Social Class in the American Colonies
Social class was prevalent and largely property-based in the colonies.
The Colonial Elite
In New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies, the elite were wealthy farmers or urban merchants; in the South, they were wealthy planters.
British Americans’ reliance on indentured servitude and slavery to meet the demand for colonial labor helped give rise to a wealthy colonial class—the gentry—in the Chesapeake tobacco colonies and elsewhere. To be genteel, that is, a member of the gentry, meant to be refined; free of all rudeness. The British American gentry modeled themselves on the English aristocracy, who embodied the ideal of refinement and gentility.
One of the ways in which the gentry set themselves apart from others was through their purchase, consumption, and display of goods. An increased supply of consumer goods from England that became available in the 18th century led to a phenomenon called the “Consumer Revolution.”
In New England, high-level politicians gave out plots of land to male settlers, or proprietors, who then divided the land among themselves. Large portions were usually given to men of higher social standing, but every white man who wasn’t indentured or criminally bonded had enough land to support a family.
Many New Englanders took part in a sophisticated system of trade in which they exported products to the West Indies, where they were traded for molasses, sugar, gold coins, and bills of exchange ( credit slips). They carried the West Indian products to New England factories where the raw sugar was turned into granulated sugar and the molasses distilled into rum. The gold and credit slips were sent to England where they were exchanged for manufactures, which were shipped back to the colonies and sold along with the sugar and rum to farmers.
Other New England merchants took advantage of the rich fishing areas along the Atlantic coast. Collectively, they financed a large fishing fleet and then transported the catch of mackerel and cod to the West Indies and Europe. Some merchants exploited the vast amounts of timber along the coasts and rivers of northern New England. They funded sawmills that supplied cheap wood for houses and shipbuilding. Hundreds of New England shipwrights built oceangoing ships, which they sold to British and American merchants.
As in New England, the majority of the elite in the Middle Colonies were merchants. Merchants dominated urban society; about 40 merchants controlled half of Philadelphia ‘s trade. Wealthy merchants in Philadelphia and New York, like their counterparts in New England, built elegant Georgian-style mansions. Many merchants became wealthy by providing goods to the agricultural population; many of this group came to dominate the society of seaport cities. Unlike the life of yeoman farm households, these merchants lived lives that resembled those of the upper classes in England. Mimicking their English peers, they lived in elegant two and a half-story houses. Unlike the multipurpose interior spaces common to yeoman houses in which each room had to meet many different needs, each of the rooms in a wealthy town merchant’s home served a separate purpose.
Merchants often bought wool and flax from farmers and employed newly arrived immigrants who had been textile workers in Ireland and Germany, to work in their homes spinning the materials into yarn and cloth. Large-scale farmers and merchants became wealthy, while farmers with smaller farms and artisans only made enough for subsistence.
The Southern elite consisted of wealthy planters in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. In terms of the white population of Virginia and Maryland in the mid-18th century, the top five percent were estimated to be planters who possessed growing wealth and increasing political power and social prestige. They controlled the local Anglican church, choosing ministers and handling church property and disbursing local charity. They owned increasingly large plantations that were worked by African slaves. Of the 650,000 inhabitants of the South in 1750, about 250,000 or 40%, were slaves. The plantations grew tobacco, indigo, and rice for export and raised most of their own food supplies. By the end of the 1600s, a very wealthy class of rice planters who relied on slaves had attained dominance in the southern part of the Carolinas, especially around Charles Town.
The Middle Classes
New England: Farmers, Craftsmen, Merchants
In New England, the Puritans created self-governing communities of religious congregations of farmers (yeomen) and their families. High-level politicians gave out plots of land to male settlers, or proprietors, who then divided the land among themselves. Every white man who was not an indentured servant was intended to have enough land to support a family. Many middle-class farmers lived in a style of home known as saltbox houses.
Most New England parents tried to help their sons establish farms of their own. When sons married, fathers gave them gifts of land, livestock, or farming equipment; daughters received household goods, farm animals, and/or cash. Families increased their productivity by exchanging goods and labor with each other. They loaned livestock and grazing land to one another and worked together to spin yarn, sew quilts, and shuck corn. Migration, agricultural innovation, and economic cooperation were creative measures that preserved New England’s yeoman society until the 19th century.
By 1750, a variety of artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants provided services to the growing farming population. Blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and furniture makers set up shops in rural villages. There they built and repaired goods needed by farm families.
Economic patterns of the middle class in the mid-Atlantic region were very similar to those in New England, with some variations for the ethnic origins of various immigrant communities. For instance, German immigrants were renowned for their skill with animal husbandry, and unlike women in New England, women in German immigrant communities worked in the fields.
Before 1720, most colonists in the mid-Atlantic region worked with small-scale farming and paid for imported manufactures by supplying the West Indies with corn and flour. In New York, a fur pelt export trade to Europe flourished, adding additional wealth to the region. After 1720, mid-Atlantic farming was stimulated by the international demand for wheat. A massive population explosion in Europe brought wheat prices up, and by 1770, a bushel of wheat cost twice as much as it did in 1720. Farmers also expanded their production of flaxseed and corn, as flax was in high demand in the Irish linen industry and corn was in high demand in the West Indies.
In cities, shopkeepers, artisans, shipwrights, butchers, coopers, seamstresses, cobblers, bakers, carpenters, masons, and many other specialized professions made up the middle class. Wives and husbands often worked as a team and taught their children their crafts to pass skills on through the family. Many of these artisans and traders made enough money to create a modest life.
While the Southern Colonies were mainly dominated by the small class of wealthy planters in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, the majority of settlers were small subsistence farmers who owned family farms. About 60 percent of white Virginians, for example, were part of a broad middle class that owned substantial farms; by the second generation of settlers, death rates from malaria and other local diseases had declined so much that a stable family structure was possible. Most white men owned some land and, therefore, could vote.
Poverty in the Colonies
Poverty in the British Colonies
The lowest and poorest classes in colonial America differed in occupation and lifestyle by region. In rural areas, nearly every resident was a farmer of some description, and economic status was determined by the amount of land owned, the quality of that land, and intangible factors such as a given farmer’s luck in raising and selling crops.
Laborers stood at the bottom of urban society. In cities, poorer colonists worked on the docks unloading inbound vessels and loading outbound vessels with wheat, corn, and flaxseed. Many of these were African Americans; some were free while others were enslaved. Some new immigrants who did not own their own property served as day laborers for wages on farms or for merchants and artisans producing goods.
To meet the increasing labor demands of the colonies, many farmers, merchants, and planters relied on indentured servants. An indenture is a labor contract that young, impoverished, and often illiterate Englishmen and occasionally Englishwomen signed in England, pledging to work for a number of years (usually between five and seven) in the colonies. In return, indentured servants received paid passage to America and food, clothing, and lodging, or sometimes acquittal for a crime. At the end of their indenture, servants received “freedom dues,” usually food and other provisions and in some cases, land provided by the colony. The promise of a new life in America was a strong attraction for members of England’s underclass, who had few, if any, options at home. For example, in the Chesapeake Bay alone, some 100,000 indentured servants arrived in the 1600s looking for work; most were poor young men in their early twenties.
Life in the colonies proved harsh, however. Indentured servants could not marry, and they were subject to the will of the farmers or merchants who bought their labor contracts. If they committed a crime or disobeyed their masters, they found their terms of service lengthened, often by several years. Nonetheless, those indentured servants who completed their term of service often began new lives as planters, farmers, or merchants themselves.
Slavery in the South
The economy of the South, in particular, depended largely on slave labor, and there was effectively a large underclass of African slaves who had no economic, social, or political freedom. In the early 17th century, many Africans who were brought to the British colonies worked as servants and, like their white counterparts, could acquire land of their own. Some Africans who converted to Christianity became free landowners with white servants. The change in the status of Africans in the Chesapeake to that of slaves occurred in the last decades of the 17h century.
Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 helped to catalyze the creation of a system of racial slavery in the Chesapeake colonies. At the time of the rebellion, indentured servants made up the majority of laborers in the region. Wealthy whites worried over the presence of this large class of laborers and the relative freedom they enjoyed, as well as the alliance that black and white servants had forged in the course of the rebellion. Replacing indentured servitude with black slavery diminished these risks, alleviating the reliance on white indentured servants who were often dissatisfied and troublesome, and creating a caste of racially defined laborers whose movements were strictly controlled. It also lessened the possibility of further alliances between black and white workers. Racial slavery even served to heal some of the divisions between wealthy and poor whites, who could now unite as members of a “superior” racial group.
While colonial laws in the colonies had made slavery a legal institution before Bacon’s Rebellion, new laws passed in the wake of the rebellion severely curtailed black freedom and laid the foundation for racial slavery. Several colonies passed laws prohibiting free Africans and slaves from bearing arms, banning Africans from congregating in large numbers, and establishing harsh punishments for slaves who assaulted Christians or attempted escape. Unlike indentured servitude which had an end-date promising freedom, slaves were enslaved for life and their children were born into slavery with no choice. The increasing reliance on slaves especially in the Southern colonies—and the draconian laws instituted to control them—not only helped planters meet labor demands but also served to assuage English fears of further uprisings and alleviate class tensions between rich and poor whites.
By P. Scott Corbett, et.al., provided by OpenStax College, published by Lumen Learning under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.