Thursday, September 5, 2013

Stacey L. Smith's "Freedom’s Frontier"

Stacey L. Smith is assistant professor of history at Oregon State University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, and reported the following:
In this book, I attempt to unsettle the familiar story of the Civil War era by geographically recentering it in the Far West. Scholars usually narrate the Civil War as a struggle between the North and the South over the fate of free labor and slavery and the destiny of black and white Americans. I argue, however, that when we look west, to gold rush California, these familiar regional, labor, and racial binaries lose their coherence. The California gold country was a multiracial global borderland. Diverse people—African Americans, Chinese, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos—worked under a wide array of labor systems— including indentured servitude, apprenticeship, debt bondage, and contract labor—which could not be easily classified as slave or free. Although California adopted an antislavery constitution in 1849, the state remained embroiled in bitter conflicts over these ambiguous labor systems until Reconstruction.

Page 99 takes us into the heart of California’s struggle over Chinese contract labor, a labor arrangement that thoroughly blurred the line between slavery and freedom. Here we learn about the 1852 schemes of two California legislators—Sen. George Tingley and Assemblyman Archibald Peachy—to pass bills allowing American employers to recruit Chinese laborers and bring them to California under long-term labor contracts (ranging from five to ten years) at low monthly wages. Both men proposed to punish Chinese contract breakers with criminal prosecution, fines, and jail time.

Together, these bills provoked a statewide debate over the freedom of contract labor. The ability to make a contract was a hallmark of freedom in the nineteenth century, a key legal right that distinguished free laborers from slaves. And yet, white miners insisted that Chinese workers who might agree to these contracts would suffer such harsh working conditions that they would resemble slaves more than free men. Moreover, wealthy employers would import so many of these “contract slaves” that they would drive free white men out of the labor market. Ultimately, the campaign to align contract labor with slavery, rather than freedom, was the driving force behind the defeat of these two bills and helped spur California’s anti-Chinese movement. The conflict over Chinese contract labor shows how shifting focus to the Pacific can open new insights into slavery, freedom, and race in nineteenth-century America.
Learn more about Freedom's Frontier at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue