Social Class 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.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the central economic activities of the elites throughout the colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Some New England and mid-Atlantic farmers owned enough land to amass large, highly profitable farms.
  • Others became merchants who exported the goods of farms and engaged in molasses and sugar trade with the West Indies.
  • Wealthier colonists built Georgian-style mansions with rooms devoted to a single purpose.
  • In the South, wealthy planters owned large plantations and farmed them with the forced labor of African slaves.

Key Terms

  • plantation: A large farm, estate, or area of land designated for agricultural growth; often includes housing for the owner and workers.
  • yeoman: A former class of small freeholders who farm their own land; a commoner of good standing.
  • export: To ship goods and services out of the port of a country.

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.”

New England

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.

Middle Colonies

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.

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Mount Vernon: Mount Vernon was the plantation home of George Washington, who was a member of the Virginia gentry class prior to becoming the first U.S. president.

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.

Southern Colonies

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.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, by Charles Willson Peale, 1791: Thomas Jefferson, along with George Washington and Robert E. Lee, epitomizes the American gentry class in the South.

The Middle Classes

The middle classes of colonial America consisted mostly of yeoman farmers and skilled craftsmen.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the economic activities of the middle classes of the New England, mid-Atlantic, and Southern colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In an agriculture-based economy, most members of the middle class were engaged in some type of farming, with yeoman farmers owning their own land and supporting families on its products.
  • In cities, members of the middle class were skilled craftsmen and artisans.
  • Economic patterns in the mid-Atlantic region were similar to those in New England, with some variations for the ethnic origins of various immigrant communities.
  • While the Southern Colonies were mainly dominated by the wealthy planters, many small subsistence farms were family owned and operated.

Key Terms

  • craftsmen: A skilled manual worker who makes items that may be functional or strictly decorative, including furniture, clothing, jewelry, household items, and tools or even machines such as the handmade devices of a watchmaker.
  • animal husbandry: The agricultural practice of breeding and raising livestock.
  • yeoman: A former class of small freeholders who farm their own land; a commoner of good standing.

The Colonial Middle Class

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.

The drawing shows the side elevation of a saltbox house, a traditional New England style of house with a long, pitched roof that slopes down to the back. A saltbox has just one story in the back and two stories in the front. The flat front and central chimney are recognizable features, but the asymmetry of the unequal sides and the long, low rear roof line are the most distinctive features of a saltbox, which takes its name from its resemblance to a wooden lidded box in which salt was once kept.

Illustration of a saltbox house: Saltbox-style homes of the middle class became popular in New England after 1650.

Mid-Atlantic Colonies

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.

Southern Colonies

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

The poorest inhabitants of the American colonies tended to be subsistence farmers, day laborers, indentured servants, and slaves.

Learning Objectives

Discuss social stratification in colonial America

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Much of colonial America was based on agriculture, and as a result, many of the poorest colonists were also farmers whose land did not produce enough for prosperity.
  • Other poor colonists worked as day laborers on farms, in merchant shops, or at seaports.
  • To meet the increasing labor demands of the colonies, many farmers, merchants, and planters relied on indentured servants who worked for a set number of years in exchange for passage to the Americas.
  • The South depended on a system of slave labor, which created a large underclass of Africans with no legal rights.

Key Terms

  • indentured servant: A debt bondage worker who is under contract of an employer for a specified period of time in exchange for transportation, food, drink, clothing, lodging, and other necessities.
  • slavery: A system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold and are forced to work.
  • agriculture: The art or science of cultivating the ground, including the harvesting of crops and the rearing and management of livestock, tillage, husbandry, and farming.

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.

Indentured Servitude

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.

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Indenture contract signed with an X by Henry Meyer in 1738: Indentured servitude was often how immigrants were able to fund their passage to the Americas.

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.