A perceptive but pedantic look at the socioeconomic and political lot of America's 19th-century working class. Drawing on research for a lecture series given at Oxford during 1991, Montgomery (History/ Yale; The Fall of the House of Labor—not reviewed; etc.) starts by discussing how democracy helped end onerous forms of personal subordination—apprenticeship, indentured servitude, slavery, etc. He goes on to show that the voting rights given white male wage earners during the early 1800's provided them with the clout to abrogate master/servant ordinances (which all but precluded quitting hateful or otherwise unwanted jobs), imprisonment for debt, and seizure of property for non- payment of rent. During Reconstruction, similarly, southern blacks achieved roughly analogous gains, albeit not without an appreciably fiercer struggle. Ironically, Montgomery points out, imperatives attendant upon expanding business activity and innovation, not the quotidian needs of US labor, largely defined replacement statutes. In addition, courts rather than elected legislators laid down the law governing employers and employees. The judiciary's authority made legal precedent of free-market doctrine and gave the state coercive police powers (which were used to the very great advantage of capital) to curb the individual as well as collective initiatives open to working people. Asserting that diversity barred domination of American life by an ideological consensus, Montgomery closes with an inquiry into the role political parties played in developing alternatives to laissez-faire's cruelly Darwinian laws. In sum, an academic's informed and densely annotated reflections on the paradox of freedom as it applied to earlier workers; offering few substantive links to 20th-century circumstances, however, the study's appeal appears limited to specialists.
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