1 - “Free” Contract Labor in the United States: An Anti-essentialist View of Labor Types I  pp. 29-38

“Free” Contract Labor in the United States: An Anti-essentialist View of Labor Types I

By Robert J. Steinfeld

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Although the main concern of this book is wage labor in the nineteenth century, I want to begin by approaching the subject through the back door, as it were. The conventional view is that wage labor is one of a small number of standard labor types. Each form of labor is thought to possess its own timeless characteristics. Freedom from physical or other nonpecuniary forms of coercion is considered to be wage labor's most notable characteristic. Imported contract labor represents another of these standard types. Its most salient feature, however, is thought to be that it is compelled by threats of confinement or corporal punishment. In this chapter I ask whether, as a matter of historical practice, contract labor has always been unfree in the sense that it has been enforced through nonpecuniary threats. If it has sometimes been “free” labor in the sense that only pecuniary sanctions have been available to employers, this would raise difficulties for the assumption that a particular labor “type” is invariably either “free” or “unfree.” It would also make necessary a revision of the view that the history of labor should be understood in terms of fixed types used only at particular stages of social and economic development.

Until about 1830 the American experience with imported labor conformed to the conventional wisdom. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries land was readily available in the American colonies, and hired labor was expensive and difficult to retain. During this time, Americans did import large numbers of unfree workers (indentured servants and slaves) to satisfy their labor needs.