Labor and the Civil War Essay

The story of slavery draws back to the early 1600s, a period when the English colonist found James Town. The first people to be enslaved were the native Indians, but slowly African came in as the agricultural business expanded. To be Precise, African American enslavement in what became the U.S.A began in the early 17th century. The 1787 American Revolution coupled with adoption of a new constitution partially shattered the slavery business. During this period, the American nation created constitution and adopted it to end the importation of slaves into U.S.A by 1808 as part of the compromise. This demands laid in the constitution went unattended since African America slavery grew once again mainly in the southern part of U.S.A.
Among the major reasons for slavery reinvigoration were cotton gin discovery and its consequent spreading (Shapiro, 17). Such is the case that this machine permitted southern farmers to cultivate a variety of cotton, short staple, which thrived in the Deep South climate. Even with such an invention, the farmers still experienced another major problem with regard to removing seeds from cotton fibers. A later invention of the Eli Whitney’s gin offered solved this problem and even made it more economical. Following this, many planters in the south got attracted to cotton growing, a factor that increased labor demand. During this time, cotton growing was labor intensive, and African Americans became the main target to supply the labor.

A day in the life of a slave would commonly constitute long working hours on the farm. When considering a field hand, working day would always begin just before dawn and last until the sun sets, usually with a lunch break of about two-hours. African Americans lacked control over working as they worked under strict supervision, constantly threatened with physical punishment by their supervisors. Indeed, even with the most kind hearted slave owner, the slaves still missed that very fundamental gift of every human being, “freedom”

The better part of the period preceding Civil war, majority of the planters employed physical violence not only to boost productivity but also maintain labor discipline (Shapiro, 60). Certainly, the nature of work in the cotton field demanded lots of endurance and slaveholders understood this. Consequently they employed force and threats of force to persuade their slaves to endure the gruesome demands of cotton growing in the south. Colonial farmers forced their enslaved servants that included the elderly, children and pregnant women to do backbreaking jobs in the farms for up to fourteen hours each day. It is no secret that such labor regime only propagated brutal violence while trying to pursue their interests.

In the face of the harsh conditions and lack of free will, slaves tried to break free from their powerlessness. Here, slave communities and families formed a vital institution that helped establish strong resistance. The first notable crisis of slavery occurred at the time of American Revolution. During this period, thousand of slaves took advantage of the chaos suggesting a possible war against Britain to takeoff from their masters. When the British colonial authority realized this, they opted to exploit this unrest through offering freedom to all blacks who will agree to fight back their masters. With this assurance, then of thousands of slaves took arms against their masters. During the same period, majority of the whites contemplated the idea of tolerating slave labor within the border of the newly found nation established on liberty.
The American Revolution further exacerbated a sectional divide that had developed over the idea of slavery. Apart from New York City, where slavery had for a long time formed an integral component of the economy, slavery as an institution had barely taken the better of the Northern colonies. In many ways, the northern geography and climate worked against the establishment of plantation agriculture, a reason why states in this region readily abolished slavery following the revolution. As this happened, majority of the southerners faced the bigger problem of trying to devise a new labor system that would replace the devastated world of slavery. Economic lives of former slaves, planters, and nonslaveholding whites had taken a new irreversible turn following the Civil War. Planters, in particular, could not easily cope with the changes that realized the abolition of slavery (John, 23, 25). So used to absolute control over their laborers, majority of them sought to bring back the old discipline, “only to meet determined opposition from the freed people, who equated freedom with economic autonomy” (Faust, Drew Gilpin, 134). Many ex- slaves insinuated that their many years of unpaid labor offered them a ground to claim land; “forty acres and a mule” became the song for the ex-slave. This cry yielded little results as whites were very unwilling. In addition, the federal government showed reluctance to redistribute the land. Consequently, only a small fraction of the ex-slaves owned land the majority opted to rent it or work on white-owned farms for wages (Reinhardt, Mark, 44). New labor systems gradually evolved to replace slavery as the plantations faced continuous conflicts. Out of this came share cropping that dominated the tobacco and cotton south, while sugar plantations thrived on wage labor.

The South remained dependant on agricultural even after the end of civil war. The tools of work remained the same, but relations between, laborers, planters and merchants experienced a significant permanent change. Similarly, to the period preceding the war, the majority of rural blacks worked on white- owned land. However, their personal lives were now under their full control. In this case, they could report working and opt out as they pleased. Additionally, they possessed the power to decide the members of the family to work in the plantations. During early periods of the Reconstruction, many black women, who desired to dedicate more of their time on their families, demanded to be spared from field labor, a proposal that faced strong resistance from farm owners. As opposed to slavery era, children never went to work on fields but instead left to attend school (Cott, 157). Reconstruction period also realized urbanization that gave rise to cities such as Richmond and market centers spread across the cotton growing regions. Cities presented more diversified for both white and black laborers.
As labor changes swept across the newly found United States of America, the proponents of “free labor” continue their agitation based on the idea that it represented the opportunity ideology. According to this ideology, it was clear that, through hard work, individuals can exercise social mobility. During this time, free labor equalled to people working in factories, a factor that found its basis on the lower- level functionary of industrialization happening in the Northern part. Industrialization through factories that was now rampant in the urban regions and creating a vacuum to accommodate a ready labor pool became a critical factor in free labor. As time passed by a new notion came up that placed factory work above farm work. Here, working in factories was more “honorable” when compared with the example of Southern slavery (OAH Magazine of History, 7-8). Using this ground, free labor proponents build an argument that working in the North, considered industrialized, even in the lowest level of employment was more respectable than living as a southerner slave. This followed the following points: First, it offered workers chance to advance in rank, a fact that could never take place in Southern slavery. Secondly, it represented a major moment in American history that served to affirm “the American Dream.” The thought of working hard, tendering one’s time and ultimately being able to profit from individual labor became a key connection to the “American Dream.”

In conclusion, free labor proponents argued that any part the person that could function in advancing capitalism within America was honorable. This argument developed following both the established economic system and its consequent absorption into the “American Dream”. Free labor proponents were very committed to their dream and the “honorable” people who were to play a significant part in it. They believed the dream they held offered another narrative to slavery as far as defining American consciousness is concerned (This Republic of Suffering, 134). This explains the reason as to why many people held strong believe to free labor’s capitalist vision. It is true that, through this vision, both people’s lives and the American narrative to shape prior to and even after the Civil War.

Works Cited

“”African American” Labor in the Civil War.” OAH Magazine of History 26.4 (2012): 7-8. Print.

John, Richard R. “Horace Greeley’s “New-York Tribune”: Civil War-Era Socialism and the Crisis of Free Labor (review).” The

Journal of the Civil War Era 1.4 (2011): 573-576. Print.

Shapiro, P. “Book Review: The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? and

Labor’s Civil War in California: The NUHW Healthcare Workers’ Rebellion.” Labor Studies Journal 37.3 (2012): 326-328. Print.

Cott, Nancy F.. The bonds of womanhood “woman’s sphere” in New England, 1780-1835. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. Print.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This republic of suffering: death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

Reinhardt, Mark. Who speaks for Margaret Garner?. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print

Young, E.. “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic; Walt Whitman and the Civil War: America’s Poet during the Lost Years of 1860- 1862; Horace Greeley’s “New-York Tribune”: Civil War-Era Socialism and the Crisis of Free Labor.” American Literature 83.1 (2011): 196-198. Print.