Political Thought and Class Formation in the New American Republic

Dr Tom Cutterham (Oxford)
10 December 2014

This lecture, given by Dr Tom Cutterham of the University of Oxford, focuses on the reorganisation of social class during the early years of the United States. The central question Dr Cutterham poses is why was there not observable class antagonism in America in the early 19th century? When compared to racial and gendered divisions at home, and social class in Europe, (white male) Americans all seemed to have belonged to a single class with shared values and a shared culture.

In the first part of the lecture, he explains that early American society was not actually any more egalitarian than its counterparts in Europe, or any less asymmetrical than it was before the revolution. Instead society had experienced a change in consciousness and language where all citizens subscribed to the same values but remained unequal. He then goes on to trace the evolution of political thought that resulted in this ideological change, starting with the Society of Cincinnati who were a proponent of aristocratic ideas, including inherited titles. This was challenged by Aedanus Burke, who wrote that those men with merit, rather than those with powerful fathers, should govern labouring men in the same way that the ‘mind must govern the hands’, and thus sought to arrive at a more economic and rational perspective towards class and politics.

Dr Cutterham then looks at the language which helped give the illusion of classlessness. He argues that the ruling elite felt threatened by the revolutionary rhetoric, so they appropriated the rhetoric for themselves to dupe the American population into thinking that there was no elite against which to be antagonistic. They did this by using the rhetoric of ‘the rule of law’ that no man, no matter how powerful, was above the laws that were determined by regular ‘equal’ voters. The combination of this rational perspective and liberal rhetoric unified white Americans across class and interest under a common ideology.

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