Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
LABOR CONDITIONS IN THE COLONIES

Introduction. There were two outstanding facts shaping labor conditions in the colonies. The first was the scarcity of labor, which arose from the conditions that resulted in a small supply of labor and a large demand for it. The conditions determining the supply of labor will be explained later; those that created the large demand originated principally in the abundant supply of natural resources, the products of which the colonies were in a position to make economically and in the production of which a large amount of labor was required. The second fact was the comparative absence, except for the slaves and the temporarily indentured servants or apprentices, of a distinct laboring class in the sense of a group who during most of their lives hired themselves out to employers for wages upon which they chiefly depended for their living; the beginnings of such a group were to be found in the cities. This was the outcome of various conditions chief among which were the attractions of independence as a small farmer combined with easy access to cheap land and the small scale of operations, together with the lack of the clear-cut separation of the functions of entrepreneur and worker which characterized most other lines of economic activity. These conditions exercised an important influence not only on the economic but also on the social and political life of the colonists, notably in tending to develop a spirit of independence, individua initiative, and love of freedom.

The Supply of Labor. With the situation that existed in the colonies the supply of labor was especially important. Thus an understanding of the conditions that determined it is essential. These conditions were numerous but the outstanding factors in the situation determining the labor supply of a country at any time may be listed as follows: (1) the total population and the number among this total capable of doing work; (2) the number of those capable of doing work who are willing to work; (3) the length of time, in hours, days, and years, and the intensity of their work; (4) the intelligence or skill which they possess and are willing to apply in their work. Obviously, since a great variety of conditions can be named that will react on any one of these factors, we can only point out the more important among those operating in the colonial period.

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