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Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850, 20th Anniversary Edition 20th Anniversary Edition
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"The best book yet written about the emergence of New York City's working class and a major contribution to American working-class history."--The New Republic
"[Chants Democratic] has no equal in breadth of subject, grace of style or acuity of interpretation."--The Nation
"Wilentz has written the statement on Jacksonian New York....A great leap forward in both American social and American political history."--Journal of American History
"A remarkable book that will quickly establish itself in the historiography and exert a powerful influence on the future direction of social, labor, and political history."--Journal of Interdisciplinary History
About the Author
Sean Wilentz is Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and Director of the Program in American Studies at Princeton University.
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During this period the economy of new york city industrialized, and that impacted the development of the "american" or more accurately given the subject of this book "new york" working class.
This book might also have a cross over audience with gangs of new york. mike walsh, the oft drunken "shirtless democrat" leader of the 1840s and 1850s comes across similar to the character played by daniel day lewis in scorcese's adaptation of gangs of new york. i was suprised to read of the linkage of the working class movement to nativist sentiment expounded by the whigs as early as the 1830s, but i suppose i shouldn't have been suprised at all....
The beginning of the study period was also the beginning of the end for that sort of industrial organization. Rationalization of steps of production allowed entrepreneurs to divide methods that had formerly required an extensive skill set into a series of easily teachable components.
They then were able to dispense with skilled workers, either driving journeymen down to wage levels of common laborers or (in the most optimistic view) giving new kinds of work to formerly marginalized workers -- illiterate country boys, women, Irish.
Naturally, the journeymen who ended up in these "sweated" trades felt a grievance, Whether their grievances amounted to a "rise" of a working class seems debatable. The inarticulate common laborers may already have felt themselves a wronged class. If they did, that is beyond the reach of the historian.
What Wilentz can do, and does thoroughly, is document the emerging self-consciousness rise of an articulate working class with a more or less coherent ideology and, by the mid-1820s, a political program.
"Chants Democratic" is anything but light reading, but it has its exciting episodes. These are somewhat repetitive: Inchoate working class reformers create novel structures (unions, benefit societies, cooperatives), attempt to use them to change the relations of production and get co-opted by mere political parties -- usually but not always Tammany Democrats.
The story is exceedingly complex, playing out as it does against a similar change in working conditions in non-republican Europe. Wilentz emphasizes the republican ideology of the "artisan republic."
They were not the only faction in New York City that claimed republican virtue, but their approach made a difference. Socialism, which is where much of this was heading, has always a different character in America.
Wilentz, who wrote this as a dissertation, had to document his assertions with sociological methods, which he did by comparing names to tax and voting rolls etc. to help quantify the changes. "Chants Democratic" is now considered a classic of American labor history, no doubt because it is not impressionistic.
Nevertheless, it is not all by the numbers, Wilentz occasionally stops to paint with a broad brush. In describing the impoverishment of formerly solid citizens, he claims that New York (that is, Manhattan) "ranked second to none as a disaster of laissez-faire urban development."
Both up to 1850 and for much longer, the New York working class failed in most of its economic and political goals. However, Wilentz judges that during these decades "the burdens of necessity (forced) men and women, in the span of a single lifetime, to some of the most creative popular engagements in this nation's history."
His discussion of the varied attitudes of workers towards American and City politics in this period and is very precise and specific. The book is certainly a kind of dual specialists text--geared more towards the use of the scholar or the New York State and City history buff. After seeing the connections that Wilentz makes between work, republicanism, capitalism, and politics it becomes obvious why the book has become so indispensible to scholars over the last twenty years.
Before anyone reads this book, they should bone up on their history of New York City and State, and probably should also read some early nineteenth century labor history monographs.