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Class Matters

Early North America and the Atlantic World

Edited by Simon Middleton and Billy G. Smith

Publication Year: 2010

As a category of historical analysis, class is dead—or so it has been reported over the past two decades. The contributors to Class Matters contest this demise. Although differing in their approaches, they all agree that socioeconomic inequality remains indispensable to a true understanding of the transition from the early modern to modern era in North America and the rest of the Atlantic world. As a whole, they chart the emergence of class as a concept and its subsequent loss of analytic purchase in Anglo-American historiography.

The opening section considers the dynamics of class relations in the Atlantic world across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—from Iroquoian and Algonquian communities in North America to tobacco lords in Glasgow. Subsequent chapters examine the cultural development of a new and aspirational middle class and its relationship to changing economic conditions and the articulation of corporate and industrial ideologies in the era of the American Revolution and beyond.

A final section shifts the focus to the poor and vulnerable—tenant farmers, infant paupers, and the victims of capital punishment. In each case the authors describe how elite Americans exercised their political and social power to structure the lives and deaths of weaker members of their communities. An impassioned afterword urges class historians to take up the legacies of historical materialism. Engaging the difficulties and range of meanings of class, the essays in Class Matters seek to energize the study of social relations in the Atlantic world.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-15

As a mode of historical analysis of early North America and the Atlantic World, class is dead—or so it has been reported for the last two decades. A combination of scholarly critiques and global structural changes has enervated a once vigorous historiography relating to class formation and struggles in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The academic focus on the importance of cultural rather...

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1. Theorizing Class in Glasgow and the Atlantic World

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pp. 16-34

By 1850 Glasgow was rapidly emerging as one of Britain’s greatest industrial cities, the Second City of the empire. It was the year that the Factory Act restricted women and children to workdays of no more than ten and a half hours, but in the pages of the Glasgow Herald seventy-seven-year-old Robert Reid evoked images of Glasgow’s bucolic past. During his childhood Reid’s “grandmother, who was...

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2. Stratification and Class in Eastern Native America

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pp. 35-48

The words class and seventeenth-century Native North American have perhaps never before been seen in the same sentence. Nor should they have been, if by class we evoke meanings familiar to Karl Marx, E. P. Thompson, or their successors. Clearly the economic, social, and cultural nexuses of inequality in Native America differed so profoundly from those of Western Europe that such meanings of class are irrelevant to the Indian societies of Eastern North America—at least...

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3. Subaltern Indians, Race, and Class in Early America

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pp. 49-61

During the long eighteenth century, the distant and scattered English outposts in North America became linked provinces that played important roles within the sprawling British Empire. Those provinces developed mature societies, economies, and governments; their port towns and hinterlands enlarged their connections with other parts of the Atlantic World. Independence pulled those provinces...

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4. Class Struggle in a West Indian Plantation Society

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pp. 62-75

In the summer of 1732, William Smith, the rector of St. John’s Parish, Nevis, visited an acquaintance on the neighboring island of St. Kitts. In a letter to his friend Charles Mason, the Woodwardian Professor of Geology and a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, he described his thoughts and impressions as he and his host...

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5. Class at an African Commercial Enclave

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pp. 76-87

In 1766, as Cape Coast and its West African hinterland experienced a famine that entailed a six-fold increase in the price of corn, the free “natives . . . suffered severely.” However, slaves owned by British trading companies endured even worse misery, “afford[ing] the most piteous examples that can be conceived.” An unusually severe rainy season, accompanied by “violent gusts of wind,” followed...

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6. A Class Struggle in New York?

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pp. 88-98

In April 1689 news of the Glorious Revolution in Europe and the overthrow of the Dominion of New England in Boston reached New York City, prompting fears of a pro-Stuart backlash and a renewed war with the French and Indians to the north. Francis Nicholson, the province’s unpopular lieutenant governor, and his council...

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7. Middle-Class Formation in Eighteenth-Century North America

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pp. 99-108

The editorial board of Time Magazine has been selecting a “Man of the Year” since 1927; in 1969 it selected not an emblematic individual but a symbolic social group, whom it called “The Middle Americans.” The choice was an unusual one, yet the editorial board struggled less to justify the aptness of its selection than to describe who comprised this nebulous group. They were “defined as much by what...

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8. Business Friendships and Individualism in a Mercantile Class of Citizens in Charleston

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pp. 109-122

In 1809, Charles Machin was robbed by his business partner. Nearly destitute, lacking even a winter coat, Machin fell into a state of melancholy. While he was in this condition, his friend William Parker discovered him...

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9. Corporations and the Coalescence of an Elite Class in Philadelphia

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pp. 123-137

Nearly all the historical literature focusing on class struggles and negotiation has analyzed working class formation; that on the Atlantic World is no different. However, working people were not the only ones increasingly conscious of class. The chapters in this book by Konstantin Dierks, Susan Branson, and Jennifer Goloboy...

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10. Class, Discourse, and Industrialization in the New American Republic

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pp. 138-155

In the half century from the Revolutionary crisis to the 1820s, the conception of class by urban residents of the new nation underwent an important transformation. In the Revolutionary era, perhaps informed by philosophers such as David Hume, urban Americans frequently thought of class in terms of the three great economic...

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11. Sex and Other Middle-Class Pastimes in the Life of Ann Carson

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pp. 156-167

In 1816 a respectable, middle-class woman named Ann Baker Carson attempted to kidnap the governor of Pennsylvania. Why she performed such a daring deed is a tale of the nineteenth-century world turned upside down and inside out. Carson related...

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12. Leases and the Laboring Classes in Revolutionary America

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pp. 168-184

In April 1767, William Lowry leased approximately eighty unimproved acres for two lives, his life and that of his wife, Elizabeth, from Robert Livingston, Jr., the proprietor of Livingston Manor. He agreed to deliver annually a rent of twenty-five schepples of wheat, roughly fifteen bushels, and four “fatt hens” to the Livingstons’ “Mansion House.”

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13. Class and Capital Punishment in Early Urban North America

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pp. 185-197

In 1769, Dolly and Liverpoole were burned at the stake on the green in front of the Charleston workhouse. Dolly was convicted of poisoning her mistress’s child and attempting the same on her master. Liverpoole, a “negro doctor,” supplied the poison. Four years later, twenty-one-year-old Levi Ames, condemned for burglary, “was turned off just at four o’clock” in front of a “vast concourse of people...

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14. Class Stratification and Children’s Work in Post-Revolutionary Urban America

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pp. 198-212

Early in the 1790s, a fourteen-year-old servant named Benjamin Hannis recognized an opportunity to run away from his mistress, Catherine Keppele, and he took it. Benjamin was unlucky; he was recaptured, and authorities committed him to jail, no doubt regarding the circumstances as rather unremarkable. But Hannis’s case...

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15. Afterword: Constellations of Class in Early North America and the Atlantic World

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pp. 213-233

Does class matter? Legions of professional peers tell us that class— like God—is dead.1 So why insist that concepts of class and class struggle retain explanatory salience? Is it to advertise a commitment to writing the history “from below” of ordinary people, their quotidian adversities and occasional triumphs? That of itself requires no embrace...


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pp. 235-313

List of Contributors

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pp. 315-318


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pp. 319-326

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pp. 327-328

“All history,” proclaimed Friedrich Engels, “has been a history of class struggles between dominated classes at various stages of social development.” Engels, of course, was wrong; human history is much too complex and varied. Yet, his insight is powerful, and it has shaped the thinking of people for generations. None of the authors in this volume fully embraces Engels’s analysis, but all...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205565
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221237

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Early American Studies