The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twenty-One: Urban Slavery (Section B)

The great Booker T. Washington: born a slave, he rose to become a celebrated speaker, author, educator, and founder of the Tuskegee Institute. (1856-1915)
The great Booker T. Washington: born a slave, he rose to become a celebrated speaker, author, educator, and founder of the Tuskegee Institute. (1856-1915) | Source

As noted in Part Twenty (Section A), in 1850 there were 400,000 black slaves, in the United States, who lived in urban areas; and the overwhelming majority of them were, no doubt, engaged in nonagricultural work (1).

We also noted, that between 1840-1890, the U.S. economy became the most dynamic in the world. It became, in the words of economic historian, Kevin Phillips, "[f]lush enough to drive English dukes and French princes to wed American heiresses to secure their family estates" (2).

The question for us, then, is simply this: Is there any relationship between those two statistics? If there is, what is it?

The reason I raise this, is because of an argument made about the American Civil War of the 1860s. That argument---and I have made it myself---is that slavery had to be destroyed because the institution was standing in the way of opportunity for free white labor.

I don't suppose I'm going to try to refute that argument in any way. Let us just say that I will point out some things, which amounts to an argument that may, at least, complicate that argument. Does that make sense?

Now, as you know, Abraham Lincoln famously said something about how "a house divided against itself cannot stand." He was saying that America could not go on being half slave and half free, and all that.

It is said that enslaved black labor posed an unfair competitive disadvantage to free white labor.


Does free American labor, today, compete with the cheaper, more exploitable labor of undocumented, migrant Mexican workers?

No, it does not. As you know, farmers and the owners of certain kinds of food processing plants, and the like, always talk about how they cannot, for the life of them, find Americans who will do those jobs. For this reason, there is no "competition."

However, in Section A, we saw that black slave labor was used in all the trades. Perhaps there was competition between slave shoemakers, coopers, and masons and free white shoemakers, coopers, and masons. You have to pay one group, the free whites; and you don't have to pay the other group, the black urban slaves.

Therefore, in terms of "getting the job," the black slave had the "competitive advantage" over the free white worker, right?

Wrong! The "competitive advantage" goes to the owner of the black slave, who was hired out to industry and the trades. It is the slaveholder who makes money, not the slave himself, usually.

And remember, those of you who've been following this series: The southern, rural, plantation-owning slaveholders promoted the widespread use of slavery to protect their interests.

Speculative portrait of Crispus Attucks. (ca. 1723-1770). This patriot of African descent, was the first casualty of the so-called "Boston Massarce.
Speculative portrait of Crispus Attucks. (ca. 1723-1770). This patriot of African descent, was the first casualty of the so-called "Boston Massarce. | Source

The difference between slave labor and free labor, is that you can drive the former harder, longer, and faster than the latter.

This essay simply asks the question: What if the proprietors of the urban slave system had found another formula, one in which black slave labor and free white labor were perfectly compatible? What if enslaved black labor had been made to be the cushion of free white labor, in the urban areas? If so, are there any implications that follow from this?

I should say that I am not speaking definitively here. More research needs to be done by professional scholars in this area.

However, with that said, let me start off with a quote from historian Thaddeus Russell, concerning the "early American economy."

Dr. Russell: "It was not only accepted but also expected to mix drinking and work. Laborers of all sorts drank beer throughout the workday and took frequent breaks of liquor and lounging. Construction workers and shipbuilders expected employers to provide them with beer at breaks. According to historian Peter Thompson, even highly skilled artisans, the managers of early manufacturing, 'jealously defended heavy drinking as a right and privilege'" (3).

Dr. Russell continues: "In the early American economy, workers, not bosses, decided when they would show up and when they would go home. Long afternoon periods of eating, drinking, and sleeping were taken for granted. On the eighteenth century workers' schedule, Sunday was followed by another day of rest known as 'Saint Monday,' which, Benjamin Franklin was irritated to see, 'is as duly kept by our working people as Sunday; the only difference is that instead of employing their time cheaply in church, they are wasting it expensively in the alehouse.' The New Haven Gazette reported that no matter how much an employer wished for sober workers, 'a laboring man must have his half pint or pint every day, and at night half his wages in rum.' Even in New England, where the Puritan influence remained strong through the eighteenth century, taverns were often located next door to churches so that congregants could have a drink before and after worshipping" (4).

The simple question is this: How is it that white urban workers were able to be so lackadaisical at work, resting and binge drinking throughout the day?

Could a possible answer be the following?: Possibly, enslaved black urban labor was picking up the slack? Naturally, the black slaves, who may have been picking up the slack for their free, white, and drunken counterparts, would not have been allowed such casualness; they would have been worked as what they were: slaves.

If that or something like that was true, then it would mean that the free, white, urban worker, in the "early American economy," enjoyed something close to the equivalent of what the Mafia calls "no-show" jobs.

It is important to note that the coercive economic unit known as the corporation did not exist, in the early American republic, as we know it today. By definition, it means that "wage labor" did not exist as we know it today.

Sociologist John Bellamy Foster explained that "[I]n nineteenth-century capitalism, workers were in a position to retain within their own ranks the knowledge of how the work was done, and therefore exercised a considerable degree of control over the labor process. Hence, control of the labor process by owners and managers was often more formal than real. As corporations and their workforces got bigger with the rise of monopoly capitalism, however, it became possible to extend the division of labor, and therefore to exercise greater top-down managerial control. This took the form of the new system of scientific management, or 'Taylorism,' within concentrated industry. Control of the conception of the labor process was systematically removed from the workers and monopolized by management" (5).

John Bellamy Foster: "The chief result of the introduction of scientific management into industry, as Harry Braverman explained in 1974 in Labor and Monopoly Capital, was the degradation of working conditions for most workers" (6).

Question: Could it possibly be the case, that the reason for the introduction of "scientific management" into "concentrated industry," was the fact of the withdrawal of the cushion of enslaved black urban slave labor, sometime after 1865?

Let me back up a little bit. As I said before, during the early republican period, the corporation, as we know it today, did not exist.

Corporations were not standing entities. They came together for specific purposes over specific periods of time. Their activities were strictly limited to what was delineated in their charter. States, not the federal government, issued corporate charters. Once the charter's time period was up, the corporation had to be dissolved, if it was not renewed by the state (7).

The charters tended to put strict limits on a corporation's borrowing, ownership of land, and sometimes even profits. The members of a corporation were personally liable for all debts incurred by the entity during their period of membership. The states retained the right to withdraw the charter of any corporation, which, in their judgment, was not carrying out the public interest (8).

In addition to all of this, large and small investors had equal voting rights; and so-called interlocking directorates were legally prohibited (9).

Now, after the Civil War, the courts began to steadily chip away at the legal restraints over corporate authority and power. They began to put in new precedents which eliminated juries to decide fault and assess damages in cases involving corporate-caused harm and took away the right of states to oversea corporate rates of return as well as prices (10).

The hits kept coming, as judges ruled that workers, themselves, were responsible for causing their own injuries on the job. The judiciary limited corporate liability for the damages they caused; and also declared wage and hour labor laws unconstitutional (11).

The low point of all this came in 1886. In that year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Santa Clara v. Pacific Railroad, that a private corporation is a natural person under the constitution and is, therefore, entitled to the protection of the Bill of Rights (12).

Notice: The judiciary, at this time, declared wage and hour labor laws unconstitutional. This opened the door for the owners of the means of production and their political class brethren to subject workers to the super-exploitation of the 1870s to 1930s. But which workers? Who are we talking about?

Now then, all of this brings us to the period of the 1870s-1930s, an era that the economist Paul Krugman calls the "Long Gilded Age" (13).

Needless to say, the politics of the time were profoundly conservative (I personally think the stronger term, reactionary, is appropriate). The quickest way to see this is to note how profoundly conservative the first labor unions were.

Historian Thaddeus Russell made the point that all American labor unions, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were as deeply committed to something called The Protestant Work Ethic, as the first Puritan settlers were (14); and that is probably not even an exaggeration!

For example, in 1866, William H. Sylvis founded the National Labor Union, the first federation of trade unions in the United States of America. Its stated purpose, in protecting the economic interests of its members, was to 'elevate the moral, social, and intellectual condition' of all workers. This meant, above all, instructing them that to labor was to 'carry out God's wise purposes' (15).

The Knights of Labor replaced the National Labor Union as the major labor organization in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1879 Terrence Powderly, a Pennsylvania machinist, took over the Knights. He opened its ranks to women, blacks, immigrants, and unskilled workers. This was a radical move at the time, however, it is important to note that Mr. Powderly wanted to broaden the audience for a profoundly conservative message (16).

All new members were required to recite a "Ritual of Initiation," that declared, 'In the beginning, God ordained that man should labor, not as a curse, but as a blessing.' Powderly and the Knights did advocate for reducing the number of labor hours, but only because they believed that excessive work undermined the work ethic; that is to say, workers would be sour on the glory of labor (17).

The American Federation of Labor dominated the labor movement from its founding in 1886 to the 1930s. This organization was also completely committed to the Protestant Work Ethic. Its president, Samuel Gompers derided what he thought of as 'unmanly, dishonorable, puerile' avoidance of work. Even radicals were rather conservative, in this regard, in that they, too, loved work and hated leisure (18).

The intellectual environment also supported all of this. The new generation of 'progressive' intellectuals, many of them founders of American liberalism, differed with business, religious, and labor leaders on many issues; but not on the issue of the Protestant Work Ethic, and beliefs about the evils of leisure and consumption (19).

Simon Patten, for example, was one of the most influential economists of the early twentieth century. He argued for an increase in the material wealth of ordinary Americans, but only so that they would not seek solace from poverty by succumbing to 'debasing appeals to pent-up passions' (20).

Here's the point of all this: If the first labor unions and progressive/liberal intelligentsia were putting such pressure on labor, you can bet that the owners of the means of production---employers---were pushing even harder.

That is the question: Why were 'they' pressing labor so hard?

What had changed from the opening of the nineteenth century to the period after the Civil War?

Why did working conditions go from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," (21), for some urban industrial workers in America, to the fascism of the 1870s-1930s period?

Why did that happen and what does urban black labor enslavement, and its withdrawal after the Civil War, have to do with it?

We will take up those questions in the next installment, part twenty-two: urban slavery (section c).

Thank you so much for reading!



1. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. 121 (paperback)

2. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, 2002. 37

3. Russell, Thaddeus. A Renegade History of The United States. Free Press, 2010. 7

4. ibid

5. Foster, John B. (2011, July-August). Education and the Structural Crisis of Capital: The U.S. Case. Retrieved June 18, 2015. paragraph 13

6. ibid, paragraph 14

7. Korten, David C. When Corporations Rule the World. Berrett-Koehler & Kumarian Press, 1995. 56-57

8. ibid, 56

9. ibid

10. ibid, 59

11. ibid

12. ibid

13. Krugman, Paul. The Conscience of a Liberal. W.W. Norton, 2007. 19

14. Russell, Thaddeus. A Renegade History of The United States. Free Press, 2010. 211

15. ibid

16. ibid

17. ibid

18. ibid

19. ibid, 212

20. ibid

21. If you want yet another description of the incredibly easy-going atmosphere, enjoyed by some American workers in the urban industrial sector, in the nineteenth century---before the turn to fascism---, let me suggest you check out a lecture on YouTube, given by historian (food history specialist), Dr. Megan J. Elias: "Eating the Past: Why and How to Study Food History." She gives a description of a typical workday in the New York shipyards, in the 1830s. Go to the 19:54 mark in the lecture.

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