Tag Archives: class

Luskey, On The Make

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.]


Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class

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.

Blumin, Emergence of the Middle Class

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.”

Week 4/Race

In various forms, Barbara J. Fields, Martha Hodes, and Peter Kolchin each offer commentary on how historians have dealt with the (now common) assumption that race is a social construction.  Fields does so through by looking at race as a historical ideology and focusing on the need to contextualize various forms of race and racism; Hodes heeds this call for historical contextualization by analyzing how experiences with race vary greatly across geographic and temporal boundaries.  Kolchin looks at how the emerging field of whiteness studies has dealt with the socially constructed, ideological nature of race.

In “Ideology and Race in American History,” Fields argues against the American tendency to “accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding” (Fields, 144).  Rather, Fields asserts, historians should conceive of race as an ideology, which she describes as a vocabulary used to interpret one’s lived, social experiences.  These ideologies, in turn, must be considered within their full historical context.  Fields disagrees with the very foundation of Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the negro, 1550-1812, in that the essential point of the argument in her article is that “[a]n understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations – not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from the outside” (Fields, 149).  The largest flaw of Jordan’s work which Fields implicitly notes is the failure to deal carefully with changing historical contexts; Fields posits the question of how “[t]o the extent that white supremacy summarized prejudices of color, how can it have meant the same for different classes of whites, who had different experiences with blacks?” (Fields 156).

One of the consequences of Fields’ conceptualization of race as an ideology dependent on historical context is that she dispels with the common assumption that race and class are mutually exclusive explanatory frameworks.  Rather than being alternatives to one another, Fields notes (like Seth Rockman) that “class refers to a material circumstance,” and as such, “can assert itself independently of people’s consciousness and sometimes in direct opposition to it,” whereas race cannot be stripped of its ideological construction (Fields, 150-151).  She states that “[r]ace is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only”; this distinction between appearances and their underlying realities is one that Jordan, despite the breadth of his analysis, does not seem to make.   Rather than being mutually exclusive, Fields argues that class is of the utmost important when considering interracial interaction in American history.

Martha Hodes furthers Fields’ call for contextualization when dealing with issues of race by placing it in a transnational context through an analysis of the experiences of Eunice and William Smiley Connolly, a poor white woman from New England and a sea captain from the British West Indies of a mixed African and European ancestry.  Hodes “argues that the scrutiny of day-to-day lives demonstrates not only the mutability of race but also, and with equal force, the abiding power of race in local settings,” (Hodes, 85).  Hodes describes as a poor, female wage-laborer without the support of a husband, Eunice struggled to support herself and her children, and as such became somehow “less white.”  The people of Grand Cayman, conversely, viewed smiley Connolly, with high regard because he was a man of significant means, irrespective of his appearance.  Likewise, while Eunice’s marriage to a man of mixed ancestry drew ire from both outside and within her family in New England and in some ways led others to perceive her again as less white, upon moving to Grand Cayman, her material conditions improved, even as she became more closely associated with her “colored” husband.  For Hodes, like Fields, race is an ideology dependent on historical context – in this case, both geographic location and material conditions.

Peter Kolchin’s discussion of the emerging field of whiteness studies surprised me by the fact that it is the article that is in most direct conversation with Jordan’s White Over Black.  Jordan’s overall assertion that white attitudes towards blacks (inasmuch as one can describe “white attitudes” for reasons discussed in the Fields and Hodes articles) stemmed from a desire to define themselves in a new cultural and social conditions, connects directly with David R. Roediger’s assertion that “because the white working class in the United States emerged in a slaveholding republic, its members came to define themselves by what they were not: slaves and blacks” (Kolchin, 155).  While the Roediger conception of whiteness studies is not the only one, his assertions parallel Jordan’s very closely.  Kolchin describes Roediger’s argument by stating that “the increasingly controlled and disciplined white population came to view blacks as their former, uninhibited selves,” while Jordan describes how “[w]ithin every American who stood confronted by the Negro, there had arisen a perpetual duel between his higher and lower natures.  His cultural conscience – his Christianity, his humanitarianism, his ideology of liberty and equality, — demanded that he he regard and treat the Negro as his…equal.  At the same moment, however, many of his profound urges, especially his yearning to maintain the identity of his folk, his passion for domination, his sheer avarice, and his sexual desire, impelled him toward conceiving and treating the Negro as inferior to himself” (Jordan 581-2).  Jordan argues that this “perpetual duel” stems from “the need of transplanted Englishmen to know who it was they were…For white men had to know who they were if they were to survive.  They had to retain control of themselves and of their liberties if they were to survive in America” (Jordan xiv).  Jordan seems, to me, to do implicitly what whiteness studies seeks to explicitly, that is, define what exactly made someone “white”; for Jordan, early Americans did this through defining what exactly it meant to be “black.”

After criticizing whiteness studies for a lack of depth and analytical sophistication, he seems to bring the reader back to where Barbara Fields started two decades earlier, stating that “without attention to concrete social conditions,” the distinctiveness of racial history “is more likely to be obscured than clarified.  In short, we are back to the question of context” (Kolchin 170).

***In response to Caleb’s comment requesting more analysis of Jordan’s argument, I’m editing this post for those only reading them through an rss feed***

Jordan attempts to answer the question of why only blacks were enslaved in the United States. Did racism develop because of slavery? or did the enslavement of blacks occur because of racism?

He begins his attempt to answer this question by looking at the “first impressions” of the English upon coming into contact with sub-Saharan Africans. He argues that the English commented most frequently on the Africans’ “black” skin, their lack of religion, their “savage” nature, and their hyper-sexualized, “bestial” nature. In doing so, Jordan is arguing that English perceptions of the way Africans differed from themselves included concepts other than skin color/appearance. In a time of rapid social change, the English became “uncomfortably self-conscious,” and they projected this identity crisis against the vastly different Africans.

Jordan ultimately argues that the rise of slavery was part of an “unthinking decision,” on the part of early English settlers. The significant need for labor in the newly settled colonies led the English to revive slavery, a form of labor with roots in English common law, as distinguished from free labor and indentured servitude, which were also used. Jordan argues that economic necessity revived the use of slavery in the English colonies. Jordan further argues that the decision to enslave Africans exclusively extends from the fact that they already knew the Spanish and Portuguese were enslaving Africans and utilizing slave labor, that the English in the West Indies were following that lead. The idea of enslaving Africans also fits neatly with the “first impressions” outlined in the first chapter. Thus, he seems to assert that the “unthinking decision” to enslave Africans had in many ways been made for them.

The American Revolution, with its ideals of universal liberty that clashed directly with the institution of slavery, led to the crystallization of a pseudo-scientific racial prejudice as a way to justify slavery in “the land of the free.” Jordan argues that white Americans attempted to reconcile revolutionary ideals with slavery by, in a variety of ways, defining America as a white man’s country. The revolutionary and post-revolutionary era was when, according to Jordan, fully race-based justifications of slavery fully developed in the American psyche.

There is more to Jordan’s argument, but this gives a better background for what exactly he is saying, and how I made the connections between his book and the readings for this week.

Week 3/Class

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.