Title: Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
Author: Sven Beckert
Categories: Bourgeoise, Class Formation, Labor, Gilded Age, Economic History, Social History
Place: New York City
Time Period: 1850-1896
Sven Beckert writes a social history of the class formation of the New York City "bourgeoisie." By this label, he means the owners of capital, separate from those elite simply born into wealth or status. He chooses to look at this group because he believes they are under-studied by historians, with its emphasis on social history of underrepresented groups or business history's ignoring of social history approaches. Covering the decade before the Civil War until 1896, it charts a gradual transformation from one of class division to class cohesion.
Before the Civil War, there was a division between the merchant class (allied with Southern planters and cotton) and industrialists/manufacturers. The dominant merchant class saw themselves as caretakers of a society that whose economic progress was driven by trade. The rising manufacturer class often came from more humble artisan roots and espoused a view of society embracing production, free labor, and independent republican citizenship. The Secession crisis initially caused a conservative reaction towards reconciliation (especially amongst merchants tied to the cotton economy), but when war finally broke out the more radical side's ideology lobbying for emancipation took center stage. The war witnessed the rise of free labor ideology espoused more by manufacturers that championed a liberal vision of political economy entrenched in republican citizenship, in contrast to the slave system of the south. Ultimately, the Civil War caused a decline in the merchants and opened the door for a rise in industrialists and bankers, especially in the booming years of Reconstruction.
The Panic of 1873 brought to the fore the proletarianization of society, with widening class conflict that helped spur on a consolidation within the bourgeoise. They became a more cohesive political class, with older divisions between different sectors evaporating, in favor of an overarching ideology: embrace of hierarchy, ambivalence about democracy, abandonment of Reconstruction tenets, and a paradoxical embrace of laissez-faire policies (lower taxes, less regulation, etc.) counterbalanced by reliance on an activist state that protected the propertied interests (ex. breaking workers strikes). This ideology replaced the older one of free-labor republicanism, instead emphasizing the commodification of labor and protection of property rather than majority rights. Beckert argues that they managed to achieve a remarkable class cohesion, in part via the development of a bourgeoise culture: of institutions, organizations, and social networks. In doing so, they achieved tremendous power and influence over the political economy, but Beckert argues that this came at the cost of legitimacy in the eyes of Americans (particularly their hypocritical embrace of laissez-faire policies AND state protection).
Key Themes and Concepts
- Rise of a self-conscious coherent upper class in NYC and their cultural, political, and economic dominance
- Panic of 1873 as a turning point: from division to cohesion of the bourgeoise class
- Oppositional class identity based on fears over labor unrest
- Class formation as an active and historically contingent process (aided by a common cultural identity)
- Tension between laissez-faire ideology and embrace of state power
- Methods of social historians to look at what has traditionally been realm of business historians
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License