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White Group Consciousness and Mass Culture in the Early Nineteenth Century

Some historians argue that whites in America shared a hegemonic position of domination over blacks after the Civil War when threatened by the competition from the newly freed black laborers and the amassing of black political power under Reconstruction (Hodes 1997; Fredrickson 1971). But this was not the case in post-revolutionary America and the early nineteenth century. To arrive at the point where elite and moderate-income whites would share a hegemonic position of domination over blacks required a change in the perception of the roles of poor and moderate-income European descendants Whites, particularly those who were not owners of large tracts of land or enough capital to be independent merchants or businesspeople, would need to differentiate themselves from people classified as black and/or slaves. Some historians suggest that this demarcation is in part based on categories of labor (Hodes 1997) and how this group of laborers became a self-reflexive group (Roediger 1999).

The change in perception began during the post-revolutionary era, when many of the people who would become categorized as “white” had experienced a transformation from being classified as British subjects to being classified as unsubjugated/independent, rational people in an independent republic (Roediger 1999; Saxton 2003). By the end of the war, many whites had served out their indenture, some by fighting in the war. David Roediger argues that in celebrating the passage of the Constitution it was clear that many European descendants with little or no capital had fought for personal independence and dignity for the types of work they did. Journeymen, artisans who had completed their apprenticeship, were on their way to becoming masters of their crafts (and other people) through employment of artisans. Artisans, or skilled craftspeople, were proliferating in the urban areas; even “mechanics,” who before the war were low-level workers, were gaining importance in this new society (1999).

However, U.S. society in the early nineteenth century still drew comparisons between slaves and white wage laborers: “the experiences of the white artisans themselves encouraged the consideration of white slavery as a possible social category” (Roediger 1999: 67). The words “servant” and “slave” were interchangeable (47). Roediger expounds that

[There is a] tendency of US citizens toward “confounding the term servant with that of slave.” There was good reason for such confounding, dating from the early imprecisions of colonial usages of slave and servant right through Noah Webster’s inconsistent distinctions between the two terms in the dictionary of 1828 and the tendency in the South to apply servant overwhelmingly to slaves in the antebellum years (47).

This is an indicator that the “race” of working-class Europeans was not yet constructed as white. Indeed, as a group, may in some cases have been constructed as “black.”

Historian Barbara Fields contends that slavery did not exist in America because of an ideology of racial differentiation; instead the ideology of race developed as an explanation for slavery in “a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and natural rights” (1990: 114). She finds that race, like other ideolo?gies, is constructed in language to explain social relation created and reproduced through daily, ritualized interactions (110). This period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw low- and middle-income Europeans beginning to distinguish themselves; when the terms “servant” and “slave” were still somewhat synonymous, the ideology of race did not as yet incorporate the “black/white” dichotomy of contemporary America. Without the entrenchment of an ideology of race based on dichotomous groupings, this nascent group of workers of European descent could hardly see themselves as a race completely distinct from blacks or having the same interest(s) as upper-class people of European descent. As Roediger (1999: 67) notes, wage laborers of European descent simultaneously feared two things: loss of their independence as laborers and erosion of their status to that of slave.

It is no surprise that this period saw the rise of a labor movement. Urban craftsmen fought for a ten-hour workday and anything that would establish them as independent and not like slaves. The push to further distinguish themselves from blacks/slaves grew with the abolition movement—which advanced considerably at the beginning of the nineteenth century and became more radicalized by the 1830s. Radical abolitionism heightened the efforts of working-class Europeans to distinguish themselves from blacks because the extensive role of blacks in the abolition movement made it clear that black and slave were not “naturally” equated (Roediger 1999: 67).

Roediger’s research on urban workers of European descent in the Northeast during the nineteenth century identifies the self-reflexivity of this group through the ways in which they try to distinguish themselves from blacks, who were largely classified as slaves.1 Roediger argues that white labor, was successfully able to construct a differentiation from black labor through an ideological shift that made it more acceptable to be considered wage labor. Like Fields (1990) and Higginbotham (1992), Roediger notes the importance of language to the development of racial groupings. Roediger said that in the early nineteenth century, the terms “hireling,” “serving for hire or wages” were a slur:

Webster’s 1829 dictionary of American English gives “prostitute” as a synonym for hireling and further defines hirelings as “perjurers by virtue of their avarice.” ... The term was especially opprobrious for American republicans. In particular, the artisanal followers of Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson held that a free government required “independent” small producers who owned productive property and therefore were neither cowed nor mercenary, as lifelong hirelings would inevitably be. For Paine, “freedom [was] destroyed by dependence” and servant was an opprobrious term. Hirelings and slaves were sometimes connected in popular logic. . Thus, the gradual transition to wage labor from 1800 to 1860 (and beyond) was an extremely serious matter for labor republicans. .

From Tom Paine to Abraham Lincoln ran a line of thought that held that wage labor was not degrading per se—for Paine, man was free in large part because he held “property in his own labor. “Wage labor could then be a rite of passage on the road to the economic independence of free farming or of self-employed craft labor (45).

Occurring simultaneously with the changing connotations associated with wage laborers was the increase in voting rights allotted to this group as well as the decrease of these rights allotted to free blacks.

What were the features of the culture that gave rise to this segment of white group consciousness? The formation of modern mass media in the United States occurred during this period—the Jacksonian Era (Schudson 1978; Saxton 1984). This moment ushered in the Penny Press. This early form of the modern media system congealed around an economic model that required media to pull together the largest possible audience to sell to advertisers (Wilson & Gutierrez 1995). That this audience was low- and moderate-income European descendants is not an accident. This group of “whites ”in early U.S. society that developed with or through the emergent media system distinguished itself because its members had found an ideological path that separated them from slaves and free blacks and could eventually unite them with the hegemonic group of European elites.

The Penny Press spoke to this budding group of European descendants. These newspapers represented their interests, and could be financially sustained because the Penny Press papers had structured themselves to benefit from the new class position of this audience and their advertiser peers. Unlike slaves and many freed blacks, these white wage laborers had access to capital, albeit not as much as elite whites, and they could earn a living. With ideological support to be wage laborers, these white workers began to articulate their own interest with the formation of unions. Terms like “mechanics society,” “artisan,” and “journeyman” grew in popularity (Roediger 1999: 50). The Penny Press was for them.

During this period there was also a growing “alternative” medium—the abolitionist press, published by both whites and blacks. This “alternative medium” was similar to the Penny Press in being nonpartisan;2 yet, the abolitionist media, both black and white, are typically not included in the history of the Penny Press. The history of the abolitionist press shows that it was a counterpoint to the “traditional” Penny Press of the era. Some of the issues in the abolitionist press were not supported by the audience that bought the Penny Press.

The black press played a strong, vocal role in the fight against slavery. There were approximately 500,000 free blacks in the U.S. during this period; however, the black communities across the nation had tremendous difficulty financially to support a black press (Rhodes 1994). About forty black-owned newspapers were started in the antebellum U.S., but only six were able to survive for more than two years.

Poverty, illiteracy, competing political agendas, and the social effects of racism and discrimination contributed to the creation of an audience that could not support—financially or otherwise—a single vision of one newspaper. African American publications played a vital role in galvanizing the abolitionist movement, encouraging education and racial improvement, and disseminating the news, yet nearly all operated at a loss and most were short lived (Rhodes 1994).

The first black newspaper in the U.S., Freedom’s Journal, began publishing in 1827 by free blacks Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm (Franklin 1980: 188). In 1829, Cornish published another paper, Rights of All; and in 1836 he published the Weekly Advocate (188). He began another joint venture in 1837 called the Colored American. “Other black abolitionist newspapers were the National Watchman, edited by William G. Allen and Henry Highland Garnet; the Mirror of Liberty, a quarterly issued by David Ruggles; and, of course, the North Star of Frederick Douglass” (189). Unlike the Penny Press, whose readership grew almost exponentially, the black press had trouble gaining subscribers. The same is true for the white abolitionist press, Rhodes argues.

The white abolitionist press took both moderate and more radical positions concerning the future of slavery in the U.S. The more moderate abolitionist took the position of “the American Colonization Society, which was formed in 1816 to promote the colonization of free blacks in Africa” (Davis 1975: 33). Charles Osborn published the Philanthropist in Ohio in 1817, then moved to Tennessee in 1819 and published the Manumission; Elihu Embree published the Emancipator in Jonesboro, Tennessee in 1820; Quaker William Swain published the Patriot in Greensboro, North Carolina; and William Lloyd Garrison, one of the most famous radical white abolitionists, published the Liberator around 1830 (Franklin 1980: 180—85). Franklin points to the period after 1830 as the rise of the militant abolitionists; he notes that they were often faced violence.

Elijah P Lovejoy was run out of St. Louis for criticizing the leniency of a judge in the trial of persons accused of burning a Negro alive. Later in Alton, Illinois, he was killed when a mob destroyed for the fourth time the press on which he printed the Alton Observer.

In Cincinnati a mob destroyed James Birney’s press in 1836, and he barely escaped with his life (185).

Much of this type of violence was instigated by early Penny Press editors (Mindich 2000: 19). Mindich cites incidents in which the violence was directed at both abolitionist editors and African Americans who happened to be around.

The “white-run” abolitionist papers also experienced very limited success. They did not reach the circulation the Penny Press, in general, achieved: “In reality, most anti-slavery and other associational newspapers had circulations that rarely reached in the thousands. William Lloyd Garrison noted that even ten years after he began publishing the Liberator, the paper never had more than about 3,000 subscribers (Rhodes 1994).

It is clear that the media at this time had various positions on the race question. What has not been clearly acknowledged is that the development of these media reflected articulations of a particular group position—whiteness. Roedi- ger’s research suggests that the establishment of the consciousness of this group of whites as wage laborers was only part of what was taking place. This group was differentiating between itself and blacks, both slaves and free, to construct a distinction in consciousness based on whiteness (1999: 87).

Despite the limited reach of the abolitionist papers, they were actively engaged in dialogue with the Penny Press. One of the subjects of coverage in the black and white abolitionist press that was also included in mainstream news coverage was condemnation of the use of bloodhounds to track runaway slaves and Native Americans:

however unexceptional these southern slave-catching dogs may have been, abolitionists were nonetheless offended at the way slave owners animalized slaves by sending dogs after them as though they were beasts of the forests. In an 1832 description of a slave hunt in South Carolina, the Boston Liberator (published by William Lloyd Garrison) conveyed this animalization by noting that the “slavite” used “his guns and dogs to destroy ” two fugitives as though they were “panthers or bears” (Campbell 2006: 273).

Ironically the black and white abolitionist press could not help each other survive against the relative juggernaut the Penny Press represented. Two of the great leaders in the alternative press arena, Garrison and Douglass, went their separate ways politically. Journalism historian Mindich credits Garrison’s antiConstitution position for the split (2000: 19). Mindich argues that while Garrison wanted to drop out of the political system, Douglass was fighting to be included as a full citizen (19).

The Penny Press was being taken in another political direction as it expanded. Its audience began to equate blacks with noncitizens (Roediger 1999). Articles were filled with stories about renewed conflicts over slavery—as in the case of westward expansion—and conflicts with Native Americans—as in the case of southern territories. The narrative was that the issue of race was a threat to the union (Saxton 1984: 234). This threat to the union came in two forms: fear of slave rebellions3 and apprehension that the newly formed union would becoming irreparably fractured. The latter was an internal conflict created by the obvious contradiction with the ideals of the Enlightenment. But the meaning working- class groups of whites assigned to blacks was that of “enemy” of the union (Roediger 1999: 57).

 
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