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Fourth International, September 1948


George Olshausen

From Slavery to Minimum Wages


From Fourth International, Vol.9 No.7, September 1948, pp.121-218.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We print below a serious and highly informative study of an important phase of the class struggle in the United States. The author’s views are not shared by the editors on several points. For example, in our opinion, the causes for the revival of slavery are treated too sketchily and one-sidedly; the same applies to the elucidation of the reasons why cotton planting expanded in slave form rather than as wage labor. Nor are the concrete conditions under which the Civil War developed treated adequately. Regrettable is the omission of all reference to the clash between slave agriculture and small farming which played an important role in the course of events at the time. We hope that the publication of this article will lead to a closer study and further discussion and illumination of the contributions already made by the author. – Ed.

* * *

It has often been said that free labor is more efficient than slave labor and that the latter cannot compete with the former. It has also been said that slavery was on its way out in America after the Revolution but received a new lease on life in 1793 from the invention of the cotton gin.

These two statements suggest an inconsistency. They raise the question – if free labor is more efficient, why did the cotton gin revive the system of slave labor? And if slavery had an upsurge in 1793, why did it disappear in 1865?

An attempt to answer these questions reveals a thread of economic development running from 1793 to 1929, unbroken by the Civil War. Slavery imposed burdens upon the masters. Most of the slave states had laws requiring slaveowners to furnish their slaves with adequate food and clothing and to care for the aged and crippled. Penalties were also imposed on anyone who injured the slave of another whether through overwork or beating. Some states fixed maximum hours of work. Obligations of slaveowners applied equally to overseers and to sheriffs who detained or hired out fugitive slaves.

Here are some of these laws. (Obligation of master to slave unless otherwise indicated.)

The South Carolina and Georgia maximum work-day of 15 and 16 hours respectively seem fantastically long, but industrial capitalism denied the principle of limitation altogether (see below in text); and British industry in the Nineteenth Century maintained much longer working hours.

(Compare Marx, Capital, Ch.X, Sec.3, referring to an English town meeting of Jan. 14, 1860: “What can be thought of a town which holds a public meeting to petition that the period of labour for men shall be diminished to eighteen hours a day?”)

In the writer’s own experience in 1925, during the canteloupe season in Imperial Valley, California, workers icing refrigerator cars were usually kept working 15 hours a day (14 hours on Sundays) which was sometimes stretched to 17 or 18 hours. Toward the end of the season, after reduction from double to single shift, the remaining single shift was sometimes worked 23 hours out of 24.

Obviously, these laws were maximum hour, minimum, wage and pension laws adapted to a system of chattel slavery.

After slavery was abolished, all such laws were held unconstitutional when aimed at employers of wage labor. The capitalist would submit to no shackles such as a slaveowning society had imposed upon its members. But after the depression of 1929-33, this very same type of legislation reappears on the capitalist scene: minimum wage and maximum hour laws are now found to be constitutional; social security legislation on a wider scale than ever before becomes an accepted function of government.

These facts and others mentioned hereafter provide a clue to the causes for the spurt which slavery took in 1793 and for its disappearance in 1865. They also show that the same causes continued to operate uninterruptedly and ushered in a new phase of American capitalism after 1929. We shall first analyze the respective characteristics of wage labor and slavery which gave slavery its second wind in 1793. Then we shall show how these same characteristics brought the downfall in 1865 not only of the slave system but of the social obligations imposed by law upon the master toward the slave. And lastly, how these characteristics, still operating under changed conditions, tended to restore employers’ obligations after the depression.

1. Slavery vs. Wage Labor, 1793-1865

The assertion that slave labor cannot compete with “free” labor has two distinct aspects. On the one hand, there is the competition of work by independent proprietors with that of slaves; on the other, the competition of wage labor and slave labor.

Settlement of the continent involved only the first of these phases. Farms were originally cultivated by independent peasant proprietors. Since there were not enough wage laborers either in America or Europe to supply hands for large plantations, slaves were imported to furnish employee labor where such was needed. (Cf. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 1944, p.6.) Since the early competition was between independent, farm proprietors and slaveowning planters, it follows that the slaveowners were the first large-scale employers in United States history.)

In the Southern colonies slave labor proved more efficient than the work of independent proprietors for two chief reasons, both springing from the nature of the regional crops. The Northern colonies were found suited to cereal crops [1]; the Southern to sugar, rice, tobacco, and cotton (Ibid.). On the one hand the cotton could be cultivated more efficiently over large than over small areas. On the other, the concentration of field hands per acre for cotton and allied crops kept down the expense of supervision. Wheat or corn required one laborer per each twenty acres; tobacco and cotton one laborer for every two or three acres (Ibid.). Under slavery the Northern crops would require almost as many overseers as slaves and the expense of supervision would tend to wipe out any gain from large-scale operations. With the Southern crops that was not so. Under these circumstances, the independent peasant proprietor in the Southern colonies could not compete with the slaveowner when the English colonies were first settled.

But in and after 1793 there was a different problem. The industrial revolution brought industries, particularly to the Northern colonies. These were not operated solely by their owners. They required labor, which was supplied by immigration from Europe. In the South, too, there was a pool of free labor never surpassed in numbers by the slave population (Cairnes, op. cit., pp.47ff., 120.) The disappearance of slavery up to 1793 fits very conveniently into the formula “Slave labor is dearer than free labor whenever abundance of free labor can be procured.” [2] (Its course was aided by the financial iruin of the Virginia tobacco plantations.) [3]

Why, then, did invention of the cotton gin bring with it a revival of slavery?

In order to answer this question, we have to examine in greater detail the supposed relative merits of slave and “free” labor. In favor of wage (”free”) labor it is said

  1. that slaves cannot perform complicated operations (Cairnes, op. cit., pp.46-50ff., 120.);
  2. that the laborer is more productive when spurred by hope of reward than by fear of punishment: Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book III, Ch.ii, p.365 (1937 ed); J.B. Cairnes, op. cit., pp.41-2, 44-5; F.L. Olmsted, Seaboard Slave States, p.105 (1861); Williams, op. cit., p.6.); 3) that wage labor requires an outlay only of wages for time worked while purchase of a slave is a capital investment for his entire value. (Cairnes, op. cit., pp.66-7, 120; de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p.466 (ed. 1898, Reeve’s Tr.); R.B. Flanders, op. cit., p.19n. “Slaves are costly instruments of production and the commodities which they raise cannot be sold to procure their clothing and subsistence. The responsibility of the employer of free labor is at an end when he has paid the covenanted wages.” London Economist in 1853, quoted in A. Simons’ Class Struggles in America).

In favor of slave labor it has been said that the fertile soils of the South could “afford” the dearer labor of slaves. (Adam Smith, op. cit., Book III, Ch.II, pp.365-6; Williams, op. cit., pp.6-7.)

Two of these considerations are clearly beside the point. To say that the most fertile lands could “afford” slave labor gives no explanation of why slave labor was so much more profitable as to be readopted. Similarly, saying that slaves can do only simple tasks, and that wage labor is needed for complicated work would, if true [4], furnish no reason why slave labor should surpass wage labor for simple work.

One alleged disadvantage of slave labor is often cited: it is good only in single crop cultivation and therefore operates to suppress diversified farming. (Williams, op. cit., p.7; Cairnes, op. cit., pp.46, 54-8, 121, 135-6, 151-2 – quoting Warner, Progress of Slavery.)

Analysis will show that two of the reasons mentioned constitute real advantages of wage labor over slave labor:

  1. You can extract more work out of the laborer by hope of reward than by fear of punishment;
  2. the wage laborer is paid only if, as and when he works, while the slave involves an overall capital investment.

A third advantage is that the means of discipline used against wage earners are much less costly than those used against slaves. The suggested disadvantage of slavery – that it hinders diversified agriculture – puts the cart before the horse. The fact is that slave labor tends to flourish when agriculture is limited to one crop. This phenomenon dovetails with the respective modes of enforcing discipline on wage and slave labor. In order to demonstrate these propositions, it is necessary to examine the concrete workings of the two systems.

Under the wage system the employer hires the laborer only if, as and when he needs him. In slack seasons he “lays off” unwanted employees. What happens to such “laid off” workers is neither the employer’s responsibility nor concern. In practice, the worker will ‘be unemployed for a while and then find work with another employer.

But this merely negative freedom from responsibility is pyramided into an affirmative asset. Wages under capitalism follow the cost of the laborer’s necessities of life, (Marx, op. cit., Vol.I, Ch.VI, VII); in modern parlance, they are geared to the cost of living. This means that, by hypothesis, the laborer has no surplus, and every layoff carries with it the threat of starvation. [5] Such a threat lends itself to use as a weapon. The foreboding of being fired, and firing itself, are unpleasant enough that they serve as means of enforcing the laborer’s obedience. Thus the wage system has the beauty of furnishing a means of discipline which costs the employer nothing and which is actually an offshoot of his initial freedom from responsibility. Formerly, docking wages was also used as punishment, but at present it is generally prohibited for infractions other than failing to report for work. Docking not only cost the employer nothing but brought him additional profit. (Marx, op. cit., Vol.I, Ch.IV, Sec.4.) Moreover, the wage system has still another spur which costs the employer just as little as coercion.

The promise of self-advancement is held before the wage earner like a carrot before a donkey’s nose, and draws him on to greater efforts for the employer’s profit. (Marx, op. cit., Vol.I, Ch.XXIII; also see quotation from Voyage ou Bout de la Nuit, below in text.)

As against this, the slaveowner must first of all support the slave throughout life, whether working or not. In the second place discipline under the slave system is enforced by means of quasi-military patrols and the overseer’s lash. All three – the patrols, the overseer and the lash – cost money. (The overseer perhaps has his counterpart in the foreman. But quasi-military patrols and corporal punishment were costs without parallel under the wage system.) Discipline becomes an item of expense. The spur of self-advancement falls away.

The greater efficiency of the wage system thus rests on a specific and tangible basis. A few quotations point up this view. Adam Smith says of the slave (Wealth of Nations, Book III, Ch.II.)

“Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own.”

Note the implication of this sentence: that under a system other than slavery, an “interest of his own” is a means by which “work can be squeezed out of” the laborer.

The novelist Celine [6] observes, regarding the quasi slavery in French West Africa.

The cudgel ultimately tires the person who wields it, whereas the hope of becoming rich and powerful with which the whites are burdened, costs nothing, absolutely nothing. (La trique finit par fatiguer celui qui la manie, tandis que l’espoir de devenir puissants et riches dont les blancs nont graves, ca ue coute rien, absolument rien. – Celine, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (1934) p.175.)

Marx says, in discussing the reproduction of capital,

“From a social point of view, therefore, the working class, even when not directly engaged in the labor process, is just as much an appendage of capital as the ordinary instrument of labor. Even its individual consumption is, within certain limits, a mere factor in the process of production.” (Marx, op. cit., Vol.I, Ch.XXIII.)

And again,

“As a producer of the activity of others, as a pumper out of surplus labor and exploiter of labor power, it surpasses in energy, disregard of bounds, recklessness, and efficiency, all earlier systems of production based on directly compulsory labor.”) [7]

The consequences have often been noted. Compare J.F. Cairnes,

“So long as he is compelled to work for the exclusive benefit of a master, he will be inclined to evade his task by every means in his power as the white man would do under similar circumstances; but emancipate him and subject him to the same motives which act upon the free white laborer and there is no reason to believe that he will not be led to exert himself with equal energy.” (Cairnes, op. cit., pp.41-2.)

Celine reports the same phenomenon with the opposite editorial slant:

The natives hardly work at all, except when beaten. They retain that much self-respect. The whites, on the other hand, made perfect by public school education, do everything of their own accord. (Les indigenes eux ne fonctionment guere en somme qu’a coups de trique, ils gardent eette dignite, tandis que les blancs, perfectiones par l’instruction publiquei ils marchent tout seuls. Op. cit., p.175.)

In contrast to the sympathetic attitude of Celine is the contempt expressed in Olmsted’s Seaboard Slave States. The facts are the same, however:

In working niggers, we must always calculate that they will not labour at all except to avoid punishment and they will never do more than just enough to save themselves from being punished, and no amount of punishment will prevent their working carelessly and indifferently. (Quoted from an interview with a Virginia planter.)

There remains the feature often mentioned, that slavery gives no opportunity for diversified undertakings. Observers agree on this point, both as to agriculture and industry. A multitude of different industries, as well as a diversified agriculture were unfavorable to slavery. [8] Conversely, slavery thrived only in one-crop (or two-crop) economies. (Cf. Cairnes, op. cit., p.79.) Without further analysis writers on the subject have taken slavery as the cause and lack of diversification as the effect. If an explanation is offered, it is usually that the slave can perform only simple tasks, and has not the skill to do varied work. But this explanation is contradicted, first by the experience of ancient as well as Latin American slavery in which slaves were used not only for highly skilled but for intellectual undertakings; and second by recognition that ignorance and lack of skill were the result of policy practiced on the slaves by the masters. We suggest here that the conventional treatment of this question involves a confusion of cause and effect. A one-crop economy drew slavery in its wake, not vice-versa. [9] For a one-crop economy deprives the employer of the greatest advantage which the wage system gives him under ordinary circumstances: complete freedom from responsibility for the laborer while the latter is not working. Under the wage system the employer exercises his right to lay off; and calling it a “right” implies that it is advantageous to the employer. It can be advantageous only so long as no repercussions need be feared from the discharged workers. This is true as long as those who are thus unemployed

  1. have the hope of getting work elsewhere, and
  2. constitute sporadic units with no tendency to unite into a coherent mass.

Under a one-crop economy, both of these elements are lacking. In agriculture lay-offs must be seasonal. All layoffs would occur at about the same time for a given crop. The hypothesis of one-crop means that the same lay-off would take place everywhere, simultaneously; those laid off would be without hope of finding work elsewhere. To have the whole laboring population suddenly dumped into unemployment carries at least the danger of rioting; at most it invites revolution. The lay-off under such circumstances is not the same flawless expense-cutter as under a system of varied industries.

Consequently, a different method is adopted. The master maintains the employe at all times – whether working or not. And this carries with it the master’s claim upon the servant’s continued services. Requiring the master always to maintain the servant, yet permitting the latter to quit whenever he likes, puts the masters at a disadvantage to which they would never acquiesce. Hence, the one-crop economy produces full-fledged slavery – with the slave tied to his employer and the employer bound to maintain the slave uninterruptedly. But the chain of causation does not end here. These consequences produce further consequences. On the one hand, from the major premise that the master must maintain the slave at all times, it is but a step to more detailed requirements such as adequate food and clothing, reasonable hours of work, sustenance during old age. Such legislation is accepted in the same matter of course way as legislation prohibiting cruelty to animals.

In the second place, binding the slave to the master eliminates casual hiring and firing for all purposes. Discharge cannot be usud to enforce discipline. Instead, the master must resort to physical coercion, like whipping. As already pointed out, this constitults an item of expense, whereas under the wage system, discipline is enforced without cost.

These deductions are borne out by the experiences of the Southern planters with “free” labor before the Civil War. By 1860 the “poor whites” in this region were more numerous than slaves and slave-owners combined (Cairnes, op. cit., p.120.) There was undoubtedly a substantial number in 1793 and the years immediately following. Yet, the cotton growers never succeeded in utilizing this supply of labor. Cairnes say, “It is universally agreed that the labor of the mean white is more inefficient, more unreliable, and more unmanageable than the crude efforts of slaves.” (Ibid., pp.125-6.)

Thus the system of slavery developed as a second-rate substitute in one-crop economies which were unsuited to the capitalist methods of paying the worker only while working, and firing him at will.

2. The Civil War to the Great Depression – 1865-1929

Capitalism and slavery were each by its own dynamic driven to continuous expansion. Wage capitalism followed the law of capitalist expansion. (Marx, op. cit., Vol.I, Ch.XXV; Vol.III, Ch.XIII.) Slavery sought expansion for two reasons – a primary, economic one, and a secondary, political one. Single-crop agriculture led to soil exhaustion. Where the soil was no longer suited to the crop, its cultivators had to seek new fields. [10] Politically, the slavery interests wanted to acquire a new slave state matching every new free state, so as to keep a political balance in the Senate. (Cairnes, op. cit., p.171; Marx, Letter to Die Presse, Oct. 20, 1861; also note below, referring to John C. Calhoun’s speech of Feb. 19, 1847.)

The Civil War was precipitated when both sides tried to expand into the same territories at the same time. [11] In this it followed the most approved pattern of imperialist wars: two imperialisms expanding into the same area, where they tread upon each other’s toes.

By 1861, however, Northern industrialism was set to expand, not only into the territories, but into the slave states themselves. It actually did so, like water breaking a dam, hard upon the conclusion of the Civil War. We have seen how slavery places leg-irons on the master as well as on the slave. Industry entering the Southern states would demand the same freedom as in the North. Abolition therefore becomes a necessity in order to relieve the incoming masters from the burdens of slavery. The humanitarian appeal is secondary and strictly subservient to the economic purpose.

Piecisely that had been the course of abolition in the Northern states. As observed by de Tocqueville in 1835,

“It is not for the good of the Negroes but for the good of the whites, that measures are taken to abolish slavery in the United States.” [12]

”At the present time, it may be attacked in the name of the master; and upon this point interest is reconciled with morality.” (Ibid., p.46.)

Once emancipation had been accomplished, humanitar-isnism went by the board. Quoting again from de Tocqueville,

”The states in which slavery is abolished usually do what they can to render their territory disagreeable to the Negroes as a place of residence and, as a kind of emulation exists between the different states in this respect, the unhappy blacks can only choose the, least of the evils which beset them.” (Ibid., p.472n.)

Events followed the same course after the Civil War as they had before. Slavery was abolished nationally. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were passed to implement emancipation. Soon after they became law, they were used much more to protect the freedom of the capitalists – the new masters – than of the Negroes – the former slaves. Justice Black gives a history of the Fourteenth Amendment in his dissent to Adamson vs. California, 91 L. Ed. Adv. Ops. 1464. Among other things he says (p.1484):

The foregoing constitutional doctrine, judicially created and adopted by expanding the previously accepted meaning of “due process” marked a complete departure from the Slaughter-House philosophy of judicial tolerance of state regulation of business activities. Conversely, the new formula contracted the effectiveness of the Fourteenth Amendment as a protection from state infringement of individual liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

As indicated by this excerpt, there was a brief period during reconstruction when the Fourteenth Amendment was thought to be chiefly for the protection of human rights. But as soon as postwar excitement died down, the juggernaut of industrial economy rolled on from the poiht reached in 1861. Viewed in retrospect, Marx was perhaps too optimistic about the immediate effect of abolition on the American labor movement. (Cf. Capital, Vol.I, Ch.X, Sec.7)

As prior to 1861, abolition having been accomplished, humanitarianism went by the board. Quite logically, the Fourteenth Amendment was used to protect the wage employer from the very burdens which had beset the slave owner.

Whereas maximum hour laws were among the tribulations of a slaveowner’? life, such laws were, after the Civil War, held unconstitutional for industrial employers. (Lochner vs. New York (1905) 198 US 45.) Whereas, slaveowners were compelled by statute to furnish their slaves with adequate food and clothing, minimum wage laws were now held unconstitutional. (Adkins vs. Children’s Hospital (1923) 261 US 525; Moorehead. vs. New York ex rel. Tipaldo (1936) 298 US 587. It is immaterial that the Adkins case, coming from the District of Columbia, involved the Fifth Amendment instead of the Fourteenth. After the Fourteenth was enacted, the Fifth was made to cover the same ground in all matters concerning the Federal Government. Moorehead vs. Tipaldo is placed in the period 1865-1929 although decided in 1936. The same is true of other cases cited below which were decided previous to 1937. Judicial decisions always lag somewhat behind events.)

The slaveowner was required by law to maintain his slaves in their old age but a statute requiring raikoads to contribute toward an old age pension fund for its employees violated due process of law. (Railroad Retirement Board vs. Alton RR (1935) 295 US 330. This case, like Adkins vs. Children’s Hospital, involved an Act of Congress and was decided on the Fifth Amendment.)

In the same way the Fourteenth Amendment was used to secure the employer’s weapon of discharging employees. Statutes forbidding discharge because of union membership were held unconstitutional. (Coppage vs. Kansas (1915) 236 US 1; Adair vs. US (1908) 208 US 161 – a Fifth Amendment case.)

In short, the Fourteenth Amendment was applied as a codification of the trend which brought it into being. It is, therefore, quite immaterial whether the framers of the Amendment consciously phrased its language to make it cover corporations. (This is Beard’s theory, Rise of American Civilisation (1943 Rev.) Vol.II, pp.111-14; also cf. Graham, The Conspiracy Theory of the Fourteenth Amendment, 47 Yale Law Journal 371, 48 Yale Law Journal 171.)

Liberation of employers from the chains which had bound slaveowners was its primary purpose, protection of individuaj liberty only a derivative and subservient one. For this reason, also, Justice Black’s elaborate historical argument that the protection of individual freedom was “the avowed purpose” of the Fourteenth Amendment must be discounted as too optimistic. (Adamson vs. California, 91 L. Ed. Adv. Ops. 1464, 1477, 1484, 1490-1505.) One need but add: for all its scholarship, the opinion is still a dissent.

3. Since 1929

Thus matters stood when the Great Depression hit the country in 1929. It soon produced mass unemployment. We have seen that under one-crop agriculture, slavery had been used to obviate just this condition. Layoffs, as practiced under the wage system, would have left all workers unemployed at the same time – namely, during off seasons. Because the entire economy was devoted to one crop, they would have had no place to go. Such mass unemployment was too dangerous to be useful. It was avoided by the slave system.

In an economy of varied industries, the right of layoff and firing enables employers to extract and realize surplus value beyond anything possible under slavery.

The depression, however, saw large numbers of workers unemployed at the same time and none able to go elsewhere for jobs. This condition was just as dangerous in an industrial economy as it would have been under one-crop agriculture. So government relief was instituted to furnish a minimum subsistence for those unemployed by reason of capitalist “layoffs.” But this relief was paid out of taxes, which in turn were part of the surplus value extracted under the system of wage-labor, layoff and firing. ParJ of what the capitalist had taken with one hand) he had to give back with the other. The old system of employing men only while they worked, laying them off and forgetting them, firing and forgetting them, was no longer the ideal way of garnering surplus value.

Provision had to be made for workers even while not working if the machinery of capitalism was to keep functioning. The golden era of capitalist irresponsibility came to an abrupt close.

With its passing the constitutional system, which had implemented it was quickly swept aside. No more did the Fourteenth Amendment stand in the way of imposing part of the community’s obligations upon employers as such. The decisions which had held minimum wage laws unconstitutional were overruled as inconsistent with the needs of a society engaged in paying out relief. The United States Supreme Court said, through Justice Hughes,

There is an additional and compelling consideration which recent econpmic experience has brought into a strong light. The exploitation of a class of workers who are in an unequal position with respect to bargaining power and are thus relatively defenseless against the denial of a living wage, is not only detrimental to their health and well being, but casts a direct burden for their support upon the community. What these workers lose in wages, the taxpayers are called on to pay. The bare cost of living must be met. We may take judicial notice of the unparalled demands for relief which arose during the recent period of depression and still continue to an alarming extent despite the degree of economic recovery which has been achieved. It is unnecessary to cite official statistics to establish what is of common knowledge through the length and breadth of the land ... The community is not bound to provide what is in effect a subsidy for unconscionable employers. The community may direct its law-making power to correct the abuse which springs from their selfish disregard of the public interest. (West Coast Hotel Co. vs. Parrish (1397) 300 US 379, 399.)

Similarly, the Social Security Tax – a means making employers support workers while unemployed – was now found to be constitutional. The Supreme Court’s opinion accurately reflects first, the capitalist philosophy of having

the employer-employee relation completely free from social controls, and second, the return to pre-Civil War models after the depression wrecked the economic and governmental machinery which had been in use from 1865 to 1929.

In Chas. C. Stewart Machine Co. vs. Davis (1937) 301 US 548, approving the constitutionality of the Social Security Tax, the court first remarked (p.578): “We are told that the relation of employment is one so essential to the pursuit of happiness that it may not be burdened with a tax.”

Then it refutes this argument by referring to English and Colonial taxes on employment, laid respectively in 1695, 1777, 1778, 1780, 1784, and 1786. (301 US 544, 579-81.)

Justice Cardozo concludes by observing (p.580): “Our colonial forebears knew more about ways of taxing than some of their descendants seem to be willing to concede.”

As with abolition of slavery, this social legislation was pushed by humanitarians on humanitarian grounds. But also as with abolition, it changed from a wish to a fact only as and when it furthered the aims of those who dominated the country’s economy. Significantly, the date of the last employment tax (1786) coincides almost exactly with the lowest ebb of slavery before its revival by the cotton gin in 1793. In the Northern states slavery continued to disappear; governmental attentions (like taxes) which made employers anything less than free as air, preceded the “peculiar institution” into limbo. [13]

In the cotton states the trend reversed itself for a while and employers were regulated more closely than by mere taxation. Abolition of such restraints was achieved later and by force.

This event cleared the way for an industrial economy based on employer irresponsibility which was to enjoy its heyday during a period of expanding capitalism dubbed by Mark Twain “The Guilded Age.” In time it cracked up from internal stresses. After 1929, employer irresponsibility no longer served capitalist ends and capitalism restored the old controls. “Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.” The legal-history of American employers has come to a full circle.


1. J.B. Cairnes, The Slave Power, pp.44-7ff.(1863); Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, p.6; R.B. Flanders, Plantation Slavery in Georgia, pp.71-2 (1933).

2. H. Merivale, Lectures on Colonization and Colonies (1928), quoted in Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, p.65. Cf. R.B. Flanders, Plantation Slavery in Georgia, p.12. As to decline of slavery when Union was established, see Cairnes, The Slave Power, p.176.

3. As early as 1730, the Governor of Virginia described the tobacco trade as having “fallen into a miserable condition,” Journal Virginia House of Burgesses, 1727-40, p.XIX.

4. The proposition is doubtful, in view of the experiences with slavery in ancient Greece and Rome and in Latin America. Compare Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen, pp.58-9 (1947). Even writers on North American slavery have hinted that confining Negroes to the most elementary tasks was not inherent in slavery as such, but merely an item in the policy of American slaveholders. Cairnes, The Slave Power, pp.101-5; see also de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, pp.119-20.

5. There are no words in the language which throw so much terror into the hearts of workers as ‘slack season’ and ‘fired’. Other words might conjure up the fear of death, but they do not plunge a man into the same dank prison of worry and care; at best they can be fought against. But the fear of hunger, of finding one’s self without a roof over one’s head, thrown out on the sidewalk, is greater than the fear of death. (Sholem Aseh, East River, Part II, Ch.12.)

6. Celine subsequently became violently anti-Semitic and anti-Soviet. (Bagatelles pour un Massacre, 1937.) This does not change his earlier work.

7. Marx, op. cit., Vol.I, Ch.XI. Almost the same thought is expressed by Henry George, Progress and Poverty, Book III, Ch.II, in a comparison much to the disadvantage of the condition of the wage-earner.

8. Williams, op. cit., p.7; Cairnes, op. cit., pp.46, 121; Flanders, op. cit., p.88; Beard, Rise of American Civilization, Vol.I, p.55.

9. This is not say that slavery, once established as a vested interest, did not set up a reaction which operated to maintain the conditions most suited to the system. (Cf. Flanders, op. cit., p.69.) Even today after legal abolition of slavery, one-crop agricultural communities tend toward relations resembling slavery. For example, employes are held continuously in debt to the landowner and so bound to him.

10. Cairnes, op. cit., pp.151-2, quoting Warner, Progress of Slavery, p.227; Cairnes, ibid., pp.154-5, 171; Marx’s Letter to New York Daily Tribune, Sept. 18, 1861 (printed in Marx and Engels, The Civil War in the United States, pp.3ff.); ibid., pp.58ff., Letter to Die Presse, Oct. 20, 1861.

11. Cairnes, op. cit., pp.154-5, 236; Marx, Letter to Die Presse, Oct. 20, 1861. Marx, quotes Toombs as saying “In fifteen years more, without a great increase in slave territory, either the slaves must be permitted to flee from the whites, or the whites must flee from the slaves.”

Many thought that if slavery were not abolished it would cover the entire country outside of New England. (Letter ton Die Presse, Nov. 7, 1867, in Marx and Engels, The Civil War in the United States, p.30.)

Lincoln’s dictum, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free” (Speech at Springfield, June 17, 1858) is thus an expression of deep economic insight, not merely a rousing do-or-die challenge.

12. Op. cit., p.462. On pp.470-71 de Tocqueville offers the following explanation for the disappearance of slavery around the time of the American Revolution:

”No sooner was the law of primogeniture abolished than fortunes began to diminish – Thus one of the most immediate consequences of the equal division of estates has been to create a class of free laborers. As soon as competition began between the free laborer .and the slave, the inferiority of the latter became manifest, and slavery was attacked in its fundamental principle, which is, the interest of the master.”

Compare Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism, p.18:

“The first Bonaparte halted the [French] revolution by means of a military dictatorship. However, when the French troops invaded Poland, Napoleon signed a decree, ‘Serfdom is abolished.’ This measure was dictated not by Napoleon’s sympathies for the peasants, nor by democratic principles, but rather by the fact that the Bonapartist dictatorship rested not on feudal but on bourgeois property relations.”

In Dred Scott vs. Sandford, 60 US 393, Chief Justice Taney gathered considerable historical material to support his view that (referring specifically to the Connecticut emancipation law of 1784) (p.413): “The measure was one of policy, and to prevent the injury and inconvenience to the whites, of a slave population in the State.”

13. The employer-employee relation of this period still bore vestiges of feudalism which today suggest similarity to slavery. An example is the system of industrial servants, Cf. N. Car. Laws 1741, Ch.XXII; So. Car. Stats. 1717, Act No.383 – Secs.XIII, XIX, XXII, as well as all of the previous laws cited at the beginning of this article. Resemblance to slavery on the one hand and state control over employers on the other both faded as industrialization progressed. Compare the experience of Prussia, where, after Napoleon’s invasion of 1806 and 1807, the peasants’ subjection to the feudal lords and the lord’s duty to care for the peasant in times of need, sickness and old age, were abolished simultaneously. Engels, Anti-Dühring (Part I, Ch.X, p.95 – 4th German ed.).

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Last updated on 26.2.2009