How to buy the book

You can order at History Press as well as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other on-line retailers. I will send you a signed copy for $23, a little extra to cover shipping. I will send you both Slave Labor in the Capital and Through a Fiery Trial for $40. Send a check to me at PO Box 63, Wellesley Island, NY 13640-0063.

My lectures at Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary's County, Maryland, on September 23, 2015, and the DAR Library on December 5 are now blog posts below listed under book talks. The talk I gave
at the Politics and Prose Bookstore on February 28, 2015, along with Heather Butts, author African American Medicine in Washington, was taped by the bookstore. Take a listen.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Hire Negroe from public Works

That title is not a typo. It should not read "hire negroe for the public works." My book is about how the federal government hired slave laborers to help build the Capitol and White House, but here a slave is hired from the government. In the commissioners' records there are rarely explanations of their policy, so we are left with interpreting the meaning of documents that contain the word "Negro" which was synonymous with slave. 

The commissioners made no secret of their desire to find skilled workers who would accept a lower wage and they favored using contractors in order to lower costs. Dobson was a British stone mason who promised to provide a crew of English masons who would accept a lower wage. The commissioners signed a contract with him more or less like the one they signed with an Irishman, Cornelius McDermott Roe who promised them lower wage Irish masons. Both contractors were paid by piece, i.e. based on how much stone was laid on the Capitol walls, so we don't know what they paid their masons.

It took more that skilled masons to build a wall. They needed tending. The commissioners thought they had the best way to keep the demands of those laborers in check. They hired slaves who had no motive for demanding higher wages.

Contractors were not as successful as the commissioners when it came to hiring slaves. The contractors were creatures of the commissioners' needs, with no record of prior successes. Slave masters trusted the federal government to pay them but not immigrant contractors. By the way, the work of slaves was always paid for after it was done, the same as for free workers.

So the contractors flattered the commissioners by asking them to provide the laborers needed to tend masons. The commissioners also hired free laborers, mostly white and a few free blacks, but the contractors made a point of asking for slave laborers. Evidence for that comes from a comment in a letter written by the disgruntled former head of stone operations, Collen Williamson. That he was disgruntled casts doubt on all he wrote so the note below showing Dobson hiring a slave is significant.

The receipt also has the line "hire stone cutters." I found a payroll listing who those stone cutters were and what they were paid for their work in September 1795. I seem to be the only person interested in these details and I am too old and live too faraway to dig into the records and try to figure who those men were. But I share their names because is underscores the difference between a skilled worker and a slave. The former made as much as 13 pounds 15 shillings for a month's work, about $36. The slave who had been working since January, made $40 for his master. Yet, the slave's labor was just as necessary.

No comments:

Post a Comment