of others.

These “producers” contrasted sharply with their perception of the “nonproducing” class of bankers, lawyers, merchant capitalists, land speculators and wealthy employers whose control over production rested solely on ownership of capital.

A ringing declaration in support of the “producers” ideology was offered in 1831 in the columns of Portland’s The Mechanic: Farmer and Working-men’s Advocate by a local mechanic who questioned the value of the wealthy employer:

“Will his rusty dollars prostrate the forests, or sow the seed – navigate the deep sea, or turn the spinning jenny – without the aid of the muscles and sinews of the animal mechanics? Not by ‘two chalks.’ Here then begins the entire dependence of opulent indolence upon the industry of the mechanic, the artist, the farmer, the every-day laborer.”

Maine’s embryonic labor papers and first labor party (1831) cataloged workers’ criticisms and demands for reform. The theme of equality laced together the myriad reforms proposed.

Emblazoned on the pages of The Mechanic: Farmer and Working-men’s Advocate and other Maine labor papers were labor’s litany of demands, highlighted by the cardinal value of “Equal Universal Education.”

The driving argument behind the demand for free, equal and universal education was that it would secure the republic, erase aristocratic distinctions and advance equality.

The republicanism of the mechanics (in the sense of anti-aristocracy and anti-privilege) influenced all their arguments for reform, including educational reform. They attacked the “unequal distribution of knowledge” that accounted for the “disparity of influence” exercised by some at the expense of the many and that gave rise to “aristocratic distinctions.”

The “general distribution of knowledge” was considered basic and essential to a republican form of government and a bulwark against ignorance, which was the “very ground work of tyranny and despotism.” Workers looked to free and universal education to not only foster self-development, enlightenment and social status, but to snap the link between wealth and the monopoly of knowledge in areas such as law, banking, medicine and politics.

A local “mechanic” wrote:

“There should be no PRIVILEGE class – let the favors be equally enjoyed and the burdens equal borne. There should not even be an aristocracy of intellect; and every one who really desires ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’ should rejoice in all judicious effort to place all classes as nearly as possible upon an equality in point of intelligence . . . We should encourage in all the nobler aspirations of the mind – that all classes may stand a chance of winning the honors which the social compact has to impart; affording the noblest illustration of the genius of our institutions and developing the beauty of the republican principle.”

Today, we hear and read much about the centrality of income and wealth distribution, the privatization of “government schools” and a host of other concerns affecting education, such as those expressed in the Portland Press Herald on March 31, when it headlined its editorial “Our View: Student debt load fuels income inequality.” The paper noted: “Society does not benefit from a system that prevents some people from having a fair start in life.”

Such sentiments form part of the nation’s revolutionary thread and egalitarian spirit, and serve as a reminder that educational goals involve much more in content, purpose and meaning than simply making people marketable.

— Special to the Press Herald