Discuss how the notion of “free labor” changed from the beginning of the Civil War to the end. Which types of “labor” were considered honorable and which were not as well. Discuss how these...

Discuss how the notion of “free labor” changed from the beginning of the Civil War to the end. Which types of “labor” were considered honorable and which were not as well. Discuss how these changes shaped the lives of particular people.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Those supporting "free labor" argued that it was synonymous with the opportunity ideology. This ideology suggests that through hard work, people can experience social mobility. The origins of American capitalism was rooted in free labor.  At the time, free labor was seen as working in factories and as lower- level functionaries of the new wave of industrialization taking hold in the North.  Industrialization through factories, centered in urban areas, and requiring a ready labor pool were seen as the critical elements in free labor.  

It was argued that working in factories was "honorable" when contrasted with the paradigm of Southern slavery. Free labor advocates suggested that working in the industrialized North, even in the smallest of capacities, was more honorable than existing as a slave in the South in some distinct ways:

  • One way was that that there could be a chance for the worker to move upwards, a reality that could never happen in Southern slavery.  Eric Foner suggests that "republicans believed that a man who 'remained all his life dependent on wages for his livelihood appeared almost as unfree as the southern slave."   It was suggested that one day, a worker could emerge as owning the means of production and having others work for them.  This is a reality that could not happen under slavery.
  • Another way in which free labor was seen as more honorable than slavery was because it represented one of the first moments in which "the American Dream" was articulated.  The idea of working hard, biding one's time, and eventually being able to reap the fruits of individual labor became associated with the "American Dream."  This was something that appealed to immigrants and people in search of a new life.  Expanding this "dream" to as many people as possible and in as many parts of the nation as possible became part of the narrative that free labor supporters told, making their vision more desirable than the condition that slavery offered.  This narrative collided with the vision of life in the South.  Free labor proponents were able to make a case that what they offered should fundamentally challenge the paradigm that the South featured.  In doing so, this highlights the intensity and brutality of the conflict because it both ways of life were pitted against one another and only one could survive, something that Twain himself noted:  "...[The Civil War] uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations."

Free labor supporters felt that any part the individual could play in enhancing capitalism in America was honorable. They felt this because of their commitment to both the economic system and its feeding into the American Dream. Free labor advocates were so passionate about their vision and the "honorable" individuals who were to partake in it because it provided an alternative narrative to slavery in defining American consciousness.  It is for this reason that many believed free labor's capitalist vision so intensely.  It shaped both individual lives and the American narrative leading into and following the Civil War.

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