- Social Change in America: From the Revolution Through the Civil War
Christopher Clark's Social Change in America is a wide-ranging survey of the social history of the United States from the late colonial period through Reconstruction. [End Page 486] Drawing richly on recent literature, Clark weaves extensive data into a broad and readable summary of current academic concerns and conclusions. Given its inclusionary objectives, the interpretive thrust of the book is modulated and even elusive, with more emphasis on process than pattern or persons, despite a nurturing sprinkling of illustrative quotations. To the profession's trinity of "class, race and gender," Clark adds stress on regional differences (half of the book centers on the conflict capped by Civil War), and on "elites" whose control of things is sometimes challenged. Less clear are the "new social structures" and "class relations" that Clark says developed in the period.
Clark also emphasizes the ties of households to labor in accord with his earlier monographic work, but here this is unconnected to any rise of capitalism or market revolution, or to any decline of a family-local non-accumulative mentalité. Clark evokes this idea largely in discussion of westward expansion. Missouri farmers, for example, allegedly favored "anti-development policies" to shield them from "the vagaries of the market place;" midwestern farming was sustained less "by its lucrativeness than by the... belief that it could provide comfort and security for farm families and their offspring." Clark uses the "household" idea mainly to contrast farmers and planters, with slaveholders going west "as a way of breaking with older family and emotional ties," while "family and kin" were the concern of non-slaveholders. Clark offers little evidence for this improbable contrast between money/family concerns in the two groups. The book's obfuscation of any temporal movement from concern for family to that for gain, always dependent more on scholarly enthusiasm than data, is a mark of Clark's fairness, but contributes to thematic vagueness.
The things that Clark leaves out reflect some limitations in recent social history. Politics is seldom mentioned beyond the theme that territorial/ developmental expansion was the major party divide. There's no mention of the intensity of political involvement, and little of political events like the Missouri Controversy, the gag rule, or bleeding Kansas in explaining the journey toward Civil War. The Wilmot Proviso is mentioned only to assert (wrongly) that it was intended to "sustain the integrity of the Missouri Compromise." More space is given to Francis Parkman's idiosyncratic notion that the Fugitive Slave Act was creating "a great union party" than to the widespread fury it unleashed in the North, intensified by the personalizing of Northern involvement at each well-known remanding.
Religion is mentioned in relation to individualism, the middle and working class, and abolition, but not as a defining element in people's lives or in its great variety of social and theological guises. Women are discussed in household and the work force, but not at Seneca Falls or on the lectern or in relation to the cooking stoves that changed domestic lives. Clark discusses at length regional variations in fertility decline but doesn't mention how deeply this altered women's lives. There is very little on invention or innovation, and no mention of government-organized efforts that created the early transportation system which developed a national market to supplement the long-established international one. The Erie Canal appears only as an example of how land values close to water appreciated. Newspapers and print culture and the telegraph or harvesters go unnoticed.
Clark's handling of wage workers offers some window onto the virtues and [End Page 487] limitations of his approach. He avoids the clichés of degradation and recognizes that wage-eaming came to be a respected livelihood. At the same time, he suggests worker haplessness. For example, we learn that "the prevalence of poverty helped assure employers access to labor" without resorting to legal compulsion. Wouldn't it be truer to say...