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How History Has Favored The Economy Over Public Health

MARK BRODIE: Right now, as states begin to reopen, officials are weighing the good of the economy versus the good of public health. And, when you look at history, our next guest says the economy usually wins out over saving lives. Peter Mancall is a professor of humanities at the University of Southern California and the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford this year. He wrote about this issue recently in the Conversation. Our co-host Lauren Gilger spoke with him more about the history behind this. And they began in the 17th century, in the tobacco growing regions of the Chesapeake.

PETER MANCALL: So the first case happens when the English colonized what we now think was Virginia. It started at Jamestown in 1607. The English arrived there. They're looking for a way to survive. A lot of people are dying very quickly. They begin to figure out why that is. And yet, they're still going there and going there, and they're looking for an economic rationale. And by the early 16-teens, they realized that tobacco was a perfect crop — that is, it's really why they demanded it. In Europe, it has all these alleged benefits and it has an insatiable market. And so all the English, who are the planters who were running this society, want is to find people to work the crop. And so they go to this mass army of unemployed and underemployed young people in England, most of them men, and they encourage them to go over across the ocean to sign away four to seven years of their life as what was called being an indentured servant where they would produce tobacco. The system kept feeding new people into the tobacco fields, even though living near the James and living near some of these other rivers was very dangerous. So they're quite aware of the high mortality. But the economic demand for tobacco, nonetheless, allows people to say, "well, you know, human health is essentially less important." I mean, they didn't debate it in our modern sense. They didn't think, "Are these essential workers?" But the overall effect is very similar. Economics drove it. Then a series of catastrophes happen in Britain itself. Plague strikes London, and it's followed very quickly by what's called the Great Fire. And so from 1665 to 1666, London loses perhaps about 20% of its population. So people who might otherwise have thought, "I'm going to go to North America because that's where the jobs are," instead stayed home. But on the American side of the equation, the planters still want tobacco to be produced, and they're still looking for laborers. And so they decide to sort of go all in or make much more serious investment in purchasing enslaved Africans.

LAUREN GILGER: So you're looking at, in history here, essentially, you're talking about the legalized slave trade, the emergence of that in America and early America and indentured servitude. I mean, those are, they don't exist today, but you do say that this economic exploitation, the same idea still exists today. How?

MANCALL: So, well, it's true that legalized indentured servitude, as was practiced in the 17th century, doesn't exist anymore and legalized slavery doesn't work. I mean, here instead, what we see are people driven by extreme economic need to go into various fields. And the sort of classic example of this in our modern, our modern age are people who are our farm workers, oftentimes migrant farm workers for whom there are very few protections, who are exposed to all sorts of chemicals in the field — I mean, these are all well-documented. I'm a historian. These are all well-documented — who are crowded together, who seem to have inadequate access to health care. And, you know, it seems another situation where economic need — in this case, for our society, for certain products, no longer tobacco, perhaps, but now strawberries or fill in whatever crop you want — is still sort of putting people into very precarious situations. And so one of the similarities between the 17th century and now is the 17th century, most people would not have willingly said, "I'm going to go and leave my life behind, crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing ship, which could take six or seven weeks, suffer whatever the journey had, and then go work for someone who I've never met before and go out in the fields, where I've already heard rumors of terrible things happening there, not enough food and all these diseases and even rumors that people were eating each other" or stories about cannibalism that came out of the early Chesapeake. They're doing it because the economic need, extreme need sort of pushes people in. And so the larger question, the sort of larger moral or ethical question is we can recognize that people need work. What, then, is our responsibility as a society to take care of people's health?

GILGER: So often as an historian, I'm sure you think about things this way, right? But the trope is in your head that history repeats itself. Have we learned any lessons from history or how would you hope that the lessons of our own country's history — these really hard ones, right? of slavery, indentured servitude — would inform the way that we look at this issue today?

MANCALL: Well, I think, I think we have learned certain lessons from history. Sometimes it takes a very long time to learn lessons. It the American Civil War to finally make slavery illegal in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. That is 250 years after bound laborers and then eventually enslaved laborers are working first in the Chesapeake, then in other places, it takes a long time. We don't have an exact equivalent for legalized slavery. We don't have an exact equivalent for indentured servitude now. Those are good things. But sometimes what history does is it gives us the perspectives. It lets us take the step back. And so, since the article came out, various people have said to me, "Well, you know, these workers had a choice," which is true. Not the enslaved who come later, but the free workers. They did make a choice. And so what I think historians can sort of do is say, "Yes, they made a choice." And with the distance of time, we can look at the range of options that is, that was in front of them. And the range of options was was bleak and limited. And so their choice was to risk their lives in order to make a livelihood. That is a very tough choice. And I think we need to really think about that. And so ... when, as a historian, I listen to, you know, "We have to get the economy up and going again," of course we all want to get the economy up and going again. But history can teach us that we have to really think about what are the risks that we're facing? What are the conditions that we're putting people in? And is it always worth it to do it? And I think we need to take that step. And I hope history offers some, at least moments of pause and reflection so we can go forward in a more informed way.

GILGER: Alright. That is Peter Mancall, a professor of humanities at the University of Southern California and the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford this year. Peter, thank you so much for joining us to tell us about this.

MANCALL: It was a pleasure joining you today, Lauren. Thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.