When Sir Henry Maine surveyed the theories regarding the origin of aristocracies, he found that the emphasis was placed on kingly favor. He then set about to show that some noble lines were founded by rich cattlemen, that the heroes of the Nibelungenlied were "not only noble but rich." 33 The inference here is that these nobles and warriors became such by virtue of their means, but the evidence is lacking to prove that wealth actually produced the first upper classes. They could have acquired wealth as a consequence of their power.Next Page
Max Weber, in describing how wealth became concentrated, shows the priority of social position over economic power. He writes: 34
The differentiation in wealth . . . has different sources. One is chieftainship, whether in the chieftain of a clan or a military group. The division of the land among the members of the clan was in the hands of the clan chieftain. This traditional right often developed into seignioral power which became hereditary.
Classes are not always made or unmade by economic trends, as the theory of economic determinism would teach; on the contrary, the king or tyrant sometimes undermines old aristocracies and exclusive groups and builds up different ones in their place. 35
Personal factors, most frequently of a social class character, often pave the way for the distribution of the economic surplus among persons. The workings of the social upon the economic factors in the life of colonial America are delineated by Adams: 36
. . . access to official society was a prerequisite to the securing of this influence [ability to obtain land grants] and as the society was comparatively limited, intermarriage among its members became increasingly frequent . . .
The financial standing of their members thus increasingly also enabled them to strengthen their position as merchants. In all the colonies, the councils were almost wholly made up of the members of these aristocracies . . . By means of their large landholdings, their possession of a considerable portion of the cash capital of America, their position as merchant creditors of the smaller people, their control of the councils, and their priviledged situation with regard to the dispensers of patronage and favors, as well as the more intangible influences always appertaining to a distinguished social position, the aristocrats by 1700 were fastening a firm grip both upon the political management and commercial exploitation of the New World.
There is one great difference between the generalization that new wealth purchases new status and the idea that old status is a source of wealth, both new and old. The latter is always an active process. Century after century it functions smoothly. The former statement is true only in certain times and places. The present period in the United States, at least the period from 1860 to the present, has perhaps seen more of the economic influence on social classes than human history has ever before experienced. The upper classes, in other words, have been temporarily unable to monopolize wealth and therefore hold their ranks firm.
33. Henry S. Maine, The Early History of Institutions (London, 1890) pp. 137-138.
34. Max Weber, General Economic History, tr. Frank H. Knight (New York, 1927) p. 51.
35. Fahbeck, op. cit., pp. 201-202.
36. James Truslow Adams, Provincial Society, 1690-1763 (New York, 1927) pp. 66-67.