SOCIAL CLASS RIGIDITIES IN COLONIAL AMERICA
It is the purpose of this chapter to throw some light on that troublesome generalization known as the American Dream. The thesis developed here is that the social classes in America have shown not only in the general sources of information, but more especially in the supplementary material (Appendix III) based on family biographies. This presentation, including Chapter XII, gives systematic form and shape to the discussion of social class formation in American history for the first time, so far as can be ascertained.Next Page
The lower classes in the American colonies. Many immigrants with few means hoped to find on this continent free land, 1
the tillage of which would insure them a measure of independence. Upon arriving they found vast available parts of the country, especially the most desirable and accessible portions bordering shores or rivers, pre-empted . . . . The laborer was purposely abased to the utmost and he was made to feel in many ways his particular low place in the social organization.
Myers is a vitriolic writer; perhaps he has exaggerated. But Adams, historian of recent fame, could never be accused of hatred for economic royalists of stirring up feeling for the suffering masses. His description of the Virginia-Carolina countryside at the beginning of the eighteenth century reads: 2
In one place where Byrd stopped, he says that "there was a dirty poor house, with hardly anything in it but children, that wallow'd about like so many pigs. ". . . Of the wife of one frontiersman we read in the contemporary account of a visitor that "she is a very civil woman and shows nothing of ruggedness or immodesty in her carriage, yet she will carry a gun in the woods and kill deer, turkeys, etc., shoot down wild cattle, catch and tye hoggs, knock down beeves with an ax . . . ."
. . . When the era of land speculation set in, it was the toils and dangers of such people as these that gave the speculators their profits, and these heroic, if often squalid and uncouth, figures should be traced on the reverse of that tapestry on the other and brilliant side of which are the gay and attractive figures of gentlemen and ladies in satin and brocade in houses where the light of abundant candles set in silver flickered across many a treasured portrait of today.
Schlesinger, honored professor of history at Harvard, makes the following statement, the opposite viewpoint to that of the American Dream: 3
It may stimulate some philosophical reflection to find that the improvements in the modes of life during this period were altogether in the homes of the rich and that the poor man in 1763 was in no better situation than his pioneer grandfather had been.
This is nothing new to the student of the social classes. It has already been seen that the ordinary plebs in Rome received only their allotment of bread while Rome waxed rich on war loot; between 1500 and 1600 England increased her per capita wealth, but the distribution mechanism drew off the cream for the few. Plain houses in the South were transformed into palatial mansions while the backwoods and outskirts of towns stank of unending squalor.
The theory that abundant land in America gave rise to middle class independence should give way to the theory that the generosity of nature here guaranteed to the lower classes of Europe only more to eat and drink. That is to say, independence (freedom from both feudal bonds and the wage system) assured no person of low class of a place in the ranks of the class above. This is made clear by Adams: 4
It might be true, as Franklin said . . . that any man who could bait a hook or pull a trigger could get food in America, but this brought him no nearer to becoming a mercantile magnate or an opulent planter . . . . By the first decade of the eighteenth century, therefore . . . the differences between the man who started with advantages and the man who did not, [was becoming] more definite and more fixed.
This is a description of American colonial life; there is no dreaming here.
Wertenbaker 5 divides colonial society of the seventeenth century, the period earlier than that of the foregoing descriptions, as follows: (1) an aristocracy at the top, (2) skilled artisans and freeholders, (3) unskilled laborers, usually addressed by their Christian names only, (4) indentured servants, (5) slaves. "Men of the three lowest classes were often admitted to the church society, but seldom to political citizenship, and the line of social distinction was sharply drawn in this case." 6
1. Gustavus Myers, History of the Great American Fortunes (New York, 1936 edition) p. 37.
2. James Truslow Adams, Provincial Society, 1690 - 1763 (New York, 1927) pp. 92 - 93.
3. Ibid., pp. xvi and xvii of the foreward by Arthur M. Schlesinger and Dixon Ryan Fox.
4. Ibid., pp. 58 - 59.
5. Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, The First Americans 1607 - 1690 (New York, 1929) pp. 72 - 74.
6. Loc. cit.