In 1819, John Melish wrote a book aimed at anyone contemplating moving to the United States. "In no country in the world," Melish proclaimed, [End Page 539] "is labour so well paid, or labourers so much respected in the United States" (29). Perhaps, but as Seth Rockman persuasively shows in this scrupulously researched and impassioned book, laboring life in the early republic was rarely rewarding. If anything it was brutal and unpleasant, with all of life's energies dedicated to "scraping by."
Rockman is not alone in covering this historiographical terrain: In recent years, labor historians have moved beyond an older preoccupation with skilled male artisans, expanding the definition of "worker" to encompass everyone from laundresses to prostitutes to canal diggers. But Rockman is not interested in the travails of a single occupation, much less the particular burdens born by women, African Americans, or any single ethnic or religious group. Rather, his aim is to consider "the full range of workers whose labor was for sale in the early republic city," with a particular emphasis on those "unskilled" workers whose labor underwrote the expansion of economic opportunity for others (11).
Baltimore is the backdrop of Rockman's study, and he makes a compelling case for its relevance as the archetypical capitalist boom town of the early republic. But Baltimore affords another intriguing vantage point on labor in the new nation: It was home to numerous free blacks, slaves (many of them "leased" to other employers) and so-called "term slaves" whose enslavement could end after a set number of years. All of these African Americans worked alongside native and foreign-born whites at the difficult, dirty jobs that are the focus of this study. While white workers often petitioned to ban blacks from certain kinds of work, Rockman persuasively shows that employers, however racist and reactionary they might have been, invariably "resisted the opportunity to narrow the range of workers at their disposal," and deliberately sought to cultivate a diverse and deep labor pool (41).
Rockman examines a host of workplaces. In one remarkable chapter, he uses the payroll records from a bridge-building project to reconstruct the lives of a mixed-race work force, blending archival research and careful conjecture to capture the realities of the job. An equally compelling chapter uses hundreds of payrolls to detail the Sisyphean labor of workers on the "Mudmachine"—the floating dredging apparatus that kept Baltimore's harbor from filling with silt. "The work was grueling, filthy, and unsuited to the virtuous habits of republican artisans," Rockman wryly observes. "Without it, however, Baltimore's commercial prosperity would have ceased" (76). This is recurrent argument of the book: However dirty, disgusting, and unskilled, the labor performed by the [End Page 540] workers he profiles was not only important but indispensable to the coming of capitalism.
Whether it was central to the formation of working-class consciousness is another matter. Rockman recognizes that the low-end workers did not make common cause against their employers, however much time they spent together digging ditches and shoveling mud. But he does make a compelling argument that class consciousness was less about affinity than a common experience of drudgery and deprivation. "For the workers portrayed in this book," he writes, "class experience was waiting every February for the harbor to thaw so that low-end jobs might resume. Class consciousness was knowing the proper pose of deference to get hired. Class struggle was trying to meet the rent and scavenging for firewood to stay warm during winter" (11). Strikes, unions, and sites of conventional class struggle don't play a starring role here. Rather, it is the quotidian struggles of poor people that take center stage.
This focus poses tremendous challenges for any historian: It's hard enough to research the lives of skilled workers, but Rockman's toilers are particularly elusive. Fortunately, he found a host of sources, including the rich and otherwise untapped municipal archives of Baltimore. In what must have been...