64: Sean Wilentz’ Chants Democratic

In Chants Democratic, New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850, Sean Wilentz describes the process of “metropolitan industrialization” – aka the alienation of labor – and its impact on emerging class relationships in New York during the Jacksonian era.  In particular, he’s interested in the development of class consciousness among the city’s artisans.  Like other scholars indebted to E.P. Thompson and the new social history, Wilentz is profoundly interested in the whole lives and particularly the agency of his subjects, but he is careful to integrate the world of the artisans into a more traditional economic and political framework.  He combines these micro/macro approaches to argue that class formation was critical to the social and political crises of the era.

Unlike other historians of Jacksonian democracy, most notably Saxton and Roediger, Wilentz argues that class differentiation, more than the formation of a white consciousness, was the defining element of the era, at least in New York. In the early 1800s, New York experienced dramatic economic growth which threatened the artisan republic/ Jeffersonian nation of yeoman farmers.  New York’s growth combined a massive influx of immigrants with a reorganization of industry to respond to new mass markets (perhaps those created by the new transportation networks?).  Struggling to keep up with the pace of demand, artisans shift to a “manufactory” model, where a few master craftsmen preside over a mass of artisans working as journeymen and small masters.  As with the formal factory system, this division between capital and labor creates a rift in the artisan community along class lines, with the masters soon defining “justice” as equal access to wealth and the journeymen defining it as an end to oligarchy and the redistribution of wealth.  Increasing class antagonism, combined with the influx of immigrants, results in a nativist backlash during the recession of 1837.  By the mid-1840s, Republicanism itself means different things to the two different groups.

Throughout, Wilentz is relentless about tying class consciousness to changes in the material lives of his subjects, particularly with respect to the degraded status of journeymen workers in the Jacksonian era.  This book’s time period seems to be slightly before Saxton’s “Republican synthesis,” and it was written before both Saxton and Roediger finished their books, which I guess would explain why he doesn’t talk about race and whiteness.  As-is, then, this book provides an important predecessor of later, race-based interpretations of the Jacksonian era.  It also traces the demise of the agrarian ideal in the development of urban industry, and shows how democracy and class became intertwined.

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