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Mobility and Class

Mobility and Class


Land of Opportunity. Americans often seemed driven by competition and the desire for profit, characterized by Washington Irving in 1836 as the pursuit of the almighty dollar. they believed fervently in the self-made man (a phrase coined in the 1830s) who rose from poverty through initiative and hard work. Abraham Lincoln, a prominent example of this creed of economic mobility, summed up the prevailing philosophy in one sentence:"The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, Yet historians still debate how closely the rhetoric of economic mobility conformed to reality. The evidence supports various conclusions. Between 1820 and 1860, for example, approximately 15 percent of Philadelphias working population improved either their occupational status(for example, from apprentice to master), income, or wealth, yet an equal number slid lower on the economic scale. Per-capita income doubled in that forty-year span, but the increase in large industrial and mercantile firms meant that a smaller percentage of the workforce attained the traditional goal of becoming an independent proprietor or farmer. Big businesses created new demand for white-collar workers such as managers and clerks and for engineers with the specialized skills needed for new industries, but these jobs did not always lead to economic independence. By 1850 an unprecedentedly large minority of the national workforce could expect to spend their lives working for someone else, and the prospects for achieving wealth were slim indeed. Of these Americans who qualified as rich, fully 90percent started out in wealthy families, and only 2 percent began life in the ranks of the poor.

Responsibility. Most Americans were unwilling to accept the possibility that the United States had developed a permanent wage-earning class. Like many of his contemporaries, Lincoln considered such wage dependency a symptom of individual failure rather than a fault of the system. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, according to Lincoln, it was because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune. Others dropped even the possibility of misfortune, claiming that no oppression of the laborer occurred here which it is not in his power to remedy, or which does not come from his own inefficiency and lack of enterprise. Some, like Orestes Brownson, challenged these assumptions; Brownson claimed that new wage system was creating a society in which one half of the human race must forever be the virtual slaves of another, thus destroying American republicanism. The only way to get rid of its evils, he continued, is to change the system, not its managers.


Not all African Americans worked as slaves on Southern cotton plantations in antebellum America. On the eve of the Civil War about 226000 free blacks lived in the North and about 260000 in the South. One of the most remarkable of these was William Johnson of Natchez, Mississippi, who recorded his activities in a diary from 1835 until his death in 1851. Freed by his owner and the Mississippi legislature in 1830, Johnson learned the barbers trade by apprenticing under his brother-in-law James Miller. Free blacks dominated the barbering trade in several Southern cities, and Natchez was no exception. In 1830 Johnson inherited from Miller the most prosperous barbershop in one of the richest. communities in the nation. Prominent planters frequented Johnsons shop, and soon he was pulling in about twenty dollars a day, enough to buy the building for three thousand dollars in 1833 and take a three-month vacation to New Orleans and New York in the same year. By 1850 Johnsons main shop boasted six barber chairs (manned by free black assistants he had trained himself), two sofas four mirrors, and thirdy-one framed pictures along with a full assortment of hair oils like lavender water, bay rum, and rectified bears oil, the most common mens dressing. Johnson invested in various commercial properties, and by the time of this death in 1851, he had amassed an estate valued at approximately twenty-five thousand dollars, including fifteen slaves.

Source: William Ransom Hogan and Edwing Adams Davis, eds., William Johnsons Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951).

Go West. Those who stressed the opportunity offered by the American system proclaimed that if all else failed, workers should take the advice of New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley and go west to start life over again on the frontier. Go straight into the countrygo at once, Greeley thundered, to the public lands that served as the great regulator of Labor and Capital, the safety valve of our industrial and social engine. Western settlement, it was thought, would draw off discontented and unemployed wage earners from the East, thereby curbing the impetus for strikes, reducing class conflict, and ultimately improving living conditions and wages for the remaining workforce. In the long term this optimistic assessment proved wrong as labor conflict in the East increased rather than diminished despite rapid Western settlement in the post-Civil War era, in part because the poorest, most discontented workers rarely had the resources to travel west. In the short term, however, the frontier did indeed seem to be a place where Americans could achieve the traditional ideal of Jeffersonian self sufficiency and economic independence. Evidence suggests that in the Old Northwest most migrants were achieving the goal of independence, working for themselves on their own farms.

Northern Cities. In 1800 or even 1820 urban areas looked much like the rest of the North, with a narrow band of rich and poor sandwiching a broad spectrum of what was termed the middling sort, a large group of artisans and small merchants who, though not wealthy could claim some property and a large degree of autonomy. This changed over time: where the wealthiest 10 percent in Boston owned about 50 percent of the citys real estate and personal property in 1771, by 1848 more than 60 percent of the citys assets were owned by the upper 4 percent of the wealth. Disparities in wealth began to manifest themselves in neighborhood organization as well; as early as 1828 in New York more than half of the citys wealthiest 500 families lived on only 8 of the citys 250 streets, and in Boston they lived on only 8 streets out of 325. Affluent neighborhoods contrasted sharply with nearby slums, causing wealthy New Yorker Philip Hone to worry about the potential for class conflict in a society where the two extremes of costly luxury in living, expensive establishments, and improvident waste are presented in daily and hourly contrast with squalid misery and hopeless destitution.

Conflict. Class conflict flared regularly. In1835 a fire destroyed several fine houses in Hones neighborhood, and within a short time a mob descended on the scene and began consuming as much champagne and wine as they could pillage from the cellars of the ruined homes. Genteel New Yorkers took to carrying revolvers to protect themselves. But rather than being directed at the rich, most urban violence occurred within poor communities, and even in the midst of the dire economic depression that followed Panic of 1837, when urban unemployment reached 50 percent at times, no general working class ever ignited in America as it did in Paris and other European cities in the sale period.

No Revolution. Various factors militated against working-class revolution in the United States. Foremost among them was the fact that almost all adult white males could vote and theoretically enjoyed equal protection under the law. Every election year politicians courted the vote of labor with promises of workplace reforms like shorter workdays, the right to strike and form unions, and better working conditions. Speeches extolling the virtues of Americas mechanics as the bone and sinew to the republic regularly rang out on public holidays. Legislators promised to keep the playing field level and to guarantee equality of opportunity, if not equality of condition, to all white citizens. Many politicians supported the free distribution of Western land to any who wanted to go. Whatever the underlying economic conditions, the rhetorical descriptions of America as a land of opportunity for all were sincere enough to convince most workers that their poverty was only temporary and that through hard work and determination they might still earn the American dream of economic independence.


Labor Boritt, Abraham Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Memphis, Tenn.: Memphis State University Press, 1978);

Edward Pessen, Society and Politics in the Jacksonian Era, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 82 (1984): 1-27;

Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 18151846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

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