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Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor

Author(s):Engerman, Stanley L.
Reviewer(s):Pritchett, Jonathan B.

Published by EH.NET (September 2001)


Stanley L. Engerman, editor, Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. vi + 350 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8047-3521-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jonathan B. Pritchett, Department of Economics, Tulane University.

The concept of freedom is not without contradictions. Laws outlawing slavery and indentured servitude restrict the freedom to contract. By submitting to the dictates of employers, workers temporarily surrender their freedom in exchange for wages. Laws intent on promoting the interests of labor, such as eight-hour or child-labor laws, often restrict its use. Economics (and economic history) is the study of choice. But are decisions truly free when the choices are severely limited? When starvation is the only alternative to working, is free labor just another form of slavery? Edited by Stanley Engerman, Terms of Labor is a volume of papers concerned with the meaning of free labor in Europe, the United States, and the West Indies. The contributions to this volume represent many different disciplines and they should appeal to a wide audience (a tribute to the fine editing by Engerman). Of particular note are the introduction by Engerman and the chapter by Robert Steinfeld on the changing legal and economic concept of free labor.

Western ideas of freedom are tied up with those of individualism. Whereas freedom for non-Europeans meant membership in the community, freedom for Europeans meant economic independence and the ownership of one’s own labor. In his chapter, David Eltis considers the contemporaneous growth of free labor in Europe and slave labor in the Americas. He argues that the impact of European values and social relationships on the non-European world was greater than the impact of European wealth and technology (p. 39). Furthermore, Eltis argues that the development of individual rights in Europe caused the eventual destruction of serfdom and slavery in the Americas.

Despite the profitability of sugar plantations in the British West Indies, Adam Smith believed that free labor was more productive than slaves. Abolitionists adopted his theory in an effort to promote the emancipation of slaves in the British colonies. Following emancipation in the 1830s, sugar production fell in the West Indies. In his chapter, Seymour Drescher discusses the attempts to reconcile Smith’s theory with the decline in output and its ideological impact on the abolitionist movement in the United States.

As argued by Peter Kolchin, the emancipation of Russian serfs was long and complex. Unlike ex-slaves in the United States, Russian serfs received land after emancipation (although not always the land they cultivated prior to emancipation). Serfs were required to pay for the land over time and they faced communal responsibility to the lords.

There is no consensus on the meaning of free labor. Leon Fink argues that the original concept of freedom for workers was economic autonomy. For example, ex-slaves in the U.S. South sought economic autonomy by working as sharecroppers rather than farm hands. As the nation industrialized, the worker’s goal of economic autonomy was replaced by a greater emphasis on labor’s rewards.

The original interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment was to prevent the state from enforcing labor contracts with penal sanctions. Robert Steinfeld finds this legal interpretation has changed over time. Recent court decisions have invalidated labor contracts when the threat of physical harm included economic threats. The court must judge whether a choice is so onerous that the parties entered the contract involuntarily. As argued by Steinfeld (p. 167), “Precisely because the line between free and coerced labor is drawn on the basis of normative and political judgments, it can never be drawn finally and irrevocably.”

The rhetoric of slavery has been applied to a variety of social movements, such as the quest for equal rights for women or attempts to unionize American workers. Abolitionists, however, portrayed Southern slavery as unique and not to be compared with other forms of oppression. Consequently, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass rejected the metaphoric use of “wage slavery” by the leaders of the labor movement. Because of their closer parallels, David Roediger argues that Douglass had fewer objections to the use of the slavery metaphor for women’s issues.

Amy Dru Stanley provides an interesting interpretation of the withdrawal of African American labor following the Civil War. A characteristic of American slavery was the high rate of labor force participation. Following emancipation, many married women and children withdrew from the labor force. Because it reduced the sharecropper’s output, white landowners objected to this labor withdrawal. Stanley interprets the withdrawal of labor as an assertion of freedom. The new freedmen felt that their wives should work at home (p. 195).

David Brody discusses the uneasy relationship between free labor and trade unionism. For example, the choice of joining a union creates a prisoners’ dilemma: collectively, workers are better off by joining the union but individually each would rather avoid the cost of membership. From the worker’s viewpoint, a closed shop solves the dilemma by restricting the worker’s right to contract. In his chapter, Brody reviews the evolution of U.S. labor law. In recognizing the legal rights of some workers to associate, union members benefit at the expense of nonmembers.

Clayne Pope surveys the economic progress of Americans during the era of free labor. According to Pope, there is “no necessary theoretical link between free labor institutions, high economic growth, and social mobility of labor” (p. 248). All that is necessary for economic growth is the efficient allocation of resources, especially labor. Indeed, the empirical evidence as to whether slavery hindered economic growth is ambiguous. Using regional income statistics, Fogel and Engerman show that the southern United States experienced rapid economic growth under slavery. Furthermore, the southern economy stagnated in the years following emancipation and the Civil War. The nation as a whole, however, has prospered under the era of free labor, with output per worker doubling every forty years. Using measures of economic well-being such as per capita income, the availability of leisure time, life expectancy, and attained heights, Pope shows that the era of free labor was a one of remarkable economic success. Not all shared equally in the nation’s growing output. There was little change in the distribution of wealth or income. Only non-traditional measures, such as the distribution of heights or life expectancy, show a trend toward greater equality. Citing recent research by David Galenson and himself, Pope finds considerable evidence of social mobility.

Jonathan B. Pritchett is Associate Professor of Economics at Tulane University. His most recent publication is “Quantitative Estimates of the United States Interregional Slave Trade, 1820- 1860,” Journal of Economic History 61 (June 2001), pp. 467-475.


Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century