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The History of America as a History of Labor, Essay Example

Pages: 8

Words: 2074

Essay

Trying to give any singular narrative as the history of the United States is almost certainly going to be a failure. Both geographically and demographically the country is too large and disparate for there to be one way of analyzing all that has happened. Developments that make the lives of one group better may come at the expense of another, leaving two vastly different interpretations of events. To counter this issue, the history of the country is often taught through its political history, with elections, wars, Supreme Court cases, and the drafting of our founding documents dominate these accounts. Yet, this does not give enough service to many of the important non political developments that shaped the country. There are many other facets of the country through which American history can be told. One such history of America can be told through the history of labor in the country, both before and after their organization.

Early attempts at colonization of America were largely capitalistic in nature, funded by private companies such as The London Company or by the governments of European powers. Either way, the focus of these colonies was to provide a financial benefit to those funding the ventures. America had huge amounts of unused natural resources and land that while not always vacant, was easily cleared for European use. With these ingredients in place, the colonies were in need of a supply of labor to help sustain the colony and hopefully make it a profitable venture for its financial backer. This need was what brought labor to the new continents and the beginning of the history of labor in America.

The first successful colony in America, Jamestown, Virginia, showed the need for labor that came in New World settlements. It was funded by the London Company, a joint stock operation with the backing of the English crown and began in 1607. The early years in Jamestown were very turbulent for the colonists, with many starving each winter. Each year more men were sent over, but the colony remained troubled until it began growing tobacco after a decade in Virginia, which ultimately made higher levels of investment profitable for their backers. While Jamestown’s struggles may seem like a case of too little man power, the colony was usually highly populated meaning the issue was with the effectiveness of labor (Morgan).

Jamestown’s initial problems came as a part of the type of person chosen to inhabit the new colony. Many of them were used to lives of leisure in England and therefore not suited and not willing to do the work required of them. The average work day during the summer was about five hours long compared to three during the winter months (Morgan). This was hardly the level of work one would expect starving colonists to commit to, and for this reason it was soon realized that new types of laborers would have to come to the colony. In 1608, the second wave of colonists came in, with Dutch and Polish workers amongst the group. John Smith, the fabled leader of the early colony, specifically praised these workers during his condemnation of the others (Pula).

These non British nationals in Jamestown were the beginning of a long American tradition of welcoming in immigrants for labor purposes. While in certain cases this was done in a way that allowed the immigrant laborers great opportunities in life, there were much more exploitative types of immigrant labor in the early colonies. One such arrangement was indentured servitude, in which someone’s travel to America was paid for and in return they worked to repay their debt for a fixed number of years while also receiving room, board, and other basic amenities from their sponsor. Indentured servants were such a common source of labor that perhaps half of all Europeans who came to America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came as indentured servants (Hofstadter).

However, significant downsides existed for those who went the route of indentured servitude. They were treated largely as capital investments and therefore were subject to substandard living and working conditions. Many servants died during their voyages across the Atlantic before they could even reach America and labor in a fashion that provided much more return to their masters than the servants themselves could receive (Hofstadter). Even those who finished their servitude healthy found struggles. Some managed to successfully operate their own farms or work in the trades they worked in as servants. However many more struggled to find proper levels of work. Also, the demand for servants was almost entirely for males, meaning those freed servants could not find mates and often lived alone in poverty. In fact, the term freeman went from simply referring to a former indentured servant to being a term used to describe any undesirable in colonial society (Hollitz).

One result of this glut of former indentured servants was Bacon’s Rebellion during the 1670’s. Many of the indentured servants moved to the edge of European dominated land as it was the only place where they could secure their own plot. Due to this, they often came into contact with the Native American population whose land they were moving on to. The Native and European populations continued to clash when Virginia governor William Berkeley proposed frontier forts and a defensive stance for the colonists. Nathaniel Bacon, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses was unsatisfied with this response and lead a group of men against the local Native tribes. Eventually, the men turned against other colonists and even seized Jamestown before the rebellion died out with Bacon when he came down with dysentery (Foner).

The issues with indentured servitude meant that ultimately a new source of labor was going to be used in the Americas. Rather than using labor that eventually provided freedom to the laborers, the progression was towards slavery, in which the laborer was bonded for life and future generations were too. Perhaps the driving force in American history is the institution of slavery, initially a response to the labor shortages in New World colonies. Slavery was both an enormous factor in the colonial and independence era American economies as well as a constant source of conflict between factions within the country until that lead to the Civil War.

The first slaves in America came to Spanish colonies in the present Southeastern United States during the sixteenth century. Jamestown received its first slaves in 1619, brought over from Africa by Dutch traders (Morgan). However, initially there was not a vast difference between indentured servants and slaves as the African laborers were initially able to work for their freedom. However, throughout the first century of slavery the individual colonial governments began passing laws making it more difficult for slaves to be freed while also ending black suffrage. Without voting representation, there was little to stop the law from becoming more amenable to exploitation and enslavement of African laborers.

Slavery increasingly became a way of doing business in the colonies, particularly agricultural work. Initially slaves were more expensive than indentured servants and therefore their use was limited to the wealthy. However, economic conditions in Europe improved, limiting the pool of indentured servants and more slaves were brought to America, meaning more of the labor was done by slaves as time went on. When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin at the end of the eighteenth century the initial effect was to decrease the labor involved in the cotton production process. However, it made things so cheap that cotton became a lucrative cash crop and many more slaves were employed in growing it. The cotton gin was the innovation that meant the Southern United States would have an economy based around slave labor, setting up inevitable conflicts.

The first official document of what would become the United States of America was the Declaration of Independence. Despite its talk of independence and equality, the treatise never directly indicted slavery, perhaps because its author, Thomas Jefferson, was a noted plantation owner and slave holder. Yet, these themes present in the founding of the country touched off an anti slavery movement, especially amongst the northern residents of the country. This put the two regions at odds with one another and added a source of contention to the constitutional debates. The Constitution ultimately gave the government the power to restrict the slave trade, but that power was rarely used by the early government.

The early federal government was largely split between pro and anti slavery states, meaning that despite fierce disagreement little change occurred in regards to slavery laws at the federal level. However, as the new country expanded westwards new states were added and the balance of power was always potentially in danger. One such example was the introduction of Missouri to the union, which had slavery as a territory. Neither side wanted to let Missouri become a state in a way that would upset the balance. Ultimately, Missouri became a slave state along with the free-state Maine and it was agreed that outside of Missouri no slavery states would be allowed above the 36030 parallel (Library of Congress).

Although compromise was an important part of the early political history of the United States, ultimately the difference between the two sides on slave labor was too much to be overcome. When Abraham Lincoln, who had called for policies that would lead to the extinction of slavery, was elected president, several southern states seceded, forming the Confederate States of America. The remaining states fought this attempt at secession, with the result being the American Civil War. While overly simplistic to say that slavery was the only cause, it was certainly the leading factor in the build up to the way. The Union was the ultimate winner of the war and through constitutional amendments and the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was ended in the country.

Despite the usual narrative as being a war between pro slavery southerners and abolitionist northerners, many in the north did not support abolition whole heartedly. Racism was still very much alive and the idea of fighting for the freedom of an inferior race was not appealing to some. This culminated in the New York City draft day riot in July of 1863. Irish immigrants, who worked primarily as laborers were upset that they were able to be drafted into the war, while the wealthy could essentially buy their way out of service. On top of that, the Irish saw the slaves as a threat, expecting freed slaves to move north and compete for their jobs (Foner). This unrest resulted in riots that plunged New York City into anarchy for several days.

While slavery was the dominant force in the early history of labor in the Americas, there were great advancements in the nature of free labor as well. The early nineteenth century saw the spread of the Industrial Revolution to the United States. Initially, the textile industry was the first where machinery became a significant force. Many formerly skilled laborers moved to areas like Lowell, Massachusetts to work machinery. These jobs were often done by women, representing their entry into the American economy (Dublin). The laborers who had once worked in trades suddenly had less control over their economic futures, meaning their work was now exploitable. This was the beginning of the organized labor movement that would be a dominant force in the 20th century of the United States.

The future of any business enterprise is dependent on the inputs it has, such as land, labor, and capital. The early settlements of America were essentially commercial ventures and therefore were no different. Land was plentiful, but labor was always needed more than was provided. For this reason immigration, indentured servitude, and slavery became sources of labor that were needed for the largely agrarian society. Later, the economy became significantly less agrarian due to the rise of factory production and again the nature of labor changed. Laborers were now replaceable and therefore exploitable and would turn towards organization as a way to fight for themselves.

References

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. [S.l.]: Peter Smith Pub, 2001. Print.

Hofstadter, Richard. “White Servitude.” White Servitude. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/hpolscrv/whiteser.html>.

Hollitz, John Erwin. Thinking through the Past: A Critical Thinking Approach to U.S. History. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.

Pula, James S. “Jamestown’s 400th Anniversary.” The History Cooperative. Polish American Studies. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/pas/65.2/pula.html>.

“Today in History.” Missouri Becomes A State. Library of Congress. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/today/aug10.html>.

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