Free to Work: Labor Law, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, 1815-1880

By Waldrep, Christopher | The Journal of Southern History, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Free to Work: Labor Law, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, 1815-1880


Waldrep, Christopher, The Journal of Southern History


Free to Work: Labor Law, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, 1815-1880. By James D. Schmidt. Studies in the Legal History of the South. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, c. 1998. Pp. xiv, 331. $53.00, ISBN 0-8203-2034-X.)

James D. Schmidt writes that--"above all"--emancipation was a legal event (p. 93). On one level, this seems obvious. Reconstruction was a time when Congress passed laws and wrote new constitutional amendments, and everyone scrambled to use, abuse, or evade the new law. The earliest historians of Reconstruction, however, doubted that these laws had any real effect. No statute, they opined, could change the reality of white racial superiority. More recently, Eric Foner has presented Reconstruction as chiefly a social movement. In this paradigm, workers' consciousness matters more than the law, which merely reinforces hegemony. Peter Bardaglio (Reconstructing the Household [Chapel Hill, 1995]) and Laura Edwards (Gendered Strife and Confusion [Urbana, 1997]) have sought to introduce ideology, law, and rhetoric into Reconstruction studies at the grassroots, as relevant to social history. Edwards writes that "the best social history is political" and "the stuff of private life was inherently political" (Gendered Strife and Confusion, pp. 5, 18).

In Free to Work, Schmidt, an associate professor of history at Northern Illinois University, puts law and lawmaking at the center of the Reconstruction experienced by ordinary people. He does so by tracing the origins of laissez--faire ideology that came on the heels of Reconstruction. Before the Civil War, northerners debated the role government should play in the labor market. In this era, conservatives dominated, expecting the state to supervise employers' contracts with their employees, providing security for both. Conservatives argued for "entirety," a doctrine holding that workers must complete their contracts. According to this view, workers quitting early should be punished by losing all their pay; laborers could not be allowed to participate in the free market by shopping around for better pay before the expiration of their contracts. …

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