Monday, 10 October 2016

The Economic and Impact of Slavery on the North: Reading Eric Foner's Texts

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
On the strength of its control of the transatlantic trade in cotton, New York City rose to commercial dominance. Even the abolition of the slave trade from Africa in 1808, a year before Lincoln’s birth, did not slow slavery’s growth. A flourishing domestic slave trade replaced the importation of slaves. By the eve of the Civil War, the slave population in the United States had reached nearly four million. The economic value of these men, women, and children when considered as property exceeded the combined worth of all the banks, railroads, and factories in the United States. In geographical extent, population, and the institution’s economic importance, the South was home to the most powerful slave system the modern world has known.

Foner, Eric (2011-09-26). The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Kindle Locations 582-587). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War
Indentured servitude, a form of voluntary unfreedom, comprised a major part of the non-slave labor force throughout the colonial era. As late as the early 1770s, nearly half the immigrants who arrived in America from England and Scotland had entered into contracts for a fixed period of labor in exchange for passage. Although not slaves, indentured servants could be bought and sold, were subject to corporal punishment, and their obligation to fulfil their duties (“ specific performance” in legal terminology) was enforced by the courts. They occupied, a Pennsylvania judge remarked in 1793, “a middle rank between slaves and freemen.” 3 Of the two kinds of free labor— wage work and independent proprietorship— the latter predominated in colonial America. By the time of the Revolution the majority of the nonslave population were farmers who owned their own land and worked it by family labor, supplemented in many areas by indentured servants and slaves. Recourse to wage labor on the farm was quite rare, and hired workers tended to be youths who could expect to acquire property in the future. In colonial cities, wage labor was more prevalent, although the unfree formed a crucial part of the labor force, even outside the South. Until at least the mid-eighteenth century, large numbers of artisans and merchants, North as well as South, owned slaves and employed indentured servants and apprentices. After 1750, the ranks of wage earners began to grow, their numbers augmented by population growth, declining access to land in rural areas, and the completion of the terms of indentured servants. The economic depression of the

Foner, Eric (1995-04-20). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Kindle Locations 94-106). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Representative government could only rest on a citizenry enjoying the personal autonomy that arose from ownership of productive property and was thus able to subordinate self-interest to the public good. Not only personal dependence, as in the case of a domestic servant, but working for wages itself were widely viewed as disreputable. This belief had a long lineage. In seventeenth-century England, wage labor had been associated with servility and loss of freedom.

Foner, Eric (1995-04-20). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Kindle Locations 114-117). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

in the South, no longer applied to bound white labor, “servant” became a euphemism for slave.

Foner, Eric (1995-04-20). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Kindle Locations 137-138). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

So long as yeoman families retained control of productive property and had the realistic prospect of passing it on to their children, the ideal of autonomy retained social authenticity. “Proprietorship,” concludes Randolph A. Roth’s study of Vermont’s Connecticut River valley, an area fully integrated into the capitalist marketplace by 1860, “remained the ideal and was still a possibility for most citizens.” The opening for settlement of land in the West made the goal of farm ownership even more realistic for small farmers and their descendants. 9 Far different were the consequences of capitalism’s development in the nation’s commercial and manufacturing cities, especially in the Northeast. Here, the increased scale of production, undermining of traditional crafts, and dwindling of opportunities for journeymen to rise to the status of independent master, combined to make wage labor rather than ownership of productive property the economic basis of family survival. As the centrality of the household to production waned, many male home owners were transformed into wage earners; they occupied simultaneously the positions of property owner and dependent employee, even as the spread of outwork mobilized tens of thousands of poor women for paid labor in their homes. After 1830, the rapid increase of immigration swelled the bottom ranks of the labor force, the “army of wage workers” who dug America’s canals, built the railroads, and loaded and unloaded ships in port cities.

Foner, Eric (1995-04-20). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Kindle Locations 151-163). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, American law adopted the definition of wage labor as the product of a voluntary agreement between autonomous individuals. The freedom of free labor arose from the noncoerced nature of the contract itself, not whether the laborer enjoyed economic autonomy. This legal transformation both reflected and reinforced the shift in economic power toward entrepreneurs and investors, while in some ways limiting the actual liberty of wage earners. Court-ordered specific performance of a labor contract fell into abeyance, no longer deemed compatible with the autonomy of the free laborer; but by the same token, the legal doctrine of “employment at will” also relieved employers of any obligation to retain laborers longer than economically necessary. If the right to quit helped define the difference between the free laborer and the slave, along with it came lack of recourse against being fired. While labor itself was not legally enforceable, the labor contract was held to clothe employers with full authority over the workplace. Thus, work rules that seemed extremely arbitrary to employees had the force of law behind them, and any who refused to follow reasonable commands could legally be dismissed without payment of wages due. Judges invoked the definition of the laborer as an autonomous individual to impede workers, via conspiracy laws, from organizing collectively to seek higher wages, and to prevent them from obtaining compensation from employers for injuries on the job (as free individuals, they were presumed to have knowingly assumed the risks of employment).

Foner, Eric (1995-04-20). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Kindle Locations 169-180). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

The elevation of free labor depended on slavery, insisted Senator David S. Reid of North Carolina, for slavery liberated white men from the degrading “low, menial” jobs, like factory labor and domestic service, performed by wage laborers in the North.

Foner, Eric (1995-04-20). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Kindle Locations 215-217). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

It has recently been argued that North as well as South, the rhetoric of wage slavery implicitly rested on a racist underpinning. Slavery was meant for blacks, freedom for whites, and what was degrading in wage labor was reducing white men to the same level as African– Americans. The obvious elements of exaggeration in the idea of wage slavery (sometimes magnified to the point where Northern laborers were said to work in more oppressive conditions than Southern slaves) lend credence to this argument, as does the overt racism of Mike Walsh and other Jacksonians who employed wage slavery language. (Walsh and his fellow New York City Democrats linked to the labor movement even supported Calhoun’s quixotic quest for the Presidency in 1844.) On the other hand, artisans and factory workers were, in general, hardly known as defenders of slavery, and many who employed the language of “wage slavery” assumed that, as a Lynn, Massachusetts, labor paper put it, “all kinds of slavery” should be “buried . . . forever.” However employed, wage slavery, as David Brion Davis has written, was a blunt instrument for describing the range of subtle coercions operating in the capitalist marketplace; indeed, Davis suggests, analogies with chattel slavery may well have “retarded the development of a vocabulary” more appropriate to market society.

Foner, Eric (1995-04-20). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Kindle Locations 218-227). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

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