In Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860, Joanne Pope Melish explores the way that racial attitudes became hardened in early national and antebellum New England with the passage of free womb laws and the subsequent obfuscation of the region’s prior relationship with slavery. Melish notes that implicit in early anti-slavery thought was the notion that by removing slavery, people of color would be removed from their midst as well. Attempts to minimize the significance of slavery in New England “further ‘racialized’ both black and white identity in New England. Having largely disconnected people of color from their historical experience of oppressive enslavement in the New England states, whites could insist that the only way to account for the often impoverished condition of free people of color there was their innate inferiority” (3). Melish argues that the character of both slavery and emancipation in the North resulted in the development of belief in “race” as an innate characteristic, fixed in the bodies of individuals. Melish places New Englanders’ experience with gradual emancipation at the center of the story of the development of their ideas of race, their negative view of the capacities of people of color, and their antagonism of free blacks.
In On The Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America, Brian P. Luskey explores the world of male clerks and clerkships in nineteenth-century New York City. During the antebellum period, clerkships represented crucial opportunities for young men to enter into the business world, gain valuable experience, and generate connections that could eventually allow them to become business proprietors in their own right. Through experience as a clerk, the right connections, and a willingness to subordinate oneself under another business proprietor for a period of time, clerks in the antebellum North provided themselves with the tools necessary to enter into the middle, and sometime even elite, class. For Luskey, the story of clerks in New York City is one of decline, as during the Civil War and the postbellum period, the benefits of clerkships, and both men’s willingness and ability to take on clerk positions diminished. Competition for clerkships from immigrants and women, who could be paid less than men, in addition to the difficulties of gaining credit for opening one’s own business for former clerks resulted in young men less frequently utilizing clerkships as a spring board for private business ownership. Luskey contends that after the Civil War, these diminishing prospects of private business ownership led many young men to eschew the discipline required to own and run a business, and instead adapted to the emerging opportunities in “middle management,” placing a higher premium on stability and salary than on independent ownership.
[Class notes: Luskey fits better with Rockman’s definition of class, in that the abandonment of clerkships, occupation of middle management positions, has more to do with availability of capital/credit than initial aspirations.]
In Cradle of the Middle Class, Mary P. Ryan explores the changing dynamics of family organization, public and private spheres, and women’s social role in fostering the creation of a middle class in her community study of Oneida County, New York, with a specific focus on the city of Utica. In the transition from a rural to an industrial age in the “canal era,” in upstate New York, a crucial shift in family dynamics occurred that conditioned the creation of the middle class. With the rise of market towns like Utica, the family was transformed from one defined by patriarchy, in which the father had immediate control over all the children, to one with a more matriarchal focus in which mothers took the lead in child rearing. “Early in the nineteenth century,” Ryan argues, “the American middle class molded its distinctive identity around domestic values and family practices” (15). Through revivalism and voluntary associations aimed at moral reform, a middle class value structure took shape in which women took on greater roles. Though their position was still circumscribed, the boundaries between public and private life became blurred during this period. As Ryan continues into the 1840s, she notes that families became more “private,” but that nonetheless, women’s roles expanded in important ways. This change in the role of women and the family marked the creation of a distinctly middle class value structure.
In The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900, Stuart M. Blumin explores the development of the middle class in Jacksonian America through his investigation of, primarily, northeastern cities, especially Philadelphia and New York. Blumin contends that while a distinct middle class failed to emerge by the end of the eighteenth century, during the decades prior to the Civil War the middle class developed in American cities. Blumin utilizes a variety of perspectives and evidentiary bases to support this claim, but one of the major factors in distinguishing this emerging middle class was the increasing differentiation between manual and non-manual labor. Non-manual labor was no longer associated with wage earning during this period, and the physical environments of manual and non-manual labor became increasingly separated. This led to an elevation of non-manual labor, affording non-manual laborers an elevated social worth in public perception. This differentiation of those that worked with their “heads” rather than with their “hands” became more prominent in public discussions of social classes, was reinforced, especially by women, through patterns of consumption, as Blumin argues that “domestic womanhood” was crucial in “generating new social identities” (191). Further, the increased prevalence of voluntary associations during this period highlighted the emergence of this middle class, as these associations were either based on these new perceptions of social worth of the middle class, or were designed specifically to combat social divisions. While a consciousness of middle class values did not emerge in politics, they were prevalent everywhere else in social and private life, allowing Blumin to argue for the creation of a new class by showing a demonstration of class “awareness” rather than “consciousness.”
In Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century, Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin reject the common trope of political history that describes the nineteenth century as the “golden age” of American politics, in which a greater proportion of Americans than any time before or since were engaged in the political process. Rather, the authors contend that in the nineteenth century a tiny minority of political actors attempted to curry favor with a largely disinterested and uninformed public. Looking beyond statistical evaluations of voter turnout, which show an unusually high degree of participation by modern standards, Altschuler and Blumin argue that politics did not have a significant impact, and did not command a particularly important place in the lives of ordinary Americans. Altschuler and Blumin argue that this disinterest and lack of political engagement stemmed from a dominant middle-class view of politics as contrary to their aspirations to respectability, and the strain of religious thought that viewed as improper the placing of so much emphasis on non-religious institutions. For the authors, though they argue that voting represents a very low bar for political participation, the high rates of voter turnout during this period were superficial, and did not represent a deep level of political engagement. The authors argue that it was in the interests of the party elite, a small minority, to represent their cause or candidate as having widespread, democratic support, a tendency that has obscured the lack of meaningful political engagement to modern historians.
In Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, Catherine Allgor revises more traditional political histories of the early republic by viewing national politics through the framework of the development of events in Washington City, and specifically, women’s role in affecting those developments. Allgor argues that by focusing only on “official” political developments that feature only the voices and actions of men, a substantial portion of the history of development of politics in the United States is obscured, because the “public” and “private” spheres often blurred together in Washington between 1800 and 1830, thus affording women a much more influential role in politics than has often been assumed. In their capacity as wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters, women utilized social events—balls, soirees, drawing rooms, and individual visits—to help establish the extra-institutional structures the nation’s capital desperately needed in order to ensure the proper function of the national government. In assuming this role, the elite and middle-class white women of Washington exerted tremendous influence on how the shape and power of the federal government, as it increased in strength, size, and complexity.
Allgor, like Parsons, sees this period in American history as the crucible in which modern politics developed. Unlike Parsons, however, Allgor sees the public and private spheres as inexorably linked prior to 1830, as the social events of the period, largely controlled by the women of Washington, served indisputably political purposes. As such, the women of Washington helped usher in a new age in national politics.
In The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828, Lynn Hudson Parsons explores the features of the 1828 election campaign that differentiated it from previous presidential elections, and ushered in a new age of politics in the United States. While Parsons does not seem to see Jackson’s election as president as the defining factor of a “golden age” of democratic politics, she does see the election of 1828 as the marker of a decisive shift in national politics. Parsons argues that this shift in the tenor and character of elections shifted in 1828 in a wide variety of ways: increased voter participation, the expansion of the electorate, a more sharply defined two-party system. Perhaps more importantly, Parsons sees the proliferation of party newspapers across the country, an increase in campaign coordination on a national level, the role of organized nominating conventions and the increase in the importance of fund-raising, an rise in direct campaigning by the candidate, and the role of shaping a defined image for a candidate all played new, crucial roles in the election on 1828, and would continue to do so well into the future.
Importantly though, Parsons contends that few of these developments were well planned prior to the beginning of the 1828 election campaign. Rather, most of these new approaches to politics stemmed from the events of the 1824 election, in which Jacksonians (and many Americans) felt the presidency had been decided by corruption, intrigue, and the dealings of “Washington insiders,” to borrow a modern phrase. As a consequence, the Jackson campaign in 1828 adopted the aforementioned measures as a way to capitalize on the feeling of disfranchisement within the newly expanded American electorate and defeat Adams, who Jackson supporters painted as an ineffective leader, out of touch with the majority of Americans. Parsons argues that “President Adams continued to insist that the office he held was and should continue to be above politics. He was the last president to so believe” (141)