Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century. By Robert J. Steinfeld. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 329. Illustrations, maps. Cloth, $59.95; paper, $22.95.) In book, Robert J. Steinfeld continues his exploration of the changing legal constructions of Anglo-American labor. An earlier study, The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870 (1991) focused first on the ascendance of indentured servitude in the American colonies, and then on the institution's normative and legal repudiation in the United States (particularly outside the South) during the early nineteenth century. The present volume pursues the evolving legal meanings of free wage labor into the twentieth century. Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century is dense and demanding - though rewarding - study. The opening section, Introduction: Free Wage Labor in the History of the West, is likely to hold the greatest interest for scholars outside the field of legal history. Here Steinfeld renews his assault on the conventional wisdom that dominant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century understandings of free wage labor were similar to our own. On the contrary, earlier generations accepted that labor contracts might compel so-called free wage laborers, through various extra-- market-force threats and pressures (e.g., incarceration, legally-sanctioned pecuniary penalties), to perform their labor agreements. From central argument (documented in the body of the book), Steinfeld proceeds in the introductory section to wide-ranging assessment of the mix of compulsions and pressures upon which employers have historically relied to exact labor. This assessment is, to my mind, persuasive. Yet it may prove controversial, since the author concludes that, because in all cases laborers are induced to choose between unpleasant alternatives, the distinction between and coerced labor is inevitably an arbitrary one. Steinfeld does offer the disclaimer that this is not an argument that wage labor was form of slavery (8). But those who believe that the physical compulsions and other circumstances impressed on human chattels were not merely particularly harsh, but were of unique order altogether, are unlikely to be appeased by the author's disclaimer. I include here, among other probable critics of Steinfeld's perspective, the adherents of Orlando Patterson's neoabolitionist thesis of natal alienation. In his determination that all forms of nineteenth-century labor were motivated by mix of incentives and that chattel servitude and wage labor existed along a very broad continuum rather than as binary opposition (8), Steinfeld acknowledges the influence of Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman's Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974). Of comparable influence is the work of the Progressive Legal Realist thinker, Robert Hale - above all Hale's ground-- breaking emphasis upon how the legal and regulatory functions of the state establish significant background conditions and otherwise contribute to differential economic power, the options available to individuals, and the ensuing market compulsions experienced by waged laborers. (See for example Force and the State: A Comparison of 'Political' and 'Economic' Compulsion, Columbia Law Review, 35 [1935], 149-61.) Steinfeld devotes most of his book to close examination of statutes and judicial rulings regulating contract labor in nineteenth-century England. Reflecting the authority of common-law Master and Servants Acts, the use of penal sanctions to discourage and punish contract breach remained compatible with English understandings of free labor into the 1870s, and employers often resorted to these to minimize workers' premature exits from agreements and to otherwise manage their labor costs and supply. Thereafter, the growing power of organized labor proved instrumental in altering the dominant view. …

Full Text
Published version (Free)

Talk to us

Join us for a 30 min session where you can share your feedback and ask us any queries you have

Schedule a call