Class Matters: Early North America and the Atlantic World

Class Matters: Early North America and the Atlantic World

Class Matters: Early North America and the Atlantic World

Class Matters: Early North America and the Atlantic World


As a category of historical analysis, class is dead--or so it has been reported over the past two decades. The contributors to Class Matters contest this demise. Although differing in their approaches, they all agree that socioeconomic inequality remains indispensable to a true understanding of the transition from the early modern to modern era in North America and the rest of the Atlantic world. As a whole, they chart the emergence of class as a concept and its subsequent loss of analytic purchase in Anglo-American historiography.

The opening section considers the dynamics of class relations in the Atlantic world across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--from Iroquoian and Algonquian communities in North America to tobacco lords in Glasgow. Subsequent chapters examine the cultural development of a new and aspirational middle class and its relationship to changing economic conditions and the articulation of corporate and industrial ideologies in the era of the American Revolution and beyond.

A final section shifts the focus to the poor and vulnerable--tenant farmers, infant paupers, and the victims of capital punishment. In each case the authors describe how elite Americans exercised their political and social power to structure the lives and deaths of weaker members of their communities. An impassioned afterword urges class historians to take up the legacies of historical materialism. Engaging the difficulties and range of meanings of class, the essays in Class Matters seek to energize the study of social relations in the Atlantic world.


Simon Middleton and Billy G. Smith

As a mode of historical analysis of early North America and the Atlantic World, class is dead—or so it has been reported for the last two decades. a combination of scholarly critiques and global structural changes has enervated a once vigorous historiography relating to class formation and struggles in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. the academic focus on the importance of cultural rather than economic factors of historical causality and on the influence of language in constructing collective identities undermined class analysis as a mode of inquiry. At the same time, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and most socialist nations, the lurch of Western political parties to the right, the growing strength of global capitalism (and concomitant weakening of labor organizations), and the deindustrialization of wealthy nations all discouraged examination of the past (or present) from a class perspective.

This volume confronts the devaluation of class and seeks to reinvigorate its study. Although differing in their interpretative approaches and priorities, the contributors to this collection all agree that class analysis is indispensable to understanding early North America and the Atlantic World and to explaining the historical processes that marked the transition from the early modern to the modern eras. To appreciate why this collection is necessary and valuable, the introduction reviews how class emerged and flourished as a category of analysis in the twentieth century then lost its purchase in Anglo-American historiography in the 1980s and 1990s. Thereafter, the introduction evaluates the global structural changes during the past quarter century that have affected the theoretical approaches to class and that inform the departure point for the chapters included in this collection.

Compared to other categories of difference—including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and culture—class has become the least fashionable among historians. Yet, we believe that class matters vitally. Fortunately, during the past four or five years, class analysis of early North America and the At-

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