- Class Matters: Early North America and the Atlantic World
Simon Middleton and Billy G. Smith have deeply enriched our knowledge of colonial workers, Middleton with his work on New York artisans and craftsmen and Smith with numerous publications considering the lives of Philadelphia’s “lower sort.” No idlers, Middleton and Smith have not been content to let their monographs nudge other historians to acknowledge and integrate class with their own work. Instead, from the hills of Sheffield, England, to the mountains of Montana, Middleton and Smith have set out like itinerant preachers to gather Early Americanists together under a revivalist’s tent to hear the glories and wonders of class analysis. They have organized conferences, edited special issues of journals, and now have brought forth this compilation of essays on class in early America. In short, Class Matters is the culmination of an ongoing effort by Smith and Middleton to make class, often disparaged during the past two decades as of little use, once again a relevant category of historical analysis.1 Does Class Matters further their cause? In a word, yes.
Middleton and Smith do not preach a single dogmatic approach to class analysis. Rather, they seek to encourage scores of different approaches, recognizing that the variety of early modern contexts makes a unified approach inapt. Their intent is reflected in the diversity and [End Page 168] scope of the essays in Class Matters. Applying a multitude of approaches, each of the collection’s authors agrees that socioeconomic inequality remains critical to understanding the lives of all those who lived in the Atlantic world during the transition from the early modern to the modern era. The essays are transnational, ranging across the Atlantic from Glasgow to West Africa, the West Indies, North American ports, and interior regions occupied by Native Americans and tenant farmers. The essays apply class analysis to the lives of diverse groups of peoples: women, Native Americans, slaves, laborers, the middle class, and the elite. The wide range of these writings reinforces the editors’ point that class analysis is applicable to all geographic regions and groups.
The collection’s opening section considers the dynamics of class relations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Daniel K. Richter’s chapter on Eastern Native America provides fresh insights concerning modes of stratification among peoples to whom class analysis is infrequently applied. Daniel R. Mandell explores the changing nature of race among Native Americans as increasing numbers of black and white seamen sought to create “alternative ways of life” by living with northern coastal tribes. Ty M. Reese’s consideration of Cape Coast laborers demonstrates the significant variations among the Atlantic working class as race and ethnicity often separated those whose economic status was similar. Natalie Zacek addresses class through an analysis of how changing imperial control of St. Kitts resulted in increased wealth for a few landowners. New York artisans are shown by Simon Middleton to have collaboratively asserted privileges to counteract elites who sought to use the growing English state in the seventeenth century to assert control of resources in the Americas. Readers will complete this section both with a better appreciation for the Atlantic proletariat, as well as the immense diversity among the region’s lower sorts.
Class Matters’ second section examines the growth of an American middle class in the era of the American Revolution and its articulation of corporate and industrial ideologies. Lawrence A. Peskin’s and Andrew M. Schocket’s essays on industrialization and the creation of an elite class in the early republic stress institution building to illuminate class concerns. In doing so, each provides a solid, meticulously researched analysis of class development. Konstantin Dierks and Susan Branson approach the formation of the middle class in the same era through analysis of technical literature and the memoir of a woman imprisoned for kidnapping Pennsylvania’s governor. Their essays demonstrate the middle [End Page 169] class’s increasing desire for a “purposeful economic and cultural life” (108) that was often...