Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Coal Miners

“In addition to isolation and darkness, the [coal] miner sometimes works in mud and water, sometimes stripped to the waist because of the heat, sometimes in suffocating gas and smoke.”  Those words from a 1922 U.S. Department of Labor report told only part of the story.  Coal miners also faced lung disease, explosions, and cave-ins that trapped miners underground, where they often died.

Coal filled 90 percent of U.S. energy needs at the time.   Some 10 million tons of coal was mined annually in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.

The miners, some of them boys as young as 10, worked 10 or more hours a day to supply the coal the country demanded.  Their pay was low, and many were in debt to the mine owners, who owned the stores at which miners bought food. 

The United Mine Workers (WMW), formed in 1890, tried to improve the lives of the miners, but the owners fought bitterly against the union.   They even hired their own armies to beat or kill striking miners.  But under the leadership of John L. Lewis, who became the union’s president in 1920, the UMW gradually achieved its goals:  Child labor was prohibited.  The mines were made safer.  And miners worked fewer hours and earned higher pay.   A song from the 1830s shows how important the UMW was to coal miners: 

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till ev’ry battle’s won.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


The crowd roared as the tall Virginian appeared on the balcony of New York City's Federal Hall.  George Washington, hero of the revolution, had agreed to serve his country in a new role.  

On that day, April 30, 1789, he took the oath of office as the first President.

Less than a year before, the states had approved the new Constitution, which created a strong central government.  in January and February of 1789, elections were held to choose a President, Vice President, and members of Congress.   The first Congress had 26 senators and 65 representatives.   It met in New York, the temporary capital, on April 6.  Then came the inauguration of George Washington, who had been chosen President by unanimous vote.

The President and Congress got right to work.  Congress passed the Bill of Rights, protecting the basic freedoms of Americans, and sent it to the states for approval.  Congress also established the executive departments, such as the Department of State and the Department of War, and the federal court system.   And George Washington began to shape the office of the President, setting patterns and precedents that later Presidents would follow.

Another question that Congress had to address early on was how to address the President.  After considering "Your Excellency" and "Your Highness," Congress settled on the simple "Mr. President."