At the time, Howe was debating a law on the books that allowed the railroads and other employers to sign up European immigrants for labor contracts and pay their passage to America. Signed into law in 1864, amid the labor shortage created by the Civil War, the law legalized contracts that bound an immigrant to pledge up to a year’s wages in order to pay off the debt for transporting him.
Two years later, the House wanted to enlarge the law’s powers to enforce the contracts against the immigrants. Howe and some other Republicans wanted to kill the law instead. To them, the foreign-labor contracts were “a species of slavery,” as one congressman put it.
The debate in the Senate chamber that July brought alive deeply different visions for what labor—and debt—should mean in America. Reading that debate now is piercing, for it represents the same divide that exists today: between the vision that has won, that of the lenders, and the vision that has lost, that which would protect the Raedell Piasos of the country.
One spokesman for the winners’ vision was Senator Reverdy Johnson, a conservative Democrat from Maryland. Johnson was a complicated soul. He had represented the slaveholder who claimed to own Dred Scott, but had voted for the Thirteenth Amendment.
Johnson called the immigration law “a very wise act,” and said nothing was wrong with enforcing it against immigrants who didn’t pay their transportation debts. There was no slavery about it, Johnson said, “except the slavery that exists in the case of any man who gets in debt for any sum.”
When Howe began to speak, he said he believed that Johnson misunderstood the nature of the law—and what enforcing it meant.
Mr. Howe: I understand it to be the main effect of these contracts to create a mortgage on the man himself.
Mr. Johnson: Oh no. It only says the contract shall be a lawful one. It is no more a mortgage on the man than is any debt you or I owe a mortgage on …
Mr. Howe: It says it shall be enforced.
Mr. Johnson: Of course, enforced like any other contract. Enforced how? By suit.
Mr. Howe:…I do understand it to be the purpose of the second section of the act of 1864 to authorize our courts to enforce it specifically against the immigrant. If that is not a mortgage of the man, so far, I should like to know what it is.
Mr. Johnson: It gives to whoever may be entitled to the benefit of the contract the right to receive his wages; that is all—
–a pledge upon his wages, not upon the man.
Mr. Howe: And authorizes the courts to enforce that pledge.
Mr. Johnson: Certainly.
Mr. Howe: There is only one way of enforcing it, and that is specifically against the man.
Mr. Johnson: To make him labor?
Mr. Howe: Yes; make him labor. It means that or it means nothing.
In this debate, Howe put his finger on an issue that resonates in today’s world of high-cost debt contracts for people like Piaso, who have little property or wealth to lean on. It is the relationship among debt, labor, and freedom.