American Better And Middling Sorts

For many, social status came from their relationship to, or control over, the lower sort. A master craftsmen needed laborers for his shop and porters to move his goods. A merchant needed unskilled laborers in the ports along with sailors to man his vessels. A large landowner required tenants, slaves, or agricultural laborers to make his land productive.

It was from among the lower sort, where there existed the greatest diversity of individuals and a vast labor spectrum from free to unfree laborers, that the urban working class would emerge.

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Especially in urban areas, the status of the lower sort, coupled with issues of race, gender, and ethnicity, was both a divisive and unifying force, with groups sometimes uniting over the economic issues that they all faced and sometimes experiencing conflicts based on racial and ethnic differences. Members of the lower sort also included Native Americans, who contributed to colonial development through the fur trade, as laborers, and in a variety of other roles.

While many tribes were being pushed to the west, Native Americans lived throughout the colonies, and they were readily recognized by their skin color and physical features. In a similar situation, because of physical appearance, were the close to 1 million African slaves who ended up in British North America. Although slaves are often stereotyped as agricultural laborers, they served many roles during the colonial period, including those of domestic servants, skilled laborers, and sailors.

European laborers were also important to colonial development. The first important group to arrive was the indentured servants of Virginia, who mainly served as contracted agricultural laborers. As slaves replaced indentured servants on the plantations, the role of indentured servants changed.

By the eighteenth century, indentured servants served as both skilled and unskilled laborers, with many becoming apprentices in colonial industry. Another important group of mobile workers were the various Jack Tars (sailors), throughout British North America and the Atlantic world. Jack Tars were important not only on the seas but also on land, as they were a visible force in ports.

The final group of the lower sort was the wage laborers, whose development was seen in eighteenth century urban areas. As they exchanged their labor for wages in a mixed modern and traditional economic and social system, they were the most affected by ongoing changes. Maintaining and justifying traditional and modern social distinctions, class existed throughout colonial America, but its influence varied over time and place.

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American Better and Middling Sorts

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