America Cannot Bear to Bring Back Indentured Servitude

It’s a history lesson worth remembering: The exploitation of immigrant workers only encourages more—and worse—abuse.

A black-and-white sketch of people cultivating tobacco on a Virginia farm in the 1600s
An 1878 schoolbook's depiction of tobacco cultivation at Jamestown, Virginia (Wikimedia)

In 1624, Jane Dickenson petitioned the governor of Virginia for relief from bondage. Four years earlier, her husband had signed a contract of indenture to pay for his immigration from England; it obliged him to labor for a man named Nicholas Hide for a period of seven years.

Before the indenture was up, however, Jane’s husband was killed in the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, and she was taken captive by the Pamunkey Indians. Held for 10 months, she was finally ransomed for two pounds of beads by one of the Virginia Company’s grandees. Jane now found herself bound to labor “with a towefold Chaine,” one “for her late husband’s obligation,” the other “for her ransome.” Seeking her own release, Jane testified that her indentured service “differeth not from her slavery [with] the Indians.”

Stories similar to Jane’s abounded in the colony, where labor for growing cash crops was perpetually scarce and turning a profit required keeping tight control over immigrant workers. English law provided indentured servants some avenues for redress, but local Virginian courts—like the one Jane appealed to—were run by their employers. Masters traded laborers and disciplined them with impunity, all with the law’s support. Just a year after Jane filed her petition, the English ship captain Thomas Weston refused to carry more servants to Virginia because they were sold there “like horses.”

It’s a lesson as old as European settlement of the present-day United States: Treating migrant workers as property for the benefit of others leads to terrible consequences. But judging from a recent immigration-reform proposal, the country hasn’t entirely learned that lesson. In a Politico piece originally titled, “What If You Could Get Your Own Immigrant?”—a headline that provoked such anger it was quickly changed—Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Law School, and Glen Weyl, an economist at Microsoft Research New England, described a plan that amounts to reintroducing a form of bonded immigrant labor to the United States. Their idea, in essence, is to give every American citizen the right to “sponsor” an immigrant, put that person to work, and then take a portion of his or her wages.

If these two scholars at elite institutions were aware of their plan’s historical precedent, they gave no indication of it. But it’s clear from American history that such a proposal would be a disaster not only for immigrants, but for American democracy. Once set in motion, any policy that creates conditions for exploitative labor practices is likely only to encourage more exploitation.

The history of how indentured servitude transformed into racialized chattel slavery in America provides a particularly vivid example of this vicious cycle. In theory, colonial Virginia’s intense labor scarcity ought to have meant favorable terms for migrating workers. But as Jane Dickenson learned, the men who governed the colonies changed market dynamics by imposing harsh laws that allowed them to control and capture laborers in new ways. Whereas contracts of indenture for agricultural workers in England typically ran to only one year, in America they stretched out to seven. And colonial authorities routinely punished servants who tried to escape—or simply displeased their masters—with whippings, split tongues, sliced ears, and extra years of service. As the late American historian Edmund Morgan put it, even before slavery took root, Virginia’s masters were moving “toward a system of labor that treated men as things.”

This still wasn’t enough. As free subjects of the English crown, servants who managed to outlive their indentures could eventually obtain property and some measure of political clout. As former servants increased in number, they indeed began to challenge their former masters’ authority, most famously in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. Enslaved Africans provided a dual solution to this problem. First, the importation of already enslaved laborers allowed masters to more easily treat servitude as a lifetime, hereditary status, preventing the growth of a troublesome population of the formerly unfree. Second, it made whiteness the mark of freedom, ensuring that “ordinary” English settlers identified with their social betters instead of making common cause with the new arrivals.

Still, the transition to a slave society was gradual. For several decades, Africans forcibly transported to the American colonies were not necessarily treated very differently from English indentured servants, and some achieved not only freedom but significant local prominence. The “black patriarch of Pungoteague Creek,” Anthony Johnson, for example, was brought to Virginia in chains, but he was able to purchase liberty for himself and his wife, accumulate extensive land holdings, and have his testimony accepted in court. According to the historians T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, through much of the 17th century, Johnson and other free blacks in his Eastern Shore community “experienced a kind of rough equality with their poor white neighbors.”

Over time, however, and increasingly after 1700, legal codes hardened racial boundaries and entrenched chattel slavery, so that society came to be based on the principle of white supremacy. It was in this context that whiteness served to unite one portion of the population in the unmitigated exploitation of another. “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery,” wrote Eric Williams, a pioneering historian and the first prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago, in his seminal analysis Capitalism & Slavery. Although the economic benefits of enslaved labor flowed almost entirely to slave owners, the racialization of bondage gave every white person a social and political interest in the subordination of Africans and their descendants. In this way, the “wages of whiteness” were generalized to the majority in the white republic that emerged from the American Revolution.

The story doesn’t end here. By the turn of the 19th century, gradual abolition in the North alongside slavery’s massive expansion in the South opened up a fissure among whites. In 1852, the increasingly acrimonious debate over the institution’s future led The New York Times to advocate the importation of indentured Chinese laborers—so-called “coolies”—as a “happy medium” between “forced and voluntary labor.” These foreigners from supposedly backward places would occupy a new position on the lower rungs of the American racial hierarchy—between slavery and freedom, black and white. To moderate Northerners, the indentured workers seemed like a solution to the nation’s problems.

The practice of trafficking Asian workers began in the 1830s in the British Empire. British leaders sought to alleviate labor “shortages” in the Caribbean colonies—the result of newly emancipated slaves’ withdrawal from the plantation complex—by importing “excess” South Asian labor. During the 1840s, American shippers expanded the trade, transporting indentured Chinese workers throughout the Americas—but not the United States—to provide cheap labor in mines and plantations. Indenture contracts, and the bodies to go with them, were auctioned off upon arrival at port.

In 1856, the U.S. commissioner to China, Peter Parker, declared that the traffic was so “replete with illegalities, immoralities, and revolting and inhuman atrocities,” that its cruelty at times exceeded the “horrors of the ‘middle passage.’” Working conditions at labor sites in the Americas were no better. On the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru, trafficked Chinese workers mined guano, a fertilizer used on American farms and plantations. They labored up to 20 hours per day in a toxic environment, while bosses applied whippings and attacks by dogs as punishment for insubordination. Suicide at the camps was common. On plantations in South America and the Caribbean, experienced observers reported migrants were “treated as slaves,” sometimes “worse than brutes.”

By the eve of the Civil War, media exposés and government reports had publicized these abuses sufficiently to convince most Americans that the traffic was “only another form of the slave-trade,” which had been banned decades before. In 1862, Congress banned the carriage of “coolies” on American vessels. The act was one of many reforms intended to fundamentally restructure American society around a liberal notion of free labor.

But while intended as a humanitarian act, the law helped solidify white Americans’ prejudice against Chinese migrants of all kinds, who came to be understood as “naturally” servile because they had supposedly “allowed” themselves to be trafficked—a prejudice later deployed to justify the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and subsequently transferred to other Asian migrants. Meanwhile, the trafficking of contract laborers worldwide continued well into the 20th century. The unfree conditions it produced has no shortage of modern analogues—as historians have often noted. In 2016, for instance, the UN warned Qatar to end “migrant worker slavery,” a system in which sponsoring employers wield nearly absolute power.

Common to all of these stories is the subordination of a minority group—usually made up of foreigners and other marginalized people—for the economic and social benefit of the majority, using the tools of political disenfranchisement and the impairment of legal rights. This is what makes the immigration proposal put forward by Posner and Weyl last month so alarming. Their plan aims to cut through the current immigration-policy impasse by giving working-class Americans—presumably, the white ones concerned about “illegal aliens”—a contracted property right in the labor of immigrants. It would “achieve the goals of both sides of the immigration debate,” they write, by allowing immigrants into the country to the economic benefit of those already here.

But their plan seems more likely to produce an effect similar to that achieved when Virginia’s colonial governors interposed whiteness between indentured English servants and enslaved Africans: That is, it would gradually establish an impenetrable social barrier between ordinary American citizens and outcast immigrant workers. Bit by bit, the United States would transform as legislators, judges, and administrators adjudicated countless matters pitting the interests of sponsoring citizens (who could vote) against the interests of immigrants (who could not). The deepening divide would corrode democracy twice over: first, by excluding immigrants from having a political voice and rights, and second, by encouraging a social hierarchy that would inevitably intensify class distinctions among citizens, too.

Personal familiarity poses no barrier to this process. Posner and Weyl naively misread history when they wrote that “it is hard to demonize the person who lives in your basement, or the basement of your neighbor, and has increased your income greatly.” It may seem like common sense that proximity breeds understanding, but when a property right in others’ labor is at stake, just the opposite is often the case. For most of American history, family members’ labor was under the legal control of male heads of household. Abuse without redress was pervasive, despite bonds of affection.

And in regimes premised on indentured servitude and slavery, affection was no protection at all. Indeed, intimacy can make exploitation all the more oppressive. Far from treating the people living in their “basements” with care, slaveholders—who liked to call their human property “family”—regularly raped enslaved women and “unblushingly reared” their own children “for the market,” as Harriet Jacobs, who escaped slavery, recounted in her 1861 autobiography.

Immigrants subordinated both economically and politically—and this, at bottom, is what Posner and Weyl unwittingly propose—would be defenseless against abuse. Like the millions indentured, enslaved, and trafficked before them, they would be despised for their very inability to resist, then abused all the more for being despicable. Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder himself, described this dynamic clearly: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” he wrote in the 1780s. “Our children,” he added, “see this, and learn to imitate it.”