Gov. Matt Bevin either slept through history class, or he’s fine with a form of debt serfdom that was common in early America.

At the recent Kentucky Registered Apprenticeship Summit, he praised indentured servitude, claiming the system, like apprenticeships, taught workers important job skills, WFPL radio reported.

He cited two of his Connecticut ancestors. Bevin claimed that during their two-year indenture under a bell-maker, they learned the craft. Afterwards, the governor said, they founded the 186-year-old family bell manufacturing business of which he is president.

But Bevin’s great-great-great grandfather and triple-great uncle were atypical of the indentured servant system, which was anything but benevolent to almost all those trapped in it.

Hence, his weird comparison raised eyebrows among students of history and hackles in union ranks. “It portrays his disrespect and disdain for people who work for a living,” said Bill Londrigan, Kentucky State AFL-CIO president. “Indentured servitude was an evil system that made indentured servants beholden to their masters.”

The practice took off during the 17th-century Virginia tobacco boom. Landowners were desperate for cheap labor to cultivate their crops. (Indentured servitude spread to other colonies short of workers.)

Britain filled the bill. The mother country was home to many poor men, women, and children with no prospects for gainful employment. Agents took advantage of their straits, offering to buy them a one-way trip to Virginia if they agreed to work without pay for a planter, usually from five to seven years.

“After signing the indenture…they were often imprisoned until the ship sailed, to make sure they did not run away,” Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States. “… As in any contract between unequal powers, the parties appeared on paper as equals, but enforcement was far easier for master than for servant.”

The hellish passage across the Atlantic to America lasted from eight to 12 weeks, the historian added. “…The servants were packed into ships with the same fanatic concern for profits that marked the slave ships. If the weather was bad, and the trip took too long, they ran out of food.” Many died.

In Virginia, they “were bought and sold like slaves,” according to Zinn. To maximize their profits, most masters minimally clothed, fed, and housed their servants.

Servants had no say in their work hours or conditions and were subject to arbitrary punishment. Masters commonly beat and whipped them.

“Servant women were raped,” Zinn wrote, explaining that “the master tried to control completely the sexual lives of the servants. It was in his economic interest to keep women servants from marrying or from having sexual relations, because childbearing would interfere with work.”

Too, servants couldn’t marry without the master’s permission but could be separated from their families if they were wed and had children. “Although colonial laws existed to stop excesses against servants, they were not very well enforced,” Zinn wrote.

After the servants worked off the debt for their passage—many times over—masters had to give them “freedom dues”: usually small plots of land, a little money, clothes, tools, or seeds. The stakes were so meager that most freed servants lived in poverty, or close to it, for the rest of their lives.

In 1676—a century before we declared our independence from Mother Britain—several hundred angry and impoverished backwoods ex-indentured servants, including some blacks, revolted against the rich tidewater Virginia planter powers-that-be who ran the government. Bacon’s Rebellion failed, but not before the rebels burned Jamestown, the colonial capital.

Indentured servitude was a far cry from modern-day apprenticeship job training programs, said Bill Finn, state director of the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council. “There was nothing romantic about the time where you had to pledge years of your life just to make a living.”

He said union apprenticeship programs “are a partnership where the employers agree to fund training for the future workforce, and the union workforce voluntarily agrees to forego a portion of their wages to fund the training of the next generation of workers.

“Everyone has some skin-in-the-game.”

But Finn pointed out that Republican anti-union policies, notably prevailing wage repeal, are hurting the building trades. “Now, our tax money now has to be used to fund training. The ongoing efforts to lower the pay and benefits of Kentucky workers by the Bevin administration has resulted in a lack of interest in the skilled trades. Workers are leaving the trades for better paying jobs.”

In the late 17th-century, enslaved Africans supplanted most indentured servants in Virginia and other colonies. Slaves were slaves for life, as were their descendants. Gradually, indentured servitude faded away, as did slavery in the northern colonies.

Bevin’s mischaracterization of indentured servitude reminds this old history teacher of white supremacist Southerners who claimed slavery was good for African Americans.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis—whose statue still stands in the Kentucky Capitol rotunda—declared that slavery transformed African-Americans “from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized laborers” and blessed them “not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction.”

Slaves had a decidedly different take on their status. (So did indentured servants.)

Anyway, Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Joseph Gerth wasn’t snoozing in history class. He wrote that “slavery was far worse” than indentured servitude but pointed out that the latter “was no picnic, either.

“Sure, a few indentured servants learned trades, but the vast majority of serfs were field workers and household servants, working alongside the African slaves, or doing the same jobs in lieu of the African slaves.”

He called the governor’s favorable comparison of indentured servitude with apprenticeships “another example of Bevin being Bevin, making odd connections between completely unrelated things – and then blurting them out without really thinking through what he’s saying.”

This latest bizarre Bevinism is more proof, as if it were needed, that he’s Kentucky’s proto-Trump.

–30–

Cross-posted from the KY State AFL-CIO blog. You can read the original post
and many other excellent articles on their site.

Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media in the Civil War. His critically-acclaimed Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, also from the University Press, has been reprinted in paperback.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Begin shows his ignorance again. He feels he is better than most Kentuckians, calls himself a Christian, berated teachers, sided with old long hair who refused to do her job, should have been fined and put out of office along with her son, nepotism. And that beard looks stupid!

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