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American Exceptionalism, American Anxiety: Wages, Competition, and Degraded Labor in the Antebellum United States

Author(s):Glickstein, Jonathan A.
Reviewer(s):Margo, Robert A.

Published by EH.NET (December 2002)


Jonathan A. Glickstein, American Exceptionalism, American Anxiety: Wages, Competition, and Degraded Labor in the Antebellum United States. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2002. viii + 361 pp. $39.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8139-2115-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert A. Margo, Department of Economics, Vanderbilt University.

It is said that the longest running debate in British economic history is the standard of living debate. No debate in American history can be as long running as any debate in British history. Nevertheless, Americans have our own version of the British debate. The issue, simply put is: did American workers “benefit” from early industrialization? For the American case, this comes down to the period from 1820 to 1860.

Until recently the prevailing wisdom on this issue among economic historians — if not labor historians — could be described as strongly Whiggish. Estimates of per capita incomes suggest that these grew in real terms. The distribution of economic rewards may have become more unequal, but not enough to reverse the gains. The quantitative evidence, however, did not seem to square all that well with qualitative accounts, which emphasized the inconstancy of work, the grinding poverty experienced by some groups, the difficulty of moving up, growing pauperism in certain cities, and widespread misery experienced during any of the several antebellum financial “panics.”

This was also a period during which wage labor grew substantially in relative importance. Few people worked for wages early in the nineteenth century, but far more did in 1860, particularly in eastern cities. Labor became a commodity, bought and sold like flour or rum.

Recent cliometric work has challenged the Whiggish point of view. Data on heights and mortality suggest that health conditions were worsening during early industrialization. Robert Fogel has called attention to the so-called “hidden depression” that afflicted eastern urban labor during the late 1840s and early 1850s. Fogel emphasizes several aspects of the transformation of workplaces during this period — the intensification of the pace of work, “de-skilling,” and so on — that are hard to measure and, therefore, have not been incorporated into various quantitative measures of the standard of living.

New estimates of real wages prepared by your reviewer also challenge the Whiggish perspective. If you believe me, real wages grew overall at about 1 percent per year between 1820 and 1860. This number is greater than zero but rather less than previous estimates. Artisans fared worse than common laborers, who fared worse than white-collar workers. Perhaps most importantly, growth was in fits and starts, and there were several periods of poor performance, notably the 1850s. This decade experienced what was perhaps the first “welfare explosion” in American history, partly because real wage performance was so poor.

Jonathan A. Glickstein’s new book is also about wage labor during early American industrialization, but it is not a quantitative work. Rather, its “data” consist of the written record of commentators of the time, primarily elites, commenting about the transformation of work occurring around them. It is about questions like: what did these people think were the good and bad points about a “free” labor market? Were workers motivated by the positive incentive of upward mobility, or the threat of starvation? If one might starve, would it have been better to be a slave? Why did some commentators extol the “intrinsic” benefits of common labor, particularly if it were work that they themselves would never do (being elites)? Broadly speaking, the book about the differences between “perception” and “reality” — if elites thought America was really such a promised land for free labor, why were the promises unfulfilled for so many — particularly, for those other than white males? Were the elites simply misinformed, or did they simply not care, perhaps because they were more interested in constructing an ideology that rationalized their own privileged status. (Jonathan A. Glickstein is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of an earlier work on ante-bellum labor, Concepts of Free Labor in Antebellum America.)

Let it be said at the outset that, for someone like me, this book is not an easy read. It is full of words like “poststructuralism” and phrases like “linguistic turn.” There are no tables and no regressions and, therefore, no escaping the text. The text is densely written, the footnotes more so. However, the footnotes are also filled with references to the economic history literature and, allowing for publication lags, these are up-to-date. Your reviewer’s work is featured prominently in the Introduction, and in the footnotes, along with most of the other relevant economic historians. Glickstein doesn’t always agree with us, and sometimes he gets the story wrong. (For example, on p. 7, he claims that I find that eastern artisans “fared worst of all.” Assuming he means “northeastern,” these experienced higher real wage growth than artisans in the Midwest, or the South; see my Wages and Labor Markets, p. 51.) But he is never dismissive of economic history without reading, and I appreciate that (would that we economic historians were so charitable in reverse).

American Exceptionalism is divided into an Introduction, seven substantive chapters, and a Conclusion. The Introduction, as implied above, sets the stage, noting how recent work in economic history has challenged the Whiggish point of view. Glickstein’s interests, however, are not in the particulars of the debate in economic history, but rather in how individuals — as noted above, mostly elite — conceived of wage labor. Chapter One, “The World’s Dirty Work,” considers views expressed at the time about whether common labor carried “intrinsic” rewards (such as building character) or had only “extrinsic” value (that is, in facilitating consumption, as assumed in the standard labor-leisure model). It also considers the development of beliefs that America was exceptional in the opportunities it provided ambitious free labor — and, therefore, why those who failed did so through their own fault.

Chapter Two, “Pressures from the Bottom,” focuses on how evidence contrary to exceptionalism was to be reconciled. What is one to make of the benefits of a “free” labor system when paupers were swarming on city streets? Perhaps, some commentators suggested, they swarmed because the availability of poor relief “distorted natural market forces” (p. 69). It also considers some of the rhetoric of anti-slavery discourse, in particular, whether slavery “freed” the slave from the risk (and attendant anxiety of facing) starvation, and how this could be weighed against the loss of “hope” — that is, freedom and upward mobility.

Chapter Three, “Buy Cheap, Sell Dear,” takes as its point of departure some of Horace Greeley’s observations on strikes, “especially those of the Iron Puddlers of Pittsburgh.” Greeley admonishes the workers for complaining that their wages “ought” to be higher because the employer can “afford” it. Who among the strikers, Greeley asks, gave the same consideration to the poor widowed seamstress who made the men’s shirts? Glickstein points out, however, that one’s own pursuit of self-interest, given the rules of the economic game, does not mean that one would not prefer different rules. While acknowledging that self-interested behavior proceeded the “market revolution” of the early nineteenth century, Glickstein still insists that that “industrial and urban capitalist components” of the revolution led to a new social norm, one in which a “competitive free-market ethos … did come to govern a plethora of social and economic relationships” (p. 113). Chapter Four, “Further Social Consequences of the Market Mechanism,” examines some of the difficulties that early labor activists faced in reconciling nascent versions of the labor theory of value with the emerging capitalist ideology.

Chapters Five through Seven are inter-related in their use of Gresham’s Law as an organizing device. As originally conceived, Gresham’s Law applied to bad money but in its more general guise, it can apply to bad anything — in Glickstein’s case, “bad” labor arrangements driving out the “good.” Chapter Five examines an address by George M. Weston, a prominent anti-slavery writer of the era. Ostensibly “about” how slavery reduced the wages of free labor, Glickstein also uses the address to segue into two other forms of “cheap” labor. Attitudes towards the first of these, convict labor, are examined in Chapter Six. Convict labor refers to the practice on the part of state government officials of making prisoners available to private contractors. Never widespread, the practice was nevertheless widely condemned at the time by ante-bellum labor organizations. Chapter Seven draws attention to the fact that restrictions placed on the use of convict labor adopted by the New York State Legislature in the early 1840s exempted domestic employers who competed directly with imported manufactured goods. These exemptions recognized, or so the claim went, that such imports were produced by cheap (“pauper”) labor. As a consequence, American manufacturers needed the exemptions to be competitive.

American Exceptionalism is a demanding work. Glickstein makes few concessions to readers who are not fluent in contemporary “humanistic” approaches to historical writing. If I have one criticism, it is that Glickstein might have drawn more parallels with our own time. (Chapter Seven, which notes the resonance of the debate over “pauper” labor with contemporary debates over “globalization,” is a partial exception.) However, the questions that motivate this study are fascinating and well worth the attention of cliometricians, even if they are not the questions that we are used to asking.

Robert A. Margo is Professor of Economics and History, Vanderbilt University, and Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is the author of Wages and Labor Markets in the United States, 1820-1860 (Chicago, 2000) and (with Joel Perlmann) Women’s Work? American Schoolteachers, 1650-1920 (Chicago, 2001).

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century