The Unfolding of American Labor Law: Judges, Workers, and Public Policy across Two Political Generations, 1790-1850

By Jeffrey Steven Kahana | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Master and Servant

A Servant, is a person subjected to the power and au-
thority of a master for a limited time, upon a particular
contract.

—Zephaniah Swift, A System of the Laws of the
State of Connecticut
(1795)

The words master and servant, set side by side, evoke images of a feudal system, where a fief (the feodum) was literally a form of property recognized by the law. This arrangement of personal service, so important to the social structure of the medieval world, gave rise to a bilateral relationship. Marc Bloch, a leading historian of the Middle Ages, vividly described the formation of the ties that bound servant to master and master to servant:

Imagine two men face to face; one wishing to serve, the
other willing and anxious to be served. The former puts
his hands together and places them, thus joined, between
the hands of the other man—a plain symbol of submis-
sion, the significance of which was sometimes further
emphasized by a kneeling posture. At the same time, the
person proffering his hands utters a few words—a very
short declaration—by which he acknowledges himself to
be the “man” of the person facing him. Then chief and

-31-

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