Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and The Rise of the American Working Class, 1788 – 1850, 1984

Published in 1984, Amy Bridges’ A City in the Republic and Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic each explore the creation of a working class consciousness in the political life of antebellum New York. However, though the works overlap and draw similar conclusions regarding several aspects of eighteenth century New York, they do so from different vantage points.

Chants Democratic asserts that beginning with the market and transportation revolutions of the 1800s (notably the completion of the Erie Canal which helped to cement New York’s position as one of the premier manufacturing centers in the world) altered the relationships between journeymen and master craftsmen. New York’s unique blend of small scale but intensive and proliferating industry, provided a employment for a wide variety of crafts, each with its own interests. By the 1820s, many masters had begun subdividing labor, meaning they were farming labor out for homework or separate craftsmen. This violated the artisanal craft structure. If masters no longer took on apprentices and journey men then fewer journeymen could become masters. Even small masters struggled to keep up with the changing economy, as evidenced by their pervasive propertylessness. Larger masters embraced, gradually, the laissez faire entrepreneurial opportunities of the time slowly turning away from their previous close relations to craftsmen. Economic changes that lowered wages encouraging journeymen to lodge complaints. The gap widened between the two groups until nearly all connections severed under the heat of trade unionism in the 1830s and later 1850s.

A key aspect to craftsmen and masters identity resided in their definitions of republicanism or as Wilentz labels it, “artisanal republicanism”. Despite widespread occupational differences and interests, many journeyman found an unifying identity in their definition of republicanism, “an urban variation of the Jeffersonian social theme of the virtuous husbandman emerged, one that fused craft pride and resentment of deference and fear of dependence into a republican celebration of the trades …. The crafts themselves reputedly respected individual abilities but also stressed mutuality and cooperation. “ (94) By 1825, “the craftsmen would insist on their equal rights and exercise their citizenship with a view to preserving the rule of virtue as well as to protecting their collective interests against an eminently corruptible mercantile and financial elite. This fusion of independent liberties and personal sovereignty with social and corporate responsibilities – very akin to what others have called “collective individualism” the core of early American political thought – remained in uneasy and increasingly contradictory relation to the bourgeois tendencies of artisan thinking and to the inescapable fact that with the expansion of the craft economy and the transformation of labor relations, some craftsmen would never escape dependence on their masters and the wage.” (103) However, though this political belief or identity provided some sense of unity, the diversity of occupations/crafts made organizing difficult. Moreover, division within the trade as late as the early 1830s were not always self evident. The presence of small masters both among the larger entrepreneurial class and those that identified with journeymen serves as only one example of the ambiguity in which the the trades found themselves . The Working Men’s Movement provided a short lived venue through which craftsmen and radicals could unite. Greatly affecting the 1829 elections, the Working Men’s Movement formalized into the Workingmen’s Party, however, its formation actually alienated most craftsmen from the organization as Owenites and others successfully took over the organization, marginalizing many of the trade unionists who had been central figures in the movement. Still, the movement articulated a belief that Masters and their entrepreneurial spirit threatened the republic. As a popular movement, it briefly enabled craftsmen of various backgrounds to cull a coherent rhetoric of republicanism while resisting the economic and political changes endorsed by the “city masters”. The General Trade Union (GTU) followed. Like the Workingmen’s Movement, it too failed, however, it organized strikes and the local unions while bridging wide ideological positions among craftsmen. Part of its central importance stems from the idea that its “attacks on exploitation at the work place” established a working class (instead of “artisanal” or “producerist”) political economy that theorists such as Ira Steward later elaborated on and expanded. As Wilentz notes, “It is no exaggeration to consider the emergence of the GTU and its counterparts elsewhere to be the birth of nineteenth century American working class radicalism in almost all of its forms other the Marxism.” (254) Though Wilentz also cautions that numerous other unions emerged at the same time with each affecting the others, such that “each by turn shaped the progress and meaning of the journeymen’s revolt.” (254) Similarly, craft masters did not sit idly by. They also formulated their own republicanism, “the tumults that accompanied the rise of the GTU, the masters’ views on wage labor and the harmony of interests in the trades also sharpened their entrepreneurial republicanism in response to the unionists’ class consciousness. … New York’s craft employers and their allies began to proclaim what labor historians would call an “ideology of free labor”.” (271) Unfortunately, this ideology refused to acknowledge exploitation or the inequalities of opportunity. A bourgeoisie outlook in nature, many masters developed their own class consciousness within the confines of bourgeoisie society.

The rise of temperance movements and nativism also impacted working class consciousness. It also provided a cultural dimension to the schism between employers and craftsmen. Temperance found wide support among the city masters if only because many believed it would improve production and work rates. Working men saw this as an intrusion on their rights of self possession, drinking served not only as a cultural aspect of craftsmen’s lives but also part their individual independence. However, the Washingtonian Temperance movement enjoyed success among workers as it rejected religiousity favoring a non religious approach that also gave women key roles, “even more than the middle class evangelical temperance groups, the Washingtonians encouraged women in craft workers’ and labors’ households to help their men sober up. Women were largely responsible for coordinating the Washingtoninans’ charity work … It was the first time that females had their own formal sphere within a temperance cause, and the first successful attempt to base temperance reform among the lower classes with an appeal to the preservation of harmonious families. The plebian cult of domesticity had found its own movement.” (310-11) Criticized for its lack of religiousity and its attempt to build a “replica of the Bowery republic, minus drink.” (310) As nativism grew in popularity, many craftsmen gravitated toward its tenets. None of the city’s political parties identified with any particular class. Nativists easily occupied this space. With the influx of Irish and German immigrants into the city, native born craftsmen needed little prodding in adopting less than gracious attitudes toward newcomers. While many historians have presented Nativism and the Washingtonian movements as irrational responses to anxiety, Wilentz argues each reacted to real fears concerning dependence, a key aspect of artisanal republicanism and class consciousness.

Though the Panic of 1837 undermined the efforts on unions and journeymen, trade unionism continued as it persisted as an underground entity. Moreover, individuals such as Mike Walsh continued to advocate for workingmen though his own efficacy was undermined after he had been coopted by Southern democrats in Congress. Protective unions and benefit associations emerged as well to support craftsmen and others. Additionally, German and Irish immigrants founded their own organizations to represent their views. If some craftsmen remained nativists, they couched their nativist arguments in which immigrant restrictions centered not on cultural differences but as a way to limit “capitalistic greed and underpayment”. By the 1850s, trade union activism no longer provided the only sharp criticism of the status quo. Rather the growth of the land reform, notably through the NRA (some label it a form of petit bourgeoisie radicalism but also helped labor activism) which kept alive a network of radical trade unionists. Though women often emerge as secondary figures in Chants Democratic, Wilentz does note that the trade unions ignored women labor or decried it as demeaning. Still, militant female labor activists did surface in the same period as well. Ultimately, Wilentz argues that by 1850 the city’s population was riven by class, a divide that continued well after the Civil War.

“This book is concerned with the reordering of the antebellum city, the relationship between the city’s social and political transformations, and the creation of machine politics as the American way of city government.” Amy Bridges begins her seminal work A City in the Republic: Antebellum New York and the Origins of Machine Politics with this intent in mind. For Bridges, changes in municipal government were not isolated from the national scene but rather reflected similar developments [Einhorn makes a similar argument when discussing Chicago’s segmented system of the 1800s. ie. It reflected the “strict constructionism” of the day] Pushing back against earlier conclusions regarding urban government, Bridges identifies three tropes that she finds questionable. First ,ethnicity in the Antebellum age mattered less than historians have argued [wilentz might agree with this in the sense that by the 1850s it had been reduced somewhat as evidenced by the importance of Irish and German immigrants participation in 1850 strikes/ he might also disagree since he went to great lengths to illustrate the nativism that affected many journeymen and the labor movement itself]. Second, often historians conflate the development of machine politics with the arrival of immigrants. Bridges suggests that the origins of machine politics began earlier, “to understand the institutional arrangements we associate with machine politics, we must look further back in American urban history that the arrival of the immigrants or the ascent of the Irish to political power.” (5) [add to this her point that “personal loyalty/personal deference, aspects of machine politics began well before among patrician leadership”]. Finally, machine politics itself formed out of historical context the result of “inheritance and transformation, compromise, inadvertence, and conflict.” (5) Therefore, historians have failed to weigh on the contending or countervailing forces at work. In this way, Bridges argues machine politics did not institutionalize “a particular set of values”.

Like Wilentz, Bridges identifies the broad economic changes of antebellum New York City that helped to create the foundation for machine politics. For example, Bridges too notes the growing hostility between masters and journeymen, employers and employee, however she also explores the effects of the upper classes retreat from public life. The proliferation of city agencies and the professionalization of the police and fire departments gradually removed authority from the city’s upper classes. Volunteer fire departments once featured relative class diversity, but prior to their professionalization, they had become predominantly working class [wilentz notes this as well]. Other aspects of public life endured similar shifts, enabling the political class to build power. As Bridges notes, recipients of local aid probably cared little if support came from wealthy patricians or ward heelers, “In sum the career politician began where the patrician left off. The friendship for the poor and the workingman that was a hallmark of the persona of the boss was part of the career politician from the beginning.” (74) Moreover, the local artisanal association, community groups, and other smaller organizations created the foundation for ward politics, though the ward already served as the city’s primary political unit.

If Wilentz illustrates that the occupational diversity of craftsmen hindered attempts at political unity, Bridgs reminds the readers that even “professionals” such as lawyer George Templeton Strong did not necessarily identify with their fellow attorney’s. Class divisions remained. Working men advocates such as the infamous Mike Walsh preceeded bosses and the machine system, contributing to its scaffolding. One of Bridges key insights, which she expands upon later in Morning Glories, remains that “reformers” or good government types often wanted to reshape government because they feared/hated the immigrant hordes.

Criticisms – neither Wilentz nor Bridges address gender in any great detail, although Wilentz does mention it in numerous places… still, he fails to really delve into such issues.

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