Book Review: From Bondage to Contract by Amy Dru Stanley

One of the most famous stereotypes of America is her faith in the free economic market.  For as long as anyone currently alive can remember, that the free market was the best of all possible economic systems has been conventional wisdom.  Amy Dru Stanley’s book, From Bondage to Contract, goes back to the mid- to late-19th century to uncover the origins of this reliance on free markets and contracts.  Not only does she study those origins, she exposes how those who did not benefit from contracts used the abolitionist language of free markets to push for an expansion of their own freedoms.  After the emancipation of the slaves, many Americans assumed that the power of the free market would help spread freedom into areas previously held in bondage. Yet Stanley reminds us that wage workers, wives, ex-slaves, beggars and even prostitutes were not as free as was assumed.  Large segments of the population were still facing severe limitations on personal freedom in the name of the free market, and began to agitate for their own freedom, often adopting the rhetoric of the abolitionists before and during the Civil War.  Stanley’s argument also exposes the activist nature of city and state governments during the latter half of the 19th century in trying to shape the family household and cleaning off the city streets.  Chock full of details and information, Stanley’s book is a legal history of the evolution of the idea of contract in the free market and the battle of civil rights in 19th century America.  For all of the information presented by Stanley, the reader can recognize three distinct themes when they pull back enough to evaluate the book as a whole.  First, Stanley spends the first portion of the book defining contracts and the use of free market language to undercut the slave economy of the southern United States.  The second major theme of her work is how the concept of labor and whether or not it could be separated from a personality affected the household and gender roles.  The final main theme deals with two major groups of people who lie outside of the traditional contract and labor system: beggars and prostitutes.  Stanley shows how governments (city and state, mostly) tried to force them into the labor market while reconciling the apparent hypocrisy between coercion and the values of the free market.  With such an ambitious project ahead of her, Stanley smartly began her work with the basic foundation of contract and free labor as it relates to the United States.

Stanley traces the evolution of the idea of contract, rising through the idea of a religious compact in the 17th century, through the political contract and the social contract.  In the 1600s the initial contract was between the Puritans and the State, but one hundred years later contract had evolved into a mostly economic exchange.  In America, the idea that a populace enters a contract with an all-powerful government lost ground in favor of the “voluntary association created by citizens equal under the law, a compact guaranteeing inalienable individual rights as well as the private contract relations arising from those rights.” The idea of the labor contract originally emerged as a contract between equals, a straight exchange of one item (labor) for another (pay).  But John Stuart Mills noted that labor wages did not equal the item produced or the effort that went into creating it.  In fact, laborers were receiving significantly less than an equal exchange through their contracts.  Others argued that such contracts did not have to be an equal exchange.  The key point of the contract was that it would be entirely voluntary.  As long as no fraud was carried out there was nothing wrong with an unbalanced contract.  In the early days the wage contract transferred authority as well as a good or service.  Such a contract established a domestic relationship between the wage earner and their employer, though this facet did not last long after the emancipation of the slaves.  A clear master-servant relationship, at least in the North among white people, would not be desired in the eyes of Americans.

After the Civil War contracts were sought to establish a new social order after the end of slavery.  By the 1870s the contract came to define the American order of things.  It was axiomatic that free contracts were the building blocks of personal freedom and social progress.  But Stanley wrote that the question over whether or not a person could be separated by their labor remained and would affect the households of all laboring Americans.

As northern Americans tried to rebuild the South after the Civil War, they felt an obligation to teach freed slaves how to exist within a capitalist society and how to embrace their newfound freedoms through wage contracts.  Contract, being the basic foundation of freedom, was drilled into freed slaves over and over again.  Stanley argued that it was of the utmost importance to northerners that ex-slaves enter the labor market to create social stability in the south.  Critics attacked the idea that selling your labor was different than selling yourself, and even questioned the axiom that to engage in contract is to be truly free.  They said that labor was not a commodity and that if all a person has is their labor, selling it means they give up everything for a small return.  Stanley described how these critics of the capitalist labor system pointed out that personality was thus attached to labor, so when a person sells their labor they are essentially selling themselves.  Only the product of said labor could be separated from the laborer.  They also pointed out that by continually having to exist within a labor contract, a wage earner is basically selling himself into lifelong slavery.To reconcile the similarities with slavery labor was removed from the domestic sphere it had belonged to for the first half of the 19th century and ostensibly separated from dependence on the employer outside of the actual labor provided.  One of the side effects of pulling contract out of the domestic sphere and making it purely economic and labor-based was the elimination of paternalistic bonds.  The so-called equal exchange that took place in contracts no longer meant that the wage earner would submit to every whim of his employer.  That was much too similar to slavery.  The demise of personal bonds led to acceptance of “hard bargaining” and class antagonism as characteristics of labor relations.  This separation did not carry over into strikes, Stanley points out.Women, however, did not benefit from the removal of labor from the domestic sphere.  They were still very much seen as servants to their husbands, Stanley argues. The only difference between marriage and slavery was that marriage required the consent of both parties.Stanley argues (a bit tenuously) that contract in the north also meant that a man was exchanging his labor in exchange for his woman to be kept at home, not laboring for anyone else.  Stanley spent a great deal of time talking about how women violated this principle by working to make up for the low pay their husbands made.  Despite reading a considerable amount of anecdotes the reader is left wondering if the connection is really as strong as Stanley writes that it is.  Certainly working women were a shock to Americans of the time, but her complicated and nuanced descriptions of the meaning of labor contracts and marriage aren’t always so convincing.  There is rarely an instance of a man outright claiming that his woman working violated his freedom of ownership.  Stanley claims that part of what made a man free was his ability to own his wife and children.  Their wages went to him (at least until the Earnings Act that gave women the right to keep their own wages) and it was expected that the home be clean and ready for him when he returned home after a long day of work.  In the debate over “freeing” women reformers argued that the 13th Amendment would allow the government to threaten the subservience of wives.  Senator Edgar Cowan even went so far as say that the Civil Rights Act “confers upon married women, upon minors, upon idiots, upon lunatics. . .the right to make and enforce contracts.”Stanley’s inclusion of beggars and prostitutes into her analysis of the contract in America seems strange at first.  The two groups lie outside the traditional notions of free labor, but they represent the struggle between American values (freedom and morality) and American reality (begging disrupting free labor and prostitution disrupting the streets).  Beggars were rounded up and forced to work because their choice to live outside of the contract system threatened the stability of the new order being built in America.  Reformers argued away the discrepancy between a free society and coerced labor by arguing that the program was only temporary until the ex-slaves or laborers were re-trained and ready to make the transition into free labor.  Yet the program remained in place for a long time and became an integral part of the vagrancy laws passed by the government. Another argument they made pertaining to the ex-slaves was that their race was inferior to the whites and thus coercion was necessary to keep them afloat in the new economy.Prostitutes were on the opposite side of the argument.  They did engage in contract exchanges, freely giving their bodies in exchange for money or sustenance.  This posed a threat to the morality of the nation and was tackled primarily by city and state governments.  To some, like William Lloyd Garrison, prostitution revealed flaws in the labor market.  If laborers made enough money to live off of, prostitution would not be an appealing side-job.  In his mind poverty and prostitution were linked, a relation Stanley writes, that not everyone shared.  Some even argued that no working women engaged in prostitution because they were too tired from working all day to engage in such night activity, yet investigations showed a large minority of prostitutes were married.To support all these claims Amy Stanley uses countless anecdotes and quotes from government investigations and the works of famous economists, abolitionists and political philosophers.  Unfortunately, the sheer number of them can make the reader lose sight of Stanley’s narrative.  It is clear that throughout the book her subject is the idea of contract in 19th century America, but her anecdotes tell such a wide variety of stories that it becomes difficult to really pin down what the point of her work is.  There are so many smaller themes uniting parts of the book that it becomes difficult to tell which one is the story she really wants to tell.  Her argument that those who did not benefit from the age of emancipation sought to improve their condition through the language of contract and free labor is well-supported but it would have served her better to limit the topics she discusses.  Her chapters on prostitution and begging seem almost tacked on to the narrative.  In fact, her book seems almost to deal with two linked topics that probably deserve their own books.  On the one hand she spends a great deal of time discussing the condition of women in the free market system, while the other half is spent on more traditional labor history.  Begging fits into her general narrative of free labor contracts whereas the prostitution chapter seems to be connected with both yet not really helpful in understanding her point.  Perhaps she would have been better served to use prostitution in her discussion of the debate over the free market and morality in earlier chapters instead of devoting a separate chapter to the topic.

Stanley is an excellent writer and book is engaging and interesting, but it simply feels overwhelming in the points being brought up.  Another issue readers might take up with Stanley’s argument is that women were seen as slaves to be owned by men.  No one should dispute the fact that women were second class citizens back then, but her evidence about the dirtiness of working class homes doesn’t explicitly support her claims that men felt they were losing the labor of their wives by having them work for other men.  It seems a bit of a stretch to believe that men were arguing some philosophical political point when they complained of living in dirty hovels.  In reality they probably simply felt a woman should stay home and take care of the kids and house so they would have someplace comfortable to come home to after work.  Considering the terrible condition of many tenements during the era it seems unlikely that they even expected their wives to make a comfortable home.  Stanley never goes into detail about what exactly men expected of their wives other than a hot meal and a clean house.  There is a strong possibility that men were not thinking in terms of labor lost and the threat to their freedoms as men.In short, Amy Dru Stanley’s From Bondage to Contract is an interesting work that makes a lot of sense.  At times it can be overburdened with detail and it can become unclear which point she is trying to make.  When taken as a general history of the evolution of contract and free market labor in 19th century America and while not thinking too hard about the various supporting arguments she makes, the book enjoys much greater clarity.  It could have benefitted from being split into two books or at least a much shorter, streamlined essay.  She starts strong by describing the creation of the free market in the minds of 19th Century Americans, following that up with how the free market affected laborers and their households.  Finally, her book loses a bit of steam by tackling vagrancy and begging (outliers in free market society) and in prostitution as a perversion of the free market system.  All in all, the book should be recommended for anyone studying the latter half of 19th Century America.  The lively prose brings to life labor and legal history that is often written by others in a dry style that discourages readers from tackling the complex issues Stanley brings to the forefront.