Posted in 19th century America, assimilation, borderlands, homelessness, journal articles, law, marginalization, Native Americans, reformers

To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians’: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887

Stremlau, Rose. 2005. “‘To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians’: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887”. Journal of Family History. 30, no. 3: 265-286.

By the 1880s, critics of Indian affairs proposed a solution to the “Indian problem,” which they saw as the refusal or inability of Native Americans to assimilate into American society. Native families lived in multigenerational, multifamily households. These extended households generated the social reproduction of Native societies. Reformers believed that Native American communal systems prevented assimilation, so they implemented federal policies to fracture the kinship relationships into male-dominant, nuclear families, modeled after white middle-class American households. The primary policy offered American citizenship and property ownership in exchange for agreeing to move away from tribal land.  This act was meant to foster individualism, defeat communalism, and instill the core values of white American culture.  It also provided the reformers with the excess tribal land not allotted to the Native Americans.  In 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act. The reformers believed that they had freed the oppressed Indian people by dismantling communal and tribal relations.   These amendments resulted in dramatic losses of land that impoverished Indian communities. Stremlau concludes that “throughout the brutal poverty and oppression of the allotment period, Native kin continued to care for one another, however, and it was only this communalism that enabled Native people to survive.” (281)

Stremlau presents a strong argument that shows how misguided American people and lawmakers can be in their pursuit to inflict “American values” on other cultures, even within our own borders.  Their “well-meaning” policies stripped Native Americans of their land and heritage.  I disagree with the author’s assessment of the reformers’ and lawmakers’ good intentions; rather, arrogance, racism, and greed motivated these reforms.  The article shows how decisions made by those in power can disenfranchise communities and steal resources from large groups of people.  This article, along with Buried in the Bitter Waters, shows how those in power made entire communities homeless and established a precedent that promulgated multigenerational poverty.

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. https://www.marxists.org/archive/braverman/1947/03/jackson.htm.

[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. http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/merle-e-curti/

[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. http://ibrarian.net/navon/paper/THE_UNFREE_ORIGINS_OF_AMERICAN_CAPITALISM.pdf?paperid=3980164. 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.

Posted in African Americans, Great Depression, homelessness, Japanese Americans, marginalization, material culture, migrants, New Deal, photographs, propaganda, racism, reformers

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

Gordon, Linda. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. London; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Linda Gordon is one of only three historians to have won the Bancroft Prize twice, one of which was for Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits.  In this book, Gordon traces the life and photography of Lange by interweaving historical biography with contextual readings of Lange’s photographs.  Gordon reminds us that behind every photograph lies the person whose viewpoint framed the shot.  This is the first book that I have read about Dorothea Lange that encompassed her entire life rather than just focusing on her work during the Great Depression.  In addition, Gordon reveals the photographer’s growth and resilience through Lange’s relationships, personal tragedies, and professional setbacks.  A prime example appears near the center of the book, where Gordon illuminates Lange’s lessons in “participatory democracy” from her second husband Paul Schuster Taylor.[1]  Gordon successfully portrays Lange as a passionate “photographer of democracy.”

Lange is most well-known for her photography during her time with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and specifically for the iconic image Migrant Mother.[2]  Gordon astutely notes that this image seems to represent the nation during The Depression, much like Marianne stands for France: “Migrant Mother is the enduring, ultimately invincible nation enduring a terrible collective tragedy.”[3]  Gordon shows that even though the original intent of the of the FSA’s photography project was to publicize the value of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lange was able to raise public awareness of and sympathy for poor farm families through her moving photography.  The same empathetic eye that earned her such acclaim for her FSA photographs caused her work to be marginalized following her photography of Japanese American internees and West Coast defense workers.

Gordon researched a wide range of documents, including photographs, letters, taped interviews with Lange, FBI reports, newspapers, and trade magazines. Numerous photographs by Lange are printed throughout the book. Gordon tells American history through Lange’s photography.  Lange’s biography is the focus, but important historical events are narrated through her work.  Gordon reveals racism related to immigration through Lange and Taylor’s work.[4]

[1] Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (London; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009), 157.

[2] Ibid., xii.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid., 149-50.

Posted in African Americans, homelessness, journal articles, marginalization, racism

African Americans and Homelessness: Moving Through History

Johnson, Roberta Ann. “African Americans and Homelessness: Moving Through History.” Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 4 (2010): 583-605.

Johnson provides a brief overview of the history of homelessness among African Americans that outlines eight distinct historic experiences: the colonial period, the Civil War, cowboys of the west, the tramping years, the black migration north, the depression years and New Deal, urban renewal, and the deindustrialization of the American economy. She claims that the American experience of homelessness has not yet been adequately told because African American stories are often left out, underreported, or misinterpreted. Black homelessness was not recognized at all before, and shortly after, the Civil War.

Johnson notes that whites generally assumed that free blacks were homeless and suspect. Their homelessness was “tantamount to a crime: homeless black people were ‘masterless’ and, with rare exceptions, that meant they were fugitive” (584). When African Americans were part of historic phenomena, such as the tramping years or black cowboys, their unique experiences were left out of most narratives (587-90). Finally, African Americans are blamed for their own homelessness rather than attributing it to public policies and structural changes such as urban renewal and deindustrialization, which had a disproportionate negative impact on blacks and on black homelessness.

Johnson’s study looks at homelessness among African Americans from a somewhat conservative perspective. She does not take the Middle Passage into slavery as a time of homelessness, nor does she consider acts of “racial cleansing” such as those covered in Buried in the Bitter Waters; however, she does include runaway slaves. This study provides a basic framework for thinking about homelessness among African Americans and the stories that have been left out, underreported, or misinterpreted.

Posted in assimilation, homelessness, journal articles, marginalization, Native Americans, reformers

To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians

Stremlau, Rose. 2005. “‘To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians’: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887.” Journal of Family History. 30, no. 3: 265-286.

By the 1880s, critics of Indian affairs proposed a solution to the “Indian problem,” which they saw as the refusal or inability of Native Americans to assimilate into American society. Native families lived in multigenerational, multifamily households. These extended households generated the social reproduction of Native societies. Reformers believed that Native American communal systems prevented assimilation, so they implemented federal policies to fracture the kinship relationships into male-dominant, nuclear families, modeled after white middle-class American households. The primary policy offered American citizenship and property ownership in exchange for agreeing to move away from tribal land. This act was meant to foster individualism, defeat communalism, and instill the core values of white American culture. It also provided the reformers with the excess tribal land not allotted to the Native Americans. In 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act. The reformers believed that they had freed the oppressed Indian people by dismantling communal and tribal relations. These amendments resulted in dramatic losses of land that impoverished Indian communities. Stremlau concludes that “throughout the brutal poverty and oppression of the allotment period, Native kin continued to care for one another, however, and it was only this communalism that enabled Native people to survive.” (281)

Stremlau presents a strong argument that shows how misguided American people and lawmakers can be in their pursuit to inflict “American values” on other cultures, even within our own borders. Their “well-meaning” policies stripped Native Americans of their land and heritage. I disagree with the author’s assessment of the reformers’ and lawmakers’ good intentions; rather, arrogance, racism, and greed motivated these reforms. The article shows how decisions made by those in power can disenfranchise communities and steal resources from large groups of people. This article, along with Buried in the Bitter Waters, shows how those in power made entire communities homeless and established a precedent that promulgated multigenerational poverty.

Posted in gentrification, homelessness, marginalization, urban studies

Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio

Kerr, Daniel R. Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

“Who benefits from homelessness?” is the driving question in this book. Kerr rejects commonly held beliefs that mental illness, deinstitutionalization, and addiction play significant roles in homelessness. Instead, in his case study of Cleveland, Ohio, he reveals a long history of demeaning social welfare policies, unfair labor practices, and misguided slum clearance programs. Kerr examines the decisions that were made by politicians, urban planners, social reformers and business leaders, and how these decisions affected the size and composition of the homeless population in Cleveland, Ohio, from the late 1800s until recently. He connects the transformation of downtown Cleveland into “one of the greatest playgrounds in the world” to the rise in homelessness (106). He also reveals how private social service agencies, community development corporations, and the liberal Emergency Shelter Coalition “colluded” with elites to reinstitutionalize dreaded homeless shelters (201). Kerr documents a rich history of organized resistance by and everyday survival strategies of people at the margins. These people were able to disrupt the grand plans crafted by the powerful to transform the institutions that were designed to restrict the lives of the homeless.

Like Banished, Derelict Paradise concentrates on a case study to show how urban development and gentrification exacerbates the homeless problem. Whereas Banished focuses on the legal strategies city officials apply to keep undesirables away from certain public spaces, Derelict Paradise offers insight into the people and businesses that benefit from creating and maintaining poverty-stricken communities. It also reveals the agency of these marginalized communities fighting to achieve and maintain dignity.