Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Land Reform and Working-Class Experience in Britain and the United States, 1800-1862

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Land Reform and Working-Class Experience in Britain and the United States, 1800-1862

Article excerpt

Land Reform and Working-Class Experience in Britain and the United States,1800-1862. By Jamie L. Bronstein. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Pp. viii, 372. $55.00.)

American historians have long needed a new treatment of the antebellum land reform movement, one informed by modem concerns about class and culture and which could supplement, if not replace, Helene Zahler's classic monograph of 1941, Eastern Workingmen and National Land Policy,18291862. In this carefully wrought study Jamie Bronstein provides that and something more: a distinctive contribution to the growing literature on the transatlantic dimensions of nineteenth-century reform.

Land Reform and Working-Class Experience focuses on three organizations: the American National Reform movement, whose heroic founder George Henry Evans pushed for homestead exemption, land limitation, and distribution of public lands in the West; the Chartist Land Co-operative Company, a joint-stock scheme promoted by the flamboyant Irish M.P., Feargus O'Connor, to set up workers' agricultural villages in the English countryside; and the Potters' Joint-Stock Emigration Company, a more prosaic group that organized resettlement of British artisans on the Wisconsin frontier. Bronstein traces these groups' origins, rhetoric, and development in seven chapters which are organized topically and documented scrupulously.

"Why Were There Working-Class Land Reform Movements in Britain and America?" the Introduction asks (1). Framed this way, Bronstein's analysis stresses broad commonalities over specific differences. All three groups drew upon a common discourse of natural rights, agrarianism (variously defined), and producerist values inherited from Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Skidmore; in the Britons' case this was flavored with a dash of Tory paternalism borrowed from groups like the Labourer's Friend Society. On both sides of the Atlantic, land reformers' rhetoric invoked the virtue of farming, the menace of factories, and the value of unalienated labor by working men presiding over traditional homes. The movement's leaders rallied working-class support through itinerant lectures and the press, mainly O'Connor's National Reformer, Evans's various newspapers, and sympathetic reform journals that clipped them. And they differentiated land reform from contemporary crusades that were more middle class in orientation: abolitionism in the United States and the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain.

On this last question-the class basis of reform-Bronstein's nuanced response is one of the book's strongest contributions. Like Frances Early, Jama Lazerow, and this reviewer, Bronstein rejects Norman Ware's still-- influential interpretation that land reformers, cooperationists, and utopian socialists were middle-class reformers who diverted workers from the "true" cause of forming trade unions. Her research shows that especially in the United States land reform forged a broad coalition of farmers, artisans, factory operatives, and reformers that defied monolithic class labels. In the era of early industrialism, class boundaries were still blurred, producerist ideas promoted flexible notions of "useful" work, and reform causes fit varied local agendas. Many British and American workers turned to land reform when other meliorist measures had failed. In the United States it fed upon the collapse of trade unions and communitarian experiments in the mid-1840s; in Britain it flourished as a second phase of Chartism that kept that movement's flame alive in the lull between its defeats in 1842-43 and its resurgence in 1848. …

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