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Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America

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When a Civil War substitute broker told business associates that "Men is cheep here to Day," he exposed an unsettling contradiction at the heart of the Union's war effort. Despite Northerners' devotion to the principles of free labor, the war produced rampant speculation and coercive labor arrangements that many Americans labeled fraudulent. Debates about this contradictio When a Civil War substitute broker told business associates that "Men is cheep here to Day," he exposed an unsettling contradiction at the heart of the Union's war effort. Despite Northerners' devotion to the principles of free labor, the war produced rampant speculation and coercive labor arrangements that many Americans labeled fraudulent. Debates about this contradiction focused on employment agencies called "intelligence offices," institutions of dubious character that nevertheless served the military and domestic necessities of the Union army and Northern households. Northerners condemned labor agents for pocketing fees above and beyond contracts for wages between employers and employees. Yet the transactions these middlemen brokered with vulnerable Irish immigrants, Union soldiers and veterans, former slaves, and Confederate deserters defined the limits of independence in the wage labor economy and clarified who could prosper in it. Men Is Cheap shows that in the process of winning the war, Northerners were forced to grapple with the frauds of free labor. Labor brokers, by helping to staff the Union military and Yankee households, did indispensable work that helped the Northern state and Northern employers emerge victorious. They also gave rise to an economic and political system that enriched the managerial class at the expense of laborers--a reality that resonates to this day.


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When a Civil War substitute broker told business associates that "Men is cheep here to Day," he exposed an unsettling contradiction at the heart of the Union's war effort. Despite Northerners' devotion to the principles of free labor, the war produced rampant speculation and coercive labor arrangements that many Americans labeled fraudulent. Debates about this contradictio When a Civil War substitute broker told business associates that "Men is cheep here to Day," he exposed an unsettling contradiction at the heart of the Union's war effort. Despite Northerners' devotion to the principles of free labor, the war produced rampant speculation and coercive labor arrangements that many Americans labeled fraudulent. Debates about this contradiction focused on employment agencies called "intelligence offices," institutions of dubious character that nevertheless served the military and domestic necessities of the Union army and Northern households. Northerners condemned labor agents for pocketing fees above and beyond contracts for wages between employers and employees. Yet the transactions these middlemen brokered with vulnerable Irish immigrants, Union soldiers and veterans, former slaves, and Confederate deserters defined the limits of independence in the wage labor economy and clarified who could prosper in it. Men Is Cheap shows that in the process of winning the war, Northerners were forced to grapple with the frauds of free labor. Labor brokers, by helping to staff the Union military and Yankee households, did indispensable work that helped the Northern state and Northern employers emerge victorious. They also gave rise to an economic and political system that enriched the managerial class at the expense of laborers--a reality that resonates to this day.

23 review for Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America

  1. 4 out of 5

    Shaun Richman

    Very interesting book with a sideways look at the "free soil / free labor" ideology of the Civil War (and the utter cynicism of some "abolitionists"). By exploring such a basic question of how soldiers supported their families during the war, it serves as a damning indictment of Ken Burns' hours and hours of documentary. How was none of this as important as hours of battlefield maneuvers? This better explains how the Union won the war that Shelby Foote waxing rhapsodic about genocidal Confederat Very interesting book with a sideways look at the "free soil / free labor" ideology of the Civil War (and the utter cynicism of some "abolitionists"). By exploring such a basic question of how soldiers supported their families during the war, it serves as a damning indictment of Ken Burns' hours and hours of documentary. How was none of this as important as hours of battlefield maneuvers? This better explains how the Union won the war that Shelby Foote waxing rhapsodic about genocidal Confederate "generals."

  2. 5 out of 5

    John

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ingmar Weyland

  4. 5 out of 5

    Hatchet Mouth

  5. 4 out of 5

    James Hill Welborn III

  6. 4 out of 5

    Brent

  7. 4 out of 5

    Vince

  8. 4 out of 5

    Rory Graves

  9. 5 out of 5

    Tyler K

  10. 5 out of 5

    Shawn

  11. 4 out of 5

    James

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kirstin

  13. 4 out of 5

    Retrac Nnug

  14. 4 out of 5

    Cara Burke

  15. 5 out of 5

    Scott Reimert

  16. 4 out of 5

    Theresa Arias

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sean

  18. 5 out of 5

    Amy Martin

  19. 5 out of 5

    Colleen

  20. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

  21. 5 out of 5

    Igrowastreesgrow

  22. 5 out of 5

    Betsy Wood

  23. 4 out of 5

    amy

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