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  • Comment on the Symposium on Class in the Early Republic
  • Christopher Clark, professor of history

American Revolution, class, cultural capital, elites, identity, middle class, social inequality, wealth, working class

In one sense historians' recent disengagement from addressing concepts of class has been puzzling. The "cultural turn" and its consequent emphasis on identities would seem to have been as important an occasion for historians of America to explore the complexities of class as it has been for some (including American) historians of Europe. But in other respects the relative dormancy of class in historical analysis has been understandable. The cultural turn entailed deflections from certain types of politics and structural themes, while an emphasis on the identity politics of recognizable, formerly disregarded groups left little place for class. Class is a peculiarly subtle and elusive concept. Postmodern scholarship has shown us that even the markers of gender, race, and other apparently "commonsense" forms of identity are social constructs, whose character and boundaries turn out to be more uncertain than was once assumed. Accordingly, the markers of class, which were never very secure even in a commonsense view, came to seem still less amenable to certain identification.

Yet early Americans never did without notions of class, or systems of social identification and distinction that would fall within its purview.1 Seth Rockman, Jennifer L. Goloboy, and Andrew M. Schocket are all to be congratulated for their success in helping bring the issue of class back to the attention of historians of the early republic. Between them they address several of the many dimensions of class. Rockman returns us to the "new social history's" concern with working-class history, but with [End Page 557] a focus upon material circumstances and the structures of inequality rather than on consciousness and identity. This approach is all the more welcome in the light of recent works suggesting that historians had underestimated the scale of poverty in early America.2 Such insights place Jennifer Goloboy's approach to the cultural dimensions of class, and particularly to the formation of a middle class, in useful perspective. As Goloboy notes, Americans have been accustomed to regarding themselves as "middle class" and their society as classless. She sheds light on the experiences and values that structured individuals' class identities and consciousness and notes that the "middle class" was not a universal or residual category, but something composed of purposive components of personal identity, and of self-fashioning. Schocket, finally, by focusing on elites, brings to our attention some of the multiple characteristics of class, and the many senses in which both contemporaries and historians might employ it as an index of social differentiation and consciousness.

What can "class" be? As Rockman, Goloboy, and Schocket remind us, it is in broadest terms concerned with the channeling of access to sources of wealth, or power, or both. Analyses of class in the Marxian tradition associated class with ownership of the means of production and by extension to individuals' standing in the labor market and the world of work. Given dominant social customs relating to property ownership, and nineteenth-century family ideals, most discussions of class and class identity focused on male workers who could be classified by their occupational group or property holdings. But eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century commentators had different senses of the meaning of "class," as related to standing or position within a social system that displayed the results of differential access to sources of wealth and power. More recently, the cultural turn has redirected our attention to the signifiers of social distinction within systems that may or may not be self-referential. Social standing may be indicated in terms lying outside, or beneath, the activities of a particular social grouping, or may be contingent upon criteria not generated by external material or political "bases."3 [End Page 558]

These different approaches to class help us to understand its roles within the conceptual frameworks employed by early Americans and to grasp the legacy of their understanding for subsequent generations of inhabitants of the United States. During and after the Revolution, concepts of class were associated with concepts of a social order whose primary determinants were kinship and...


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pp. 557-564
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