J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Enslaved Labor and Free Labor in the Capital City

Last month the Huffington Post ran an essay by author Fergus M. Bordewich titled “Full Circle: Inaugurating Our Country’s New President in The City Built by Slaves.” It described how enslaved laborers built the Capitol where President Barack Obama was inaugurated, with reference to specific workers.

Bob Arnebeck, author of
Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790-1800, shared comments about that essay with the H-Slavery email list. I asked Bob if I could rerun his remarks as a contribution from a guest blogger because they showed how complex slavery could be in practice, especially when bosses were also trying to work with skilled free laborers and to manage a very large project. So here’s Bob:

Certainly this is the time to draw a sharp contrast between the scene around the Capitol on January 20, 2009, and, say, June 20, 1795, when work on the buildings in Washington was in full swing. However, in his Huffington Post article Bordewich misses many of the nuances of slave hire in Washington in the 1790s.

Pierre L’Enfant was the first man in charge of the federal building project in the city. Though French by birth, he had a wide acquaintance with slavery, having served in the southern campaign during the Revolution. There is no evidence that he hired slaves to work in Washington. Indeed, he had a group of 75 free workers with high morale as evidenced by their continuing work even after the commissioners ordered them to stop. They took orders only from L’Enfant, which is why the commissioner wanted L’Enfant fired.

The Capitol and White House could have been built by free labor and likely would have been if George Washington had accommodated L’Enfant so that he didn’t leave the project in early 1792. The commissioners left in charge were obsessed with fixing their costs. Slave hire was part of their effort to fix the cost of unskilled labor.

White and free black laborers worked on the same terms as slaves. The commissioners never threatened to replace free skilled workers with slaves. They tried to control the cost of skilled labor by trying to hire on a piecework basis. Scottish masons refused. Then came a crew of Irish masons who were amenable. It was not so much free labor that the commissioners didn’t like—it was wage labor.

That said, the pieceworking Irish flattered the slaveholding commissioners by requiring the commissioners to provide enough hired slaves to assist them—i.e., move the stone into place. The commissioners had perfected their system: the wages of the men moving the stone were fixed as low as possible, and the skilled workers would only get paid for the work they did, not for the time wasted waiting for stone to be hauled up Capitol Hill by slaves with no incentive to work hard. The system didn’t last long: the Irish fussed about the slaves being too slow, but then the masons skimped on mortar and the walls they worked on soon fell down.

As for the working conditions of slaves, Bordewich paints too grim a picture. They lived in camps, but so did many white laborers—there was no city there, after all. The slaves got free medical care. Indeed, when there was a smallpox scare, some slaves requested inoculation, which they received, its cost deducted from the wages paid to their masters. There was a hospital with a visiting white doctor and a resident white nurse.

Slaves worked the same hours as everybody else, and white overseers ate the same food as the slaves, and complained about it. The slaves got paid a shilling for work on Sundays and holidays, and several slave sawyers got incentive wages of a shilling a day, making a pound and ten shillings in August 1795, for example—almost $4.

Ironically, the commissioners who thought slave hire would help control their cost were blindsided by inflation at the end of the decade. Feeding slaves became expensive. So while at one time there were may have been up to 120 slaves working for the government, toward the end of the project they hired fewer slaves.

Finally, in his article Bordewich mentioned a Jerry Holland, a free black who was refused a raise even though his supervisor promised one. Bordewich has Holland disappearing in the yellowing records, a victim of racism. From my research it appears that Holland did continue working in the city. He wound up as the commissioners’ messenger. He never got his raise, though—still paid the same wage as the hired slaves.

Bob Arnebeck has created a website with essays updating Through a Fiery Trial. He was one of the first historians I saw using the web this way, and I’ve been looking for a reason to point to his site.

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