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Rise of the Middle Class

Rise of the Middle Class

The middle class simultaneously emerged out of and contributed to a complex, uneven, and contradictory process of political, economic, and social change. Although the middle class owed much to a Revolutionary legacy that attacked rank and privilege, it also contributed decisively to the hierarchies that came to mark the antebellum United States. It was defined not simply by its members' income or occupations, but also by their culture. Indeed, by the 1830s the definitive feature of the middle class may have been its insistence that class, defined as a set of permanent, hierarchical, social and economic categories did not exist at all. And while historians have begun to locate the emergence of an American middle class in a transatlantic context, eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century women and men insisted upon its distinctly American, republican character.

origins of the middle class

Eighteenth-century American society was marked by rank and deference. The middling rank, which formed a rough precursor to the middle class, included artisans and small proprietors along with professionals and semiprofessionals, who took their places in a strictly ordered social hierarchy. While particular individuals might rise beyond their beginnings, the vast majority were expected to remain within their rank. Strivers were viewed with enormous suspicion; indeed, the hallmark of successful striving was the ability to hide it altogether. But following the American Revolution (1775–1783), some men and women challenged the primacy of rank and deference by extending assertions of political equality to social and economic activities. Consequently, the early national period was marked by wide-ranging disputes over deference and hierarchy. These conflicts manifested themselves in battles between Federalists and Democratic Republicans over the degree of ceremony due the president. Such conflicts also registered among hired laborers who rejected the label "servant," insisting instead on new job titles free from degrading associations with dependency and servility.

work and domestic life

Such political and cultural conflicts assumed greater urgency and significance in the context of economic development. The quickening pace of commerce, combined with the expansion of manufactures, created new opportunities for men of ambition and talent. Scores of farm boys, no longer content to follow in their fathers' footsteps, sought new careers, working as poorly paid clerks and schoolteachers while hoping for brighter futures. In cities, some master craftsmen transformed themselves into white-collared businessmen who supervised laborers and pored over account books. But the ranks of the middle class also included men who mixed farming with entrepreneurship and small businessmen whose daily work encompassed both managerial and productive labor. All these careers demanded literacy and numeracy; most of them also demanded at least a degree of refinement. More important, they required both initiative and risk taking. Certainly, middle-class Americans disagreed about the boundaries of respectable entrepreneurship, about the degree of ambition and the kinds of risks that were socially and morally acceptable. But in elaborating and celebrating the self-made man—a mythic figure who triumphed over a volatile market through the exercise of skill and wit—nineteenth-century Americans rehabilitated striving. Ironically, historians have discovered that the vaunted self-made man typically depended upon his natal family, whose members worked together to finance his early career. The money required for education and vocational training resulted from years of careful saving as well as from the supplemental income generated by mothers and sisters.

The celebration of the self-made man signaled more than the creation of new occupations. Instead, it was part of a broader transformation of the ways that early national Americans imagined the relationship between productive and nonproductive labor and between the public and private spheres. The transformation of the economy gradually undermined older barter systems and increased the importance of cash for daily transactions. Productivity became synonymous with paid work, which diminished recognition of the economic value of women's unpaid cooking, cleaning, nursing, and sewing. These tasks, which involved both making and saving, remained critical to middle-class families' economic strategies. But by the 1830s, the importance of women's domestic labor, once acknowledged as a crucial component of economic security, was eclipsed both by the ascendance of waged work and a new domestic ideal that emphasized families as affectional rather than as productive entities.

These kinds of distinctions were reinforced by a transatlantic domestic ideology that emphasized the separation of public and private spheres as an extension of the fundamental differences between women and men. Men's intellect, ambition, and vigor suited them to the public sphere and the worlds of work and politics; women's affect and innate piety suited them for the roles of wife and mother. If middle-class women were excluded from the public sphere, they were enshrined within homes that were imagined not as productive enterprises but as arenas for family life. Maternal influence gradually replaced patriarchal authority as the centerpiece of the domestic ideal. By casting new forms of work and family as the inexorable effect of masculinity and femininity, domestic ideologues on both sides of the Atlantic helped naturalize a radically innovative set of social arrangements and ideals. They also deflected attention away from the uneven correspondence between ideology and practice.

the public sphere

The emergent middle class reshaped the public sphere along with the private. Both men and women, notwithstanding the latter's association with the private sphere, created a rich civic culture. Voluntary associations sprang up throughout the North. This flourishing associational life owed much to the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening. Members of the middle class joined groups to ameliorate poverty, instill temperance, eradicate vice, and dispense Bibles and religious tracts. Taken together, these efforts reveal both a desire for self-control, which was necessary for success in middle-class parlors and workplaces alike, and a desire for social control, which aimed to shape the behavior and values of immigrants and the working class. Early national civic culture was also shaped by the quest for self-cultivation. An expansive print culture, like the lyceum circuit, expanded the intellectual horizons of urban and rural Americans. At the same time, countless literary societies, debating clubs, and singing schools satisfied their penchant for refinement. These voluntary associations complemented the expansion of both public and private education in the North and helped consolidate the cultural hegemony of the middle class.

See alsoClothing; Furniture; Housing; Voluntary and Civic Associations; Women: Professions; Women: Women's Voluntary Associations; Work: Domestic Labor; Work: Middle-Class Occupations .


Bledstein, Burton J., and Robert D. Johnston, eds. The Middling Sorts: Explorations in the History of the American Middle Class. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Blumin, Stuart M. The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Kelly, Catherine E. In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women's Lives in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Ryan, Mary P. Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790–1865. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Catherine E. Kelly

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