The Civil War tested free labor and exposed its contradictions, for this ideology had insidious consequences that spurred competition for survival as much as success. The war demonstrated that all northerners were dependent on other people’s labor and capital, even though employers’ and employees’ dependence was not equivalent. Civil War northerners used their wages—money they considered capital in the making—and their ability to employ workers as indices that measured their relative independence. In that way, the Union war seemed to northerners an opportunity to become more independent rather than an affront to their faith in free labor. Nevertheless, the war for Union unmade the promise of free labor for workers and upheld the promise of free labor for those with capital. Men Is Cheap tells the stories of basement-dwelling intelligence office keepers, ordinary Union soldiers and famous officers, household mistresses, failed-businessmen-turned-recruiters, politicians, and benevolent society agents who fused their interests and those of their clients to that of the state and used the violent circumstances of war to engage in human trafficking in the name of wage labor and free capital.
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