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Abraham Lincoln as “Railsplitter.” Cartoon image from masthead that The Railsplitter (1860) Library of Congress


Volume 2 of chronicler John Ashworth’s discussion in Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic touches on a shift in Americans’ views towards wage labor. This change anticipated the climb of the Republican Party’s “free labor” ideology, and also then continued to develop concurrent with it. Prior to this shift, americans widely perceived wage labor together invested with small dignity, as scarcely preferable than indentured service. If one worked for wages, respectability required that one aim to work out the this form of employment, saving toward residential property ownership or work-related as an live independence artisan. Just those that couldn’t or wouldn’t relocate out of fairy labor remained in that problem permanently. Lifelong wage job was for losers.

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Part the this attitude was ideological. “Freedom” not just meant freedom from improper political restraint, it meant freedom from dependence on other people for one’s provision. The Jeffersonian yeoman, in particular, as well as the elevation artisan (also less so), exemplified this aspiration.

I doubt the nature of the job market at this time supported this check out as well. In beforehand America, populace was extremely diffuse, towns were small and take trip difficult. Labor industries were for this reason thin, and shift costs therefore high, that employment to be sticky, wage workers often had few practical choices to their present employers. In ~ this time, employer-employee relationship were frequently paternalistic, extending past one’s work into all parts of one employee’s life.

With increasing populace density and also industrialization, neighborhood labor markets naturally thickened. The meant an ext options because that wage employees. The became an ext of a sellers’ market for labor rather than a buyers’ market. This undercut a requisite the the older, much more hierarchical partnership of fairy employees come the employer. Raised market power permitted the wage employee significantly to transact top top an equal basis v the employer. If the employee walk not favor the incomes or functioning conditions offered by the employer, then the worker was totally free to find different employment an ext to his liking.

Changes in the society conception that the wage worker complied with from changes in the job market, no much longer conceived as a social and also economic subordinate, the lifelong fairy worker could now it is in a social and also economic equal.

The workers’ partnership to the market readjusted as well, at the very least relative come yeomanry. Because that the yeoman the industry existed ~ above the perimeter of day-to-day life. The “market” was a distinct day the the week, not a everyday occurrence. One produced mainly because that one’s very own consumption, with just the surplus supplied for exchange in the market, and also then for a few things one could not quickly make. Flexibility was interpreted as freedom from human being influence, also as one’s life was based on the possibly harsh vagaries the nature.

In contrast, the sector interpenetrated the everyday existence of wage labor; the industry was a central feature that the life of wage workers, dictating a various rhythm and, together it were, producing a different semiotic environment. “Contract” became the summary of person liberty quite than the yeoman’s self-reliance from human direction. Through definition, a contract takes at least two parties, so that is of necessity a social phenomenon. Subsistence farming, at least in its ideal form, exists with minimal financial dependence on those exterior the family.

This picture of free (and freed) men contracting through each other, upright and also face to face, provided the emotive main point of the Republican’s “free labor” ideology. Totally free labor ideology had actually a wider view of human dignity past the end of chattel slavery (which was, the course, a critical first step).

This watch of freedom and human dignity not only had political implications, yet legal and also social ramifications as well. Indeed, the legal theory of substantive early process—the id that the Fourteenth Amendment’s liberty guarantee contained a commitment to contractual liberty for labor, and therefore was suspicious of federal government restraints ~ above the contractual legal rights of workers—rose decades later, indigenous the roots of Republican cost-free labor ideology.

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This view of human being dignity and also contractual liberty likewise led come the at an early stage use that antitrust laws against union cumulative bargaining agreements. These agreements were seen as restraints top top trade, limiting the flexibility for employees to contract individually with their employers, and also thereby offending their dignity as mature men. Unions of course contested the claim and argued the this conception that contractual liberty ongoing to safeguard the dignity of workers in light of once-again readjusted economic circumstances and also the require for cumulative action. This argument, v differing conceptions the the nature that power, liberty, work and wages, and also the relationships in between them, continued to fury pretty lot for the following century.