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Class Wars in U.S. History, 1786-1929 - HIS00083M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. David Huyssen
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2019-20

Module summary

"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

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2019-20

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After successfully completing this module students should have acquired:

  • A critical conception of how class and inequality have operated in US political, social and cultural history;
  • A command of the central lines of debate over class and inequality in various US historiographies;
  • Basic mastery of independent primary research techniques;
  • The capacity to critique secondary works’ argumentation strategies and uses of source material; and
  • A critical conception of the archive.

Module content

Teaching Programme:
Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

  1. Introduction: Historicizing Inequality, Class and Capitalism in the US
  2. Early Republic and Shays’ Rebellion
  3. “Era of the Common Man”
  4. Antebellum Crises of Overaccumulation
  5. The Making of the US Working Clases
  6. Industrial Class War
  7. The Progressive Era and US Empire
  8. Immigration/Migration, and Inequality’s First Peak: the 1920s


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4000 Words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word procedural essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 of the spring term. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 1 of the summer term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Taught Masters Degrees Statement of Assessment.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4000 Words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of 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.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.