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Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century

Author(s):Steinfeld, Robert J.
Reviewer(s):Hamilton, Gillian

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)

Robert J. Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth

Century. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xi + 329

pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-77360-1; $22.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-521-77400-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gillian Hamilton, Department of Economics, University of


In 1991 Robert Steinfeld (SUNY-Buffalo) published The Invention of Free

Labor, a study of the legal history of labor in the U.S. and England

between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was an important volume

that excited economic historians interested in labor markets. Workers were

“free,” Steinfeld argued, when they were no longer compelled to complete their

contracts under threat of criminal sanction such as imprisonment. Contrary to

popular opinion, it was not just indentured servants that faced such strictures

in the seventeenth century — it was the norm for all workers. By the early

nineteenth century, workers achieved “freedom.” By this time specific

performance and imprisonment for labor contract breaches, even for immigrant

workers, was perceived as little different from enslavement and made illegal.

The book described the legal transformation of indentured servitude and wage

work in the United States, offering a less detailed treatment of contract

workers in England for comparison.

In Coercion, Contract and Free Labor, Steinfeld pursues similar themes

but reverses the geographic emphasis. Drawing on a wide variety of sources that

includes court cases, judicial opinions, parliamentary minutes, bills and

testimony, as well as prosecutions under the Master and Servant Act, he offers

an in-depth narrative of the steps that led to the repeal of criminal sanctions

for labor contract breaches in England. Steinfeld begins by arguing that

enforcement through criminal sanction was an integral part of the employment

relationship. Examining the numbers of prosecutions under the Act, he

illustrates that prosecutions were not at all rare (more than 10,000 cases per

year between the 1850s and early 1870s), generally grew over time, varied by

county and varied with the business cycle.

We also learn about different groups’ agendas and their attempts to change the

laws; the evolving court interpretation of existing laws; and the responses of

employers and employees to these changes. For example, the court’s

interpretation of the legislation became increasingly broad. It drew more and

more workers under the Act as its definition of coverage evolved. It also

ensured that contracts were more enforceable when it no longer required

contracts to specifically state that the employer would provide work — this

“mutuality” obligation was deemed implicitly obvious. Steinfeld’s narrative

makes it clear that one cannot be lulled into believing that a legal

environment was static even if there were no changes in the law.

As the author notes, the possible effects of changes in the court’s

interpretation of the Act on such factors as contract length and the method and

frequency of compensation (piece rate versus straight time, for example),

should be of interest to economic historians (p. 166). To illustrate, Steinfeld

focuses on changes in contract length. “Minute” contracts, which did not

require notice and so essentially circumvented the Act, became more common at

least in some coal mining regions. He discusses the pros and cons of short

versus long contracts in some detail, invoking a game theoretic approach to

help explain the move towards shorter contracts. Ultimately he concludes that

there may be no clear relationship between duration and the interpretation of

the law: “the new rule [mutuality] may have led them [employers] to press

workers harder for shorter contracts without earnings guarantees, and perhaps

even on occasion long contracts without earnings guarantees” (p.188). This

conclusion undoubtedly reflects the complexity of the subject matter, but

having read more than sixty pages on legal interpretation I was eager to read

about more substantive effects of these changes! In-depth empirical analysis of

these relationships is generally beyond the scope of this book, however,

because the author does not have a set of employment contracts from which to

draw inferences. The book does, however, offer us considerable opportunity for

(very interesting) future research. Did the incidence of piece rate contracts

change over time, for example, and did this reflect changes in the court’s

willingness to include these workers under the Act?

Steinfeld goes on to discuss the political process of reform. One of the most

surprising elements of this story is that criminal sanctions were so entrenched

and accepted in England that although individuals and groups had been agitating

for reform of the Master and Servant Act since the early 1800s, no one had even

considered removing them from the legislation until just before it was struck

down in 1875.

Steinfeld also discusses other countries, primarily the United States, for a

comparative perspective. In a departure from his earlier work, he argues that

while workers could quit without threat of criminal sanctions by the early

nineteenth century, they were not truly free because they was still subject to

coercion. American employers relied on a variety of pecuniary means of

enforcement. In situations where workers could either complete their contract

or forfeit all of the wages owed to them (which could amount to several months

pay) they were left with little choice but to complete their term. Depending on

the circumstances, Steinfeld argues, pecuniary enforcement could have been as

unpalatable (and hence coercive) as imprisonment. Modern legal freedom for

workers was not achieved until the early twentieth century when sufficient

legal strictures were put in place to limit employers’ ability to construct

coercive contracts that effectively denied workers the right to quit.

This is another stimulating thesis that is worth pursuing. Are penal and

pecuniary penalties perfect substitutes? Overall, were English workers more or

less coerced than their American counterparts and what effect did this have on

productivity, turnover, and employment relations? Early on, Steinfeld argues

that “[without criminal sanctions] the contract labor system never developed

into a significant source of labor for American employers” (p. 32). But later

he argues that pecuniary remedies could be as disagreeable as non-pecuniary

ones (p. 310). If so, why wasn’t contract labor more common?

The Invention of Free Labor is a hard act to follow. Steinfeld does an

admirable job with Coercion, Contract and Free Labor. It will enrich

those interested in labor relations and stimulate further research.

Gillian Hamilton is Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. She is

the author of “The Decline of Apprenticeship in North America: Evidence from

Montreal,” Journal of Economic History, 60, No.3 (Sept., 2000): 627-664.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century