In West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War, Heather Cox Richardson attempts to alter our geographic focus in assessing the postbellum era by arguing for the importance of the West in our understanding of the Reconstruction period. Richardson argues that during the decades after the Civil War, Americans redefined what the proper relationship should be between citizens and the federal government. By extending her analysis to 1901, West From Appomattox represents something of a departure from more traditional Reconstruction studies, instead focusing more broadly on what she terms the “reconstruction years,” while also lengthening the timeline of national reunion.
Richardson argues that questions about the role of the national government gained increased salience after the Civil War because direct federal taxation for the first time meant that the government’s reach would impact the pockets of citizens. Ultimately, she contends that by the early twentieth century, “a newly formed ‘middle class’…divided the nation into two groups” (1). They split the United States between “hardworking Americans,” who were working their way up with everyone else, and “special interests,” who only wanted special privileges from the government. This “middle class”—one Richardson sees as interchangeable with terms like “mainstream Americans,” and “mainstream individualists,” as she opts not to ascribe to it any kind of traditional economic definition—pointed to the image of the westerner able to find success by only his own hard work, conveniently ignoring the ways the federal government propped up the West. Richardson argues that this notion of the American West was “blinding,” and that “mainstream Americans” utilized this notion of the West while they “harnessed a newly active American government to their own interests,” all the while “retain[ing] a vision of America as a land of individualism” (5).
For Richardson, the emphasis many historians place on the South’s racial problems after the Civil War obfuscate what her “mainstream Americans” agreed were the most important issues of the day: who could be defined as a citizen, and what the government’s relationship to them should be. She argues that after the election of 1896, the “middle class” decided that “the people” were those “who believed in the mainstream vision of a harmonious economy of hard workers…and that the government should bolster their version of American society,” to the detriment of blacks, women, and Indians who still faced systemic discrimination that barred them from enjoying the fruits of this “American Individualist” ethos.
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.