Jefferson on Wage Slavery

In my recent article, Wage Slavery: A Quick History, I gave several historical references to the term “wage slavery”. I came across a letter form Jefferson to his friend Thomas Cooper where Jefferson was comparing the population of England to that of the United States. In the letter, Jefferson does not use the term “wage slavery”, but he does give us some very good examples of how it works.

Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 10 Sep. 1814, Monticello, Virginia, USA

Now let us see the American side of the medal. And, first, we have no Paupers [very poor persons]. The old and crippled among us, who possess nothing and have no families to take care of them, being too few to merit notice as a separate section of society, or to affect a general estimate. The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above meer decency, to labor moderately and raise their families. They are not driven to the ultimate resources of dexterity and skill, because their wares will sell, altho’ not quite so nice as those of England. The wealthy, on the other hand, and those at their ease, know nothing of what the Europeans call Luxury. They have only somewhat more of the comforts & decencies of life than those who furnish them. Can any condition of society be more desirable than this? Nor in the class of laborers do I mean to withold from the comparison that portion whose color has condemned them, in certain parts of our Union, to a subjection to the will of others. Even these are better fed in these states, warmer clothed, & labor less than the journeymen or day laborers of England. They have the comfort too of numerous families, in the midst of whom they live, without want, or the fear of it; a solace which few of the laborers of England possess. They are subject, it is true, to bodily coercion: but are not the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers & seamen subject to the same, without seeing, at the end of their career, & when age & accident shall have rendered them unequal to labor, the certainty, which the other has, that he will never want? And has not the British seaman, as much as the African been reduced to this bondage by force, in flagrant violation of his own consent, and of his natural right in his own person? And with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of their employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman or the slave? But do not mistake me. I am not advocating slavery. I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people, by the example of another nation committing equal wrongs on their own subjects. On the contrary there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity. But I am at present comparing the condition & degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of one color, with the condition and degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of another color; equally condemning both.


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