The Labor Problemthroughout The Colonies - The Mercantilist Tradition

indentured servants workers england free servant wages usually provided century

The New England merchant who transported slaves did so in search of profit, but he was responding to a genuine need. "This country is long on land," Captain John Smith wrote in 1609, "and short on men." From the outset, all the colonies suffered from a critical shortage of labor. As a result, the early colonists were threatened with deprivation of food if each man did not work diligently. Ministers preached the virtues of hard and unremitting labor. The laborer in America soon discovered, however, that where demand exceeded supply he could insist upon, and obtain, higher wages. The immense possibilities implicit in the ownership of an independent farm lured the free white laborer away from work on another man's land. Subsequent efforts to enslave the Indian, undertaken in New England and South Carolina particularly, proved fruitless; the noble savage showed a dismaying indifference to labor, promptly deserting and returning to the forests. It became essential for the colonists to arrange for the importation of laborers in the form of indentured servants, redemptioners, convicts, or Negro slaves.

Free Labor. In New England, the labor problem was not acute on the family farms that were so prominent during the early years of settlement. Families were usually large, and each family generally found adequate manpower for its needs within its own circle. Indeed, self-sufficiency in production seemed to be the goal of most Yankee farmers. Moreover, in cases where a single family unit could not cope adequately with its own tasks, the community structure of New England made cooperative group effort possible. It was quite common, for example, for a house or barn to be constructed by an entire community. Group "barn-raisings" of this sort not only solved the labor problem, but also provided the hard-working Yankees with a welcome occasion for socializing, gossiping, and general merrymaking.

Though unskilled laborers for farms were in good supply, however, the expansion of colonial towns brought an ever-increasing demand for skilled workers. Since few European artisans abandoned their well-paying pursuits to emigrate, the few who came to the colonies could and did demand high wages. To protect themselves against such prohibitive demands, most colonists developed a considerable number of skills, the Jack-of-all-trades becoming a familiar American character. But the cost of wages still strained the limited capital resources of the colonies until the various colonial legislatures passed laws which fixed maximum wages. Even with these laws wages remained substantially higher in the colonies than in England. The abundance of well-paying jobs, and the deferential treatment that workers consequently received, did have one fortuitous result. They combined to mitigate the development of class consciousness. When free labor organized, it did so to form benevolent societies which provided sickness and burial funds for their members, or to create closed guilds in such skilled industries as shipbuilding, cooperage, and tailoring. By the eighteenth century, many workers combined farming and a craft. They had achieved a self-reliance incompatible with an aggravated class-consciousness. As one contemporary noted: "Scratch an American worker and you find a freeman."

Indentured Servants. Though the planters, farmers, merchants, and manufacturers enjoyed the skills of the free labor force, they found that free labor's independence and self-sufficiency led to instability and arrogance. They wished to have a servile labor class whose availability and manageability would not be subject to the vagaries of free labor. To create such a servile body of workers, there developed the practice of importing "indentured servants" - men and women who wanted to come to the New World but who were unable to pay the passage cost ( £.5 to £.6). Americans in need of workers would advance the cost of passage to these people - usually members of England's impoverished class, to whom the prospect of life in the colonies was bound to appeal when contrasted with the squalor and degradation of their own meager existence - and they, in exchange, bound themselves into service for a given number of years.

Agents of the planters visited English workers who wished to make the journey. Together they drew up a contract in duplicate on a single sheet of paper which was then cut in half at the indent (from which comes the term describing the contract - "indenture"). The planter agreed to pay the servant's passage, provide the essentials of life, and pay freedom dues at the end of his term of service. In return, the servant agreed to work at the direction of his sponsor for a period of from four to seven years - the younger the servant, the longer the period of indenture. Freedom dues consisted of clothing, tools, a gun, and usually, in the seventeenth century, a small land grant which rarely exceeded fifty acres. A lively trade in indentures developed when agents began to transport workers in exchange for payment in the local staple.

Besides indentured servants, "redemptioners" also arrived. The redemptioner usually came from the Continent and agreed to try to redeem his passage costs from relatives or friends already in America. If he failed, he was sold into indentureship under conditions which were usually substantially heavier than those exacted from indentured servants who contracted their services in Europe.

England provided most of the New World's indentured servants in the seventeenth century. Although no more than 3,500 came in a single year, this number was sufficient to make one of every ten colonials an indentured servant in 1680. Switzerland, Germany, and Ireland added to the stream in the eighteenth century. More than half, and perhaps as many as two-thirds, of all white immigrants during this century were either indentured servants or redemptioners. The use of this kind of labor was not equally distributed; most of it was concentrated in the three colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Throughout the colonies humane limits were set to the exploitation of indentured servants. The law provided protection for their rights, though some were afflicted by harsh masters. No matter how long the indenture, every servant knew he would in time become his own master; that the skills gained in service might permit him to obtain profitable employment when he was freed; and that indenture carried no lasting stigma.

Prisoners. A less attractive source of indentured labor to the colonial farmers was the English prison population. In 1717 Parliament provided for the transportation to America of certain convicts, designated by the courts, to serve indentures of at least seven years, with hardened criminals bound out for as many as fourteen years. Lesser criminals received shorter terms or were permitted to go free if they purchased their passage to the New World. No one knows how many of these prisoners found their way to the colonies before the Revolution, though the generally accepted figure is 50,000. That they represented a threat - justified or not - to the colonials' peace of mind is obvious from the unsuccessful attempts of several colonies to bar their admission.

Apprentices. In the northern colonies artisans obtained a secure fund of labor by offering to train youths as apprentices. These young men were entered into apprenticeship by their fathers for a period that rarely exceeded four years. The apprentice contract, accompanied by a payment of several pounds, guaranteed that the youth would be properly educated for a trade. As such it kept a steady flow of skilled workers moving into such important occupations as shoemaking, tailoring, carpentering, shipbuilding, and related crafts. At the end of his apprenticeship, the pupil received a payment of clothing and money and entered into a journeymanship. Less fortunate than these youths were the children who were kidnaped for sale into indentureship. How many were so taken is uncertain, although the frequency with which "kids" - the victims of kidnaping - were mentioned in contemporary literature suggests that the number ran into the thousands.

Slaves. The lot of the indentured servant in the colonies had one saving grace: there was a specific terminal date to his labor. The plight of the human being sold into involuntary servitude was considerably more unhappy. The slave was bound to work for his master until death, unless the latter chose to manumit him. Bondage descended from parent to offspring and servitude became an inheritance.

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