H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 9

Last week we looked at a remarkable transformation of political culture in the young United States.  Who would serve as leaders?  Who would participate in formal politics?  Many of the so-called Founders favored the formation of a republic led by a “natural aristocracy” — a small band of affluent men who would supposedly serve the public good via supposedly superior knowledge and virtue supposedly enabling them to know what was best for everyone.  While the Founders were able to dictate a counter-revolutionary and elitist U.S. Constitution, they were not able to control the dynamics of political culture in the 1790s or beyond.  Middle-class white men like William Manning and Matthew Lyon, politically energized by revolutionary and military service against the British empire, learned to distrust anyone claiming to be “naturally” superior.  They instead claimed and fought for the agency, worth, and rights of self-educated, informed middle-class white men to participate in politics, and they managed, slowly, to broaden the very definition of “equality.”  Restrictions on office-holding and voting were repealed in state after state for white men, although restrictions remained for many other “people” in the United States.

This week we will examine transitions in economic rather than political culture, although of course the two were intertwined.  Slavery was the centerpiece of capitalism in the United States and the Atlantic world, but a tiny group of humanitarian whites and free blacks began at the end of the 18th century to protest against the slavery system.  In Britain the anti-slavery movement quickly became relatively mainstream — a way to reclaim the mantle of “liberty” in competition with the United States.  In the United States, meanwhile, the anti-slavery movement remained a tiny strand of dissent overwhelmed by massive new importation of slaves from Africa.  Meanwhile, white women, who had always worked unpaid on family farms and in many other family businesses, increasingly found paid work in the first industrial factories to flourish in the United States, especially in New England deploying new technologies “borrowed” from Britain.  In both the cases of the anti-slavery movement and of the transition to factory work, the result was new claims of personal agency and social worth extending beyond middle-class white men — already a shock to the so-called Founders — to Black people and to women.  Those claims would face a steep uphill battle, extending beyond the present day somewhere into the future.  Hopefully your future.


Banneker and Jefferson (1791):  A free Black man living and working in Maryland, Benjamin Banneker was an engineer who helped survey the new city of Washington DC in the 1790s.  In 1791, he wrote this letter to Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Secretary of State, in order to disagree with Jefferson’s racist theories published in 1787.  From where did Banneker get the principles and ideals he used to refute Jefferson’s racism?  At a time when many Americans took slavery for granted as a natural feature of life, how did Banneker argue that slavery was, instead, unnatural?


Abbott, The Mother at Home (1833):  In the early nineteenth century, many moralistic male authors like John Abbott hinged the success of the American nation not only on the public actions of male politicians, but on the private life of every person deemed to be an “American,” categorically including white women, in a certain way.  Why did Abbott deem (white) women to be important to the nation as a whole?  How had (white) men been inadequate in preserving the nation?

Robinson, autobiography (1831-1836):  Male authors may have wanted to confine women within “the home” in their social fantasies, but the reality for most American women had always been a life combining household work, agricultural toil, and petty commerce.  In other words, most women have never in history been confined to purely domestic labor, except in certain retrograde fantasies.  With the rise of mechanization and industrialization in the early 19th century, textile factories were established in New England and largely staffed, initially at least, by young middle-class women from the countryside.  Harriett Robinson experienced the idyllic origins of the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Why was factory work so appealing to young white middle-class women at that time?  How was it supposed to be different in the United States compared to Europe?  How did white women contribute to the expansion of the (white) middle class in the United States?  Why, though, did factory work eventually become so repulsive to Robinson?

New England factory protest (1845-1846):  Whatever may have been their idyllic origins, New England textile mills swiftly achieved reputations for increasingly exploitative practices — exploitation supported by the force of government and law, and comparable to the negative image of factories in Britain (for that, see the poetry of William Blake or the novels of Charles Dickens).  Here in these petitions was a rare instance of state government being forced at least to face its role in favoring elite economic interests at the expense of everyone else.  Did the government committee and the women’s organization agree or differ on the nature of the problem?  On the possibility of a solution?  What did each side blame for the working conditions in the factories?