Class and the History of Working People in the Early Republic

By Rockman, Seth | Journal of the Early Republic, December 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Class and the History of Working People in the Early Republic


Rockman, Seth, Journal of the Early Republic


What conceptual tools are available to historians interested in social and material inequality in the early republic? Until recently, class offered a fairly durable approach. Borrowing bits and pieces from Karl Marx, Max Weber, and E. P. Thompson, historians have contended that unequal access to productive property and economic opportunity divided society into horizontal groupings. The members of those groups came to recognize their commonalities (and their differences from members of other groups), instituted cultural and social practices reflecting that group identity, and acted from that identity in the interests of their group-or, class.1 Such assumptions framed the transformative research of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that made the lives of working people relevant to the central narrative of American history.

By the end of the 1990s, however, class no longer carried the same weight as an explanatory category in early republic history. Some scholars denied that inequalities could create meaningful horizontal divisions, claiming instead that the American Revolution generated unprecedented opportunity for upward mobility and a classless society. Other historians acknowledged material disparities among Americans, but did not see those differences as particularly significant. With autonomy and agency, the most disadvantaged Americans presumably had the same possibilities for self-making and self-expression as did their wealthy neighbors. One might never know the extent to which the deck was stacked against working people who gathered in taverns, promenaded along urban thoroughfares, and dressed in flamboyant outfits. At the same time, the daily activities of working people revealed not solidarity but extreme antagonism along lines of race, sex, and ethnicity. Violence in the streets and behind bedroom doors indicated that working people did not see themselves in common cause with other workers who looked, dressed, or spoke differently. Class did not seem to account for the experiences of women or people of color, for whom unequal access to property was not the starting point of inequality, but rather the result of other powerful forces like racism, sexism, and imperialism. Ultimately, the social cleavages in the new United States were either too shallow to warrant class formation or too deep to allow it.

Those of us studying the experiences of working people in the early republic find ourselves puzzled how to proceed. Illustrating the inadequacy of a seamstress's wages to cover rent or the unlikelihood of a canal digger becoming a landowner-this is relatively easy. As recent works in sociology such as Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed or David Shipler's The Working Poor remind us, the day-to-day lives of working people illustrate the larger processes of economic development and suggest a disjuncture between the mythology of boundless opportunity and the reality of arduous labor and persistent poverty.2 For the urban workers of the early republic, the primary challenge was getting and keeping a job as the precondition to procuring food and fuel, paying rent, and meeting the exigencies of illness, injury, and childbearing. Although these workers were female and male, white and black, native-born and immigrant, young and old, enslaved, indentured, and free, they shared a common privation. Their labor did not provide them with anything beyond a hand-to-mouth existence, and instead left them consistently imperiled in their efforts to stay warm or avoid hunger.3

That working people would be poor was not novel in the early republic, nor was this era the first to privilege those who could recruit, hire, or purchase labor and to disadvantage those whose labor was for sale or subject to compulsion. And while the postrevolutionary economy generated new ways for some working people to escape poverty, so too did it offer new ways for wealthier Americans to prosper from the work that did not pay enough (or at all) to bring those performing it out of poverty. …

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