America Class

During the colonial period, the role of class varied, depending on time and region. Over time, emerging class divisions marked the development of a new social structure. As colonists from throughout Europe traveled to British North America, they hoped to re-create their Old World home, while taking advantage of the opportunities in the New World. As they worked to establish traditional social, economic, political, and cultural folkways in North America, they soon learned that many needed to change because of the new environment. Thus, in North America, familiar institutions took on new characteristics, even when they existed side by side with traditional institutions. This created a more open, fluid society, which eventually challenged and destroyed many traditional institutions while creating new ones with both positive and negative consequences. In traditional society, for example, deference maintained the hierarchical social system of Europe. Members of the general populace knew their place and responsibilities, and they interacted with their betters in a deferential manner. In North America, the lack of a noble class, coupled with the consequences of open land ownership and economic opportunities, challenged these behavior patterns. An individual’s ability played an important role in colonial development, and a self-made citizen earned his or her status rather than inheriting it. Thus, the stabilizing effect of deference gave way to a less stable society based upon individualism, with wide-ranging consequences. In addition, obligations existed between the various ranks of traditional European society, and, during times of crisis or dearth, the poor could count on the elite for protection and food. Under the more modern social system of colonial America, these mechanisms became strained in many areas. By the mid-eighteenth century, the partial breakdown of deference, coupled with the abolishment of many traditional customs and increasing economic inequality, further increased instability among workers in towns, who, in turn, slowly developed a class consciousness. Class became a modern category that replaced traditional groupings; thus, while old ranks faded away, new ones were established.


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