BookChat with Brian Luskey, Author of Men is Cheap

Men is Cheap-coverI was pleased to spend some time recently with a new book by historian Brian Luskey, associate professor of history at West Virginia University. Luskey is the author of Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, a new release from the University of North Carolina Press (click here for more info). Dr. Luskey was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about the book.

1) I’m particularly intrigued to see a new Civil War book that focuses on economic history, which gets overshadowed by military, political, and social history—and when we do see it, it usually focuses on the cotton trade, or comparisons between northern and southern economies, or the economics of slavery. Why do you think economic history tends to get so overshadowed?

I wouldn’t say they’ve been overshadowed. There are a lot of great economic histories of the war. As you say, they tend to emphasize the ways the war unfolded within or unsettled transatlantic commercial systems or how we can understand the question of causation through assessments of regional distinctions between the economies of wage labor and slavery. My approach to economic history is different than those found in these books, however. I focus on the ways ordinary Americans helped to make those systems and trace those distinctions.

Luskey, Brian
Brian Luskey (photo by Olivia Miller)

I’m interested in economic history “on the ground”: how people made transactions, competed with each other for access to resources, thought about success and survival, and argued with each other about economic transformation. In telling the stories of labor brokers, employers, and workers in Men Is Cheap, I show that we cannot understand the economic history of the war without appreciating the ways it intersects with military, political, and social history. The transactions that recruiters, substitute brokers, employment office agents, soldiers, officers, household mistresses, and domestic servants negotiated–and the ways Americans interpreted those transactions–help us to understand how the Civil War and the economy shaped each other.

2) Your subtitle, “Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America,” uses a term a lot of readers have heard of, “free labor,” but might not necessarily understand what it means. For those who don’t, how would you define it?

It’s a good question, and one that my students often puzzle over. They often think free labor referred to slavery, since slaveholders profited from the work of enslaved people whom they did not pay. This notion is incorrect. Proponents of free labor ideology were primarily northerners who believed that wage labor made men free. Workers who earned wages could save them to provide a nest egg of capital for their independence. Employers could, in turn, enjoy the freedom of hiring workers of their choice, who would presumably vault to independence after a period of wage earning.

According to these ideas, capital and labor were intertwined in a mutually beneficial “harmony of interests.” Free labor provided the ideological glue for the new Republican Party of the 1850s because it offered a clear and compelling critique of slavery, in which workers could not enjoy social and economic mobility. But within these claims of wage labor’s superiority resided deep anxieties about the result of competition between wage labor employers and slaveholders for access to labor and capital in the western territories. Northern devotees of free labor worried that, in the coming struggle for the West, wage labor employers and workers would suffer a degrading dependence to slavery’s capital and its coercive labor regime.

What historians haven’t appreciated, in my opinion, is that the war for Union was a counterrevolution for free labor as much as an effort to put down the slaveholders’ revolt. And by destroying slavery and slavery’s capital, northerners hoped to benefit. Men Is Cheap tells the stories of northern businessmen, civilians, and military officers who sought to take advantage of the ways the war made a variety of laboring populations—from Irish immigrants to emancipated slaves, from Union soldiers to Confederate deserters—vulnerable to exploitation in the market for wage labor. My book illuminates the ways free labor as an ideology worked out for employers with capital better than for workers who lacked it.

3) In the subtitle, “Frauds” is plural. Do you suggest that the idea of free labor was a fraud for many reasons, or that there were many kinds of free labor, and they were all fraudulent? Was there any free labor that wasn’t fraudulent?

The two freedoms embedded in free labor ideology—for workers and employers—were not compatible with each other, and the war demonstrated the fact. And yet, many ordinary Americans continued to believe in the promises of social and economic advancement offered by those ideas and fought a war to realize free labor’s promise.

Ambition was considered a good thing, central to free labor ideology and the war for Union, but at the same time ambition was considered a bad thing. In Men Is Cheap, I examine antebellum debates about “intelligence offices,” or employment agencies. In these urban offices, a middleman helped workers and employers navigate an anonymous labor market. They charged fees to connect the two groups. Their profit-seeking was of a piece with other businessmen’s ambition, but Americans condemned their activities because they often failed to find jobs for workers and angered employers when they did not find them the laborers they desired. Disappointed parties accused them of committing fraud.

During the Civil War, despite antebellum concerns about these middlemen, intelligence offices served as models for moving laboring populations to employers who would hire them. Wartime labor brokers tried to make money out of the war, which contemporaries roundly condemned even as they clamored for access to a variety of laboring populations. Labor brokers were hated figures even though (or because) they were absolutely necessary. Northern employers also came to find them useful in cultural terms.

Civil War northerners condemned the frauds of labor brokers in order to obscure the fraudulent nature of free labor, a set of ideas that in practice promoted the freedoms of employers over those of wage workers.

4) It seems like there was no shortage of labor for agents to broker with: immigrants, veterans, former slaves, and Confederate deserters, among others. These seem like particularly vulnerable and marginalized populations. Did they see these sorts of financial arrangements as legitimate paths to security, even if it meant being exploited along the way?

As I mentioned before, free labor ideology promised upward mobility to workers, and many workers believed in it. Their hard work and perseverance, however, often registered as a threat to employers. Some Irish domestic servants, earning small wages, nevertheless bought an impressive array of consumer goods and deposited significant sums in immigrant savings banks. Even though saving and spending reflected the promise of wage labor for workers, observers condemned Irish “biddies” in print because they consumed beyond their station and left employers in the lurch when jobs at higher wages became available.

White and black soldiers believed that their consent was important when they signed contracts to do the work of killing and dying for the Union, even though the federal government often failed to meet its obligations. The failure to pay soldiers regularly, the payment of white and black soldiers at different rates, and the establishment of low wage rates in the occupied South forced enlisted men into indebtedness and dependence. Soldiers understood that wage work made them dependent and that having capital and being able to hire workers were both necessary if they were to experience more independence. In my book, I show how soldiers’ belief in free labor left them longing for the power that capital offered them in the labor market.

5) One of the financial transactions you talk about is something a lot of Civil War folks have heard of: the bounty system. As you point out, though, that was a lot more complicated that just paying someone $300 to have them sign up, and it had a lot of unintended consequences. In the end, do you think the system proved valuable or problematic?

In May 1861, the federal government instituted a $100 bounty to be payable to soldiers at the end of their service. Northern soldiers enlisted for many reasons, and I don’t think I devalue their patriotism when I suggest that, from the beginning of the war, economic considerations might have persuaded men to serve in the army or navy. Federal bounties rose and fell and rose again over the course of the war, and they were supplemented by state and local bounties as fewer men appeared willing to volunteer their services. When the Enrollment Act instituted a draft in 1863, a commutation fee of $300 allowed drafted men a financial path out of military service. These men could also hire substitutes to serve in their places. Because this commutation clause seemed unfair to men who did not have $300, Congress repealed it in the Summer of 1864. The result was not fairness, however. The price for a substitute rose far above $300 in a market managed by substitute or bounty brokers, unscrupulous men who employed various means of subterfuge to separate enlisted men from their bounty payments.

So, yes, there were a lot of problems with the bounty system, and it intersected with a conscription act that was notoriously unsuccessful in getting men from draft offices to the front. And yet, the escalating bounties did entice men to volunteer for service in the final years of the war, and those enlistments helped many communities fill their quotas and avoid the draft. The multiple arms of the recruitment system were therefore valuable to the nation and to substitute brokers even though local communities needed to spend money in the form of extra taxes, bond issues, and draft insurance to obtain recruits and economic benefits mainly accrued to brokers rather than to the workers who served as substitutes.

6) At the end the book, you make some interesting suggestions about the way the war redefined the relationship between labor and capital that had implications for everything from the Freedmen’s Bureau to the nascent oil industry. How important was that as an outcome of the war?

The war and the process of emancipation it created gave more opportunities for employers to hire workers of their choice. As a result, the war revealed the ways in which the interests of labor and capital, which free labor ideology suggested were in harmony with each other, were actually at odds. In my last chapter, I show what postbellum labor brokers and northern employers learned from their war experience. The Freedmen’s Bureau and veterans’ aid associations opened employment agencies to help former slaves and former soldiers find work, but they also helped to create a national labor market that, at least briefly, expanded the ability of employers to hire workers from distant places. Their dependence on and continued frustration with these institutions, I contend, help to explain why many white, middle-class northerners turned their backs on Radical Reconstruction in the South and called on the state to put down northern laborers’ strikes in violent reprisals in the 1870s.

7) What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?

Many of the images in my book came from the comic monthly Vanity Fair, a New York publication whose editorial stance in text and art revealed the contradictory ways Civil War northerners thought about the conflict and the type of economy and society it would produce. These images were drawn for a nativist and racist readership who believed in the war, distrusted the Lincoln administration, and favored slave emancipation and the rights of capital. Unraveling those contradictions and, in the process, making Vanity Fair‘s artistic director Henry Louis Stephens a main character in the book, were exciting intellectual challenges. 

8) Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?

William Still emerges as one of the only heroes in a book about people who preyed upon others’ vulnerability. Still was a prominent Philadelphia abolitionist who assisted fugitives from slavery in their passage to Canada along the “Underground Railroad” in the 1850s. Still published a book from his notes about these fugitives’ experiences, and it struck me how Still often calculated the results of his abolitionist work as a ledger that revealed how much human and financial capital the Underground Railroad seized from slaveholders. I think that is because Still was an entrepreneurial businessman, and yet it’s important to understand that he always understood his individualistic pursuits in the context of a collective African American struggle for freedom. When he agreed to serve as the agent of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s intelligence office and as sutler for Camp William Penn, he–more than his white peers–did so to help black domestic servants and soldiers earn the independence and autonomy that wage labor promised.

9) What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?

I guess I could point to a passage on page 2 that identifies the book’s main theme: “Fought to uphold the ideal of ‘free labor,’ the Union war encouraged Northern entrepreneurs, employers, and soldiers to envision their impending success through the accumulation of capital. Often, they sought the independence that capital purchased by employing laborers whom the war had made vulnerable. The war seemed to offer some Northerners opportunities to get rich because it clarified that other Americans were poor.”

10) What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?

My book moves along with labor brokers and the people they helped or forced to move, from Richmond to Philadelphia, from Oneida County, New York to Petersburg, from Northampton, Massachusetts to Norfolk, Virginia, from New Orleans to Washington, DC. It emphasizes motion more than location.

That said, because I did a lot of the research for this book in Philadelphia, I spent a great deal of time walking in the footsteps of my historical figures there, thinking about their experiences in places often related to other eras of the city’s history: of Confederate deserters at the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon on Washington St. near Gloria Dei “Old Swedes” Church, the officers of the Citizens Bounty Fund paying recruits in Independence Hall, or former slaves looking for work by visiting the home of William Still.

1 Response to BookChat with Brian Luskey, Author of Men is Cheap

  1. Fascinating neo- Marxian evaluation, which probably overdraws it’s conclusion . Looks like a worry book to read. But most analysis fails to note that the vast amount of “free labor”;in the North was not industrial but was still agricultural. The North and Old Northwest were just in the middle of a transition to an industrial economy. Moreover, it is hardly surprising that the newly enfranchised slaves, who had never before been paid, would act as a drag on wage growth. But again, the South, more so than the North, remained largely agricultural. And as the market for consumer goods grew, wages would have to rise in order for the items to be purchasable. Manufacturer s who artificially drove down wages to decrease cost would destroy the profit margin in the goods they wished to sell. Of course, the greatest refutation of any great industrial/financial cabal was the massive flood of immigrants, buoyed in large part by communication from previous immigrants of the same community. But I look forward to reading it.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!