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The Invention of Free Labor

The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870

Robert J. Steinfeld
Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 286
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  • Book Info
    The Invention of Free Labor
    Book Description:

    Examining the emergence of the modern conception of free labor--labor that could not be legally compelled, even though voluntarily agreed upon--Steinfeld explains how English law dominated the early American colonies, making violation of al labor agreements punishable by imprisonment. By the eighteenth century, traditional legal restrictions no longer applied to many kinds of colonial workers, but it was not until the nineteenth century that indentured servitude came to be regarded as similar to slavery.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1640-7
    Subjects: Law, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Chapter 1 Introduction
    (pp. 3-14)

    Most histories of the English and American employment relationship¹ operate from the implicit assumption that “free” labor has always represented the norm in the wage-labor relationship. “Unfree labor,” it is widely recognized, of course, occupied a central position in the medieval labor system. When villeinage grew rare in England, however, and the provision of labor came to be based primarily on consensual transactions in which individuals exchanged their labor for wages or other compensation, free labor, it is commonly assumed, was the form these transactions took. Over the last decade, to be sure, a number of historians have demonstrated just...

  5. Chapter 2 The Master-Servant Relationship in Early Modern England and the American Colonies
    (pp. 15-54)

    We are accustomed to imagining that the relationship between employer and employee involves nothing more than a contract between juridical equals. In no way is this contract supposed to affect the basic legal or political status of either party. But this way of imagining the employment relationship is relatively new. It is an invention of the nineteenth century, although by the middle of that century it already dominated the way many Americans thought about employment.

    By 1850 Americans were characterizing employment in contractarian terms completely familiar to us. But their recent memory of a radically different way of thinking about...

  6. Chapter 3 Labor Imagined
    (pp. 55-93)

    The early modern English and their colonial cousins drew on two basic sets of conceptions to explain to themselves how those who labored for others fit into their collective lives. In some ways these conceptions were consistent with one another; in other ways they conflicted. In the minds of most contemporaries, nevertheless, they were both, for the most part, taken-for-granted features of the social landscape. In the early modern Anglo-American world, the legal control masters exercised over wage workers was sometimes treated as a form of jurisdiction that masters enjoyed over the persons of their workers and sometimes as a...

  7. Chapter 4 The Freeborn Englishman and the Persistence of Traditional Service
    (pp. 94-121)

    In previous chapters, we have discussed the legal rules that made departure from work a crime and examined the cultural universe of which those rules were a part. Law and culture, however, are shot through with contradictions, and in this chapter we examine some of the ideas, images, and widely shared norms that introduced tensions into early modern Anglo-American attitudes toward traditional labor practices. Our objectives are three. The first is to describe several of the cultural traditions that working men and women were eventually able to draw on to fashion successful challenges to these older labor practices. The second...

  8. Chapter 5 The Ambiguous Impact of the American Revolution
    (pp. 122-146)

    The American Revolution advanced processes that had been making indentured servitude seem less and less like normal employment, but it did not directly lead to its elimination. Americans of the Revolutionary generation continued to harbor deeply contradictory views about the labor relationship. On the one hand, the diffusion of an amorphous mix of liberal and radical republican ideas over the course of the Revolution helped to bring about basic transformations in the relationship between many American wage workers and their employers. On the other hand, certain traditional forms of the labor relationship, indentured servitude and apprenticeship in particular, continued to...

  9. Chapter 6 Working Out the Idea and Practice of Free Labor
    (pp. 147-172)

    In the decision in Mary Clark’s case, the Indiana Supreme Court distilled out of more than a generation of intellectual and social ferment a new understanding of what constituted voluntary and involuntary labor. The case marked the moment in American legal culture when the category indented service began finally to collapse into the category slavery, both now classified merely as forms of involuntary servitude. It marked the moment when free/unfree began clearly to take on their modern character as absolute and opposite, and it brought contemporaries within sight of the modern understanding of the labor relationship. “In a free government...

  10. Chapter 7 The Federal Anti-Peonage Act of 1867
    (pp. 173-184)

    By 1830 in the United States, thelegal statusof indentured servitude was quite different than it had been in the American colonies, but it still did not completely reflect the modern liberal ideal of free labor. Leaving to one side the case of people of color under gradual emancipation legislation, indentured servitude had been limited in law to native-born minors and to immigrants (not limited to minors). As a matter of actual practice, immigrants were no longer being imported as servants, except on rare occasion. In some states, Massachusetts (1795) and Delaware (1827), indented service was restricted by statute...

  11. Conclusion. Self-Ownership and Self-Government in the Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 185-188)

    The changes that took place in the legal definition of employment during the early decades of the nineteenth century were the result in part of a struggle mounted by ordinary people to throw off the hierarchical arrangements of traditional Anglo-American society. Their efforts to redefine themselves as independent and self-governing persons, however, were not limited to the employment relationship. Following the American Revolution working people mounted a broad campaign to secure the suffrage. Developments in these two areas of life were related.

    Property qualifications for the suffrage which had been common before the Revolution rested on a set of simple...

  12. Appendix. Habeas Corpus File of Runaway Laborers, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company (1829)
    (pp. 189-196)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 197-252)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 253-264)
  15. Index
    (pp. 265-277)