Labor Legislation of the Colonial and Revolutionary Eras

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From the Revolution to the eve of the Civil War, law began to shape working life in America. Originally, the colonies adopted the Common Law of England, however with the onset of the Revolution, states began to draft their own constitutions. In the 18th and 19th centuries, legislation having to do with labor was largely determined at state levels, and most often, on a case-by-case basis. It wouldn’t be until the beginning of the 20th century that most federal legislation concerning labor would be drafted and take effect. Originally, most people immigrated by way of indentured servitude or slavery.1 People that emigrated from England couldn’t afford their passage and agreed to become indentured for a certain amount of time in order to pay their expenses incurred from traveling to the states. Once they arrived in the states, the ship captain would have them lined up for sale, or they would be auctioned off at local markets. They became property of their masters. Contract labor, indentured servants and convict laborers were not allowed to sell their labor and were tied to their masters by laws that “compelled them to help their masters become rich”.2 Many times, the length of servitude was extended due to poor behavior, and the servants were sometimes abused. There were “laws that called on masters to provide servants with adequate food, lodging and clothing”3 to ensure basic rights. Once completing their set time of servitude, these people were freed from all bonds to their masters. In Massachusetts, law stated “all servants who had served diligently and faithfully for seven years should be not be sent away empty-handed”.4 Unfortunately, because these laws were not always adhered to, some servants found it necessary to fight back. When indentured servants felt they were wronged, they were able to press charges against their masters as they “were recognized as fellow Christians and were entitled to their day in court”.5 Even though they were able to take their case to court, the punishments masters might receive were often very pale in comparison to the charges. In one case, a mistress had “whipped a servant so severely and put salt in her wounds” that it resulted in death. The mistress was only fined 300 pounds of tobacco for the death. In another case, the court upheld the decision that a servant was subject to 30 lashings because she was not allowed to “go to play or be idle”. (Dubofsky et al. 2010)6 Though indentured servitude was more common in the North, slavery was more prominent in the South.7 Masters had “quasi-property rights”8 and there was very little law that protected the slaves. With rising anti-slavery sentiments in the North, some citizens pushed for the abolition of Slavery. Pennsylvania was one of the first states to enact legislation for a gradual abolishment of slavery in 1780. In 1783, Massachusetts, Supreme Court ruled slavery illegal, instantly freeing all slaves9. Most Northern states followed suit by enacting legislation for the gradual abolition of slavery. Connecticut and Rhode Island were the first to follow in 1784, Vermont in 1791, New York in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804. These laws typically dictated that going forward, any blacks born would be subject to indentured servitude, but the laws didn’t call for the release of all current slaves. With the overwhelming majority of the North enacting gradual abolition laws, Thomas Jefferson soon followed by signing the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807, which was put into law in 180810. In 1817, New York passed legislation to be free of all its slaves within 10 years, by July 4, 1827. In 1828, New York officially abolished slavery, setting the precedent that children born between 1799 and 1827 would be indentured until the age of 25 for females and 28 for males.11 In 1847, Pennsylvania joined New York in completely ending slavery, though most were already free, this only amounted to about 100 who had remained enslaved...
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