There 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!