"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude": Free labor and American law, ca. 1815-1880

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Title: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude": Free labor and American law, ca. 1815-1880
Author: Schmidt, James D.
Advisor: Hyman, Harold M.
Degree: Doctor of Philosophy thesis
Abstract: Most nineteenth-century northerners did not see legal control of the employment relation or the labor market as contradictory with the free labor ethic. Antebellum work discipline rested on statutory and common law rules, the most important of which regulated labor contracts and proscribed vagrancy. With regard to work discipline, labor contracts crystallized the relationship of workers to individual employers, while vagrancy statutes defined the meaning of work in the community at large. Equally important, these legal principles helped construct gender, class structure, and social theory. Before the Civil War, northern courts adapted labor contract rules to specific modes of production, and by 1860 jurists and law writers formulated two opposing conceptions of law's place in work discipline. Vagrancy laws in the antebellum North served many functions. While labor discipline was the ultimate effect, these statutes expressed ideas about class, gender, and republicanism. Antebellum southerners developed a separate legal tradition, especially in the area of contract law. During the transition from slavery to free labor, antebellum contract and vagrancy laws influenced both emerging systems of labor, such as the Union army's program in Louisiana, and the constitutional meaning of freedom in the Thirteenth Amendment. Similarly, prewar labor law configured actions of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. As the case of Alabama shows, labor law was manipulated at times to secure rights for African-American workers, but it faltered because of resistance by southern whites and because of its basis in class. The Freedmen's Bureau's labor program also failed because of the ways in which local agents interpreted and administered antebellum legal principles, as occurred in South Carolina. In places such as Texas, bureau officials used labor law to oppress African-American workers, but both black and white Southerners manipulated legal restraints to their own advantage. By 1880 free labor law left its antebellum roots. Courts removed remaining restraints on individual labor contracts, while state legislatures passed tramp acts that enhanced the law's power over the meaning of work, gender, and class.
Citation: Schmidt, James D.. (1992) ""Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude": Free labor and American law, ca. 1815-1880." Doctoral Thesis, Rice University.
Date: 1992

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