The proportion of the lower orders to the higher is indicated in the number of persons with enough property to entitle them to vote. In Massachusetts, for instance, according to the charter of 1691, the qualifications for a voter was the possession of a freehold estate with an income of forty shilling per year or a personal estate worth fifty pounds sterling. Yet "in 1703, for example, out of a population of about seven thousand in Boston only two hundred and six voted for representatives." 7 How many could have voted it not shown. The Boards, however, estimate that in Pennsylvania, in the country districts, at least fifty per cent of the males were denied the ballot, even though the colony "allowed all men who held personal property worth fifty pounds, as well as freeholders, to vote for assemblymen . . . . " 8Next Page
An "Invoys" was taken in the town of Newbury, Massachusetts in 1688. It showed that the property of its 269 citizens the majority of farms were between ten and thirty acres; the largest was only 155 acres. 9 This indicates that even among the property owners the proportion of families struggling with the rocks, soil, and elements on a low level of living was considerable.
Carman says of the small farmers, skilled artisans and laborers: 10
Hampered by ignorance, without political power, often exploited by their employers, victimized by speculators, gamblers, dispensers of strong drink and liable for imprisonment for debt, their lot was far from being an enviable one.
Aside from a consideration of the indentured servant, which will be taken up later in this chapter as a part of a special study of the colony of Virginia, the foregoing serves to indicate (1) the presence of many persons of definitely lower class standing in the colonies, (2) the fact that these lower orders were not in a position to step upward in the social scale, else they would have done so, and, especially, (3) that their condition was not one of progressive amelioration and improvement during the colonial era. The above quotation from Carman was written about the lower classes at the time of the establishment of the Constitution, showing that the colonial period did not follow the pattern of the American Dream, at least not for the lower classes.
The middle classes in colonial society. Any family already across the great divide separating those who work for others from those who get others to work for them -- which was, in those times, a tough and ready way of dividing the lower classes from their superiors -- was at least in the middle class. This class had, by 1650, sunk its teeth into the fruits of the new colonization. Although it was always difficult to distinguish members of the upper middle class in colonial America from many of the aristocrats, it was never hard to distinguish members of the middle classes from the masses. Furthermore, it is doubtlessly true that the chances of plucking one of the larger plums America offered was many times greater for those who were already trained in middle class habits and ideals and in possession of middle class capital than for those who, through habit and lack of credit or capital, lived from hand to mouth, from father to son. Also, many middle class persons who might never have founded a fortune through the operations of the laws of free competition succeeded in waxing rich by being able or fortunate enough to connive with the aristocratic political and economic leaders. It is difficult to draw a sharp class line among the persons engaged in political intrigue. Personal proximity to judges, land supervisors, governors, and even colonial dames were used by some members of the middle as well as by many members of the upper classes as a lever with which to pry open the abundant resources of this continent.
7. Adams, op. cit., p. 21
8. Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, vol. I (New York, 1927) p. 110.
9. Adams, op. cit., p. 29.
10. Harry J. Carman, Social and Economic History of the United States (Boston, 1930) vol. I, p. 406.