Title: From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation
Author: Amy Dru Stanley
Categories: Liberalism, Legal History, Slavery, Reconstruction, Marriage, Gender, Contract Theory, Industrialism
Place: United States
Time Period: 1866-1896
Amy Dru Stanley sets up a framework for viewing post-Civil War American society through an ideology to view and order the world through a collection of free and autonomous individuals engaging in contract agreements (liberal individualism). Contract ideology provided a worldview and common language for a range of social and political debates after Emancipation, and its tensions were highlighted as people tried to figure out where marriage, beggars, prostitutes, and ex-slaves fit within this framework.
The abolitionist movement modified a legacy of classical liberalism by adding a gendered dimension of home life and marriage, arguing that slavery's injustice stemmed from stripping men of their right to marriage - in addition to the more classic argument that slavery stripped them of their right to enter into contracts to enjoy compensation for their labor. In the age of Emancipation, freedom of contract came to embody the antithesis of slavery. Interestingly, freed slaves ended up focusing not so much on freedom for wage contracts, but on their insistence to the right of owning their wives via marriage contract and on land ownership as a means of establishing their independence. Contract language also coalesced in debates around beggars. Stanley articulates a shift in how people viewed relief for beggars, from an earlier mode of sympathy or benevolent paternalism, towards one that saw begging as undermining the tenets of a society based on contracts by not providing compensation for money/alms. This became embodied by the passage of punitive laws that forced beggars to work for their wages.
Marriage and home life also became a central arena in which debates relied on a language of contracts. Wage laborers often insisted that the quid pro quo for providing their labor was receiving adequate wages to have a wife and home life that was segregated from the marketplace. They pointed to wives being forced into marketplace contracts in order to help support the family as epitomizing a form of modern slavery based on male dependency, or the invasion of outwork into the domestic sphere. This also raised tensions between wage contracts and marriage contracts. Feminists insisted that the tenets of contract ideology should grant women rights over their own wages and property. Men, meanwhile, argued that part of their rights to contract labor involved granting them patriarchal dominance over their wives. Legislators resolved this via a weak half-measure, granting women limited rights over their property while simultaneously reinforcing husbands' dominance over their wives. Finally, Stanley uses prostitution to highlight all of the debates swirling around contract ideology. Feminists argued that prostitution stemmed from women's dependence on men, while labor activists argued that it stemmed from men's dependence on wages and inability to provide for their women. Prostitution came to replace slavery as the epitome of illegitimate contracts in contrast to the legitimate contract of wage systems.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Contract as a worldview/language for social and political debates
- Contract and ability to marry seen as antithesis of slavery
- Gender subsumed under race, as contract rights don't extend to wives
- Ideological legacies of abolitionism and liberalism - abolitionism adds the dimension of marriage and home life as part of contract
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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