Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

North American Peonage

Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

North American Peonage

Article excerpt

As he labored over the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867, Karl Marx paused to describe the system of servitude that existed in North America: "In some States, particularly in Mexico (and before the American Civil War, also in the territories taken from Mexico), slavery is hidden under the form of peonage"--wrote the German sociologist--"and by means of advances, repayable in labor, which are handed down from generation to generation, not only the individual laborer but his family become the de facto property of other persons." Marx was referring to a sprawling system of labor coercion that had existed for centuries in Mexico and the American Southwest and--contrary to his assertion--would survive and even thrive in the United States through the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the system of debt peonage that existed in northern Mexico and the American Southwest in some ways anticipated the regime that would emerge in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. (1)

This essay offers an overview of the spread of peonage through North America and attempts to show that this form of labor coercion was older and more pervasive than generally believed. It originated in Mexico and other parts of Latin America shortly after European colonization and was common in the territories the United States took in the 1830s and 1840s and thus became a part of the American historical experience. Changing national boundaries thus resulted in an impressive continuity of coercive labor practices throughout northern Mexico and the American Southwest during the rest of the century. Moreover, peonage also emerged in the American South after the Civil War. Although debt peonage acquired distinctive characteristics in each region and was adapted to different legal contexts, the commonalities of all of these systems of labor coercion are intriguing.

Debt peonage is frequently associated with Mexico's export-led economy during the Porfirian era (1876-1910) and the consequent expansion of haciendas and ranches. The image one usually gets is that of lowly peons and their families toiling for their patrones in enormous landed estates. Indeed, much of what we know about peonage comes from a spate of works focused on the second half of the nineteenth century and often devoted to the question of how this form of exploitation may have contributed (or not) to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17 and led to the swelling of the revolutionary armies that fought in it. (2)

Yet, as Silvio Zavala and other researchers have shown, debt peonage harks back to the very beginnings of European colonization. (3) Little is known about the scope of debt peonage and expansion through time, but impressionistic evidence suggests that it was less frequent in the early colonial period and more common in the eighteenth and especially in the nineteenth century--a pattern that jibes well with the notion that debt peonage proliferated only when other forms of labor coercion (outright slavery, nabortas, encomiendas, repartimientos, and others) were phased out and the advancement of credit and compulsion from the resulting debts emerged as the primary mechanism through which owners retained control over workers. (4)

Codes and decrees offer important clues about this trajectory. Already in 1556, Mexican viceroy Luis de Velasco specifically banned Spaniards from advancing money to Indians with the intention of making them fall into debt and forcing them to work. (5) In the following decades, the Spanish crown issued similar regulations, arising from inspections or individual complaints related to imprisonment for debts in a variety of settings. The infamous textile workshops, or obrajes, for example, merited regulation to curb abuses from 1595 through the end of the seventeenth century. These workshops were frequently little more than jails in which debtors, criminals, and indentured minors--deemed apprentices--worked off debts, served out their sentences, or fulfilled servitude contracts signed by their guardians or parents. …

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