American Role of Class

The place of class in colonial America has been both denied and celebrated. A traditional perception of the colonial period viewed the New World frontier, which was constantly moving westward, as a great leveler that denied class divisions. As the colonies developed, the majority of settlers engaged in yeoman agriculture. These farmers were neither tenants nor agricultural laborers; rather, they were landowners who controlled their own means of production. As they constituted the majority, and as many had once been indentured servants or farm laborers, colonial America could either be seen as a classless society or a society with one class. These yeoman farmers, however, were not engaged merely in subsistence agriculture; they also were engaged in market agriculture, and all was not equal between them. The stress on colonial agriculture downplayed the role of urban development. In fact, it was in urban areas, especially in eighteenth-century port cities, that class became a permanent fixture. Colonial development placed new demands upon the economy and workforce. The wealthy demanded larger and more ornate houses, and an infrastructure needed to be developed and expanded. This, in turn, created an increased demand for both skilled and unskilled labor. Many people traveled to British North America with the dream of owning land. Over time, however, it became harder to acquire land, as the frontier, where free or cheap land existed, moved farther from the coast. People were willing to travel inland for land, but wealthy speculators had already purchased large tracts and were profiting by reselling it, thereby driving up the costs of even small plots. By the American Revolution, the colonies, and their social structure, were at a very different place than at their founding. Colonial society was divided into three groups: the better sort, the middling sort, and the lower sort, which, when taken together, created a system of individualism and interdependency. Gradually, relations between the three groups changed. While colonial America lacked an established nobility, an upper class soon emerged. The best example of this was colonial Virginia where, after the discovery of tobacco as a cash crop, a group of well-connected individuals increasingly used their position to gain more economic, social, and political power over both land and labor. As they grew wealthier, the emerging Tidewater elite worked harder to consolidate and expand their position. In the exploitative plantation system they had developed, clear distinctions existed between the major groups. The planters dominated all aspects of society. Indentured servants were exploited for their labor and, once free, usually pushed to the frontier. With the development of African slavery, the planters had a new labor source to exploit; they worked to expand and protect their slave labor through the legal system, making slavery an inherited status. The Southern colonies, for the most part, lacked a middle class, but they created a class system based upon control over the means of production. In the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies, the better sort did not dominate to the extent of the Southern planters, but, gradually, large landowners and merchants utilized their social and economic power to gain more control over the political system. Parts of New England probably came closest to a classless society because of the large number of small freeholders; yet rank, status, deference, and issues of dependency and independence still created a social, economic, and political hierarchy. Both the better and middling sort worked to consolidate and expand their social and economic power. The establishment of British political institutions, especially the Forty Shilling Freehold (whereby men with 40 shillings worth of property were given full citizenship and the right to vote), allowed a growing number of colonists, from all classes but especially the middle, to acquire political power. The Middle-Class Squeeze | Center for American Progress travelquaz


American Role of Class

Presentation “THE MODERN AMERICAN DREAM The Role of Social Class … travelquaz

American Role of Class

Latin American Independence Movements travelquaz

American Role of Class

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