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Involuntary Servitude

There is a notion, common in human history, that it is acceptable to force some people to labor for their sustenance alone, while others make use of the difference between the value of the forced laborers’ production and their sustenance. Reasons for justifying this involuntary servitude include national necessity, the fate of captives in war, family solidarity, criminal punishment, and commercial interests.

The Holy Books of different religions either accept or approve of the concept of involuntary servitude. This practice covers a wide variety of terms and conditions, depending on the culture. It can be temporary servitude, such as a prison sentence with “hard labor” or “community service.” It can be indentured servitude, such as an apprenticeship and even the age of “minority” for children and couverture for women, which meant the exercise of their human and civil rights passed from father to husband, should be seen as part of this idea. One could even cite the military draft and naval pressgang actions, including the British practice of “impressment” of those they considered British citizens from off other countries’ ships, which led to the War of 1812. The idea also encompasses serfdom and slavery.

In North America, the most common form of involuntary servitude outside family relations was that of “indentured servants,” shipped from Britain. An indenture was a labor contract signed either voluntarily in exchange for transportation and settlement expenses or imposed because of a legal conviction for petty crime or vagrancy. The servant was supposed to work for the colonist who had paid his or her way across the Atlantic, or the contract was held by the shipper and sold to a buyer upon arrival. Think of today’s pro sports contracts, where players’ contracts can be sold or traded between teams, and you get the general idea of a type of voluntary servitude. 

Generally, an indenture was valid for a specific period of time, often seven years, although it could be bought out earlier. The main flaw of this system was that servants, voluntary or not, might flee into the wilderness or to the anonymity of a large town to escape the holder of the contract. The pre-Revolutionary authorities in London did not care much, as the practice relieved them of an undesirable population.

The Southern American colonies experienced a different challenge. Like the North, the South had a chronic labor shortage. Unlike in the North, where the topography and climate did not favor large-scale agricultural plantations, in the South, large plantations required considerable labor to develop and be maintained. But indentured servants from Britain, like their masters, had a hard time adapting to the hot climate. Other European colonizers had experimented with transporting Africans to the Caribbean and South America, where the climate was similar to the West African coast. Why not use Africans on the American mainland plantations as well?

The Africans, however, were not brought to America as indentured servants, but as chattel slaves — property, rather than contract labor. No strong African state could provide them protection or barter their freedom; there was no time when their “contracts” would expire and their offspring were assumed under the same chattel regime as that of the parents. This form of slavery was known throughout recorded history. 

Slavery existed in the Northern colonies, the first few slaves having been landed in Boston in 1638, but the institution was quite restricted in scope and often took the form of house servants. The New England businesspeople were involved not so much in owning slaves as in trading slaves — the transport of this human cargo from Africa to buyers on the other side of the Atlantic. 

Yankees, with their large fleet of merchant ships, transported a considerable proportion of the African slaves who were brought to the New World. Yankees benefitted from the Southern cotton, picked by slaves, that fed their textile mills. Yankees also were instrumental in financing Southern planters, and happily entertained them and their families when they came North to enjoy the cooler summer weather in Newport, Rhode Island, and other Yankee watering holes. 

For some, the eighteenth-century agitation for political rights had led logically to concern for the rights, not just of Englishmen or Frenchmen, but of mankind in general — those of women would become a concern only much later. 

The American ‘Underground Railroad’ was based on the British notion, made law in the 1830s, that the legality of slavery did not apply in the Empire; consequently anyone who crossed into, say, Canada was ‘free’, regardless of how that person got there. The only exception was for criminal conviction as indentured labor in the Empire.

By the middle of the19th century, agitation had increased protesting all forms of forced servitude. All humans were part of one species, and none should be left out of the fold of humankind and accorded their rights. This extension of rights to all of humanity, regardless of superficial or sexual differences, seems to me to have been the central drama played out over the past two hundred and fifty years and more, and likely will continue for the rest of the twenty-first century and beyond. 

The “rights of humanity” movement is reversing the practice of involuntary servitude that has existed since the dawn of time. The anti-slavery struggle in the United States, led by a variety of Yankee men and women, opened the door to later efforts to make personal freedom the core of American domestic and foreign policy through the twentieth century and beyond. No matter how flawed the approach and how poor the results of that effort, the world’s population is freer, both nominally and in reality, today than it was in 1865 or in 1965.