- Moral Visions and Material Ambitions: Philadelphia Struggles to Define the Republic, 1776-1836
A. Kristen Foster provides a useful, brief study of the political and social ideas of Philadelphians who labored to achieve material success in an era of early industrialization. The book is mainly focused on white male Philadelphians and how their material ambitions influenced their changing [End Page 498] views of political economy and community responsibilities. One chapter deals with how women and black Philadelphians entered the picture. In this chapter, women are treated only cursorily in the first third of the nineteenth century, with little attention to how women's work changed in the era of early industrialization and how such changes affected attitudes of laboring women toward the republican ideology of those above them. Similarly, black Philadelphians are treated mostly in the 1790s, with few insights to be derived from the two pages covering the period from 1800 to 1836.
Foster recapitulates and refines the work of Ronald Schultz, Steven Rosswurm, Eric Foner, and other Philadelphia historians of the revolutionary and postrevolutionary period who have studied how ambitious craftsmen, shopkeepers, and would-be merchants tried to position themselves ideologically so as to reconcile their entrepreneurial ambitions with the revolutionary dream of creating a more equitable and democratic society. The core of this book argues that the advance of the free market economy after the Revolution pulled ambitious people toward more individualistic rather than community-minded behavior, pushed "middle-class radicalism . . . to the city's political periphery" (133–36), and ensured the triumph of "the moderate republic." Foster's book refines but does not sharply change our understanding of Philadelphia politics and laboring-class political allegiances as explored a decade ago in Schultz's Republic of Labor: Philadelphia Artisans and the Politics of Class, 1720–1830 (1993). It is notable that she takes no account of the writings and public positions of Tench Coxe and Pelatiah Webster, the main political economists of the era with whom Foster's subjects had to reckon as they steered their own course on social and economic relations.
To nail down her governing thesis that the movement toward the politics of moderation and the ascendancy of "the moderate republic" best characterize the period from 1800 to 1836, Foster dwells on what she contends is the triumph of privately organized benevolence over public remedies to economic injustice. There is something to be said for this idea. But a brief look at the men who made up such private charitable institutions as the Philadelphia Society for the Establishment and Support of Charity Schools—they turn out to be successful artisans, shopkeepers, and small merchants—is no substitute for deep analysis of how this private benevolence intersected with public relief and how public relief provisions changed over half a century. The most important insights [End Page 499] to these changes can be derived from examining how the city responded to the wrenching economic crises of 1816–1822 and 1837–1842. Foster takes no notice of the first deep depression that followed the War of 1812 and halts her study on the eve of the second deep depression. Using the work of Susan Klepp, Simon Newman, David Lehman, Monique Bourque, and Priscilla Clement would have led to a more complex analysis of relief of the poor.
Gary Nash is a professor of history at UCLA. His The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America will be published by Viking/Penguin in mid-2005.