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Social Class Rigidities In Colonial America

By William Cecil Headrick

 The early classes of the colonies were counterparts of the European social classes -- except for an overabundance of middle class elements in New England and eastern Pennsylvania, and a lack of middle class elements in Quebec, Spanish America, and the southern colonies. This was, then, in spite of the abundance of wealth in resources, not a land of equal or unusual opportunity, beyond the case with which a family could attain food. There was much social class rigidity and, during the colonial era, even an intensification of social stratification. This fact will become the more clear as a review is made of the upper or aristocratic classes.

The upper classes in colonial times. The extent to which colonial society was stratified and the part that the upper classes played in that stratification is summarized by Carman in these words: 16

We have already noted how, during the century and a half preceding the American Revolution, two fairly distinct social and economic classes developed in Colonial America. One, the conservatives, composed of the rich and the well-born -- of merchants, large landholders, and money-lenders -- dominated every phase of colonial life. It owned or controlled the economic resources of the colonies -- the bulk of the land, forests, fishing grounds, the agencies of commerce, and the fluid capital. By means of property qualifications for voting and office holding, and by recourse to the devices of wire pulling, log rolling, and bossism, it was able to limit greatly the political power of the rank and file. Socially, its members considered themselves superior to the common people, toward whom they assumed a snobbish attitude. Indeed, unless one had money or was a member of an "old respectable" family, or was well educated or had served the state in some prominent capacity, he was regarded as socially inferior. Even at Harvard College students' names, to the eve of the Revolution, were arranged in the order of the "respectability of their parentage."

Social life in the colonies was "burdened and charmed" by those of aristocratic ways. This was as might have been expected because colonial society was copied after that of England. As the Beards state: 17

So in a fashion the society of England was duplicated. Sons of the landed proprietors went in for trade as well as the Church and the army; daughters of rich merchants married sons of the landed families; and after . . . 1685, a little flavor of the court gave tone to the ceremonial life of the upper classes.

Myers summarizes his study of early fortunes, tracing the power of the upper classes to their early control of the land. It tended to be their natural resource. He says: 18

The sinister effects of this first great grasping of land long permeated the whole fabric of society and were prominently seen before and after the Revolution, and especially in the third and fourth decades of the eighteenth century.

The "badge of aristocracy" was worn even in prosaic Massachusetts by the socially most respectable students; they were allowed to eat at the fellow's table at Harvard, a custom imported from Cambridge. "Among those so privileged was one Salton stall of the class of 1659." 19 (This and other names on the modern social calendar indicate, to some extent, the degree of social class mobility which this nation has maintained.)

Some of the leading names of families of high standing are noted in that 20 many of the gentlemen settlers had a right to bear arms, as the Washingtons, Harrisons, Balls, Berkeleys, Byrds, Pages, Carys, Bollings, Clairbornes, Burwells, and others in Virginia, as had the Penns, Logans, Penningtons, Lloyds and numerous Pennsylvania families, as well as many of those who emigrated to New Jersey, Delaware, New York and to the New England and Southern Colonies.

No aristocracy can sustain itself on the dry toast of lists of precedence. The meat and broth of high social class are a resource to exploit and the customary habit of marrying within the "clan." These nourish and sustain it -- they provide for its present and its future. In colonial times the upper classes had both natural and human resources to exploit, and they contracted their formal alliances with foresight. The circumstances that enabled them to flourish are described by Adams thus: 21

As has already been said, access to official society was a prerequisite to the securing of this influence [land grants, etc.] and as that society was comparatively limited, intermarriage among its members became increasingly frequent and everywhere added its weight to the building up of local aristocracies . . . . In all the colonies, the councils were almost wholly made up of the members of these small aristocracies, or plutocracies, and as the suffrage was very limited, their influence extended to the assemblies . . . the aristocrats by 1700 were fastening a firm grip both on the political management and commercial exploitation of the New World.

16. Carman, op. cit., p. 265.
17. Beard and Beard, op. cit., p. 77.
18. Myers, op. cit., pp. 34 - 35.
19. Franklin B. Dexter, On Some Social Distinctions at Harvard and Yale Before the Revolution (Worcester, 1894) p. 5.
20. Anne Hollingworth Wharton, English Ancestral Homes of Noted Americans (Philadelphia, 1915) p. 296.
21. Adams, op. cit., pp. 66 - 67.

This does not fulfill the American Dream. The more one learns about the colonial age, the less can one detect any signs of increasing equality or open opportunity or "most intensive" social mobility. The schoolbook fiction that at first a few aristocrats arrived with their inept personal coteries, that their influence was not long felt, and that the eighteenth century experienced an increase in the political institutions of democracy and economic opportunity for the little man (according to the Benjamin Franklin pattern) should perhaps be replaced. Truer is the thought that in some of the colonies there was a shortage of upper class families for several decades; but as the 1700 corner was turned, those on the inside and provided with the advantages were setting a fast pace, a stride which left the masses of men further and further behind with each passing decade up to the Revolution, at least.

Control of politics, class and social class consciousness, and capital accumulation created "upper classmen" out of elements, some of which were no doubt of lower middle class and even, though rarely, of proletarian backgrounds. But these same factors contributed more to bringing to full bloom the ostentation of those classes which had come over "passage paid, with furniture and servants." They became a clique of beautifully mansioned, proud, and fashionable folk. These realities of colonial life are depicted in the following: 22

In New York an extraordinary proportion of the landed wealth was in the hands of Sir William Johnson or representatives of these great aristocratic families who throughout the colonial period, and even after, dominated every phase of the colony's institutional activity . . . . In Virginia and the Carolinas millions of acres of fertile lands of the back country fell into the hands of speculators like Robert Beverly, Richard Henderson, the Washingtons, the Carters, and Lord Fairfax . . . .

 Legal contests and long-drawn-out quarrels between the older and richer families engaged in land speculation on the one hand, and the poorer inhabitants and the newcomers anxious to acquire homes and landed property on the other, featured the history of practically every colony throughout the colonial period.

The manner in which favoritism and social standing played their part in the distribution of wealth is shown in the following: 23

For the acquisition of a rapid fortune in land merely by standing well with the powers that be, New York offered a rich field. Among Governor Fletcher's grants, for example, was one to his favorite . . . Captain John Evans, of an area . . . between three hundred and fifty thousand and six hundred thousand acres, a quitrent of only twenty shillings for the whole, for which Evans alleged he was later offered 10,000 pounds in England.

High social class is more than family rank, money, and social prestige -- it is a way of life, especially a way of recreation. In New York, for instance, where distinctions were more definitely pronounced than in New England or the other Middle Colonies, the finest families spent their winters in the city at the mouth of the Hudson, "where amusements of various kinds from the theater to bull-baiting were furnished for their diversion . . . . " 24

22. Carman, op. cit., pp. 70 - 71.
23. Adams, op. cit., p. 66.
24. Beard and Beard, op. cit., p. 144


Website: The History
Article Name: Social Rigidities In Colonial America
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: A Study of Social Stratification With Reference to Social Class Barriers and Social Class Rigidity by William Cecil Headrick. (Excerpt from Chapter 11 Social Class Rigidities In Colonial America) Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at New York State University. December 1, 1941.
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