Saturday, January 14, 2017

Alternate History Scenario #27: A Different Kind of American Slavery?

The Alternate History Wiki is a great place to find alternate history ideas, and this one was because of an idea someone threw out in the chat: What if slavery was still used in the US, but not in the version that we know, but something more like the old Roman style of "debt" slavery.

And that got me thinking. And when that happens, I start making up an entire alternate history scenario.

This won't be a full fledged scenario, but something more theoretical than anything, how an alternate US may look if it didn't use chattel slavery as in OTL. I remember reading somewhere of the point when the race driven, life long slavery was made official, a court case in the 1600s in Virginia. However, I can't find the actual source, but I think I will use that as the main point of divergence. Say the Founding Fathers, in their pursuit of building a Roman style republic, decide to go all out?

Here Bessarius gives his master, George Washington, a glass of wine

Slavery in this new America would be much different: theoretically, anyone could be a slave, but there would be a very particular system set into place. Certain crimes, say theft, fraud and the like, could result in the accused being sentenced to slavery for a certain period of time, say five years as an average based on the amount of money the accused took.

The larger percentage of slaves in this alternate world would be those in deep debt, with little prospect of being able to pay it off. The way I would see it, a wealthy person would agree to pay off said persons debt, with some interest, but in turn the debtor would become an "indentured servant" or slave to the wealthy party. However, there would be a lot of laws and protections in place over the years, preventing children from being enslaved, ensuring some basic rights to life, while temporarily removing other rights, like voting and such. I'd think that anyone that had been a slave in their life would be barred from serving in political office and other constraints, but that would never apply to their children unless they also had to apply for it. It would also be possible for these slaves to get out of their contract early, working at a side job if they wanted to (though it may depend on locality there). In general, this form of slavery would simply be working to pay off debt, and being given food and shelter to do so.

And at the same time collapse the market in shackles and chains.

This would be a slavery based on contracts and laws instead of racism and "tradition." In fact, with this kind of slavery, almost all of American history could be rewritten. With a source of cheap labour without needing to import millions of men, women and children from Africa, plantations in the South would be as likely to form, just with contracted free labor more than permanent black slaves. This source of labour would be better motivated, with terms of service, and the chance of getting freedom sooner. As for the South itself, there wouldn't be millions of black slaves to be worried about, and with a rotating door of indentured servants, the plantations could keep going a lot longer than in OTL.

It would be when Industrialization happens that issues could come up: some factories could use only indentured servants, while others would have to rely on paid workers. This could cause tensions: either indentured servants are resentful of having to work for no money, or that paid workers would not get the wage they deserve due to the indentured workers. I could see more strife between workers, rather than the formation of unions to demand better wages, but eventually groups trying to bridge the gap between the two, the poor workers and the near serfs that compete with them.

Oh darn, did I just make socialism in the US again?

Immigration would also be different. For some potential migrants, the thought of coming to the US, but then being put into slavery, would dissuade some, but for others, hired as indentured servants for a period of time by wealthy land and factory owners would be an opportunity to never pass up. Internally, the movement of people could be different. Those who become indentured servants could be moved away from their families and communities to work in mines or factories or farms in another state. When more people move west to open up the frontier, it would challenge the indentured slavery system with a lack of wealthy patrons to help those that fall behind on debt. If anything, the west could become more "wild" than it actually was, or a lot more empty for longer, or more likely, just larger plantations like in the south, growing wheat and raising cows instead of cotton.

But with possibly tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people serving as little more than free labor, the the US economy would not grow as large or as robust as it did in our timeline. Wages would be lower due to the competition, while the standard of living would be a lot smaller in return. The only people that would benefit from this would be the rich, those that own the factories and land to be farmed. Since they have nearly free labor for periods of time, and the ability, through pricing products and making loans with high interest, to make more debt slaves, the process would be a vicious cycle that would be hard to break.

I... uh... that is not what I meant...

If the system works well, and those that have to use indentured servitude to pay off their debt to be able to re-enter society later with nothing to hold them back and even some cash on the side to restart their lives, then it would serve it's function well: providing temporary cheap labor, while also helping those that can't pay it. But if it breaks down, and becomes a way to oppress the lower classes, then it's less likely to be tolerated into the future, and could be the cause for civil unrest and possible revolution in the future.

But that's where I will leave it. But what do you think? What would an America with indentured servitude like I describe look like? If you have an idea, or a comment, feel free to follow or message me on Twitter (@tbguy1992) or my email


  1. Indentured labour had been used in the Dutch colonies in North America and has been argued by Niall Ferguson to be one reason why South America lagged behind North America for such a long time economically.

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