DEFINING ECONOMIC FREEDOM

TOWARD FREE LABOR

In economic as well as political and religious affairs, the Revolution rewrote the definition of freedom. In colonial America, slavery was one part of a broad spectrum of kinds of unfree labor. In the generation after independence, with the rapid decline of indentured servitude and apprenticeship and the transformation of paid domestic service into an occupation for blacks and white females, the halfway houses between slavery and freedom disappeared, at least for white men. The decline of these forms of labor had many causes. Wage workers became more available as indentured servants completed their terms of required labor, and considerable numbers of servants and apprentices took advantage of the turmoil of the Revolution to escape from their masters.

The democratization of freedom contributed to these changes. The lack of freedom inherent in apprenticeship and servitude increasingly came to be seen as incompatible with republican citizenship. Ebenezer Fox, a young apprentice on a Massachusetts farm, later recalled how he and other youths “made a direct application of the doctrines we heard daily, in relation to the oppression of the mother country, to our own circumstance...

I thought that I was doing myself a great injustice by remaining in bondage, when I ought to go free.” Fox became one of many apprentices during the Revolution who decided to run away—or, as he put it, to “liberate myself.” On the eve of the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, Fox and a friend set off for Rhode Island. After briefly working as a sailor, Fox, still a teenager, joined the Continental army.

In 1784, a group of “respectable” New Yorkers released a newly arrived shipload of indentured servants on the grounds that their status was “contrary to ... the idea of liberty this country has so happily established.” By 1800, indentured servitude had all but disappeared from the United States. This development sharpened the distinction between freedom and slavery and between a northern economy relying on what would come to be called “free labor” (that is, working for wages or owning a farm or shop) and a southern economy ever more heavily dependent on the labor of slaves.

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