In the Journal of the Early Republic’s 2005 symposium on class during the early national period, Seth Rockman, Jennifer L. Goloboy, and Andrew M. Schocket offer up new analyses on the importance of class. In his introduction to the symposium, Gary J. Kornblith explains how class as en explanatory framework fell into disfavor among historians after the cultural turn, as “the exploration of cultural identity increasingly displaced the study of political economy – and with it class analysis,” noting that for many historians “racial identities seemed to explain what class analysis by itself could not: the failure of American workers to unite in opposition to their capitalism oppressors” (523-4).
For Rockman, this failure to unite, or a lack of class-consciousness, does not make class any less salient a category for addressing social relations in the early republic. By positing that if class was not based on a shared consciousness, and not viewed as the explanatory framework, but one among others (like white supremacy and patriarchy), historians could make better use of class as an analytical category. Rockman asserts, “class gives us a language for representing the economic power relations of capitalism” (533). This in mind, Rockman attempts to provide an outline for something akin to a social history of capitalism, arguing that the common laborers, the working class of the early republic, were a “ ‘motley’ assemblage of casual, contractual, unskilled, and owned workers. What they shared was not a common understanding of their exploitation, but something more mundane – that other Americans translated their labor into wealth while making it unlikely that they would be able to do likewise” (533). While noting that white supremacy and patriarchy still have valuable explanatory power, in that they also played a part in determining who “worked where or owned what,” he ultimately argues that “[c]lass provides us with a language to account for the fact that some Americans gained wealth precisely because the rules of the early republic’s new capitalist economy made it unlikely that [common laborers] could” (535).
In his 2009 book Scraping By, Rockman provides the empirical evidence for the conceptual argument he provides in this article. By focusing on Baltimore, Rockman makes a compelling case for using class as a way to analyze the disparity in material conditions for wage laborers in the early republic, as he shows how the experiences of all common workers, white or black, male or female, free or slave, paralleled each other in important ways. Rockman notes how race and gender also determined in a major way what types of work in which laborers in early Baltimore could be employed, as well as some specifics of property ownership, but that these people were connected, regardless of the fact that they may not have acknowledged it, by the fact that they lived “a hand-to-mouth existence characterized by minimal control over their own labor, periodic spells of joblessness, and severe privation” (Scraping By, 2). Rockman’s conception of class is unique, and for me extremely compelling; despite the fact that the common workers of Baltimore exhibit no “shared consciousness, identity or politics,” Rockman “sees class as a material condition resulting from the ability of those purchasing labor to economically and physically coerce those performing it – and to do so under the social fiction of a self regulating market that purportedly doled out its rewards to the deserving in accordance with the laws of nature” (11). This approach to class also seems like it would be helpful in attempting to address the material conditions of common workers from a more transnational perspective.
One of Rockman’s most important ideas dispels with the idea that within the triumvirate of class, race, and gender, one concept has to trump the other two. Rather, Rockman asserts that “historians must look for the larger system constituted at the intersection of these categories and seek the overlapping ‘relations of ruling’ that organized the lives and labors of workers of divergent subjectivities and identities” (11). This approach seems an important way of executing class analysis without losing sight of the important explanatory powers of race and gender.
The arguments presented in the other articles in this symposium did not resonate as much with me, and seem to be far more limited in what they offer historians in terms of explanatory framework. Goloboy views class consciousness as precisely what makes class an important historical factor, far different than the conception of class offered by Rockman. She argues that regardless of material conditions, Americans often conceived of themselves as “middle-class” based on the adoption of certain values. However, one of her examples seems to weaken this argument, as Seabury’s wealthy aunt did not view him as a part of the same class, based on material conditions, regardless of his moral values. Despite this, Goloboy still argues that culturally based class aspirations mattered more than material conditions. Schocket seems to side more with Rockman than Goloboy, in arguing that what made elites “elite” in the early republic was “their access to capital and their acess to state power,” (525). Like Rockman, he emphasizes the role played by capitalist institutions in determining material conditions and class relations.
Ultimately all these articles provide sharp new insights on the importance of class in the formation of social relations in the early republic. Rockman, in his article and even more so in Scraping By, seems to offer the best new approach for conceptualizing the important of class.