Indentured Servants in 1901, Karl Term Paper

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Another major cause of exodus was the decline of linen manufacturing from 1771 to 1773. Many thousands of people suddenly lost their jobs and joined the hundreds going to America. "The linen trade... had entered upon a period of stagnation, and the consequent distress gave an impetus to the emigration to the land of promise" (Dunaway, 1944, p. 30). Religious persecution suffered by the Ulster habitats was another reason for leaving.

Those who emigrated to America included both well-to-do individuals and the needy, with the great majority of them the latter. This situation was not particular to the Irish, however, since most immigrants to America, of whatever race or nationality, have always been the most poor. Most carried with them their provisions for the voyage, together with some of their household goods. Craftsmen also brought along the tools of their trade. Everyone brought whatever money they owned, but this was little or none for the indentured servants (Dunaway, 1944, p. 31). Many letters from relatives across the Atlantic exist from his time. For example,

Dr Cusen:

had upertunity of reading your letter that was sent to your fatherinlaw, which gave me great satisfaction to here you were all in good health and fortuned so well as to be posessed in so good a bargain of lands. We are all in good health at present I bless God for all his mercies and yr uncle David is helthy and harty and do all join in our love and Compliments to you and your families and enquiring friends. I expected an account oftener from you, only times being troublesome in that country with wars that we were assured that you were all ded or killed the good Bargains of your lands in that Country Doe greatly encourage me to pluck up my spirits and make Redie for the Journey, for we are now oppressed with our lands set at 8s per acre and other improvements...(Boiling 2003, p. 28)

Despite the fact that servitude was not usually horrendous, the indentured servants were still considered chattel of their master, just as black slaves. Except for New York, Pennsylvania was the only colony where an indenture could not be bought and sold freely. It was necessary to have a court consent to assign a servant for over a year. The servant could not marry, vote or engage in any trade without a master's approval. Though he could hold property, his master could take any money earned in his spare time.

The conditions under which the white servant and the black slave labored were practically identical, except for the greater possibility of freedom. Provisions for food and clothing were the same. Both were employed in agriculture but were also trained in the various trades. Also, there was never any confusion about the ownership. Servants as well as slaves were hunted if they ran away, because they were property. However, because of his color and his religion, the indentured servant had some protections not available to the slave. The terms of an indenture were normally honored in court, where the servant could sue and usually find justice. When he was freed, he got his "dues." At first, Governor Penn promised 50 acres. However, this later changed to two suits of clothes (one new), an axe, and two hoes (Illick, 1976, p. 128)

However, adds Illick, "to focus on servile conditions and aristocratic contempt was to miss the point of the psychological effect of immigrating to Pennsylvania" p. 129). Apparently, the situation had mixed reviews depending on the individuals involved. Mittelberger (1750), for example, when reporting on what he saw, did not overlook this recognition. He stated that the province "offers people more freedom than the other English colonies, since all religious sects are tolerated there.... Freedom in Pennsylvania extends so far that everyone's property... is exempt from any interference or taxation.... Liberty in Pennsylvania does more harm than good to many people, both in soul and body. They have a saying here: Pennsylvania is heaven for farmers, paradise for artisans, and hell for officials and preachers."

Such an environment also intrigued and repelled Germans. Mittelberger described court cases of impregnated females, whose condition he attributed to the fact that "women possess considerable privileges and liberties." He had pleasure in relating the story of a charlatan preacher who exposed his bare behind in public, compensating for his unseemly relish by labeling the tale "a disgusting incident." Obviously, Mittelberger was made uncomfortable by what he perceived to be the consequences of liberty. He returned to Germany, but thousands of other immigrants remained, content or even happy with the change in conditions (Illick, 1976, p. 129).

The work by the indentured servants in Pennsylvania ebbed and flowed depending on the political situation and the need toward wage labor. In the mid-1700s as increasing numbers of immigrants arrived, wages fell and employers started to appreciate the benefits gained from wage laborers who they did not have to take care of when becoming ill or sick, as they did their servants or slaves. Therefore, employers began to seek labor began hiring small groups of free laborers for annual work, or by the day or specific the project. Bonded servants, by the mid-1700s, therefore only made quarter of the Philadelphia labor force (Emancipation in Pennsylvania)

However, when the act of 1780 ended slavery in Pennsylvania, this reversed the trend once again, because the employers no longer had the slaves to count on. The indentured population grew from less than 400 to 2000 in Philadelphia alone by the end of the century. Many of these were manumitted slaves; others slaves' children born after 1780, who acquired this status under the state law. As an economic institution, indentured labor was not limited to blacks and mulattos, and thus there are examples of Indian, German, Irish, Dutch, and Scottish indentured servants in these years (Emancipation in Pennsylvania).

The indenture system in Pennsylvania became more severe after 1780, because the terms of service were longer. Previously, it was limited to about seven years and rarely went beyond four among immigrants as agreed upon. Indentures normally had not lasted past age 21, for males, and 18, for females. This permitted at least the belief of the bondsman or woman learning a trade, such as housework for the women, in exchange for their labor and being freed with at least a decade of productive labor or family life ahead of them. This was nothing to argue with in an age when most people were disabled by the age of 40 and many laboring people did not live to see 30 (Emancipation in Pennsylvania).

However, after 1780 in Pennsylvania, the bound labor contract began to take 28 as the age of freedom. The abolition act had set this for the release of slaves' children, so the same appeared justified for others including servants. Not long after the act was passed, the overseers of the poorhouse in Philadelphia began binding out children of black paupers up to age 28. This further strengthened that age as the proper length of indentures servants as well. Previously they had done so only to the standard "majority" ages of 21 for males, 18 for females (Emancipation in Pennsylvania).

There are some historians who note that the lives of the indentured servants were equally bad as that of the slaves. For blacks, they say, the situation was rarely as positive as for the indentured servants because of the racism against people of color and from other areas outside of Europe. A number of specific issues made slavery more advantageous for the plantation owners than indentured servants: 1) They knew slaves would not leave after a few years; 2) Slaves were more inexpensive to keep, because they did not have limited rights as European indentured servants did; 3) Slaves would eventually reproduce themselves and provide additional labor; 4) Negative impressions of Africans as uncouth, uncivilized, non-Christian barbarians made it easy for colonists to consider it okay to totally subdue them; 5) Demographic and economic changes in the colony encouraged more considered African slaves a better long-term investment than indentured servants because the slaves, too, would be living there for the duration of their lives; 6)

Colonists began to think of themselves as leaders of a civilized cultured society and, thus, worthy of exploiting those of color; 10) English entry into the Atlantic slave trade gave Southern planters the chance to buy slaves more readily and cost effectively than before; 11) Decreases in demand for Caribbean slaves resulted in the decline of prices of slaves; 12) Due to their dark skin, it was hard for slaves to escape from their owners and blend into the rest of the population; 13) Anglo-Saxon law, transferred to the New World, was silent on the subject of slavery but had regulated laws on indentured servants; 14) Owning slaves was not seen…

Sources Used in Documents:


Emancipation in Pennsylvania. Slavery in the North. Website retrieved August 4, 2007.

Geiser, K. (1901) Redemptioners and Indentured Servants in the Colony and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Harrower, J. "Diary" (of Indentured Servant) in Amer. Hist. Rev., VI, 77.

Illick, J.E. (1976). Colonial Pennsylvania: A History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

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