A historian of nineteenth-century American capitalism, Brian P. Luskey shines a light on what “free labor” meant in practical terms for people coming out of slavery. As such, his Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America delivers a necessary caveat to the celebration of the Civil War as the victory for freedom.

Roughly thirty years ago, James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) offered a celebratory view of the Union, slave liberation, and free labor. Ken Burns's PBS series The Civil War (1990) offered a popular presentation along the same lines. These coincided with the claimed US victory in the Cold War, which was hailed as an irrefutable demonstration of the superiority of Western capitalism and renewed assertions of American exceptionalism. Nevertheless, the persistence of institutionalized racism, unprecedented inequalities, and mismanaged responses to the global economic crisis and the current pandemic challenge undermines an...

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