Freedom and Work in Pre-Industrial America

Debate over labor issues cropped up early in American history. A labor crisis, in fact, helped kick off British settlement on North American shores, at Jamestown colony in 1607. As a result of bad planning back in England, the colony landed without a labor force in possession of the skills that would enable it to thrive in the New World. With time, trials and errors, colonial settlers came to realize that particular kinds of laborers were needed in the New World, especially farmers and strong laborers hearty enough to help forge settlements from the bottom up. Indentured servants, mostly European men and women who traded passage from the Old World to the colonies in return for 4-7 years of their labor, were among the earliest solutions to the labor problem.

Indentured servitude was no picnic for most indentures (Maryland indentured servants were unhappy enough to hold a strike in protest of work conditions in 1663, for example), but a far crueler solution to the labor shortage problem developed around the same time: slavery. At first, Native Americans were enslaved in several European colonies, though finding this impractical, colonists began importing and enslaving Africans in large numbers to end labor shortages. In 1619 the first African slaves were brought to the British colonies, and from that date the institution of slavery would mushroom across the southern colonies (though there were also slaves in the North, it became most firmly entrenched in the South) until its abolition at the close of the Civil War. A series of uprisings occurred in the colonies and the new nation (see Chronology) as the enslaved revolted against being forced to labor for the profit of others, and networks like the Underground Railroad saw to it that many slaves escaped. However, the slaveholding class used their power to create laws and customs that would prevent the enslaved from organizing themselves into movements through which they could bargain to improve their conditions.

Alongside this unfree labor market developed a free labor market in colonial America, and along with this free labor market, a set of ideas arose, a "free-labor ideology." Free laborers contrasted themselves with the enslaved, seeing themselves as fulfilling republican ideals fought for during the American Revolution: that all men were created equal, and that independent citizenship depended on prospering in the performance of honest, dignified, free labor. In the free labor market, individuals could, theoretically at least, bargain over the conditions and price of their labor.

When free laborers could not bargain alone, they banded together to increase their power and to protect their trades from being taken over by untrained interlopers. At first they formed associations of people of the same trade just as they had in Europe for centuries. Known as guilds, these organizations existed to protect interests of members and maintain the standards of their profession. Often these guilds were comprised of artisans, or individuals skilled in a particular kind of work, such as shoemaking, printing, or carpentry. Colonial immigrant workers, then, were accustomed to organizing for their own interests, and they carried the custom to early America. Angered by reductions in their wages, journeymen tailors in New York protested by refusing to work-striking-in 1768, marking the first recorded strike in the colonies. The tradition of banding together for common interests and the existence of a free labor market made the strike possible. While not all such strikes were successful, the practice of bargaining over wages and work conditions was present in early America and would inform the emergence of unions when the country underwent industrialization in the nineteenth century.