- Workshop of Revolution: Plebeian Buenos Aires and the Atlantic World, 1776-1810 by Lyman L. Johnson
Over the past decade, historians have drawn attention to the role of non-elites in the making of the Atlantic world societies. It is no longer plausible to argue, as R.R. Palmer once did, that revolutionary elites were the handmaidens of social change, or that recalcitrant magnates stood in the way. Gone is the old dichotomy of aristocrats versus democrats. What has taken its place is a new divide, increasingly marked by the emphasis on slave diasporas in which the struggle for freedom pits slaves against masters, a struggle blown open by the breakdown in imperial monarchies. This is a helpful corrective to the conventional top-down narrative. But the shift frequently assumes that the upheaval is inevitable and that new world societies are made up of either free or unfree peoples.
Lyman Johnson’s long-awaited book shows us how urban workers coped with and contributed to the breakdown of imperial authority and illuminates the messy grey zone of social structures in an emerging port city. The world of bricklayers and bakers, cobblers and carpenters is his concern. The site is Buenos Aires, the capital of a new viceroyalty and a city quickly filling up with royal officials, merchants, and soldiers—as well as slaves and their progeny. Opportunities and risks abounded on this edge of the industrial revolution as European demand for hides and primary products from the hinterland meant artisans could make shoes and kitchenware for growing numbers of consumers. But they also had to contend with the advent of cheaper, imported manufactures from Britain. Buenos Aires [End Page 791] and its plebeians experienced the crossroads and tensions of the shifting Atlantic system. Johnson captures this great fluidity and the stresses it placed on a group otherwise organized around traditions of paternalistic apprenticeship and corporate strategies for coping with market risks.
Johnson’s findings are first that artisans struggled to create mechanisms to handle the blows of market life through guilds. But they failed for multiple reasons, most of them to do with internal heterogeneity and state hostility. The failure to secure support from viceroys and courts meant that imperial rulers deprived themselves of popular backing when times got tough. So, when the opportunity arose, artisans flocked to political leaders promising a new order. By no means was this an automatic process. Indeed, Johnson goes through painstaking detail over the struggle to make artisanal guilds and the labyrinthine legal battles (which are, it must be confessed, not always easy to follow) to get legal statutes. Nor was the artisanal class of a piece, and Johnson indexes the variety of institutional and market responses. Different trades required different skills, which affected internal compositions and bargaining power. To make some sense of the spectrum, he concentrates on silversmiths who were more privileged and shoemakers who were not. But the destiny is, more or less, the same.
The second major argument is about the complexity of co-dependent relationships, one that challenges simplifying dichotomies of free versus unfree workers. Artisans depended on the state for their legal powers to control the influx of new tradesmen; they also depended on the state to keep out cheap manufactures. At the same time, master craftsmen needed an elaborate hierarchy of apprentices and journeymen to enjoy their status at the top of the plebeian heap, while those at the bottom needed to curry favor with their superiors to get a chance to climb up. Artisans availed themselves of slaves and frequently worked alongside them to cheapen the cost of journeymen. The entire system was suffused with co-dependent relationships just as the winds of the Atlantic world were blowing in favor of contracts and global competition. So it was that artisans had to grapple with emerging markets. They were swamped by waves of new arrivals from Europe and Africa. This put pressure on traditions of artisanal training, apprenticeship and reproduction. The...