Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

Seth Rockman’s Dredging and Drudgery

Throughout history, it can be seen how the lower class people are the ones who always fall victim to unemployment and poverty. It is no surprise that class inequality is still thriving to this day. The gap between the classes is tremendously big and not getting smaller any time soon. The paper written by Seth Rockman named “Dredging and Drudgery” where he talks about early Baltimore Maryland. In which he explores the Baltimore republic and class conditions. During that time people of Baltimore were struggling with employment which was very scarce. I personally would not be surprised if the scarcity of employment was due to capitalists as they are the ones during that time who had the most capital and favored autonomy. Rockman continues to talk about Baltimore’s manual labor which he said that hard laborers were dredging where people excavate sand to form a new establishment. In Baltimore’s case, new harbors were formed in which more ships came to Baltimore with rich resources.

“Many of the workers stood knee-deep in the water while shoveling debris in and out of the scows. The work was grueling, filthy, and unsuited to the virtuous habits of republican artisans. Without it, however, Baltimore’s commercial prosperity would have ceased.” 

( Rockman 76) 

One would think with this employment that the lower class will be doing well but no that is not the as it is no surprise that the capitalists are the ones who the benefiting the most from this all this overall manual labor. Baltimore also had slaves who were part of the hard labor force during that time as Rockman described it as the slaves trading on hard labor so they can get their families free. To working-class Baltimoreans, the reasons for poverty were obvious a lack of employment, increased costs for limited quantities of basic essentials. According to Rockman workers’ “adapted” survival tactics that are built on basic fundamental characteristics of the early republic’s capitalist culture which was to stop looking for enjoyment rather have the courage/willingness to work harder in order to improve the conditions of family members.

An interesting character to look for while reading Rockman’s paper is Owen Mullen who was a mudmechanist for more than 20 years. 

“Mullen had toiled on the mudmachine for upwards of twenty years. For Mullen and his co-workers, manual labor was not a life stage to be outgrown, but a career.” ( Rockman 99)

The majority of backbreaking labor fell on the lower class and slaves 1838 petitions which were about increasing minimum wage had mullen’s name affixed to it showing traits of economic change. We can look at time as a fight versus two groups ( Bourgeois vs Proleteriants ) which is very enduring as it can be seen throughout history but also in our modern society. Rockman’s Dredging and Drudgery was a very interesting reading that showed early Baltimore’s republic. Explored the labor forces and how social inequality had its roots in Baltimore.

One thought on “Seth Rockman’s Dredging and Drudgery”

  1. I’m glad to see you engage with this reading, and especially honing in on the quotes you chose and on the case of Owen Mullen. However, what was Rockman’s point in highlighting Owen, for whom he says there is evidence he worked on the mudmachines for 20 years? (See the last sentence in the chapter)

    I’m also glad to see you point out the proximity of slavery to free labor, which is one thing that made Baltimore (a border South town located in a slave state) somewhat unique. But, to be clear, the men Rockman describes working on the mudmachine were not for the most part enslaved–rather, they were free, native-born or immigrant white men, many from Ireland. What does all this tell us about the transition from “unfree” to “free” labor during this period (1810s-30s)? How does Rockman suggest that the rise of wage labor worked to the advantage of employers rather than the employed? (see p. 98-99)

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