Title: Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore
Author: Seth Rockman
Categories: Labor History, Social History, Capitalism, Slavery, Early Republic
Time Period: 1790s-1830s
Seth Rockman's Scraping By describes the dismal conditions of Baltimore's laboring poor in the early republic. Rockman explicitly takes on optimistic interpretations of this period (such as those of Gordon Wood, Joyce Appleby, and Daniel Walker Howe) as being one of prosperity, social dynamism, and energetic entrepreneurial egalitarianism. Instead, Rockman argues that the very rising tide of prosperity rested firmly on a darker foundation: the ability of some people to manipulate and exploit the labor of others who never had access to this growing prosperity. In Rockman's framework, an overarrching capitalist system exploited multiple and overlapping avenues of inequality (unifying the class, gender, race triad) in the form of slaves, women, and poor laborers. Far from being oppositional, free and slave labor were completely compatible for the ones exploiting it, who in fact benefited from being able to draw on a heterogeneous workforce of commodified laborers. Consequently, Rockman does not see any kind of class consciousness developing among the poor: instead, the dock workers, ditch diggers, seamstresses, and prostitutes were literally just trying to survive.
Capitalism is the big bad wolf for Rockman. He notes that championing the "free market" ignores the fact that the early republic was NOT some brief transitional period of a premodern system to a mature capitalist one, but was one in which capitalism thrived on an unfree market of labor, from servants to slaves to modified slaves ("rent" and "term") to women's household production to entrapped workers. In doing so, he works against labor historians that, a) only focus on artisans and mechanics, or b) try to restore a sense of agency to laborers. The slaves, women, and poor in Baltimore were not unified and exercised only limited autonomy - often relying on things like almshouses to survive (which Rockman explores as an arena in which the elite and reformers reconceptualized the poor as being either "deserving" or "undeserving").
Key Themes and Concepts
- Working class consciousness replaced by just trying to scrape by. Something like "whiteness" may have been there, but didn't really matter because they were still getting exploited
- Capitalism rested not on things like market exchange, transportation revolution, etc. but on the commodification, owning, and control of labor. Good and bad are flip sides of the same coin.
- Free and slave labor were compatible and reinforcing as blacks and poor whites were both seen as commodified sources of labor
- Overarching capitalist system exploited multiple and overlapping avenues of inequality - slavery, women's work, poor laborers
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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