Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America

Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America

Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America

Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America


Laboring for Freedom examines the concept of freedom in the context of American labor history. Nine chronological essays develop themes which show that "liberty of contract" and "inalienable rights" form two contradictory traditions concerning freedom: one tradition insists that liberty involves the expression of individual will with regard to one's property (i.e. one's labor); the second tradition holds that there are fundamental rights of man that must neither be taken away by the state nor surrendered by the individual. The tensions between these two concepts are traced in the book. Topics covered include republican independence, corporate paternalism, the compromises of collective bargaining, and human rights in a global economy. The book argues that ultimately freedom is best analyzed as a changing set of constraints, rather than an attainable ideal.


People labored out of necessity, out of poverty, and that necessity and poverty bred the contempt in which laboring people had been held for centuries. Freedom was always valued because it was freedom froth the necessity to labor.

--Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Freedom means work.

--General Oliver O. Howard, Freedman's Bureau, 1865

I would be hard-pressed to define the character of the United States without emphasizing the word freedom. Expressions such as "home of the free," "beacon of liberty," and "crucible of freedom" have been indelibly etched onto the American psyche. Despite widespread recognition that freedom is in some way linked to the American soul, accord extends little further. Even the nation's two founding documents reveal tensions at the heart of our self- proclaimed virtue. From the time of the Declaration of Independence to the ratification of the Constitution, the term "freedom" was used to bridge a wide chasm separating competing conceptions. Under one conception, a person's freedom rested on self-evident and inalienable rights, while integral to the other, freedom was synonymous with an individual's liberty of contract. Blind faith appears the most promising way to span the chasm between these alternatives, but where faith fails, ambiguity has succeeded. Freedom has become a slogan full of sound and fury, which, rather than signifying nothing, may now, perhaps, signify everything.

One of freedom's allures is that it promises the impossible: a world without constraints holding us back from our desires. However, we cannot seriously begin to discuss freedom without placing limits upon it. Although this does violence to freedom's promise, we know freedom can never be absolute. the laws of nature pull us toward our death against our will. Likewise, the laws of man pull us toward our 1040 forms each April 15.

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