U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fanfare for the Common Man

copland sheet musicThere is no Library of Congress subject heading for “common man,” though there is one for “common mussel” and for “common markets.” Nor could you go to your catalog and find books filed under “common people,” though you could find “common peafowl” and “common persimmon.” These redirect you to “peafowl” and “persimmon,” respectively, but at least you are getting somewhere. “Common man” does not redirect you to “man,” nor “common people” lead you to “people.”

Yet “common man,” or generally “the common man,” is an indispensable piece of political rhetoric and a cultural touchstone in the U.S. The product description of The Quotable Elizabeth Warren begins, for instance, “US Senator Elizabeth Warren has long been an original thinker and a powerful voice for the common man.” We are accustomed to subtitling the Jacksonian Era “the age of the common man,” and we generally take it for granted that the term has been as basic to politics and culture in the U.S. as other grand foundational phrases: “all men are created equal,” “pursuit of happiness,” “we, the people,” “land of opportunity,” “self-made man.”

This near timelessness, this fundamentality, presents a problem for someone setting out to write a history of the idea of the common man, as I have set out to do in my dissertation. Or rather, I didn’t set out to write a history of the idea of the common man, but that is what I have ended up doing. I came to realize that the questions I was asking depended on figuring out what precisely lay behind that simultaneously enigmatic and yet banal phrase, and what I discovered was that the supposedly unbounded history of “the common man” in the U.S. is actually rather short and contained. The common man has, or rather had, a lifespan: the timelessness we assume for the term is basically specious.

Or at least that’s what I’ve come to conclude, though I would also appreciate being proved wrong, and this post is, essentially, a way to ask for your help.

The claim I make in my dissertation is that American uses of the phrase “the common man” or even “common man” before the late nineteenth century are rare and scattered, and basically different from what the term comes to mean in the late nineteenth century. The dissertation itself is an exploration of the latter part of that claim, but the more straightforward—and easily falsifiable—first part of the claim is where I could benefit from some input.

A rudimentary google ngram search (below) confirms my basic hypothesis, but I hardly thought that was enough to go on. I’ve done a lot of basic and more targeted searching through a variety of databases for instances of the phrase “common man” earlier in the nineteenth century and back into the eighteenth, as well as plenty of general reading around in likely sources. But keyword searching and even informed but unsystematic reading are brute force methods and not exactly ideal, though no method is ideal when you’re trying to establish an absence.

I would be interested in two things: first, does this more bounded history of “the common man” surprise you? And second, have you run into instances of the term before the late nineteenth century, and if so, would you mind sharing the source? Please comment below, or email me–and please reach out if you’re just interested in the topic or working on something related: I’d love to chat! Thanks so much!

20 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As you might suspect, with my interest in ‘democratic culture’ I’m also intensely interested in whatever answers arise here—and the discussion generally. …I wonder if the ngram findings are related to Sarah Igo’s wonderful work, *The Averaged American*—wherein she traces how in the midcentury decades Americans had fad for understanding themselves in light of statistical commonalities. Otherwise, how much have you checked into the historiography on the Jacksonian Era (with that attendant link to Schlesinger in the midcentury historiography) to get a handle on the usage of the term in those times? – TL

  2. Tim,
    Great questions, and I figured this would interest you especially!
    The Jacksonian Era is a really fascinating case here: my reading/searching through some of the most prominent Jacksonian politicians and writers has turned up actually quite few (really almost none) instances of the term. What happens is that historians starting in about the 1920s and 30s begin labeling it the Age of the Common Man.
    Or at least, that’s what I’ve found so far, but I’m not an expert, and I’m hoping an antebellumist can set me straight!

    As for Igo’s book (which is fantastic), I see “common” and “average” as related but distinct, especially in the sense that she uses the latter term. For her study, “average” has a necessary connection to actual measurements, and to the consciousness of being measured. That’s not really true of “common.”

    • Your point about historians’ designations about the Jacksonian era is precisely why I cited Schlesinger who, if I remember correctly, wrote his first book on Jackson.

  3. Andy, how (if at all) is the term “common man” related to “common sense”? Is it possible (spitballing here) that “common man” took on or took over work that had been done by “common sense”? Or, in light of your comment up above, on the difference between “common” and “average,” is it perhaps the case that the emergence of the term “common man” somehow offered a way out of the regime of “measurement” and rationalization? That is, maybe we see the rise of “common man” as a pushback against the rise of “actuarial man” or “average(d) man.” So maybe scratch my first question here — except I suppose that “common” + man might be doing similar work to what “common” + sense did in terms of sidestepping/eschewing certain kinds of explanatory schemes that tend to de-emphasize or perhaps seem to delegitimize individual agency/experience.

  4. An ngram search for “Lincoln, common man” shows something, something I (no n-gram expert) interpret as saying Lincoln’s contemporaries linked him to the common man. A search for “Whitman, common man” doesn’t produce the same spike.

  5. Hi Andy,
    Sounds like a great topic especially in light of the new Greif book. I tend to agree and see it as a late 19th, although mainly 20th century phenomenon, which overlaps especially well with Greif’s “Age of Crisis”. I am thinking especially of the Carl Friedrich book, New Belief in the Common Man (1942), which uses the phrase explicitly (perhaps other titles around that time did as well).

    You might, however, take a look at this 1942 review of Friedrich’s book by George Sabine (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1334618?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)
    Sabine seems to trace the genealogy of the idea to the “rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries”

  6. Thanks, everyone, these are really excellent questions and exactly what I was hoping for!

    LD, “common sense” is definitely related and there’s an extraordinarily good book on it by Sophia Rosenfeld that has really helped shape my thinking. However (and this doubles more or less as a reply to the latter part of Bryan’s comment), the title of that book is Common Sense: A Political History, and that is where I think the transformation traced by the career of the term separates a bit from the longer history which Sabine and Rosenfeld want to attach to the common man. “The common man” is not just a political concept (one related to citizenship or sovereignty), but a cultural and economic one as well. It’s not just a question of how the common man votes, but also what “he” reads, watches, buys, and makes, and how those choices shape all of society. Does that make sense?

    Publius, I haven’t spoken to any linguists–can you be more specific on “this kind of work,” though? Do you mean like ngram/data-mining, or etymology?

    Bill, I tried to re-create what you searched for and I’m not exactly sure what you mean. Can you give me some more details of what you see?

    Bryan, Carl Friedrich’s book is a really interesting document, and you’re absolutely right, was one of many books around the early 1940s with “common man” in the title. Thanks so much for pointing out the Sabine review, which I tried to address a bit in my comment to LD above. Sabine is himself a fascinating figure–a good friend to Carl Becker and a brilliant political philosopher.

  7. Andy,

    I wonder if the juxtaposition of common fowl with common man is not so crazy as it seems. I wonder if the creation and rise of the common man is an expression of the classificatory tendency of early 20th century American social science. Perhaps, common man could be understood as an almost anthropological term. If so, it might be worth seeing if there’s a German parallel or equivalent (I get der Normalbuerger in the German dictionary, but there is also a clear connection to German discussions of mass man or die namenlose) which predates the English expression. I thought a chief failure of the Greif book was his breezy dismissal of social science thinking in shaping the mid-century crisis of man and I would hate to see that recapitulated elsewhere (mostly because it’s so near and dear to my heart!). I also found an article about searching for the ‘common man’ in early German anabaptism, I’ll email it to you.

  8. Andy –
    Fascinating topic. I wish I knew more about the relative merits of constituting a historical topic by a word or phrase, or in terms of a concept or conceptual field. The former is surely more readily undertaken, especially with google and the like. But I wonder what assumptions can be made about the strength of connection between words and meanings, either analytically or by way of particular historical settings. Perhaps your dissertation will be a way to explore these issues.

    Maybe in at least some circumstances, historical actors might orient themselves less to a particular lexeme than to a set of problems or issues, to an inchoate orientation or sensibility, where word usage [speech-acts if you like] is fluid, unstable, contested, and actors have a sense of the variability of terms for addressing particular issues or topics.

    Of course, organizing an inquiry around “common man” doesn’t preclude these considerations, but it might be worthwhile to consider to what extent the space the phrase creates also bounds an interesting set of topics or problems, and how one would know.

    Actually it seems you’ve already addressed these issues, clear that a “history of the idea of the common man” is not the same as a history of the phrase “the common man.” As you suggest, another advantage of the latter is that it lacks a possible and messy continuity.

    These questions come to mind in part because I’ve been reading Mark Greif’s new book, so I’ll throw out the question, is it a history of a words, ideas, or “collisions and concentrations…[a] principle of determination of historical thought.” [xi]

  9. Cool topic. I personally have long been interested in the history of the term ‘commons,’ as in ‘house of commons’ or ‘the commons.’ I have found references to the idea of the commons as a contested category as early as the English peasant rebellion of 1382 and the vagrancy laws instituted after the Black Death in England.
    I’m sure you are familiar with the tension in Republican thought between its egalitarian impulse and its insistence on elitism and how the tension between the categories commoners and gentlemen was at the center of that intellectual problem, as Gordon Wood and others have stressed. Benjamin Irvin’s book “Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty” is perhaps the latest and most interesting on that front.
    I would also suggest looking into the image of the west in American imagination. I particularly like Richard Slotkin’s first two books on the frontier mythology and John William Ward’s classic book about Jackson, “Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age.”
    Another interesting literature to consult might be the early stuff published in western literary history such as Jennette Tandy’s “Cracker Box Philosphers” and Blair’s “Horse Sense in American Humor.”
    I’ll be happy to talk more about this topic as it intersects significantly with my own research.

  10. Last year I read parts of Jason Frank’s Constituent Moments (2010), a political theorist’s look at how the notion of “the people” was used/mobilized in different contexts in the U.S. from the immediate post-Revolutionary era through Whitman and Frederick Douglass. I don’t recall him discussing occurrences of “common man” or “the common man,” but it’s a while since I’ve looked at the book (and I was using a library copy, so don’t have it handy now). Here’s a link to the description on the publisher’s site, fwiw/fyi:

    On another point, I’d be a bit surprised if “the common man” or some very close cognate phrase does not show up in Tocqueville, but you may have checked into that already. (Democracy in America is on the shelf but it’s too late in the evening to start rooting around in it.)

  11. Thanks again, all!

    Louis, the Frank book is a great recommendation; I will definitely check it out. As for Tocqueville, I believe that the only translation that uses “the common man” is the new Goldhammer one, which uses it to translate three of the instances of “l’homme du peuple.” Goldhammer is probably the best there is, so perhaps I should trust him, but it seems to me that he’s likely using a more current term on purpose rather than indicating a belief that “common man” would have been the contemporary equivalent. It’s an interesting choice, regardless.

    Eran, your suggestions, as always, are incredibly useful (and I’m a big fan of Slotkin). I don’t know the two books on humor that you mention, but I think they’d have a great deal for me. And I do definitely think that the longer history of “commons/the commons” has bearing on “the common man.” Raymond Williams has (as usual) some really great stuff about this in Keywords.

    Bill, the issue of how particular to be about sticking just to the phrase “common man” is still one I am working through, but I tend to think of the phrase less like a delimiter and more like a magnet: it’s not so much what it rules out as what it pulls in. Some texts (we’ll call them “Class A”) are clearly “about” the common man because they use the phrase explicitly, but there are also some texts (“Class B”) which are in conversation with Class A, but don’t use the term at all. I don’t think it’s legitimate to rule them out because of that, but it’s also probably not wise to begin with them either. “The common man” is my hub or my magnet.

    Matt, what you say about Greif’s dismissal of social scientific discourse is an aspect of the book that I haven’t really thought much about–I found the section on Lèvi-Strauss impressive, but you’re absolutely right, there’s a kind of hollowness to his treatment of other social scientific thinkers. But generally, I think you’re totally correct that “the common man” takes on a sort of classificatory function from time to time, and that’s a very important dimension or modality of the term. As for cognates in other cultures, there’s a great novel called Kleiner Mann, was nun? by Hans Fallada which in some ways becomes a kind of novel of the common man for interwar Germany.

    • Andy – Okay, but it seems you’re simply positing that the phrase “common man” is an [all-powerful!!] magnet for the “idea of the common man.” What’s the argument for doing so? Did it actually operate that way for historical actors?

  12. Andy — Interesting re the Goldhammer translation of “l’homme du peuple”; I think you’re probably right about his reasoning there (though hard to say w/ certainty without asking him, and I imagine he’d reply to a question about it).

  13. Hi Andy — this is a really fascinating topic, and one that I can’t believe has received so little treatment beforehand.

    I suppose I have some of the same questions as Bill Fine about the appropriate method for grappling with this topic. Perhaps you are right, as a matter of research process, to start first with the phrase “common man” and see where this leads (“Class A”) before moving on to those texts (“Class B”) that enunciate the notion of the common man at the level of idea but not at the level of language / lexeme. Yet the literary scholar in me can’t help but wonder about the limits of this strategy, since it would have neglect passages like this one from Emerson’s “American Scholar,” with its conspicuous use of “common”: “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body; — show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature.”

    Or this one from Whitman’s “Preface to _Leaves of Grass_” (1855): “the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people. Their manners, speech, dress, friendship—the freshness and candor of their physiognomy—the picturesque looseness of their carriage … their deathless attachment to freedom—their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean—the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states—the fierceness of their roused resentment—their curiosity and welcome of novelty—their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy—their susceptibility to a slight—the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors—the fluency of their speech—their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul … their good temper and open handedness—the terrible significance of their elections—the President’s taking off his hat to them, not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.”

    Now, maybe Emerson and Whitman are simply historical exceptions (i.e. literary geniuses who are not very representative of broader mid-19th c. US discourse); or maybe you are interested in the singular (common man) more than the plural (common people). But in both cases, I think these examples point to a use of “common” that is not primarily political, but rather about manners, style, the sensibility of “the common,” that you are after. Would love to hear your thoughts on this–why these figures do or don’t fit your thesis! And what about cases like the book and catchphrase “Babbitt”–again, where the idea is in play but not the word?

    To add one more recommended book to the list if you don’t already know it: I’d be surprised if there were not some reference to “common man” in Kenneth Cmiel’s _Democratic Eloquence_, maybe in the chapter on “the democratic idiom.” I remember being mightily impressed by the depth of his research into the grammar books and dictionaries of 18th and 19th c. America–he may point the way towards sources that are not captured by n-grams.

  14. Bill,
    Thank you for these great prods regarding method!
    But if only the magnet were “all-powerful!” That would leave me with little to do except faithfully record where the word pops up. My argument is that the phrase *did* have a special meaning for historical actors, a meaning which it really began to take on in the late nineteenth-century. We may be accustomed to “the common man” being used relatively thoughtlessly or reflexively today, but it had a more deliberate weight in the period I’m studying.
    Of course, I’m presenting this as a conclusion rather than as a premise (though it might look like the latter). My project didn’t actually begin with “the common man,” but in a rather different place. “The common man” was what I kept ending up with; my sources kept returning to it like a magnet or a hub. But it wasn’t what I started with–I didn’t begin my research saying, “I’m going to find out if there’s a pattern to the uses of the term ‘common man.'” It was a very inductive process, even if I may have (inadvertently) represented it as a teleological one here.

    I think that may also address some of the (very justified!) qualms you express with my method.
    I actually just finished a chapter with that Emerson quote in it, and I’ve discussed Whitman (more Democratic Vistas than Leaves of Grass, though) in a prior section of the diss, so I hope that gives you confidence that I’m not missing crucial texts!
    But I agree that there is a great danger of blinding myself to key passages in canonical or influential works which aren’t picked up by even a loose macroanalytic method focused on a single term and its cognates. (FWIW, in practice, I have also been looking for “common people.) But that danger is mostly mitigated, I think, by reading widely in secondary sources. As you point out, there’s a surprising lack of attention to the actual discourse of “the common man,” so most historians are not glued to the term in any kind of systematic manner and thus connect various texts without much thought to whether they share this particular lexeme. Understanding the connections that they make–using, say, “Main Street,” or “the man in the street,” or “common ground,” or simply democracy–helps me adjust my filters in what I hope is a rather nuanced and sensitive manner.
    Even Franco Moretti admits to spot-checking the results of his “distant reading” exercises by actually plunging into individual works; I don’t think any responsible historian or critic will ever be able to avoid this, and I certainly wouldn’t want to!

  15. Jonathan Baldwin Turner pushed the land-grant college movement to provide education for the 95 percent, not the 5 percent. In “Reclaiming the American Library Past: Writing the Women in” (1993) Suzanne Hildenbrand seems to say Baldwin used the phrase “Common Man’s Bill of Rights”, though that seems to be the only place Google can find it.

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