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Response to Sean Wilentz, "Against Exceptionalism: Class Consciousness and the American Labor Movement, 1790-1920"

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[Excerpt] Wilentz's critique of the exceptionalist theme in American historiography is to the point. Whether one applauded the absence of feudalism, and therefore class conflict, in America with the historians of the 1950s or bemoaned that liberal democratic tradition as the "nail in the coffin of class consciousness" in the 1970s, either interpretative structure sacrifices empirical evidence for grand theory. In the former, the careers of Thomas Skidmore or Ira Stewart are all but incomprehensible; in the latter, men like Joseph R. Buchanan or Eugene V. Debs have little relevance. More importantly, the actual experience of the majority of American working people is either lost or misunderstood. For as Wilentz sharply delineates, the fact that American workers did not largely espouse an a priori notion of class did not mean that they either embraced the ideology of their employers or were defenseless, in the political culture, when confronted by the demands of those same employers on the shop floor. In exploring the continued power of America's democratic revolutionary heritage for working people in the generations following 1776, Wilentz emphasizes a central concern of many workers that, the evidence would suggest, structured much of their response to industrial capitalism.

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1984-10-01

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labor movement; exceptionalism; class; liberalism; politics; capitalism

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Government Document

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Required Publisher Statement: © Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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unassigned

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