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In the late 1500s, an economic depression hit England, and thousands of farmers went out on the streets. They wandered the streets unemployed and mostly became beggars. England saw this as a “surplus population” and needed to rid them from their land. Queen Elizabeth passed laws that could punish them, imprison them in workhouses without pay, or simply exile them. Anybody who was found begging could be whipped, sent to a workhouse, sent out of the city, or be sent out of the country entirely. This created a need for the now homeless and jobless farmers to escape their terrible living conditions.
Indentured servitude began as a fairly successful way of gathering much needed help to come to the new world. One planter could not get wealthy, regardless of his work efforts, unless he had others to work his fields. This fact necessitated the need for an inexpensive source of labor. Many of the unemployed, homeless, poor and exiled men and women were offered a way to get a fresh start this way. These outcasts became commodities for wealthy merchants looking for cheap labor to bring to the new world. They were offered a trip to North America, along with four to seven years of unpaid work for their masters in exchange for the journey. After this they would be let free, given new clothes, tools and fifty acres of land. The system of indentured servitude was the answer to clearing the streets of the many beggars and homeless in England.
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Once these men or women were purchased by landowners, they were put to work immediately. They were given food, clothing, and shelter, but not much else. The malnourished servants were easily susceptible to disease and many of them died within a short period of time after starting their work. Female servants were often raped and sexually abused, and all of them were subject to frequent beatings and whippings for various offenses. Servants were not allowed to marry without permission, and could be separated from their families. Unmarried women who became pregnant received even more punishment. This included all of them working for additional years, and some children were taken from them and sold for a few pounds of tobacco. Indentured servants did not have all of the customary rights that English laborers did. They were mostly kept under control by brute force, rather than legal action. Servants in Virginia could not hold their masters liable for any mistreatment or failing to follow their contract. At the end of a servant’s contract, the masters often failed to supply their agreement. Once the majority of indentured servants began to survive their contract and demand the land that they were promised, its appeal to planters was lost. The planters refused to share any wealth and power that they had with their former servants. The servants were angered by this and the group became increasingly large and rebellious. Fear of a rebellion was apparent by the 1660’s and indentured servitude had lost all the appeal that it once had. After more than one hundred years, the system of indentured servitude had finally failed.
The planter elites used various unfair methods to try and maintain the system, most of them only adding fuel to the anger that the servants felt towards their masters. Many laws were put into place in Maryland and Virginia that added more years to the written amount. There were also other steps put into place that found ways to deny the servants their agreed fifty acres. This was completely unfair and infuriated all servants, both free and not. A new law was put into place that required the ownership of land to be able to vote. This law made it so the servants who were being denied their land could not even vote on the new rules being put into place against them. The servants now had no legal rights and therefore, the elites had succeeded at keeping the system in place without the servants fighting back legally. The wealthy planters kept all of the desirable land for themselves and their family, and any land given to former indentured servants was either controlled by Indians or too far from a waterway to market their crop. Any ex-servants lucky enough to have land with water access were at the mercy of the larger planters, who had control over the ships that carried the tobacco, and would not be able to make a profitable living. Even those who could overcome all of these odds were susceptible to the high taxes that were put in place by the planter dominated House of Burgesses. These conditions created a large group of angry, frustrated servants.
The failure of the indentured servitude system helped develop the need and use of slaves for labor. After finding that they could not promise to give laborers land or freedom after a certain amount of time, planters knew that they needed another cheap source of labor. Slave labor however was not bound by specific time restrictions; they were bound to their masters for life. Slaves were not represented in the legal system either, which prevented any possible rebellions. With a forced slave labor, planters would no longer need to worry about breaking contracts that were enforced by the courts of England. If they kept a tight control on the slave population, they could have cheap labor with a small risk of rebellion.
The indentured servitude system was an excellent idea on paper, but it couldn’t be put to good use in practice. Greedy land owners would not give the servants their promised land after fulfilling their contracts simply because there was no way for England to enforce the rules. The system failed because of this, but the elites still managed to continue without consequence. This system would be replaced with slavery, which would prove to be every bit as difficult.
1. People of the United States, Zinn, Howard, Chapter 3
2. Who Built America?, Gutman, “Labor Problem”
3. The American Pagaent, Kennedy, David M.; Cohen, Lizabeth; Bailey, Thomas A.