Walt Whitman printed an insolent picture of himself on the frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. It was a portrait of déclassé insouciance and cheap clothes that marked the poet, in the words of the New York Tribune, as one of that “exemplary class of society . . . irreverently styled ‘loafers.’ ” In fact, Whitman was quite explicit about his identity as a loafer: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” he wrote at the beginning of the poem that later became known as “Song of Myself.” It was one of those rhetorical provocations that gave his poetics such startling resonance, as Whitman conspicuously sought to turn the tables on a favorite expression of moral censure employed by the better classes at midcentury.
The age abounded in loafers. There were literary loafers, Yankee loafers, French loafers, genteel loafers, common loafers, and country loafers— the latter observed by Nathaniel Hawthorne at the Brighton Cattle Fair “wait[ing] for some friend to invite them to drink.” Nevertheless, loaferism was most essentially a metropolitan phenomenon, strolling the city’s avenues, wharves, parks, and museums, and serving as a ready epithet for anyone seeking to hurl an anxious insult. The young New York conservative George Templeton Strong thus ascribed the worst tendencies of democracy, “so called,” to the loafer, while the Southern Literary Messenger accused him of advocating no less than “the sublime doctrine of social equality.” Loafers were known for cursing without shame and for smoking cigars. They cared little for the law and exhibited a studied disregard for public mores in general. They were eccentric, if not impudent, in their personal habits. They had a weakness for billiards and barrooms and were maddeningly self- satisfied, if not philosophically reclusive. And they wore stand- up collars that were, more often than not, covered in stains.
This stream of invective was not without its own logic. The loafer’s ubiquity in American conversation— the wide currency, that is, accorded to accusations of idleness and indolence— was testimony to an emerging labor problem: a crisis in the meaning of industriousness that was provoked, aptly enough, by industrial revolution. As someone “whose aim is to get through the world with as little energy as possible,” the loafer presented an adamant rebuke to productive effort and labor theories of value that had long informed republican thought and American political practice. “The only real employment intended for man was to eat and sleep,” the Ladies Companion sardonically observed in an essay on the subject in 1837, “and the Loafer’s principle and practice on the matter, were in unison.” And yet, as the New- York Daily Times noted some years later, the loafer was deeply implicated in the forward march of progress: “In a barbarous state of society loafers were, without doubt, scarce; in fact, their very existence is doubtful.” This was in pointed contrast to the present day, when their numbers “increase with hundred- fold rapidity beneath the benignant influence of civilization.” Loafing, it consistently followed, was no less than “the consummation of all industry.”
And so “the real employment intended for man” became an open question in the age of capital. That was why the talking classes fretted incessantly about Americans becoming “impatient of hard work out of doors.” Henry Ward Beecher opened his best- selling Seven Lectures to Young Men in 1846 with a sermon on industry and idleness that warned of a “pestilent sediment” forming under society’s foundations, an expanding class of sluggards who preferred to sleep late rather than wield a plow. Beecher’s rhetoric was characteristic of a nationwide trope— shared by conservatives and radicals alike— pro- testing the ruinous effects of too much easy money. “The stampede towards the golden temple became general,” Joseph Baldwin observed in his Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi, while Jesse Chickering, a Boston minister, physician, statistician, and writer on political economy seemingly far removed from the speculative fever of the southwestern frontier, lamented to local audiences that “we have become emphatically a commercial community.” Chickering meant that the once axiomatic relationship between labor and its fruits was coming undone, and that trade seemed to be the basis of industry rather than the opposite.
The logic of accumulation that drove men to buy in order to sell, “and sell to buy the more,” as another pundit remarked of the spiraling effects of the commodity form, was poised to assume sovereign control of the economy. The Treasury of Knowledge consequently noted that if shopkeepers and manufacturers could not turn a surplus on their goods, there was little point in putting them up for sale in the first place since “it is only the profit that they live upon.” The primary purpose of wealth in such a system was to make more wealth, to which end men made things.
But who made the market where all the goods were accordingly trans- formed into so much surplus value? Francis Walker, director of the federal government’s Bureau of Statistics after the Civil War, discovered the answer to that question by analyzing the nation’s census returns from 1860. They revealed the products of American industry being “conveyed from the producer to the consumer by a series of exchanges which can hardly average less than three in number, and with a percentage of expenses and profits . . . that must amount to fifty per cent upon their original cost. What a tremendous fact!” Such facts attracted Walker’s attention because they showed that men “taking the whole product to themselves . . . asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings and slaves on the other,” as Lincoln described an ostensibly ascendant free soil ideal, were nevertheless beholden to the enterprise of those who produced nothing of value themselves. Champions of the commercial life could thus contend, as Charles Edwards did in the premier volume of Hunt’s Merchant’s Magazine, that trade enjoyed a distinct advantage over all other sectors of the economy because it increased the wealth of a nation “without the labor of producing or fabricating a single article.” Digging up rocks on a virgin hillside in preparation for planting might re- main a defining moment of American civilization, in other words, but such heavy lifting was increasingly dependent on the offices of bankers, brokers, factors, and wholesalers who specialized in disposing of the surpluses of others’ productive efforts. Indeed, not fewer than three quarters of a million persons, Francis Walker continued in his survey of the census data, directly participated in bringing the products of the nation’s industry to market.
All this buying and selling begat a giant class of “merchant clerks,” the generic nomenclature for an expanding cadre of young men finding employment in counting rooms, credit agencies, import houses, commission businesses, trust companies, law offices, insurance brokerages, auction firms, savings banks, retail stores, wholesale warehouses, and the era’s new “marble palaces,” where they devoted long hours to taking stock, keeping accounts, displaying wares, delivering bills, distributing samples, paying import duties, figuring interest charges, and copying out a constant stream of correspondence that tied the nation’s far-flung merchants and manufacturers together in an opportunistic negotiation over the ever- shifting terms of exchange. Edgar A. Poe took note of this phenomenon and called it deskism, “for want of a better word.” In fact, there was no better word, both because it perspicaciously accorded business administration the status of doctrine and because it acknowledged the growing preponderance of a modern tribe of scriveners who “bend over a desk and scratch from ‘morn til dewey eve’ without inter- mission from day to day,” as a young general store clerk in Bangor, Maine named Benjamin Foster testified to the mass production needs of a modern “paper machine” designed to transpose the material world into commensurable units of exchange.
Clerking had become the third- largest (male) occupation in Manhattan by 1855, trailing only behind the city’s petty laborers and servants, encompassing the “thousands and tens of thousands who get their living in one way or another by the pen,” as Benjamin Franklin Foster, America’s “counting- house oracle” who is not to be confused with the young man from Bangor, identified the vast matriculation pool of candidates for his Commercial Academy, which opened its doors on Broadway in 1837. Almost every family has sent one or more representatives, Walter Barrett also observed in his Old Merchants of New York City of the mass movement of talent and enterprise out of rural New England and toward the emporium. “All do not succeed, but some do, and this is quite sufficient to keep the ambition to get a clerkship in New York alive.” Advertisements for a sales position at the counter, “at a salary less by half than a bricklayer can earn,” were answered by fifty applicants within six hours, according to other reports, “each eager to enter the field and try his chance in the mercantile world.” Twenty- year- old William Hoffman, recently arrived from an upstate farm and “ready to turn my hand to any thing that was honest, in the way of selling goods, figuring accounts, or fingering cash,” was tipped off about an opening at a Manhattan dry goods firm only to discover that twenty others had preceded him there that same morning. In fact, the numbers were often much larger. Charles French counted two hundred responses to an employment notice his father’s hardware business placed in Boston in the winter of 1859, and a hundred more when Charles opened his own establishment several months later. He eventually hired a young man from upper New England who soon moved on to a new job in Providence.
All these sellers of goods and figurers of accounts were hired to administer a system of “fast property,” Charles Briggs’s pithy characterization of the new industrial economy that appeared in his Adventures of Harry Franco: A Tale of the Great Panic, which was published in 1839. Briggs was referring to the growing number of business obligations dissolved upon the completion of each transaction, allowing the contracting parties to resume their former autonomy without any further regard to each other. The ensuing freedom from traditional tenets of commonweal— equity and just price, for instance, or kin and community, for that matter— proved essential to anyone seeking to calculate his own best interest. Property, which once served as the foundationof a thick web of household mutuality, deference, and constraint, was consequently converted into the fungible object of restless relations between anonymous persons associated solely through the equivalencies of floating prices. The revolutionary character of this development was evident in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s contention in 1841 that “Reliance on Property . . . is the want of self reliance.” There was no more incisive summary of the death of a yeoman ideal that had rested on the opposite reasoning, namely, that property constituted the surest guarantee of personal as well as political integrity.
Too many wish to reap before they have plowed, Henry Ward Beecher pro- tested, adopting the most— and the least— appropriate simile in reprimanding a post-agrarian generation of youth “fired with a conviction that shrewd- ness, cunning, and bold ventures, are a more manly way to wealth.” It was a shame, the New York Tribune editorialized as well, “that fine, hearty lads, who might clear their 50 acres each of western forest in a short time, and have a house, a farm, a wife, and boys about them in the course of ten years, should be hived up in hot salesrooms, handing down tapes and ribbons, and cramping their genius over chintzes and delaines.” Virginia Penny, mean- while, blamed them for female poverty in her Employments of Women. The reason there were so many young men performing the duties of clerks and salesmen, she explained, is that “they are lazy, and do not want to perform hard work.” And yet why would anyone undertake “bona fide physical labor,” Horace Greeley fretted, when he could more comfortably obtain a living without it? “I am the Counter- jumper, weak and effeminate,” the New York satirical monthly Vanity Fair thus retorted in an especially malevolent piece of Whitmanesque doggerel. “I love to loaf and lie about dry- goods.”
Michael Zakim teaches history at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of Accounting for Capitalism: The World the Clerk Made, Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men’s Dress in the American Republic, 1760–1860 and the coeditor of Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformations of Nineteenth-Century America.
This essay is excerpted from Accounting for Capitalism: The World the Clerk Made (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.) All rights reserved.