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  • Christy Hyman

Traces of Social History in Selected Scholarly Works on Nineteenth Century America

Workers at a metallurgical factory, 1919. (Alamy / Marka)

It is no doubt that the study of the past has been enriched by social history. Historical studies focusing on social elements within history reveal human experiences that provide readers with the “main cultural components of life” transcending analyses of the past that were initially examined through the political formation of the nation-state which left out the masses.[2] In studying nineteenth century United States history, a number of themes continue to emerge in surveying current scholarship that underscore the influence of social history: an emphasis on history from below, the human factors figuring into continuity and change over time, and the examination of the quotidian and how everyday practices became the driving force behind what would become the fabric of American life. In sketching an analysis of nineteenth century historical monographs and the utilization of social history within those works it can be observed that social history has become an essential element of interpreting the history of nineteenth century America. Whether through narrative retellings or within historical syntheses social history has become an important unit of analysis for scholars of American history.

History from below draws on genealogies from Marxist frameworks that interpret the past through class conflict. To understand class conflict, one had to study the composition of those occupying not only privileged positions in society, but also those living on the razor’s edge of existence. And of course, such investigations include studying the range of social class in between rich and poor. Historians studying the United States in the nineteenth century are focusing on under-considered populations from the past through fascinating explorations.

Seth Rockman’s Scraping By explores the livelihoods of families performing unskilled labor in Baltimore during the early nineteenth century.[3] Investigating the history of people tasked with devalued, menial work is quintessentially history from below. Rockman is concerned with those living from hand-to-mouth because their labor “animated the cities of the United States in the decades following the American Revolution.”[4]

In telling the story of the chronically impoverished, Rockman reveals how their labor and efforts helped make the United States become, “arguably the most wealthy, free, and egalitarian society in the Western world.”[5] The backdrop of Rockman’s analysis is Baltimore, Maryland and it is, in Rockman’s view, the best place to reveal the peril and promise of the early American Republic. A boomtown with a population ranking third most populous in the new nation is the ideal place to examine class relations in the early republic. Following a Marxist framework that foregrounds the expansion of capitalism through the lives of working people, Scraping By reveals how laboring people operated within the early foundations of capitalism in an American city. Rockman’s workers “followed separate historical paths to proletarian status, crafted identities for themselves out of disparate materials and labored under vulnerabilities specific to their social positions” and in following those paths the book reveals the “commonalities of their experience of finding and keeping work, translating labor into subsistence and filling inevitable shortfalls through scrounging, scavenging, and scheming.”[6] In spite of these evolving methods of survival white workers would find that Baltimore employers “found new ways to hire and fire more workers at will, to deploy enslaved people as tractable workers and lucrative investment properties and seek women and children as workers” to manage profit margins for company benefit.

The emphasis on history from below is also prevalent in monographs written on the history of the enslaved community in the antebellum era. Noted historian of African American literature William L. Andrews has written that “the most popular and lasting African American literary contributions to the movement for freedom were the autobiographical narratives of American slaves.”[7] This distinction is undoubtedly true as slave narratives served as rich firsthand sources of the realities of plantation life while establishing a literary genre that inflamed antislavery sentiment during their time of publication. In a nation “divided politically and geographically by the institution of slavery, narratives of enslavement possessed a unique rhetorical status as witness participants” for interested audiences.[8] In spite of this special authority, early historians of slavery and the Civil War ignored slave narratives as documentary sources.

In The Slave Community, historian John Blassingame tells us that the majority of historians refused to accept the slave narratives as true testimony because enslaved people were aided by abolitionist editors or amanuenses. Yet those historians who refused to acknowledge the veracity of the American slave narratives had never bothered to read them.[9]

Ulrich B. Phillips, speaking in 1929 expressed the prevailing historiographical consensus regarding slave narratives by declaring that “ex-slave narratives in general…were issued with so much abolitionist editing that as a class their authenticity is doubtful.”[10]

Phillips had a profound influence in the early twentieth century as the “undisputed” special authority on the history of slavery.”[11] Phillips’ upbringing was one that helped to cultivate in him a high regard for the planter class of the old south.[12] To this end his interpretation of American slavery mirrored the tenets of the Lost Cause tradition-one in which enslaved people are painted as “happy darkies” that benefitted from the institution of slavery. Such an interpretation reduces black people to a racial stereotype devoid of agency and autonomy. Implicit in Phillips’ assertion that slave narratives lacked authority was that enslaved people were incapable of authoring their experiences truthfully, even if dictated to an amanuensis. Phillips’ assertion can be seen as symptomatic of the prevailing racial beliefs of his day. John Blassingame was able to write The Slave Community which helped change the course of slavery historiography by highlighting the experiences of enslaved people to speak for the historical record on a critical level. Blassingame wrote:

“By concentrating solely on the planter, historians have in effect been listening to only one side of a complicated debate. The distorted view of the plantation which emerges from the planter records is that of an all-powerful, monolithic institution which strips the slave of any meaningful and distinctive culture…”[13]

Blassingame revolutionizes the historical canon by utilizing enslaved people’s testimony to understand the history of slavery. The book is a pathbreaking study that provides a basis for understanding enslaved people’s response to plantation life. Blassingame consults a broad range of sources from American Slave Narratives to plantation journals to articles on psychological theory. This pivotal study exemplified a triumph on Blassingame’s part as he undoubtedly persisted during a time where the historical establishment was resistant to incorporating the testimony of black voices.[14] In this battle, social history helped usher in a new way of documenting and interpreting the history of slavery through considering the testimony of enslaved people.

History from below has also been incorporated into studies on gender and social institutions in the nineteenth century. Nancy Cott’s Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation examines the meaning of individualism in social communities through the history of marriage in the United States and its role in shaping society. Through discussing the laws governing the sanctity of marriage, Cott builds a social history that stems from how an institution orders people’s lives and thus shapes the acceptable patterns of intimacy in the United States. Cott reveals, “there was an incentive…because prevailing marriage patterns were seen as evidence of national character.[15] Cott writes:

“Legislators paid attention to other states’ actions on marriage and divorce; judges on state supreme courts looked to their brethren on the bench in other states, and cited their opinions as well as the U.S. Supreme Court when making decisions. Where states did disagree sharp contentions might arise, and intolerable ambiguity for individuals, since marital status fundamentally conditioned an individual’s civic persona.”[16]

Here Cott provides the role marriage played in a codifying the societal dictates of marriage. The text examines the racial politics of marriage in the United States, citing instances where the gradual limitation on intermarriage between people of color and people of Euro-American descent became more pronounced. These constraints played an important role in the structuring of society and could be considered a safeguard against what later white supremacists termed “amalgamation” of United States society. In the nineteenth century, racial purity, social decorum and marriage were bound together in shaping the civic character of American society, and analyzing the relations of those elements is a necessary element of the social history of marriage.

Social history has also been incorporated into synthetic investigations of the nineteenth century United States. When thinking of works categorized as historical synthesis [those studies that show the continuity and rupture of process and systems over time], readers do not envision that they will read studies foregrounding the past “from the ground up.” Charles Sellers's The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America 1815-1846 uses social history to animate the people and events that explain what he calls the “triumph of capitalism in antebellum America.”[17] Sellers acknowledges that politics lay at the center of what would end up shaping America’s economic and social order, however, Sellers is adamant that the political struggles taking place in the early national era were rooted in class conflict.

For Sellers the two social groups most at odds were those of the capitalist seaboard cities and those still invested in the subsistence culture across the various frontiers of the American landscape. That “subsistence culture” typifying the day to day of the frontier farmer did not align with the merchant class, and Sellars explains the evolution of political parties in the early national era as responding to the needs of both factions. What Sellers calls a “political insurgency” was in actuality a class-based coalition of men on opposing sides, white men who rallied behind the political parties that represented their needs and sought to advance their interests.

Adam Rothman’s Slave Country is another historical synthesis that uses social history to explain continuity and change over time in the antebellum United States. Rothman’s work connects the social dimensions of the political, military, religious, and Native American plight to reveal the social machinery that lead to the expansion of slavery. In Rothman’s work, the interests of planters take center stage. Rothman writes:

“Slavery was a social reality for millions of people, an important economic institution, and a basic metaphor of power in the prevailing rhetoric of politics that emerged from the Revolution. The entangling of freedom and slavery in the early national era was revealed in the popular claim among slavery’s defenders that the legacy of the American Revolution included the right to own black people as slaves, and that government sponsored abolition was a despotic infringement of individual liberty.”[18]

Here, Rothman provides a class based solidarity rooted in a belief system that assured that property ownership of chattel was a hallmark of American freedom and that right was part of what made Americans free people. The metaphor of a slave as it related to white men of property was one that not only demonstrated their right to property, but also distinguished white people from ever being ascribed to servitude of any kind. Enslaved people were seen and treated as property, slavery was race-based and racialized and black people were doomed to become a classless, wageless, inconsequential group within the American landscape. The dispossession and expropriation of Native ancestral lands preceding the expansion of the American frontier created the possibilities for slaveholders and settlers solidifying the differences race made in the early republic.

The use of social history within historical syntheses has become an essential element in transforming studies centered in topical, conceptual data into narratives of human struggle and promise. It reveals how social history continues to enrich historical syntheses as well as bring into sharper relief the role of humans as agents of change.

The work being done on nineteenth century social history is expansive and inspires incoming scholars to find new ways of engaging the past through explorations into society.

In the future, however, scholars should take care to reassess the limitations of documentary evidence on the interpretation of the past. The focus on cities and formations of towns are important as they demand scholars to look beyond what is considered a source of evidence or a text and allows the town, the city, the landscape to become a text in itself. Examining the human connection to spaces of every kind, whether in cores or peripheries, will undoubtedly provide new ways of understanding society and its constraints. The future of social history asks that scholars continue exploring the social relationships embedded in the construction of space with an eye to the ways those locales promote or impede human potential.

[1] Timothy R. Mahoney, From Hometown to Battlefield in the Civil War Era Middle Class Life in Midwest America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016,12

[2] Timothy R. Mahoney, From Hometown to Battlefield in the Civil War Era Middle Class Life in Midwest America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[3] Seth Rockman, Scraping by: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

[4] Ibid, 1.

[5] Ibid, 2.

[6] Ibid, 3.

[7] William L. Andrews, North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2005),

[8]Charles J. Heglar, Rethinking the Slave Narrative: Domestic Concerns in Henry Bibb and William and Ellen Craft (1996), 9.

[9] John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford, 1981), 234.

[10] Charles J. Heglar, Rethinking the Slave Narrative: Domestic Concerns in Henry Bibb and William and Ellen Craft (1996), 13.

[11] In Slavery a Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life Stanley Elkins wrote that Phillip’s influence emphasized the “genial view of the institution. Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. 2d Ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 9-15

[12] ibid.

[13] John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford, 1981), i.

[14] Jessica Marie Johnson, remarks made at “Black New Orleans: John Blassingame's Classic and New Directions on the City's Early African American History," a public panel of historians celebrating the legacy of Blassingame and the future of African American History in New Orleans. Friday April 7, 2017

[15] Nancy Cott, Public Vows: a History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2002

[16] Ibid, loc 326.

[17] Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[18] Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

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