Domesticating the West: The Re-creation of the Nineteenth-Century American Middle Class available in Paperback
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In 1881 Thomas and Elizabeth Tannatt said a final good-bye to Massachusetts and the eastern seaboard and set out in search not of land but of opportunities for social and political advancement. Facing severe limitations to their goals in the depressed and disheveled postwar East, the Tannatts went west to Walla Walla, Washington Territory, to pursue their dreams of influence and status.
Domesticating the West examines the motivations of late-nineteenth-century middle-class migrants who moved west to build communities and establish themselves as leaders. The West offered new opportunities for solidly middle-class eastern families who endured hardship, uncertainty, and displacement during the Civil War, and who struggled to carve out meaningful social space in the war’s aftermath. Brenda K. Jackson places the Tannatts at the center of this movement and demonstrates how gender, class, and place affected the new migrants’ abilities to integrate into their new communities. She also shows how easterners redefined themselves as leaders of a new, moral western environment through volunteerism and political participation. While many studies of westward expansion focus exclusively on the earliest pioneers, Jackson adroitly shows how later arrivals shaped the social, economic, and cultural growth of the nation.
About the Author
Brenda K. Jackson is an assistant professor of history at Belmont University.
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Domesticating the WestThe Re-creation of the Nineteenth-Century American Middle Class
By Brenda K. Jackson
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2005 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
PrologueIn 1881, Thomas and Elizabeth Tannatt said a final good-bye to Massachusetts and the eastern seaboard, where they had spent the majority of their lives, and moved west, as had so many American pioneers before them. Here, however, the similarities end, for the Tannatts undertook their journey in the years following the Civil War, more than a generation after the great migrations of the 1840s and 1850s. And unlike the agricultural and speculative motivations that drove pioneers during the first half of the century, middle-class travelers of the postwar era sought roles in the West as leaders, philanthropists, and community builders, opportunities that social and economic change wrought by war had rendered unattainable in many of their eastern hometowns.
The United States celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its independence in 1826, just a decade prior to the births of Thomas and Elizabeth in the 1830s. In the years that followed the country experienced an era of exceptional development and transformation as it grew from a young and largely agricultural nation to one perched on the brink of industrial explosion. The transportation revolution succeeded in connecting the eastern seaboard with the Ohio Valley and points west, and this shift of attention from the Atlantic coast to the heartland brought about anew sense of American pride and growth of a national spirit, witnessed in part by the 1828 presidential victory of "upstart" Andrew Jackson over incumbent John Quincy Adams.
The events of the century's early decades disrupted many aspects of American society, in particular the class system, in place since the earliest days of colonization. Borrowed from the European model, the American social ladder included the wealthy at one end, the laboring poor, destitute, and enslaved at the other, and in between those loosely referred to as the "middling sort." Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, this "natural" order remained largely unchallenged, for, despite the success of the few who did improve their social standing, the opportunities from which they benefited remained unavailable to the majority of the population.
The early nineteenth century's transportation revolution produced a burst of technology, manufacture, and growth in the United States, all of which expanded in response to burgeoning national and international markets demanding large quantities of goods and services for rapidly expanding "consumer" populations. This era, often referred to as the Market Revolution, greatly upset the traditional class structure as it introduced the concept of upward mobility: the notion that individuals could move up the social ladder through diligence and hard work. "Ours is a country where men start from an humble origin, and from small beginnings rise gradually in the world, as the reward of merit and industry," declared Rev. Calvin Colton early in the nineteenth century. This rhetoric appealed to members of the growing and expanding middle class: the "white collar" workers employed as bank tellers, clerks, bookkeepers, farmers, mechanics, and manual laborers who hoped to improve their social and financial situations, or at least lay the groundwork that would allow their children to experience upward mobility.
The Market Revolution intensified the impact of capitalism on American citizens, for as historian Harry Watson has stated, "every new mill created opportunities for time clerks, bookkeepers, foremen, superintendents, engineers, and other management personnel," and "the same was true for every railroad company, canal company, bank, insurance firm, or mercantile house that flourished in the new commercial environment." Simply put, the system of industrial capitalism that originated during the early decades of the nineteenth century created a need for a management tier theretofore absent in American society. The Market Revolution led to the creation of the American middle class.
These increased career opportunities and possibilities for social advancement did not, however, extend evenly throughout the population. The advent of the factory system and mass production adversely affected members of the artisan class, traditionally among the "middling sort," who found their standing reduced from that of fine craftsmen to ordinary laborers and wage earners. At the same time, the northern concentration of factories and mills created an enormous discrepancy between the industrial capabilities of the North and the South and, as a result, hindered the development of a strong southern middle class. This lack of industrial strength would plague the South in the upcoming Civil War and lead to regional classifications and characterizations that endured into the late nineteenth century and beyond. Burton Bledstein has suggested that northern observers paid a great deal of attention to the ways in which the South lagged behind the North in industrialization, transportation, and immigration, noting that these discrepancies were magnified by the inadequacies of southern transit and port facilities and the preference of many European immigrants to avoid the South altogether.
The Tannatts' story is a nineteenth-century middle-class study, and it is worth telling for many reasons. Thomas and Elizabeth represent a segment of the population often absent from historical study, since traditional scholarship has focused much of its attention on the accomplishments of history's "great men," and recent studies have been devoted in large part to the laboring poor and minorities. As a result, according to Melanie Archer and Judith Blau, "the middle class is the least studied segment of nineteenth-century American society." In recent years this neglect has become a regular topic of discussion, with historians taking one another to task for disregarding this portion of the population. In his work on the development of the American middle class, Stuart Blumin addresses this lack of attention and reveals that problems associated with the identification and classification of a "middle class" plagued historians throughout the twentieth century and that mid-nineteenth-century writers and journalists opted to deny the very existence of an American middle class. According to Blumin, "writers of the nineteenth century ignored middling folk because they did not know how to deal with them" and also because the extremes represented by the very rich and the very poor, particularly in New York, Philadelphia, and other large cities, provided the sensationalism that appealed to the reading public. "There are but two classes in the city-the poor and the rich," wrote New Yorker James Dabney McCabe in 1868, and more than a century later, in 1984, Peter Buckley discussed the "two cultural axes" and the "two distinct idioms" at work during the city's 1849 Astor Place riot. Neither addressed the presence of a nineteenth-century New York middle class; in fact, McCabe insisted that "the middle class, which is so numerous in other cities, hardly exists at all here." According to Sean Wilentz, however, "no study of New York workers, particularly not one that tries to analyze working-class beliefs as well as behavior, can leave these people out," and he has insisted that "the middle class merits respectful study."
In his recent work on late-nineteenth-century New York, Sven Beckert opted to use the term "bourgeoisie" instead of "middle class" to identify his study's focus on "a particular kind of elite whose power ... derived from the ownership of capital rather than birthright, status, or kinship." Use of "middle class" seemed unsuitable to Beckert as he interpreted popular usage of the term to "stand either for all Americans, past and present, who are neither extremely wealthy nor homeless, or for a distinct social group that corresponds somewhat with the European notion of the 'petite bourgeoisie'-artisans, shop owners, and lesser professionals." For Maris Vinovskis, the term "middle class" is simply problematic, as "it refers not only to one's occupational or economic circumstances but also to one's goals and life style," a combination that renders the term, as well as those encompassed by it, difficult to pinpoint and identify.
These problems of identification have led historians and others to ask if the specific composition of the middle class is important enough to warrant concern and generate discussion, and the answer, according to Beckert, is a resounding "yes," "because the confused use of the term 'middle class' has made it very difficult to come to terms with central issues in American history." Beckert sees the term as "confused" because, by its inclusion of all except the very rich and the very poor, "the specific beliefs, gender roles, and politics of the nation's bankers, industrialists, shopkeepers, artisans, and professionals have become ... harder to grasp since they were all subsumed into the great middle class." He suggests that by distinguishing among the various groups of nineteenth-century property-holding Americans the "confusion" of the middle class would begin to untangle. Bledstein has echoed Beckert's sentiments, with the added proviso that "those who care about the working classes put understanding at risk by not taking an interest in the history of the middle classes, since these histories are intrinsically related."
The questions, concerns, and indecision that continue to plague contemporary historians and researchers did not seem to trouble members of the nineteenth-century middle class at all. These individuals knew precisely who they were. More accurately stated, perhaps, they knew who they were not. In colonial America, the "middling sort" developed through the efforts of tradesmen, merchants, and artisans who wished to distinguish themselves from the lower, or common, classes, composed of the nonpropertied, the poor, and the destitute. By the nineteenth century, as the concept of "rank" fell from favor, middling sorts became the "middle class" and, in American society, a lifestyle. According to Bledstein, the idea of "middle class" appealed to nineteenth-century Americans, for unlike Karl Marx's "bourgeoisie" and "proletariat" (respectively, those who own the means of production and those who labor), "the middle-class person in America owns an acquired skill or cultivated talent" that was not looked upon "as a commodity, an external resource, like the means of production or manual labor." In sum, in mid- to late-nineteenth-century America anyone could aspire to the "middle class," for rather than classifying the individual, it epitomized "a way of doing things, a display of selective characteristics, ... [and] a matter of discerning emphasis and attention." Thomas and Elizabeth Tannatt knew they belonged to the middle class, and they spent their lives striving for the top rung of this social classification.
This telling of the Tannatts' story seeks to provide the largely undifferentiated nineteenth-century American middle class with a face and an identity. At the same time, this account sheds light on a chapter in American history that has been not only neglected but essentially ignored: the postwar lives of Civil War veterans and their families. It is a common misconception that, for northerners, few hardships resulted from the war, and that they were far outweighed by the wealth and opportunity to be gleaned at the expense of the devastated South. A renewed interest in scholarship of the period has challenged these perceptions, however, and recent studies reveal that-though certainly not to the extent experienced in the South-northern cities suffered severe, often permanent economic setbacks as a result of the war, and numerous New England towns, and their citizens, witnessed significant drops in the rate of industrialization and the accumulation of personal wealth. Elizabeth's hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts, numbered among these, and its factories never recovered the productivity and success they enjoyed in the century prior to the war. In addition, and in response to the prospect of greatly diminished opportunities, countless individuals, particularly young men, abandoned their northern hometowns in the postwar years to seek livelihoods elsewhere, thus accelerating township decline through population losses and the resultant reduction in birthrates.
Civil War scholarship has flourished without interruption since the war's end, and thousands of publications have chronicled the victories and defeats of such leaders as Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. In recent years, research has focused on wartime reform and benevolent efforts and has added women's names to the list of Civil War heroes, among them Dorothea Dix, Harriet Tubman, and Clara Barton. It is surprising that this vast outpouring of scholarship has avoided inquiry into the long-term effects of the war on those who fought its battles and on the families who suffered and persevered with them. In 1989, Maris Vinovskis lamented that "we do not know much about the effects of the Civil War on everyday life in the United States ... and almost nothing is available on the postwar life course of Civil War veterans." In the past decade a few historians have undertaken this formidable task, and the Tannatts' story adds an important piece to this emerging scholarship on yet another segment of America's nineteenth-century middle class.
The story of Thomas Redding Tannatt and Elizabeth Tappan Tannatt begins more than a century before their births, across the Atlantic Ocean in the British Isles. Chapter 1 introduces Thomas's and Elizabeth's forebears and their reasons for migrating to North America, and reveals that while Thomas's roots extend deep into the houses of Scottish and Welsh gentry, Elizabeth's English ancestors enjoyed modest successes as "middling sorts." During the years following their migration, however, and for a number of reasons, the social standings of these families shifted, and as the Tappans rose to claim positions of prestige in their New England communities, the Tannatts experienced a decline in social status.
The chapters that follow examine the Tannatts' lives chronologically, and while their activities frequently intertwine, Thomas and Elizabeth are often discussed independently of one another. Chapter 1 examines their childhood and adolescent years, their educational experiences in the 1850s, and their marriage and relocation from New England to a distant military post in the Dakota Territory. Chapter 2 begins with the Tannatts' recall from the frontier in 1861, as hostilities erupted in the East. Their official Civil War experience ended in 1864,when Thomas suffered a severe head wound during the Battle of Petersburg, and chapter 3 examines his ensuing postwar restlessness and wanderlust that took the family first to the mining districts of Colorado and then to Reconstruction-era Tennessee before returning them to Manchester in 1876.
By the mid-1870s, lack of professional opportunity, partly a result of the economic depression gripping the nation, forced Thomas to look far beyond New England and the East for his livelihood, and chapter 4 chronicles the early years of his association with railroad magnate Henry Villard. The opportunities Villard made available to Thomas not only led to the family's permanent relocation to the Pacific Northwest but helped restore in Thomas the sense of purpose he had sought since his separation from the army at the end of the Civil War. As Thomas negotiated with Villard and endeavored to reestablish himself professionally, Elizabeth took advantage of the family's sojourn in Manchester to become involved with several women's organizations emerging in late-nineteenth-century Massachusetts. From the late 1870s until her death in 1920, Elizabeth devoted a good deal of her time and energy to issues of reform, benevolence, and civic commemoration.
Excerpted from Domesticating the West by Brenda K. Jackson Copyright © 2005 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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