Frederick Douglass Attacks the Fraud of Free Trade

Printed in The New Federalist, January, 1998.


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The following editorial by Frederick Douglass, taken from his publication The New National Era (the issue of Aug. 17, 1871) comments on the follies of cheap labor. Frederick Douglass was the former slave who championed the U.S. Constitution, fought for its application to black citizens and all citizens of the United States, advised Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to emancipate the slaves, and left to all Americans a legacy of republican political and cultural outlook.

In the case of the editorial reprinted here, he refers in particular to the trade in ``coolie'' labor, but his comments are as applicable today, to NAFTA and other related modern uses of cheap labor, as they were in his own time.


Cheap Labor

How vast and bottomless is the abyss of meanness, cruelty, and crime sometimes concealed under fair-seeming phrases. Take the one we have made the caption of this article as an illustration. Ostensibly the demand for cheap labor is made in the interest of improvement and general civilization. It tells of increased wealth and of marvellous transformations of the old and the worthless into the new and valuable. It speaks of increased travelling facilities and larger commercial relations; of long lines of railway graded, and meandering canals constructed; of splendid cities built, and flourishing towns multiplied; of rich mines developed, and useful metals made abundant; of capacious ships on every sea abroad, and of amply cultivated fields at home; in a word, it speaks of national prosperity, greatness, and happiness. Alas! however, this is but the outside of the cup and the platter--the beautiful marble without, with its dead men's bones within. Cheap Labor, is a phrase that has no cheering music for the masses. Those who demand it, and seek to acquire it, have but little symapthy with common humanity. It is the cry of the few against the many. When we inquire who are the men that are continually vociferating for cheap labor, we find not the poor, the simple, and the lowly; not the class who dig and toil for their daily bread; not the landless, feeble, and defenseless portion of society, but the rich and powerful, the crafty and scheming, those who live by the sweat of other men's faces, and who have no intention of cheapening labor by adding themselves to the laboring forces of society. It is the deceitful cry of the fortunate against the unfortunate, of the idle against the industrious, of the taper-fingered dandy against the hard-handed working man. Labor is a noble word, and expresses a noble idea. Cheap labor, too, seems harmless enough, sounds well to hear, and looks well upon paper.

But what does it mean? Who does it bless or benefit? The answer is already more than indicated. A moment's thought will show that cheap labor in the mouths of those who seek it, means not cheap labor, but the opposite. It means not cheap labor, but dear labor. Not abundant labor, but scarce labor; not more work, but more workmen. It means that condition of things in which the laborers shall be so largely in excess of the work needed to be done, that the capitalist shall be able to command all the laborers he wants, at prices only enough to keep the laborer above the point of starvation. It means ease and luxury to the rich, wretchedness and misery to the poor.

The former slave owners of the South want cheap labor; they want it from Germany and from Ireland; they want it from China and Japan; they want it from anywhere in the world, but from Africa. They want to be independent of their former slaves, and bring their noses to the grindstone. They are not alone in this want, nor is their want a new one. The African slave trade with all its train of horrors, was instituted and carried on to supply the opulent landholding inhabitants of this country with cheap labor; and the same lust for gain, the same love of ease, and loathing of labor, which originated that infernal traffic, discloses itself in the modern cry for cheap labor and the fair-seeming schemes for supplying the demand. So rapidly does one evil succeed another, and so closely does the succeeding evil resemble the one destroyed, that only a very comprehensive view can afford a basis of faith in the possibility of reform, and a recognition of the fact of human progress.

In our paper last week we took occasion to say a word of the ``Coolie Trade'' now prosecuted in the interest of cheap labor, and as kindred in character and results to the African slave trade of other days. Our reading on the subject since that writing, shows the points of resemblance between the two schemes to be more striking than they at that time appeared, and the coolie trade but little behind its predecessor in every species of baseness and cruelty.

It is now three centuries since the first recognition of the slave trade by our authority in England. It was during the reign of the great Queen Elizabeth, in 1562, and it is remarkable that the great princess, while sustaining the scheme in furtherance of cheap labor, professed great abhorrence of bringing away the Africans without their ``consent.'' According to her the Negroes came (to use a soft phrase of the American Colonization Society) to be colonized with ``their own consent.'' The same scrupulous regard for the rights of volition appears in the contracts and schemes by which Coolies are transported from India, China, and other parts of the globe. What all these pretensions were worth in regard to the African slave-trader, the history of that traffic as told by Thomas Clarkson and by a thousand witnesses, has abundantly shown. The trade of the slave-trader across the sea was a track of blood. Her wake drew into it a procession of hungry sharks to feast upon human flesh, diseased, dead, and dying. The slaves were literally stowed between decks, without regard to health, comfort, or decency. The great thought of captains, owners, consignees, and others, was to make the most money they could in the shortest possible time. Human nature is the same now as then. The Coolie Trade is giving us examples of this unchanged character. The rights of a Coolie in California, in Peru, in Jamaica, in Trinidad, and on board the vessels bearing them to these countries, are scarcely more guarded than were those of the Negro slaves brought to our shores a century ago. The sufferings of these people while in transit are almost as heart-rending as any that attended the African slave trade. For the manner of procuring Coolies, for the inhumanity to which they are subjected, and of all that appertains to one feature of this new effort to supply certain parts of the world with cheap labor, we cannot do better than to refer our readers to the quiet and evidently truthful statement in another column of one of the Coolies rescued from the ship Dolores Ugarte, on board which ship six hundred Coolies perished by fire, deserted and left to their fate by captain and crew.


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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.


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