Social Classes In Colonial America
In the 18th century Colonial America, the society was diverse and complex. Colonial society was composed of several social classes. In the three main geographic areas; the South, the North and the Mid-Atlantic, social classes were quite different from each other because of the natural environment and social policy.
A social class was a way of ranking people. Some people were more powerful, while some held lesser status and power. People were ranked on their financial capacity, their job profiles or land ownership. One’s social class determined political and legal rights, personal attire, even church seating. In Colonial America, there were three main social classes. They were the gentry, the middle class and the poor.
The wealthiest, most educated and influential class was the gentry. The gentry owned large farms or plantations. This class incorporated the merchants, doctors, lawyers and ministers. Most community leadership positions were held by the gentry. These people also enjoyed the right to vote. They were extremely affluent and possessed their own mansions and carriages. These mansions boasted of rich libraries and high class furniture, which was shipped from England. The gentry also liked to wear clothes from London. These clothes were styled with a modern outlook, thus defining their social stature. They also enjoyed lavish parties and banquets. Since they were the highest class-the top of society, they were usually children born of wealthy parents married to other members of the gentry. They made sure that classes were not intermingled despite feelings toward others in a different class. During the Colonial period, the colonists were rapidly able to move up in social rank. Colonial aristocracy in the south was made up mostly of the larger rice and tobacco planters. In New England, the office holders and rich merchants were the social leaders. Few of the settlers had been aristocrats in England but as they became wealthy they patterned their social lives after the aristocrats of the old country. Even though they were a small group, they controlled the colonial governments and courts, styles of dress, architecture and manners. It was mostly this group who were interested in education and art.
The next social class was formed by the middle class. Most colonists were middle class freemen who owned property but were not as rich as the gentry. They were farmers and small merchants. The hard-working, self-supporting farmer was a most important citizen. Below them were the tenant farmers and wage earners in the town. The middle class worked at skilled jobs as well. A skilled job was being a teacher or craftsmen. They also farmed small landholdings, ran small stores and businesses, or worked at ordinary skilled crafts, such as shoemaking or woodworking. Women of the middle class made their own clothes, candles, cheese, soap and other goods. Excess supplies were sold to augment the family income. Men of the middle class could vote and a few held public office. All yearned to own property so that they could gain the right to vote.
The lower class was composed of day laborers, apprentices, sailors, servants and slaves. Very few in this class had the potential to own any property nor could they read, write or vote. They lived the life of wanderers, moving from one place to another in search of work. Those who had come as indentured servants had to work from five to seven years without pay in return for their passage to America. When they became freemen, they frequently received land and could take part in government. Then, there were also the slaves, who had been brought from Africa to the southern states, against their will, to work on the large plantations.
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