H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 10

Last week we looked at two central features of capitalism in the young United States:  slavery and industrialization.  We encountered the beginnings of an anti-slavery movement, which included participation by free Blacks as well as whites, and also the beginnings of a labor protection movement, which included the participation of young middle-class and working-class women in the industrial workforce.  Slavery remained absolutely fundamental to the South’s economy and crucial to the national economy, while industrialization became steadily more important to northeastern economic development.  Anti-slavery and labor protection movements remained marginal, unable to marshal anywhere near the influence and power arrayed against them by their oppressors, and by the politicians who chose to support those oppressors with the sanction of law.

This week we will examine these changes from the perspective of working-class and middle-class white men angling for their social worth in a nation that claimed to cherish equality.  Even white men — those who benefited most from a patriarchal and racist society — had to fight for their social position against various people imagined to be adversaries.  These adversaries came in many forms:  other middle-class white men asserting their economic competitiveness and social respectability, free Blacks asserting their own social worth, factory owners asserting their right to control labor, European immigrants asserting their desire for economic opportunity.  One result was an escalating level of social violence by working-class and middle-class white men scapegoating and targeting, especially, the weakest members of American society.  Another result was an expanding amount of social organizations formed to articulate grievances in public, and to pressure governments to do something about those grievances.  This boisterous new American culture was quite surprising for Europeans — like the famous Tocqueville — to witness, fascinated as they were with the peculiar combination of energy and apathy in American society.  And just as Europeans were fascinated by Americans, so did Americans continue to use Europe as the cultural measure of both their desires and their antipathies.  Americans wanted the United States to be different from and better than Europe, yet for various kinds of marginalized Americans the United States didn’t seem to be either different enough, or better.  On the contrary.


William Otter, autobiography (1807):  This working-class autobiography provides a different perspective compared to the usual sources written by elite or middling people.  What kinds of men did Otter associate with?  What kinds of people did these men target for their violent outbursts?  Why those particular people?

Northern working men’s declarations (1829-1844):  These three declarations published in northeastern newspapers were meant to inspire working-class men to defend their social position in the face of a rapidly changing economy, one that seemed to be changing to their disadvantage.  What was going wrong?  Who was to blame?  What was the source of the principles guiding their sense of grievance and their sense of justice?

Lincoln speech (1838):  Akin to Thomas Cole’s paintings from this same era, a young Abraham Lincoln, still very early in his political career, fretted over the fragility and disorder of the American experiment.  And as with Thomas Cole’s paintings, Lincoln did not fear external enemies, so much as internal conflict and chaos.  What kinds of chaos was he worried about?  What was his solution to fend off such internal chaos?

Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1840):  A French aristocrat, Tocqueville has long been viewed as one of the great mythologizers of the American national “character.”  Like many others, Tocqueville saw the idea of democracy in the United States as a very fragile experiment.  What were the perils he saw in a democratic nation?  Why was Tocqueville suspicious of “equality” and of the middle class?  What was the middle class doing?  What was it not doing?


Native American Convention (1845):  Nativists, past and present, fear immigration and perceived foreign influence upon a country.  The 1840s saw both a rapid expansion of immigration to the United States, and an aggressive nativist backlash against it.  According to these nativists, how was the United States in danger of becoming too much like the negative aspects of Europe?  Why was immigration once deemed beneficial, and why was it now deemed dangerous?  What kinds of people were supposedly immigrating into the United States?

Whitney, A Defence (1856):  In seeking to define who was a true “American,” Thomas Whitney, a leading nativist in New York City, went so far as to criticize the supposedly sacred principles of equality and democracy that had become fundamental to American political culture.  What kinds of people were to be included in the United States, and what kinds excluded?  Why so, in each case?