Class Wars in U.S. History, 1786-1929

Tutor: David Huyssen

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00083M

Credits: 20

"It is commonly asserted that there are in the United States no classes, and any allusion to classes is resented. On the other hand, we constantly read and hear discussions of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact."

- William Graham Sumner

Sumner’s observation in 1883 raises a question that still befuddles us: how can the United States be a classless republic when class and inequality so demonstrably shape American life? This module will provide answers to that question by examining class and inequality as ideas and ordering realities in US history and historiography. Through a combination of primary sources, classic and contemporary works of scholarship, cultural criticism, and theory, it explores the development of America’s classless ideal – the enduring notion that the United States is a meritocratic, democratic departure from its class-riven European ancestors – alongside the shifting nature of economic, political, and social divisions that have guided daily life for the nation’s inhabitants.

We will investigate not only the formation of class and inequality in theoretical terms, but also their direct operation and manipulation at key moments of American history, including the Jacksonian “Era of the Common Man,” crises of antebellum capitalism, the Civil War and Reconstruction, Industrial warfare of the Gilded Age, and the Progressive Era. At each of these sites, we will see how conceptions of class and inequality correspond, overlap, and sometimes conflict with equally powerful notions of race and gender, exerting an oft-overlooked or under-emphasized influence on the course of both US history and historical scholarship. We will also attend to how various methods and assumptions of historical practice have shaped historiographical debates in this area.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

    • Introduction: Historicizing Inequality, Class and Capitalism in the US
    • Early Republic and Shays’ Rebellion
    • 'Era of the Common Man'
    • Antebellum Crises of Overaccumulation
    • The Making of the U.S. Working Clases
    • Industrial Class War
    • The Progressive Era and US Empire
    • Immigration/Migration, and Inequality’s First Peak: the 1920s


Preliminary reading

    • Beard, Charles. Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1913
    • Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014
    • de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, ed. J.P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969
    • Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995