During the colonial period, Euro-Americans found themselves bound together in vertical networks of patronage and dependence. Living in patriarchal households and engaged in face-to-face economic exchange, most colonists experienced social stratification in direct and personal ways: fathers controlled children's economic prospects via inheritance and dowries; masters exacted violence upon servants, apprentices, and slaves; freeholders governed on behalf of women, transients, and propertyless men; landlords, shopkeepers, and merchants used credit to establish clientage relationships with poorer neighbors. For many Euro-American colonists, radical inequalities of wealth attested less to the competition of social classes or the impersonal workings of the economy and more to the proper functioning of what Gordon Wood, in his Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), has called "a monarchical society"—a world where the only meaningful horizontal division separated commoners from the gentry.
But with national independence and the intellectual dismantling of hereditary privilege, an increasing number of Americans refused the distinction between themselves and their superiors. Deference gave way to the celebration of republican equality among adult white male property owners. With the demise
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of certain kinds of legal inequality (e.g., indentured servitude), the expansion of the franchise (the abolition of property requirements), and the opening of western lands to white settlement (thanks to the dis-possession of native peoples), American political culture emphasized a generic equality rather than the specific and direct inequalities of colonial society. Even as the vertical dependencies of patriarchal households and local economies persisted and differences of wealth inevitably divided society into distinct classes, adult white men would celebrate their potential to transcend the rank of their birth. The American Revolution presumably created a society where orphans could become presidents or where impoverished immigrants could die as millionaires. Rare as such occurrences were, they enabled many commentators—then and now—to credit the American Revolution with the creation of a "classless" society.
Relative to Europe, the United States did offer adult white men greater opportunities for upward mobility. As the majority of adult white men would own land at some point in their lives, the United States remained overwhelmingly rural and was slow to develop the urban proletariat that had become the alarming characteristic of English cities. Karl Marx's tripartite class structure of European society (a politically powerful class of rural landlords, a rising class of urban entrepreneurs, and a great number of dispossessed agricultural and industrial laborers) did not apply in the United States. By many accounts, the typical American worker was a landowning farmer whose business acumen rivaled that of any urban merchant and whose independence mocked the degraded state of the European husbandman. This favorable comparison also helped to enshrine the notion that the United States was a classless society.
Regardless of the myth's origins, the early United States was not a classless society. The new nation may not have had an urban proletariat, but by 1810 it did incorporate 1.2 million enslaved African Americans whose coerced labor enriched the 33 percent of southern white households who owned human property. The United States had no legal aristocracy, but its political leaders—Federalists and Democratic Republicans alike—overwhelmingly came from the ranks of the wealthy, staked their authority on the size of their landholdings, and legislated in their own financial interest. Common people may have had prospects of upward mobility, but the downward mobility of urban artisans generated a stream of strikes, riots, and political organizing that culminated in the workingmen's parties of the 1820s and 1830s. Cliometric data reveals growing wealth stratification among white men in the decades after 1790 and class fixity, not fluidity, as characteristic.
The most important class development in the early Republic was the emergence of the familiar tripartite structure of an upper, middle, and working class. Less a reflection of a vastly reorganized economy or real competition between groups for material resources, these horizontal strata were the creation of a self-conscious middle class whose champions touted the values, ambitions, and manners that made them different from the "improvident" poor below and the "decadent" rich above. Situated in communities immersed in the market relations of capitalism, members of the middle class valorized a private family realm where women guarded morality from the corruption of the public sphere and made the home a center of sentimental culture, child rearing, and tasteful consumption. This new middle class was so successful in universalizing its virtues of self-improvement and self-control that the vast majority of Americans ever since have identified themselves as middle class. Indeed, if the American class structure remains as obscure today as it was two hundred years ago, the best explanation is not a structural "classlessness," but rather the power of middle-class ideals to channel working-class discontent toward individualistic, not collective, expression and to mask upper-class privilege behind the presumption of a meritocratic society.
Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.
Pestana, Carla Gardina, and Sharon V. Salinger, eds. Inequality in Early America. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999.
Soltow, Lee. Distribution of Wealth and Income in the United States in 1798. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.
Wood, Gordon. Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.