The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870

Robert J. Steinfeld.

Published June 2002. Order online through The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN: 978-0-8078-5452-5.

Examining the emergence of the modern conception of free labor–labor that could not be legally compelled, even though voluntarily agreed upon–Steinfeld explains how English law dominated the early American colonies, making violation of al labor agreements punishable by imprisonment. By the eighteenth century, traditional legal restrictions no longer applied to many kinds of colonial workers, but it was not until the nineteenth century that indentured servitude came to be regarded as similar to slavery.


“As at once a work of synthetic legal history and a thought-provoking series of arguments about the nature of legal change, it is a book that deserves to be read carefully by all early-modern social and legal historians.”
– American Journal of Legal History

“[The book] is thoughtful and quietly stimulating. . . . Both for its own particular ideas, and as an example of what labor law history is beginning to achieve, it is a book to be recommended.”
– Labor History

“A thorough and persuasive analysis of the evolution of the legal status of workers, which effectively blends legal with social history and illuminates the lively controversies of our own time concerning the rights of individual employees.”
– David Montgomery, Yale University

“Essential reading for labor historians, historians of social welfare and of the history of political and economic thought, as well as for legal historians generally. . . . No one else has shown the real changes which occurred in people’s lives when they began to think of themselves as ’employees’ rather than ‘servants.’”
– Hendrik Hartog, University of Wisconsin Law School

“A superbly researched and analyzed work of historical and legal scholarship, tracing the existence and disappearance of varying legal constraints that limited the economic freedom of laborers. With his analysis of legal statutes, court cases, and writings of contemporaries in England and America, Steinfeld has provided the detail to reopen a most important issue of political, social, and economic change. This book will be of interest to all studying the nature of the employment relation and its political implications.”
– Stanley L. Engerman, University of Rochester
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