Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor

Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor

Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor

Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor


Throughout recorded history, labor to produce goods and services has been a central concern of society, and questions surrounding the terms of labor -- the arrangements under which labor is made to produce and to divide its product with others -- are of great significance for understanding the past and the emergence of the modern world.

For long periods, much of the world's labor could be considered under the coercive control of systems of slavery or of serfdom, with relatively few workers laboring under terms of freedom, however defined. Slavery and serfdom were systems that controlled not only the terms of labor, but also the more general issues of political freedom. The nine chapters in this volume deal with the general issues of the causes and consequences of the rise of so-called free labor in Europe, the United States, and the Caribbean over the past four to five centuries, and point to the many complications and paradoxical aspects of this change.

The topics covered are European beliefs that rejected the enslavement of other Europeans but permitted the slavery of Africans (David Eltis), British abolitionism and the impact of emancipation in the British West Indies (Seymour Drescher), the consequences of the end of Russian serfdom (Peter Kolchin), the definition and nature of free labor as seen by nineteenth-century American workers (Leon Fink), the effects of changing legal and economic concepts of free labor (Robert J. Steinfeld), the antebellum American use of the metaphor of slavery (David Roediger), female dependent labor in the aftermath of American emancipation (Amy Dru Stanley), the contrast between individual and group actions in attempting to benefit individuallaborers (David Brody), and the link between arguments concerning free labor and the actual outcomes for laborers in nineteenth-century America (Clayne Pope).


The startline and moving events that swept from China to Eastern Europe to Latin America and South Africa at the end of the 1980s, followed closely by similar events and the subsequent dissolution of what used to be the Soviet Union, formed one of those great historic occasions when calls for freedom, rights, and democracy echoed through political upheaval. A clear-eyed look at any of those conjunctions--in 1776 and 1789, in 1848 and 1918, as well as in 1989--reminds us that freedom, liberty, rights, and democracy are words into which many different and conflicting hopes have been read. The language of freedom--or liberty, which is interchangeable with freedom most of the time--is inherently difficult. It carried vastly different meanings in the classical world and in medieval Europe from those of modern understanding, though thinkers in later ages sometimes eagerly assimilated the older meanings to their own circumstances and purposes.

A new kind of freedom, which we have here called modern, gradually disentangles itself from old contexts in Europe, beginning first in England in the early seventeenth century and then, with many confusions, denials, reversals, and cross-purposes, elsewhere in Europe and the world. A large-scale history of this modern, conceptually distinct, idea of freedom is now beyond the ambition of any one scholar, however learned. This collaborative enterprise, tentative though it must be, is an effort to fill the gap.

We could not take into account all the varied meanings that freedom and liberty have carried in the modern world. We have, for example, ruled out extended attention to what some political philosophers have called "positive freedom," in the sense of self-realization of the individual; nor could we, even in a series as large as this, cope with the enormous implications of the four freedoms invoked by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Freedom of speech and freedom of the . . .

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