Ethics Irony: The Day The Author Of The Declaration Of Independence Sold An American To The Author Of The Constitution


April 19 is a pretty bad day in U.S. history generally. In 1775, the Revolutionary War started with a rout in Lexington, Massachusetts, just a few minutes by car up Massachusetts Avenue from my childhood home in neighboring Arlington, then Menotomy. 700 British troops, having shot up that hamlet and its defenders on the way, found 77 armed minutemen under Captain John Parker opposing them on Lexington Green, now a large traffic circle. It took a just few minutes to kill enough of the barely trained Colonists for the ragtag army to disperse, but the British marched into a much larger force at nearby Concord Bridge, and a much worse result for the Empire. In 1993, a botched siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas ended with 22 children and almost 80 adult religious cultists burning to death. In 1995, the U.S. was introduced to domestic terrorism on a grand scale with the Oklahoma City bombing. But none of those events create the ethics trauma of considering a little noted financial transaction between the former third President and the newly sworn in fourth.

On April 19, 1809, Thomas Jefferson, seemingly always lacking cash, prepared a contract to transfer ownership of an indentured servant with the ironic name of John Freeman to freshly installed President and fellow Virginian James Madison.

Indentured servants in the late 1600s into the early 19th Century were usually poor white men who desperation or debt had forced to sell themselves into servitude in exchange for room, board, and occasionally wages. (One President, Andrew Johnson, was an indentured servant. So was, for a while, Davy Crockett, who indentured himself to his father to pay back money he had stolen from him.) Freeman was unusual: a free black man who voluntarily sold himself into virtual slavery, though with limitations. His agreement with Jefferson was to serve a total of 132 months; historians surmise that he may have been a carpenter or ironworker.

Freeman had completed 76.5 months of work when Jefferson sold Freeman’s contract to Madison, who needed skilled artisans to help build an extension on his home. What Madison paid Jefferson must have equaled Freeman’s remaining time in his service; the original price Jefferson paid for 132 months of Freeman’s freedom.

The original hand-written contract for John Freeman’s sale is on exhibit at the Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson, it is noted, did not seem to notice that he was selling a human being on the anniversary of the beginning of the battle for liberty, as he had defined it in his Declaration. Of course, whether a man should have the liberty to barter away his liberty is one of the oldest and most perplexing ethical problems. How many citizens today would sell their services and freedom as Freeman did?

How many would be buyers?

21 thoughts on “Ethics Irony: The Day The Author Of The Declaration Of Independence Sold An American To The Author Of The Constitution

  1. “How many citizens today would sell their services and freedom as Freeman did?

    How many would be buyers?”

    Don’t people lock themselves into multi-year labor contracts all the time?

    This would just be an example of one with really really crappy terms for the laborer — and one with no exit clause (which in modern multi-year contracts come with a penalty but not a full loss of the previous years compensation).

      • Employees and employers don’t routinely sue each other for perceived breaches of contract?

        If we’re going to have the philosophical discussion here:

        I just think that given the current labor market anything even remotely resembling “indentured servitude” would be too high of a risk for the employer who, if having to sue an employee who wants out of the deal would likely never win in court OR worse the court finds a way to compel the no-longer-zealous employee to work and now the employer is stuck with a wet rag employee.

        Sans an entire societal system that actively gives NO options to people who breach that type of contract and an entire societal system that willfully commits assaults and kidnappings to keep those types of contracts in place, they’d never last.

        The best an employer could do is hold out a component of the contract as a “completion” bonus.

        But when you really start running the numbers from a business angle, you will never make such arrangements marketable.

        Indentured servitude ONLY got a toe hold in society because the employees who indentured themselves had literally NO other options but starvation or brigandry.

        • I didn’t say that. I said that the law won’t specifically enforce a services contract. You can get damages, but the breacher cannot be made to do what he or she doesn’t want to do. First Year Contracts classic: The opera house owner who sued to make a singer sing. He got damages if he could prove them, but if she didn’t want to sing, the law couldn’t make here.

          • I think there is also some form of injunctive relief available.

            If a baseball player on contract quit early to work for another team, the aggrieved team can sue to enjoin the player from playing baseball for anyone else

          • I know that. But in the context of the hypothetical you posed, a pretend ability of the law to compel would have to be assumed for the hypothetical. Otherwise it’s moot to discuss, right?

              • How does anyone enter indentured servitude not under duress?

                Isn’t the entire system predicated on the perverse incentive of people in abject duress – either starving, or hopelessly in debt or kidnapped from their current situations?

                And without duress, how would the negotiations not entirely flow like a normal employee-employer discussion?

                I suppose that really the only exception to the system are the guys who were fine in the old world, but wanted to do better in the new world but lacked the capital to get across on their own. They were essentially taking out a loan to paid back in labor…but immediately fell into a system where backing out of the deal would place them into a kind of duress in the New World.

      • I think an argument could be made that a… I’m forgetting the technical term… surrogate, perhaps? A rent-a-womb, by one term or another, is probably the next best thing to indentured servitude, although on a much shorter timeframe. As I understand it, those contracts are valid.

        • Fair exception, but the exception adds another ethical consideration (an overpowering consideration) – the life of a party that had no say in the contract to begin with, whose life is entirely dependent on fulfilling the contract successfully.

    • Isn’t professional ball exhibit “a” for this topic? Obviously they get more than “room and board” but the premise is the same, isn’t it?
      It’s easy to say “I’d never do that!” Ask those 100,000+ people at the border if they’d work 7 years for room and board and citizenship or be free.
      We have visa workers. 6-9 months at a time. They agree room, board and salary. Some stay longer and basically end up at the whims of who they work for.

  2. Consider the contract that a service academy demands of its enrollees. A “free” college (?) education and a “job” in return for 12 years of their lives – 4 at the academy, 5 years active duty and 3 years in the ready reserves. Yes, you can opt out just prior to your junior year but after that you’re on the hook. Is that any different than an indentured servant? I’m assuming that Mr. Freeman got something in return (bed, board, a salary?) for his 11 years of labor.

  3. Anyone else’s eye twitch a little bit with the 1/2 of a penny of expense for the ice house and at $3.0303 per month for John Freeman, with 76.5 months remaining on the contract, the bill could have been rounded fairly to $231.815 giving the bottom line no fractions of a penny.

    • I’ve always wondered what they did with penny factions back when pennies were worth more. It makes sense that they’d use a few more decimal points, particularly on longer invoices… But when you got to the bottom line, you’d have to round, right? You wouldn’t cut a penny in half, would you? Pirates used to do that with shares of spoils, but the value of a penny is in the whole coin, not the base material.

  4. When you sign on with the NJ Attorney General’s office you have to agree to a three-year obligation. That said, selling a labor contract doesn’t have QUITE the same bad taste as selling a slave.

  5. Q: “How many citizens today would sell their services and freedom as Freeman did?”
    A: About 2.1 million come readily to mind. They are the active and reserve component members of the ‘all-volunteer’ force who sign up for a period of service. Once they take the oath of office, they no longer are volunteers; they cannot leave without potentially serious penalties, and much of their time is controlled by others.

  6. “Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis and sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford has the lines
    “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt” and
    “I owe my soul to the company store”
    A system designed to keep the workers in permanent debt so that they could not leave.

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