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Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution Paperback – August 26, 2014
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“Liberty’s Dawn is a triumph, achieved in fewer than 250 gracefully written pages. They persuasively purvey Griffin’s historical conviction. She is intimate with her audience, wooing it and teasing it along the way.”—Anthony Fletcher, Times Literary Supplement
“Griffin’s crisp and accessible prose rests on a foundation of scrupulous scholarship.”—Amanda Vickery, The Guardian (Amanda Vickery The Guardian 2013-12-28)
“This is a brave book that challenges accepted wisdom by offering a decidedly optimistic view of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the opportunities, freedoms and choices available to the working class.”—Pat Hudson, Times Higher Education Supplement
‘This is a novel twist on the story behind the Industrial Revolution. Griffin does a fine job in personalising the social history of the period by trawling through hundreds of autobiographies from 1760-1900 to offer first-hand experiences of how this era impacted upon the working classes, including a rise in income and improved literacy.’—Steve Harnell, Who Do You Think You Are Magazine(Stever Harnell Who Do You Think You Are Magazine 2014-04-01)
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Emma Griffin concludes that the Industrial Revolution was not nearly as hard on the working class as has been supposed with many of her sample saying that they had benefitted from it rather than lost by it. This seems a reasonable conclusion and is certainly supported on an anecdotal level. For many working class people it was a good time to live through. Of course accounts of hardship that did not have a happy ending and are reported elsewhere cannot be discounted either.
But the matter is more complex than Griffin explains from her sample of cases. What about the Stephensons, father and son (railway), who emerged out of the working class but rose to the peak of the capitalist class? They were on both sides of the issue. What about the 3 generation span where the original working class family produced somewhat more educated children but the real success came to the grandchildren? In other words the results of the industrial revolution have sometimes to be measured over more than one lifetime. Some of her autobiographers’ were prompted to write by curious children whose interest itself is suggestive of a changed world.
One fault in Griffins work is her failure to acknowledge that the working class she is describing is a new phenomenon that did not exist before. She says that previous to the time she speaks of the working class did not write autobiographies, but actually that is because they did not exist before not because they could not write. In fact people at the bottom of the social scale did write before although not about industrial experiences. Approximately 100 years before the period she is discussing for example there was a lot of writing from the bottom of the social classes such as by Bunyan and the Quakers and many others.
A completely different type of experience is that of Dickens. He was very critical of some aspects of industrialization. Yet he was himself an example that people who were at least in danger of falling to the bottom of the social heap could lift themselves up by their own efforts. And though Dickens has some works about industrialization most of his settings are in parts of society that are not effected directly by industrialization. Instead his emphasis is on people’s character as a determining factor in their progress. This was a common view at the time popularized by people like Samuel Smiles.
This view, that happiness resulted from people seizing the opportunities created by industrialization, is not considered sufficiently by Griffin as a determining factor in prosperity or otherwise. It is not authentic for a later generation to completely negate without sufficient discussion views that were widely held at the time.
A very interesting revisionist look at the lives of the working class in the Industrial Revolution.
Griffin, while acknowledging that some aspects of said people's lives worsened, primarily in the matter of child labor, that, on the whole, on average, it brought betterment even before Victorian-era social reforms.
As part of this, she says that some problems associated with the IR, such as irregular/seasonal unemployment, actually carry over from pre-IR, or maybe proto-IR, times and that the IR itself did not worsen them and may have ameliorated them.
Where does she get these ideas? Diares, some eventually published as pamphlets, booklets or books, from working men, and even a few working women, of this era.
As far as those direct benefits?
1. More money;
2. More sexual freedom (primarily for men);
3. More literacy;
4. More religious freedom and empowerment.
More money is obvious.
The sexual freedom connects in part to that, in part to increased geographic mobility and shortening or ending of formal apprentice periods. Result? More premarital sex, even premarital pregnancies. In what would certainly shock the virtue and mythmaking of modern American religious conservatives, by 1800, about 1/3 of British brides were pregnant at their weddings. Add in those who had already given birth to that "ill-conceived" child, illegitimate births that parish registries didn't record, the occasional "founding" that fell between the record-keeping cracks, and the occasional, or bit more than occasional, abortion, and half of 1800-period British women got pregnant before marriage.
More literacy? That came from occasional night schools some women taught at home, reading schools of various sorts founded by congregations in the Methodist movement (and eventual denomination), and guilds and other workingmen's groups forming their own educational support programs. The result? In part, those diaries, booklets, etc., some of which ran to 25,000 or more words when published.
Religious and social freedom? It in part came from the Great Awakening, which hit Europe as well as America, producing Methodism in England and Pietism in Germany. At the same time, Griffin argues that a bit more money for workers in the IR, and a bit more self-awareness, led workers to help fuel the Great Awakening, by being more literate, including on bible study, and challenging Anglican vicars.
It's indeed an interesting read. I'm still not fully convinced. It's true that the working class's lot may have risen compared to its past. But, Griffin dodges a couple of issues.
First, directly related to that, she doesn't address whether or not income inequality rose during the IR, if so, how much, and whether we shouldn't weigh that in the balance against the reported benefits.
Second, per stereotypes of dirty London and its coal-driven smog, she ignores environmental issues related to the IR, and how much more those affected the working class than the upper class. As part of that failure, she doesn't address life expectancy issues. (My bits of Googling tell me that child mortality in Britain declined throughout the 1700s, but adult mortality remained unchanged. I can't find any breakouts by economic class, at least with a brief search.)
The lack of data issue cuts other ways, too. Griffin indicates that the IR seemed to give the working class more money. But, again, we're not given any data. I don't know how much is available, but there has to be some.
In other words, it's a good anecdotal people's history. But, it's not more than that.
The diary-based writing keeps this book near four stars. But, per what I just said, it's not quite there.