Posted in African Americans, capitalism, class, historiography, homelessness, immigrants, labor, marginalization, material culture, paternalism, racism, reformers, slavery, urban studies

Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore

Rockman, Seth. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

(Review and historiography)

Seth Rockman’s Scraping By explores the precarious lives of poor, unskilled workers and the ways in which wealthy employers exploited them in Baltimore between 1790 and 1840. The title alludes to the book’s “street scrapers,” whose task of removing manure from the streets offers a fitting metaphor for the unrewarding employment opportunities facing thousands of African Americans, European immigrants, and others who flooded the city in search of a better life. These diverse populations vied for work in a common labor market and occupied the same neighborhoods.”[1] Rockman counters myths of upward mobility and liberty for all by illustrating how prosperity and privation are two sides of the same coin.[2] America’s new economy offered new possibilities for the few because it closed down opportunities for everyone else.[3] The story of American opportunity and freedom encompasses the story of “brute labor, severe material privation, and desperately constrained choices.”[4] Importantly, Rockman argues that the work of “chronically impoverished, often unfree, and generally unequal Americans…made the United States arguably the most wealthy, free, and egalitarian society in the Western world.”[5] Rockman’s arguments challenge a long historiographical tradition set forth by Frederick Jackson Turner.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper entitled, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” to a gathering at the American Historical Association. His ideas were later expanded into a series of articles and books. According to Harry (Frankel) Braverman, Turner’s main point was that “American democracy is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West. That the Western land areas were decisive in American history, and that their chief result was “democracy.”[6] Turner presented Jacksonianism as a protest by “rugged individualist” frontier people against the conservative aristocracy of the East. For Turner (and many historians that followed in his footsteps), a government that was responsive to the will of the people rather than to the power of special interest groups was represented by Jackson.

In an article published in 1958, Charles Sellers argued that men of Turner’s generation perceived Jacksonian Democracy as an egalitarian, anti-monopolistic tradition, but that “classes and inequalities of fortune played little part” in frontier democracy.[7] Yet, later historians who were influenced by Turner could not deny that “inequality of condition had become so gross that its danger to democracy could no longer be ignored.”[8] Sellers points out that Turner’s “vague conception of democracy remained prevalent in Jacksonian historiography until 1945, when Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., published The Age of Jackson.”[9]

In 1946 at the age of 27, Schlesinger won the Pulitzer Prize for his book.[10]  He was an American liberal historian, social critic, and prominent Democrat who later served as Special Assistant to President Kennedy. The Age of Jackson presented a “new” interpretation of Jacksonian Democracy by rejecting the view that it was a western sectional movement. Instead, he argued that it was a class-based movement stemming from eastern working men and intellectuals.[11] In Schlesinger’s view, Jacksonian Democracy continued to celebrate a strong spirit of equality, which was aided by extending the vote to men who did not own property.

Most historians refer to the economic transformation of Jacksonian America as the “Market Revolution.” Charles Sellers argues in his 1991 book, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, that the greatest transformation in America was a revolution from an agrarian to a capitalist society: “Establishing capitalist hegemony over economy, politics, and culture, the market revolution created ourselves and most of the world we know.”[12] Sellers argues that the Jacksonian Era was driven by a tension between market and democratic forces, which follows in same historiographical tradition of class conflict as was presented by Schlesinger.

Even though class was being highlighted in historical debates, Seth Rockman feels that these discussions missed important points. In a 2005 article, “Class and the History of Working People in the Early Republic,” Rockman points out that discussions of class did not account for “the experiences of women or people of color, for whom unequal access to property was not the starting point of inequality, but rather the result of other powerful forces like racism, sexism, and imperialism.”[13]  He also observed that following the publication of The Market Revolution, scholars debated whether economic development promoted or precluded democracy.[14] Yet, many historians mistakenly argued that broad access to consumer goods tended to equalize people. Rockman notes,

Manufactured goods allowed a wider percentage of the population to claim a modicum of comfort and refinement, but behind every yard of cloth purchased at a crossroads store or an urban emporium were slaves picking cotton and mill girls toiling amid the whirl of machinery. Yet despite these inequalities, access to standardized consumer goods allowed more Americans to look and feel more equal than ever before.[15]

But for many of these historians, as Michael Zakim observed, “the economic relations of capitalism became confused with the political possibilities of democracy.”[16] In Scraping By, Rockman shows through multiple case studies how many of the poverty-stricken people in Baltimore were unable to purchase even the most basic goods needed to survive.

A more critical interpretation of Jacksonian Democracy reveals its intrinsic connections to slavery, the eradication of Native Americans, the subjugation of women, and the celebration of white supremacy, leading many scholars to dismiss the notion of “Jacksonian Democracy” as a contradiction in terms. Rockman asserts that, when read critically, a phrase like “Jacksonian Democracy” points to a very particular type of society that “predicated white male equality on the enforced inequality of virtually everyone else.”[17] He adds,

In a Jacksonian democracy, an orphaned child of humble means could rise to be the president of a nation whose expanding boundaries, economic vitality, and promises of individual upward mobility could never be disentangled from slavery, Indian removal, imperial warfare, white racial identity, and capitalism. In this light, a Jacksonian America conveys the contingent relations of power that allowed some Americans to be freer than ever before precisely because others were not.[18]

Rockman refers to this idea as “unfreedom.”

Rockman asserts that “[l]abor was available for purchase by the hour, day, season, year, and lifetime, and by placing waged and enslaved workers on the same continuum, historians are less inclined to see two antagonistic modes of production but instead a capitalism whose appetite for labor was nearly limitless.”[19] Slaveowners maximized their investments with slaves, while at the same time, northern manufacturers used the legal maneuvers to restrict the mobility of its “free” labor force through “vagrancy statutes, debt imprisonments, and wage forfeitures for early departures from a job.”[20] Rockman claims that a new direction for labor history would be for historians to invest less effort researching processes of class formation, and instead, highlight how slaves were involved in an “American working class defined by its common commodification and material circumstances of poverty.”[21] In Scraping By, Rockman offers many examples of what this type of history looks like.

Near the end of the book, in his “Essay on Sources,” Rockman identifies several books that have influenced his approach to Scraping By. He explains that Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution asserted the idea that “American independence created extraordinary opportunities for ordinary people to pursue their economic self-interest.”[22] This view seems to echo the versions of Jacksonian Democracy put forward by Turner and Schlesinger. But Robert Fogel’s book, Without Consent or Contract, showed a more critical view of capitalism, where “exploitation was the dynamic engine of the American economy and a crucial component of in the history of capitalism.”[23] Rockman explains that his project is driven by the “challenge of reconciling these two frameworks.”[24]

In a 2001 conference paper entitled “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” Rockman challenges the myth that American capitalism stemmed from ideas of democracy and freedom by asserting that the “free labor” economy that flourished during the early-nineteenth century was inseparable from various forms of unfreedom.  He asserts that “capitalism did not triumph because the American Revolution had created an appropriately democratic political culture. Similarly, democracy was not ascendant because the Market Revolution generated the optimal form of economic organization for a free society.”[25] Instead, capitalism thrived due to its essential “relationship with the sizable segment of the American population lacking a meaningful freedom.”[26]  In other words, capitalism and democracy worked for the few at the expense of the many.

Rockman urges historians to abandon the master narrative of American capitalism and democracy that is tied to the myths of Jacksonian Democracy, and embrace a more inclusive history. He assures historians that telling an American history that revolves on unfreedom will open up a far more dramatic history.  He says,

Unfreedom begets a narrative of contingency that recognizes how freedom for some hinged on the lack of freedom for others. The triumph of liberal capitalism in the early republic United States depended on unfreedom— the expansion of plantation slavery, the household subordination of women, and the legal confinement of wage earners. Telling these stories together and as interrelated creates a history that is inclusive and responsible.[27]



[1] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), xi.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 259.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Harry Frankel, “Three Conceptions of Jacksonianism,” Marxists’ Internet Archive, accessed October 29, 2016.

[7] Charles  Sellers, “Andrew Jackson Versus the Historians,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44, no. 4 (1958): 624.

[8] Ibid., 625.

[9] Ibid., 626.; His father, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., had replaced Turner at Harvard, according to an American Studies Association ASA Newsletter, June 1996. Accessed October 29, 2016.

[10] He also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for A Thousand Days, which focused on John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

[11] Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945), 263.; Donald B. Cole pointed out that Schlesinger’s work was not as original as his reviewers made it out to be, citing Economic In terpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and J. R. Commons and others their Documentary History of American Industrial Society (1910), the Marxist writer Algie Simons published his Social Forces in American History (1911), in which he explained Jacksonian Democracy as an eastern labor movement. A decade later Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., called attention to the same movement in his influential book of essays, New Viewpoints in American History (1922), and gave credit to Willis Mason West, who had explored the subject in his American History and Government (1913). Donald B. Cole and Arthur M. Schlesinger, “The Age of Jackson: After Forty Years,” Reviews in American History 14, no. 1 (1986): 153.

[12] Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution : Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.

[13] Seth Rockman, “Class and the History of Working People in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 25, no. 4 (2005): 528.

[14] Seth Rockman, “Jacksonian America,” in American History Now, ed. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 68.

[15] Ibid., 69.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 72.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 71.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore, 349.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Seth Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” (paper presented for Library Company of Philadelphia Program in Early American Economy and Society Inaugural Conference “The Past and Future of Early American Economic History: Needs and Opportunities,” Philadelphia, April 20-21, 2001). Accessed October 28, 2016. 1-2. A modified version of this paper was published in Cathy Matson, ed., The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives & New Directions (2006), 335-361; The term “Market Revolution” is pointing to Charles Seller’s 1958 book by the same name.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” 40.