The Forgotten Emancipator #3

The Nineteenth Century was a time of transformation of labor law in this country, and Reconstruction was a pivotal moment in that transformation.  Of course, chattel slavery was sui generis.  Slaves were treated like property, with no human rights.  However, it is undeniable that slaves were also exploited workers.   Moreover, slaves were not the only unfree laborers in antebellum America.  Thousands of immigrants came to the United States as indentured servants or apprentices bound to masters.  Unlike slaves, indentured servants were not treated as sub-human, but they did share some experience with slaves.  Like slaves, indentured servants and apprentices could not leave masters without facing criminal sanctions.  Thus, they lacked mobility and other basic legal rights.  The so-called Fugitive Slaves Clause did not distinguish between the two, referring to “persons bound to service or labor.”  Slavery was the worst on a continuum of unfree labor practices

Meanwhile, early industrialization produced a new class of workers - industrial workers.  Industrial works worked long hours under horrible conditions, for low wage.  Leaders of the nascent U.S. labor movement called themselves “wage slaves.”  While there were many tensions between the northern antislavery and labor movements, there were also some activists in both movements who joined together to advocate against slavery and for the rights of northern workers.  The antislavery and northern labor movements in antebellum America developed an egalitarian free labor vision that opposed not only the institution of slavery, but also the undue exploitation of “free” northern workers. 

James Ashley was one of those activists who linked the plight of southern slaves to that of northern workers.  Ashley repeatedly explained that he saw the abolition of slavery as but one step in a project to improve the lives of all workers.  In an 1856 speech, Ashley declared that he was opposed to “all forms of ownership of men, whether by the state, by corporations, or by individuals . . If I must be a slave, I would prefer to be the slave of one man, rather than a soulless corporation.”  In the same speech, Ashley said “I am utterly opposed to the ownership of labor by capital, either as chattel slaves, or as apprentices for a term of years” and spoke against the enslavement of Chinese workers through the “coolie” system.  After the Civil War, Ashley and his allies enacted the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished not only slavery but also involuntary servitude.  Enforcing that amendment, they enacted measures which established rights for free slaves and northern workers.  More on that in upcoming posts.

I first published this blog entry on TheFacultyLounge.org on December 11, 2017.