In 1790, the small shops in which weavers traditionally worked were being threatened by large mills where cloth could be woven more cheaply than at individual looms. The threat was far-reaching, but also immediate. Wilson and other weavers were convinced that at least one mill owner, William Henry, had lengthened the device by which he measured an employee’s daily production. Thus a man who wove say 20 yards of cloth would be paid for only 19 yards.

Wilson did what a poet does, he wrote a poem, The Hollander, about William Henry’s suspected deceit, although he does not specifically name Henry. The poem, which made him a hero among his fellow weavers, may be the first protest literature of the Industrial Revolution, the first to air the grievances of workers, and the first to advocate unionization. The Hollander made Wilson a poet...

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