Effete Liberal Book Club, Cont.

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Commenter deathbypapers offered to write up a guest-post on historiography behind our book club pick. Some of this is in the notes, and historians in the group will be familiar. Still, I think it's a great frame. As a side note, this is all very eerie for me, as I failed Historiography at Howard. I did retake and pass, though. Anyway, some popular names will pop up here--Authur Schlesinger, Sean Wilentz...


At the risk of "burying the lede," allow me to introduce myself.  My name is John Rosinbum, and I am a third year PhD student at Arizona State University and occasional commenter (deathbypapers).  While my specialization is in the 20th century Americas (specifically the Central American Refugee Crisis), I was fortunate enough to participate in a graduate readings seminar that used What Hath God Wrought as its culminating text.  WHGW is an incredible book, and I look forward to our discussions.  

At the same time, it is the type of book that requires some historiographical context to be fully understood.  All historians stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, even though while standing they often try to trample (or reinterpret) those underneath.  Howe in WHGW is no exception.  Hopefully you will find the discussion below useful.  I will be lurking in the comments so feel free to offer critiques or ask me to elaborate.

For decades historians have believed that Jackson and his ilk were the most important figures of the era between the War of 1812 and the Great Compromise/Seneca Falls Convention.  Historians of this school include such luminaries as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Wilentz. For Schlesinger struggle between the lower classes made up of urban workers and small farmers against the upper class composed of factory owners and the landed gentry crystallized over the debate to extend the franchise.  The successful extension of the right-to-vote to non-propertied whites, coupled with the nation's territorial growth, made this an era chiefly characterized by expansion.

Wilentz's thesis is a bit more sophisticated than Schlesinger's.  Rather than placing the undifferentiated masses at the foundation of Jacksonian democracy, Wilentz highlights the role of highly skilled urban artisans.  Developed in Chants Democratic and further refined in The Rise of American Democracy, Wilentz argues that the artisans made up a highly self-conscious republican working class that fought the imposition of wage labor while simultaneously agitating for their right to vote.

In 1991 Charles Sellers published another compelling interpretation of the era appropriately titled The Market Revolution.  Originally intended to be an entry in the Oxford History Series, the series editor Charles V. Woodward rejected it due to its methodological complexity, weighty language and somewhat dubious assertions. Sellers' scathing analysis of the period argues that the onset and growth of market capitalism, rather than electoral or territorial expansion, characterized the period.  Using intense statistical analysis that has come under fire for both its methodology and selection, Sellers paints a dim portrait of the era.  As capitalism inexorably drew small farmers and artisans into the unfriendly confines of wage labor it destroyed everything from family farms to male libido.

Howe's magisterial synthesis is the latest attempt to understand the period.  Instead of Jacksonian Democrats or economic forces, Howe presents John Quincy Adams, Whigs and technological developments as the most important actors of the period.   Whereas Schlesinger and Wilentz look at political and territorial expansion, Howe is more interested in cultural and technological transformation.  Nor is capitalism a global force for evil, as it is in Sellers's account.  It prompts and funds the communication and transportation revolutions, which in turn decrease provincialism and give liberty the space to operate.  I won't get any further into Howe's argument, as we have many weeks to discuss it, but I wanted to make sure that we established the historiographical background before launching in.  I know I will be thinking about the tension between expansion and transformation. For those who are really interested in the topic I included a short list of books for further reading below. 


Religion:

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989).

Women/Gender:

Christine Stansell, City of Women:  Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (1986).

Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (1995).

Politics:

Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power: the Politics of Jacksonian America (1990).

Slavery:

Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999).

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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