The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870

The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870

The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870

The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870

Synopsis

Examining the emergence of the modern conception of free labor--labor that could not be legally compelled, even though voluntarily agreed upon--Steinfeld explains how English law dominated the early American colonies, making violation of labor agreements punishable by imprisonment. By the eighteenth century, traditional legal restrictions no longer applied to many kinds of colonial workers, but it was not until the nineteenth century that indentured servitude came to be regarded as similar to slavery.

Excerpt

Most histories of the English and American employment relationship operate from the implicit assumption that "free" labor has always represented the norm in the wage-labor relationship. "Unfree labor," it is widely recognized, of course, occupied a central position in the medieval labor system. When villeinage grew rare in England, however, and the provision of labor came to be based primarily on consensual transactions in which individuals exchanged their labor for wages or other compensation, free labor, it is commonly assumed, was the form these transactions took. Over the last decade, to be sure, a number of historians have demonstrated just how quantitatively important one form of contractual but unfree labor, indentured servitude, was in colonial America. Even their work, however, has not substantially altered the sense that indentured servitude was somehow special, limited, and a deviation from contemporary norms. English labor of the period was heavily regulated; the public authorities, for example, were entitled to fix wages. Nevertheless, the ordinary wage work of the time is thought to have been nothing like indentured servitude. Today, the history of the labor relationship in England and America continues to be shaped by a basic image that has rarely been called into question: pockets of indentured servitude artificially created and maintained in a landscape in which contractual labor was otherwise free labor.

The argument and evidence presented in the following pages overturn this implicit framework. They show that in seventeenth-century England, the nearly universal legal form of consensual manual labor was not free labor but unfree labor. English law made the violation of most labor agreements pun-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.