EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association with the support of other sponsoring organizations.
Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century
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.