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

By Daniel Jacoby | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Contracting Liberties

[B]y equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody, but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.

-- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

After the American Revolution, apprentices, servants, and children, among others, found courage to assert themselves anew. If during the colonial period Americans learned to contract for their own benefit, in the post-revolutionary period they refused to recognize accepted authorities. Abetted by an emerging cash economy, they proclaimed their rights and bargained for a better deal. If that deal was not forthcoming, they packed their bags and left. For example, the comments of Ebenezer Fox, an apprentice at the time, reveal how the revolutionary rhetoric became a part of everyday life:

I, and other boys situated similarly to myself thought we had wrongs to be redressed; rights to be maintained; and, as no one appeared disposed to act the part of a redresser, it was our duty and our privilege to assert our own rights. We made a direct application of the doctrines we daily heard, in relation to the oppression of the mother country, to our own circumstance; and thought that we were more oppressed than our fathers were. I thought that I was doing myself a great injustice by remaining in bondage, when I ought to go free; and that the time was come, when I should liberate myself from the thralldom of others, and set up a government I of my own; or, in other words, do what was right in the sight of my own eyes. 1

If independence and revolution provided the language with which Americans pragmatically dismantled remaining bastions of traditional authority, it was the expansion of markets that gave them the opportunity to do so. Increasing specialization, the extension of trade, independence from British rule, and a rapidly growing domestic population raised the demand for servants, construction workers, artisans, and other assorted hired hands.

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Prologue 3
  • Part I - Independence or Contract 11
  • Chapter 1 - Republican Soil 13
  • Chapter 2 - Contracting Liberties 33
  • Part II - Illusory Freedoms 53
  • Chapter 3 - The Properties of Labor 55
  • Chapter 4 - A Skillful Control Managing the Labor Process 68
  • Chapter 5 - Incorporating Paternalism 84
  • Chapter 6 - Free Education 98
  • Part III - New Deals and Old Ideals 115
  • Chapter 7 - Union Compromise 117
  • Chapter 8 - Rights of Passage 130
  • Chapter 9 - Playing the Global Piano 149
  • Epilogue - Memories and Challenges 166
  • Notes 169
  • Bibliography 185
  • Index 195
  • About the Author 211
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