Social classes are cultural and economic groups within a society, typically defined by their status, power and resources. All societies have a social hierarchy and very often there is a recognizable upper, middle, and lower class. While all of this is true in a modern context, it was more pronounced and accepted in the past. Boston in the 17th and 18th centuries is no exception.
Social class in the American colonies is a continuation of European traditions. From the Middle Ages to the present day, class evolved to become increasingly fluid and increasingly taboo. Class was slow to change and still exists today in a less overt way.
Social mobility began to become more attainable as societies became increasingly industrial, rather than agricultural. Material wealth gradually became more important as the wealth of businessmen began to rival that of the "old money" nobility. Successful merchants and craftsmen were able to afford educations for their offspring, who in turn could go onto more promising careers as "gentlemen". As an island nation, Britain was particularly mercantile, so these changes were particularly visible for them.
The British colonists who came to America brought the same assumptions about class with them. However, there were some natural differences between the established cities of Britain and the more rugged life in the colonial towns and villages.
As colonies struggled to establish themselves, social deference took a backseat to survival. Even as colonies began to become more established, those beginnings had their impact.
The allure of life in the colonies was more attractive to individuals with less to lose. Landed nobility, artists who relied on noble patronage and successful craftsmen with strong guild ties were unlikely to become interested. At the same time, making the transatlantic voyage cost money, which excluded the very poor. Hence, the type of people who made the voyage were predominantly middle class.
With a lack of establishment in the colonies, social mobility for an individual became slightly more attainable. The elite were not so well established, important resources such as land were much more plentiful, and there were more opportunities for a man to prove his merit through armed conflict or leadership.
The Influence of PuritanismEditIn the Massachusetts Bay Colony the dominance of the puritan faith had an impact. The original settlers of the Plymouth colony were almost exclusively middle class and sought to create a nearly classless religious society. The later settlers who established Boston were more socially diverse, but they too sought to establish a theocratic social order. Early Bostonians expected a certain amount of social hierarchy, but their inherent mistrust of worldly wealth, decadence, and modern business made it hard for the wealthy to thrive.
Furthermore, the puritan mindset also spurred the availability of education, a key tool of social climbers. Boston Latin School was founded in 1635, only 5 years after the town and the college later known as Harvard would follow a year later. This meant that not only would the vast majority of the population attain literacy, but that even a college education was available to Bostonians of humble background. In reality, most children would stay in the same class as their parents, but the possibility was there for those with the intelligence, drive and good luck.
18th Century BostonEdit
As Boston made its way into the 18th century, the town grew and changed a great deal. Puritanism still acted as a dominant force in the local culture, but its control over government had weakened. From 1686 onward, Massachusetts was governed by a royal governor, who was typically Anglican. Though Boston was still staunchly puritan, new influxes of immigrants brought other sects into the town as well. This weakening of the puritan establishment meant that merchants were free to amass more wealth with less criticism.
The growing population also fed a growing class divide. Though the middle class remained large, the numbers of the lower class grew and the wealthy were able to attain much higher levels of wealth. The wealthiest 10% came to own more than 80% of the property while the number of Bostonians receiving poor relief rose steeply . Boston became more hierarchical and more like the society they had left behind in Britain.
The people were aware of these changes occurring. There was some discontentment with the growing disparity between the needy and the wealthy and some feared the unchecked expansion of the merchants. In the early years of the 18th century hard times compounded causing large riots, such as the Boston Bread Riots. Despite this unrest, it is unlikely that poorer Bostonians were hoping to institute social change. In fact, the majority of people living in this time period accepted the existence of different classes and the fact that the upper classes would enjoy levels of political power and social respect which the middle and lower classes would not.
In the 18th century, female Bostonians actually outnumbered the men. However, women of all classes did not have the same freedoms and powers as men. The strict gender roles of the time confined women to private, domestic life. In general, women did not have professions other than being homemakers. However, there were exceptions; a few women were shopkeepers, some widows continued their husband's businesses quite successfully and many women of the laboring class had to contribute to their family income.
For more on this topic, see Women of Revolutionary Boston.
The terminology used at the time reflects the attitudes that upheld the system. The educated upper class were often referred to as gentlemen or particularly the better sort. Anyone below this level could loosely be called a common person but those with enough property to vote might also be called a yeoman or a freeholder'. The middle class went by many names including mechanics, craftsmen, and the middling sort. And the lower class were generally called laborers, the meaner sort, or the lesser or lower sort.
Class and the RevolutionEdit
As the revolutionary period began in the middle part of the 18th century, people of all classes became involved in the political debates, but in different ways.
The better sort had the most direct role in politics; they represented the majority of voters, and they were the only ones considered for elected and royally appointed government positions. As the political schism began to form, the better sort began to identify with either the supporters of British government, the Tories, or the increasingly separatist opposition party, the Whigs. Those who did not feel fully committed to either found it increasingly difficult to find a balance as the schism grew.
A certain portion of the middling sort were able act politically by voting. The eligible members of the middle class were able to maximize their leverage by forming "caucus clubs", political alliances that coordinated votes for favored candidates. The middling sort also maximized their limited political power through other institutions such as jury duty. Boston juries, infamously refused to convict obviously guilty defendants when the broke unpopular laws.
- Boston and the American Revolution/Boston National Historic Park: Official National Park Handbook: This concise handbook provides a good overall guide to Boston in the Revolution, but its opening chapters also provide a good overview of class roles.
- Bourne, Russel. Cradle of Violence: How Boston's Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution. John Wiley & sons, 2006: A thorough discussion of the role of lower class maritime workers who played a pivotal role in revolutionary events.