Seth E. Rockman Associate Professor of History

Born in Indiana and raised in San Francisco, Seth Rockman received a BA from Columbia University and completed his PhD at UC-Davis. After several years on the faculty of Occidental College in Los Angeles, Rockman joined the Brown History Department in 2004. His 2009 book Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore won the OAH's Merle Curti Prize, the Philip Taft Labor History Book Award, and the H.L. Mitchell Prize from the Southern Historical Association. Rockman and Sven Beckert have recently co-edited Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, to appear in summer 2016 from Penn Press. Rockman is currently writing a new book about shoes, shovels, hats, and hoes manufactured in the North for use on Southern slave plantations, which he will finish during the 2016-17 year as a fellow at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

Brown Affiliations

Research Areas

scholarly work

“What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy,” Journal of the Early Republic 34 (Fall 2014).

“An Artist of Baltimore.” In Joy Peterson Heyrman, ed., New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 25-36.

“Slavery and Capitalism.” In “Forum on the Future of Civil War Era Studies,” Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (March 2012): online supplement.

"Jacksonian America." In Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, eds., American History Now, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 54-76.

"Slavery and Abolition along the Blackstone." In A Landscape of Industry: An Industrial History of the Blackstone Valley. A Project of the Worcester Historical Museum and the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor (University Press of New England, 2009), 110-131.

Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

"Work, Wages, and Welfare at Baltimore's School of Industry," Maryland Historical Magazine 102 (Spring 2007): 572-607.

"Work in the Cities of Colonial British North America: A Review Essay," Journal of Urban History 33 (September 2007): 1021-1032.

"The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism." In Cathy Matson, ed., The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 335-361.

"Class: Overview." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation, edited by Paul Finkelman et al., (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005), I, 277-279.

"Liberty is Land and Slaves," OAH Magazine of History 19 (May 2005): 8-11.

"Class and the History of Working People in the Early Republic," Journal of the Early Republic 25 (Winter 2005): 527-535.

"The Contours of Class in the Early Republic City," Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 1 (Winter 2004): 91-107.

"Baltimore: Mobtown U.S.A," Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 3:4 (July 2003).

Welfare Reform in the Early Republic: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2003).

"Saving Morris Hull: Capital Punishment and the Court of Public Opinion in Early Republic Baltimore." In Jessica Elfenbein et al., eds., From Mobtown to Charm City: New Perspectives on Baltimore's Past (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2002), 64-91.

"Women's Labor, Gender Ideology, and Working-Class Households in Early Republic Baltimore," Explorations in Early American Culture [supplemental issue of Pennsylvania History] 66 (1999): 174-200.

research overview

Seth Rockman is a specialist in Revolutionary and Early Republic United States history, with a focus on the relationship of slavery and capitalism in American economic and social development. The histories of race, labor, and social welfare are central to his research. Rockman supervised undergraduate research for the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, and is now conducting his own research on the relationship of Northern manufacturing to the plantation economies of the South.

research statement

Trained broadly as an early Americanist, I am interested in three historical trajectories that converged in the late-eighteenth century: the emergence of capitalism in the Atlantic World, the rise of New World Slavery, and the articulation of liberal conceptions of human agency and personal freedom. Integrating economic, labor, and cultural history, my work explores the social experience of economic change in the decades surrounding the American Revolution. In 2003, I published Welfare Reform in the Early Republic: A Brief History with Documents with Bedford Books. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore came out in 2009 from Johns Hopkins University Press.

About Scraping By : Imagine Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed , circa 1818— that is, a very material look at how low-end workers found and kept jobs, navigated underground economies, employed clever strategies to keep households afloat, and what happened when they failed. Scraping By situates enslaved mariners, white seamstresses, Irish dockhands, free black domestic servants, and native-born street-sweepers in the same labor market, on the same jobsites, and ultimately within the same political economy of early republic capitalism. As a "labor history of unskilled labor" and one of the first studies to consider such diverse workers side-by-side, Scraping By explores how race, sex, nativity, and legal status determined the opportunities and vulnerabilities of working families. This study focuses on Baltimore between 1790 and 1840, when this boomtown was the nation's third-largest city, had the nation's largest population of color, and (perched at the boundary of North and South) saw its number of free and enslaved workers grow simultaneously. Sources include construction site payrolls, employment advertisements, almshouse records, court petitions, and speeches from the nation's first "living wage" campaign.

Scraping By is fundamentally a study of capitalism and class in the post-Revolutionary US. In advance of the book, I have published several stand-alone essays on 1) integrating slavery into histories of capitalism, and 2) the viability of class analysis for the early republic United States. This work suggests that at a time when issues of globalization, free trade, corporate accounting, and fair labor practices dominate the headlines, economic history is too important to be left to traditional economic historians. Eschewing social-scientific models of human behavior and market mechanisms, I propose a history of American capitalism that recognizes the cultural and social forces that constitute "the market" and shape a multiplicity of human responses to economic stimuli.

My new book project-- under contract with University of Chicago Press-- focuses on objects manufactured in the North for use on plantations in the American South. At the intersection of business history and material culture studies, I consider the multiple meanings of hoes, blankets, and machetes as they moved great distances and fell into different hands. These artifacts illuminate issues of slave resistance, abolitionism, business ethics, technological innovation, and Southern nationalism, while also situating entrepreneurs, factory laborers, planters, and slaves in the same narrative of economic development. By following "plantation goods" from production to consumption, it is possible to see the simultaneity of opportunity and oppression in American history.

In April 2011, Sven Beckert (Harvard) and I convened a three-day conference entitled "Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development." After a keynote address by President Ruth Simmons, seventeen scholars presented new research and engaged in vigorous discussion with commentators and the audience. The conference generated a volume of essays which will appear in the Early American Studies series at University of Pennsylvania Press.

funded research

AY 2016-2017: International Research Center on Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History (re:work), Humboldt University, Berlin. 

Fall 2016: Berlin Prize, American Academy in Berlin, (declined)

AY 2009-10: Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies (held 2010-11)

Fall 2007: Research Fellow, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, Yale University.

Fall 2007: Research Fellow, Institute for Southern Studies, University of South Carolina

Spring 2007: National Endowment for the Humanities Long-term Fellow, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

AY 2001-2002: Program in Early American Economy and Society Postdoctoral Fellow, Library Company of Philadelphia.

2001: Gilder-Lehrman Fellow, New-York Historical Society.