Labor through history

Through primary school, most students are taught some of the horrors of slavery or the basics of child labor laws, but few access the transition of labor forces throughout our country’s history.  Because so many of our everyday necessities are imported to us far from their production, we are intensely removed from a system that impacts every part of our lives.  Throughout our first journey on Chesapeake Semester we explored this idea of labor and the intrinsic versus instrumental value we place on human life.

IMG_3963When English settlers first landed on Jamestowne Island 406 years ago, they had no option but to each be directly involved in the everyday labor of acquiring food, building shelter and defending their fort.  While most of us think of these original settlers as everyday people escaping religious persecution to find a new life, these men were upper-class investors sponsored by the Virginia Company of London.  Few arrived with hands-on skills and experience to survive.  Due to these issues, as well as disease, warfare and extreme climate, many perished.  As I think back to camping and foraging for our food with Dr. Schindler during the first journey, I cannot help but wonder if we would have done any better.  As Washington College students we are fortunate to be surrounded by education, technology and a first-world lifestyle but we know very little about basic survival skills.  Like the men of Jamestowne we are not equipped to preform daily activities required for survival.

Several years after the arrival of the original settlers, the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop by John Rolfe required a stronger labor force.  Soon criminals and indentured servants from England came pouring into the New World.  Because of the high labor and land needed for tobacco, indentured servants were given a passage to the new world in exchange for a defined period of time, usually seven or fourteen years of work.  After fulfilling their time, they were given a small plot of land and were free to grow their own crops.  While at times these people were treated harshly and unfairly, it was a choice they made in hope for a new life.

IMG_4154         Between 1616 and 1619 the tobacco crop export grew over 550,000 bushels and demand in England continued.  Colonists swarmed to the new world, hoping to make a fortune like those before them who were making double an average income for a single pound of tobacco.  This continued until demand and therefore prices dropped and slavery began to grow.  While in the past it had been cheaper to bring over indentured servants, slaves were immune to many diseases, worked for landowners for their entire lives and their offspring became future workers.  This transition in the labor force began a trade and ownership of people that shaped the country and continues to affect us today.

A top example in describing the concept of intrinsic value is human life.  Slavery denounces this concept, removing the simple idea that a human is valuable simply because he or she is human.  Our country grew, survived and flourished because thousands of people were considered property that could be bought, traded, given as gifts and treated inhumanly.  In the twenty-first century most of us look back on this part of history in complete disgust, but we must admit that our country would be a very different place without these atrocities in our past.  We conveniently forget how slavery continued to affect most of this country for years after the Emancipation Proclamation and continues to affect us today.

IMG_4556        While in many ways our intrinsic value of human life has increased since this time, our country has faced many other ethical issues surrounding labor.  In Baltimore, another stop in our chronological loop through the Chesapeake Bay area during this journey, we saw yet another important moral issue facing the labor force.  The Baltimore Museum of Industry depicts another booming economic time in our history, full of growth, technology and process.  A consistent flow of immigrants created a cheap labor force that spurred fast production and inexpensive goods.  What many of us forget is that under these harsh, inhumane conditions thousands of young immigrant children were became part of the work force.  Although this form of labor is considered illegal today we have to acknowledge that this abuse spurred an economy that drastically affected the way that the United States arrived at its present state.  Even larger than the intrinsic value we feel towards humans overall, is the value we place on children.  Most children of the United States today live sheltered lives that revolve around school and fun yet their toys and clothes are manufactured in countries that continue to use children in sweatshops.

These issues beg the question, are we any better now than we were hundreds of years ago?  We do not own slaves or send our children to work in sweatshops but we endorse and support companies that do.  We say we place intrinsic value on human life yet ignore that labor force outside our country’s boundaries.  We are so removed from this system that it makes it easy to forget how we acquire these goods and what goes into making them available to us.  Although these large and powerful companies that use this inhumane labor are more than any single person can change, we are morally and ethically obligated to research and push back against this system.  It was possible to bring an end to slavery and child labor in our country, but what is stopping us from ending current abusive labor practices?  We must first decide our personal intrinsic value towards human life and reflect from there.  This journey has opened my eyes on the issues of intrinsic value in the labor force and I have and will continue to reflect on this issue that desperately needs to be addressed.

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