Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Just Finished Reading - Men is Cheap

“Free Soil, Free Labor, and Fremont” was an early rally cry for the emergent Republican Party in the mid-1850s. To many of its Northern proponents, the idea of free labor provided not only a better economic model, but also staked claim to a moral high ground over the labor system practiced in the 15 slave states. As most Northerners perceived it, allowing laborers the ability to choose their profession and their employer, and to earn their living by the sweat of their brow or by their ingenuity and intellect without competition from slave labor was clearly superior. Northerners also felt that slave labor hindered innovation and discouraged industrial trades. However, as Brian P. Luskey informs us in Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, the free labor system was not without its fair share of flaws, too.  

Organized into six chapters, Men is Cheap also includes a helpful contextual introduction and fitting conclusion. In this study we see that the Civil War provided a good testing ground for the free labor system. As the war progressed political decisions and military actions produced events that offered certain individuals and organizations, who were perhaps more interested in personal gain than national advancement, numerous opportunities to cash in. Corruption involving Union war material manufacturing contracts have long been part of Civil War scholarship, but until recently, labor fraud in relation to the Union cause has largely remained out of the spotlight.

Focusing heavily on what were then called “intelligence offices,” which operated somewhat like a shadier version of today’s employment agencies, Luskey exposes a clear contradiction between the ideals of free labor, and how under the pressures of wartime necessity it sometimes became manipulated into the corrupt exploitation of vulnerable and marginalized populations who had few options. While viewed by many Northerners at the time as less than model citizens, intelligence office brokers also ironically filled the manpower needs (on the battlefront as well as on the home front) that ultimately helped facilitate Union victory. They provide quite the intriguing paradox.

Not surprisingly intelligence office brokers seemed to target those most vulnerable. They sought out the unemployed and immigrants in the North to fill substitute roles for soldiers who could afford to buy their way out of service. These middlemen also located recently freed African American men (once they were finally allowed to officially enlist) to fill the state quotas required by the federal government. Agents combed the refugee camps to find freedwomen and children, as well as white Unionist refugees, to work in Northern homes and on Northern farms at low wages. Even the Confederate soldier was not out of bounds to these brokers. Confederate prisoners and deserters who pledged the oath of allegiance to the United States could obtain employment with the federal government through intelligence office agents. For a price, agents moved workers to where the work was needed, often, of course, with little regard for the working conditions or ultimate fate of the worker. In doing so, these middlemen commodified the worker, not so differently than how the slave trader had the enslaved.

Men is Cheap did not provide much discussion about reform efforts, nor the use of fraudulent free labor as a political tool. Perhaps there were few attempts at reform due to the constant focus on prosecuting the war, but I would be surprised, if at minimum, the Democratic Party or “Copperhead” factions did not at least mention instances of this abuse if effort to gain political ground.

Regardless, Men is Cheap makes a significant contribution to the body of Civil War scholarship, particularly that relating to the growing genre of labor history. How the United States came to regard labor developed in part from the Civil War years, and its relevance is still clearly present in today’s society.

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