Social class in American history

Social class in American history

Social class has been an important theme for historians of the United States for over 100 years.

Colonial period

Historians in recent decades have explored in microscopic detail the process of settling the new country and creating the social Structure.

outhern colonies

The main themes have been the class system of the plantation South. These include the plantation masters and their families, as typified by the Byrd family. The plantation elite in general lived on tight budgets, putting their surpluses into purchase of new lands and slaves. Historians have focused on the tobacco regions of the Chesapeake, with some attention to South Carolina as well. The region had very few urban places apart from Charleston, where a merchant elite maintained close connections with nearby plantation society. It was a goal of prosperous merchants, lawyers and doctors in Charleston to buy lands and retire as a country gentlemen. Charleston supported diverse ethnic groups, including Germans and French, as well as a free black population. Beyond the plantations yeoman farmers operated small holdings, sometimes with a slave or two. Missionaries commented on their lack of religiosity. The plantation areas of Virginia were integrated into the vestry system of the established Anglican church. By the 1760s a strong tendency to emulate British society was apparent in the plantation regions. However the strength of republicanism created a political ethos that resisted imperial taxation without local consent.Maryland had self-government.

19th century


Historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the frontier affected the class structure in four different ways. The frontier itself was egalitarian as land ownership was available to all free men. Second deference faded away as frontiersmen treated each other as equals. Third the frontiersmen forced new levels of political equality through Jefferson Democracy and Jacksonian Democracy. Finally the frontier provided a safety valve whereby discontented easterners could find their own lands. Historians now agree that few eastern city people went to the frontier, but many farmers did so; before 1850, the America had few cities, which were mostly small, and the vast majority of people were rural. According to the Turner model, the social structure of the East was similar to the familiar European class-based structure, while the west was more socially, politically, and economically equal.

"The Plain Folk of the Old South"

Frank Lawrence Owsley in "Plain Folk of the Old South" (1949) redefined the debate by starting with the writings of Daniel R. Hundley who in 1860 had defined the southern middle class as "farmers, planters, traders, storekeepers, artisans, mechanics, a few manufacturers, a goodly number of country school teachers, and a host of half-fledged country lawyers, doctors, parsons, and the like." To find these people Owsley turned to the name-by-name files on the manuscript federal census. Owsley argued that southern society was not dominated by planter aristocrats, but that yeoman farmers played a significant role in it. The religion, language, and culture of these common people created a democratic "plain folk" society. Critics say he overemphasized the size of the southern landholding middle class while excluding the large class of poor landless and slaveless white southerners.Who|date=July 2007 Owsley assumed that shared economic interests united southern farmers without considering the vast difference inherent in the planters' commercial agriculture versus the yeomen's subsistence life style.

In his study of Edgefield County, South Carolina, Orville Vernon Burton classified white society into the poor, the yeoman middle class, and the elite. A clear line demarcated the elite, but according to Burton, the line between poor and yeoman was never very distinct. Stephanie McCurry argues, yeomen were clearly distinguished from poor whites by their ownership of land (real property). Yeomen were "self-working farmers," distinct from the elite because they worked their land themselves alongside any slaves they owned. Ownership of large numbers of slaves made the work of planters completely managerial.


African Americans

The study of slavery as a social and economic system dates from Ulrich B. Phillips in the early 20th century. He argued that plantation slavery was a school for civilizing the blacks--albeit one that produced no graduates. His favoritism toward the slave owners was finally challenged by neoabolitionist historians in the 1950s, most notably Kenneth Stampp. Since the 1960s a large literature has emerged on the social structure of the slave system, especially on such topics as family life, gender roles, resistance to slavery, and demographic trends. The study of free blacks has been slower to emerge because of the shortage of records, but historians have been filling in the picture north and south with studies of free black urban communities, and their religious and political leaders.The post-slavery era has been dominated by political studies, especially of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The black churches were not only a political force, but became central to the black community in both urban and rural areas. The emergence of a black musical culture has been linked both to slavery (as in the Blues), and to church music.

Asian Americans

Asian Americans had small communities in New York City before 1860. Their greatest growth came on the Pacific Coast, during the Gold Rush and railroad booms of the 1860s. The Chinese who remained in America were violently driven out of the mining and railroad camps, and largely forced into Chinatowns in the larger cities, especially San Francisco. The Chinese exclusion laws of the 1880s created special legal problems, which numerous have explored. The Chinatowns were over 90% male, augmented by a trickle of immigration, and slowly shrank in size until 1940. Local and national attitudes became much more favorable to the Chinese after 1940, largely because of American support for China in World War II. Japanese immigration was a major factor in the history of Hawaii, and after its annexation in 1898 large numbers moved to the West Coast. Anti-Japanese hostility was strong down to 1941, when it intensified and most Japanese on the West Coast were sent to relocation camps, 1942-44. After 1945 the trickle of immigration from the Philippines, India and Korea grew steadily, creating large communities on the West Coast.


In 1848 after the Mexican-American War, the annexation of Texas and the Southwest introduced a Hispanic population that had full citizenship status. About 10,000 Californios lived in the southern part of California, and were numerically overwhelmed by migrants form the East by 1900 that their identity was almost lost. In New Mexico, by contrast, the Mexican population maintained its highly traditionalistic and religious culture, and retained some political power, into the 21st century. The Tejano population of Texas supported the revolution against Mexico in 1836, and gained full citizenship. In practice, however, most were ranch hands with limited political rights under the control of local bosses.

Industrial Northeast

The industrialization of the Northeast dramatically changed the social structure. New wealth abounded, with the growth of factories, railroads and banks from the 1830 to the 1920s. Hundreds of small cities sprang up, together with 100 large cities (of 100,000 or more population by 1920). Most had a base in manufacturing. The urban areas came to have a complex class structure, compounded of wealth (the more the better), occupation (with the learned professions at the top), and family status (the older the better). Ethnic-religious groups had their separate social systems (such as German Lutherans and Irish Catholics). The New England Yankee was dominant in business, finance, education and high society in most northern cities, but gradually lost control of politics to a working class coalition led often by Irish Catholics. Hundreds of new colleges and academies were founded to support the system, usually with specific religious or ethnic identities. Heterogeneous state universities became important after 1920.

Ethnicity and class

The most elaborate and in-depth studies of social class have focused on the working class, especially regarding occupation, immigration, ethnicity, family structure, education, occupational mobility, religious behavior, and neighborhood structure. Before 1970 historians emphasized the success--and the painful processes-- of assimilation into American culture, as studied by Oscar Handlin. In recent decades the internal value systems have been explored, as well as the process of occupational mobility. Most of the studies have been localized (because of the need for exhaustive use of censuses and local data), so that generalizations have been difficult to make. In recent years European scholars have become interested in the international flows, so that there are now studies following people from Europe to America over their lifetimes.

Labor historians have moved from a focus on national labor unions to microscopic studies of the workers in particular industries in particular cities. The consensus has been that the workers had their own political and cultural value system. The political values (as Wilentz has argued) were based on a producer's ethic--that is the working class was the truly productive sector of society--and expressed a version of republicanism that was similar to the middle class version. This enabled the businessman's party--the the Republican party--to enjoy a strong base among Protestant blue collar workers, and prevented the emergence of a strong Socialist movement.

20th century

The Progressive Era, with its emphasis on factualism and scientific inquiry produced hundreds of community studies, mostly using descriptive statistics to cover issues of poverty, crime, migration, religiosity, education, and public health. The emergence of systematic social science, especially sociology, shifted the center of class studies into sociology departments. The most representative example was the "Middletown" books by Robert Lynd and Helen Lynd, which gave a microscopic look at class structures in a typical small city (Muncie, Indiana). After 1960 localized studies gave way to national surveys, with special emphasis on the process of social mobility and stratification.

A classic theme was trying to see if the middle class was shrinking, or if the opportunities for upward mobility had worsened over time. After 1960 a growing concern with education led to many studies dealing with racial integration, and performance in schools by racial and gender groupings.


Colonial era

* Berlin, Ira. "Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America" 1998
* Bonomi, Patricia U. "Under the Cape of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America." 1986.
*Bushman, Richard L. "From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765" 1967.
* John Demos. "A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony" (1964) (ISBN 0-19-501355-7)
*Fischer, David Hackett. "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America." 1991. ISBN 0-19-506905-6
* Stephen Innes, ed, "Work, and Labor in Early America" 1988.
* Allan Kulikoff; "From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers" 2000
* Kulikoff, Allan. "Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800" 1986; Marxist
* "Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies." Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993. 3 vols.
* Greven, Philip. "Four Generations: Population, Land, and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts"
*Lockridge, Kenneth. "A New England Town: The First Hundred Years. Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636-1736" 1970.
* Main, Gloria L. "Tobacco Colony: Life in Early Maryland, 1650-1720" 1983.
* *Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. "Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750" 1982.


* Beard, Charles and Mary. "The Rise of American Civilization" (1927)
* Billington, Ray Allen. "America's Frontier Heritage" (1984). Analysis of Turner's theories.
*Bledstein, Burt. "The Culture of Professionalism: the Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America" (1976)
* Burton, Orville Vernon. "In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina" (1985)
* Campbell, Randolph B. "Planters and Plain Folks: The Social Structure of the Antebellum South," in John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolen, eds., "Interpreting Southern History"(1987), 48-77;
* Cecil-Fronsman, Bill. "Common Whites: Class and Culture in Antebellum North Carolina" (1992)
* Genovese, Eugene. "Roll Jordan Roll" slavery and class
* Hofstadter, Richard. "The Progressive Historians—Turner, Beard, Parrington". (1969), focus on class analysis of 19th century
* Hyde Jr., Samuel C. ed., "Plain Folk of the South Revisited" (1997).
* Owsley, Frank Lawrence. "Plain Folk of the Old South" (1949)
* [ Sellers, Charles. "The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846" (1991.)]
* [ Thomas G. West, "Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America" (1997)]
* Wilentz, Sean. "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln" (2005), highly detailed scholarly synthesis emphasizing class
* [ Wilentz, Sean. "On Class and Politics in Jacksonian America" Reviews in American History, Vol. 10, No. 4, The Promise of American History: Progress and Prospects (Dec., 1982) pp. 45-63] in JSTOR

ince 1900

* Lizabeth Cohen"Consumer's Republic", Knopf, 2003, ISBN 0-375-40750-2. Historical analysis of the working out of class in the United States.
* Stephanie Coontz, "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" (1993)
* Flynt, J. Wayne "Dixie's Forgotten People: The South's Poor Whites" (1979). deals with 20th century.
* [ Noralee Frankel and Nancy S. Dye eds "Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era" (1991)]
* [ Jennifer L. Hochschild; "Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation" (1995)]
* Newby, I. A. "Plain Folk in the New South: Social Change and Cultural Persistence, 1880-1915" (1989). concentrates on the poorest whites

Labor studies

* Paul Bernstein, "American Work Values: Their Origin and Development" (1997)
* Paul G Faler, "Mechanics and Manufacturers in the Early Industrial Revolution: Lynn, Massachusetts, 1780-1860" (1981)
* Leon Fink ed. "In Search of the Working Class: Essays in American Labor History and Political Culture" (1994)
* [ Richard Edwards, "Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century" (1979)]
* Gutman, Herbert G. and Donald H. Bell, eds. "The New England Working Class and the New Labor History" (1987)
* Gutman, Herbert, "Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class" (1988)
* Gutman, Herbert, "Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America" (1976)
* Nelson Lichtenstein "State of the Union: A Century of American Labor" (2003)
* Lipset, Seymour Martin. "American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword" (1997)
* [ Stephen P. Rice, "Minding the Machine: Languages of Class in Early Industrial America" (2004)]
*Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, "The Hidden Injuries of Class", Vintage, 1972 (classic study of the subjective experience of class)
* Charles Stephenson and Robert Asher, eds "Life and Labor: Dimensions of American Working-Class History" (1986)
* [ Irwin Yellowitz, "The Position of the Worker in American Society, 1865-1896" (1969)]

ocial science perspectives

* Louise Archer et al. "Higher Education and Social Class: Issues of Exclusion and Inclusion" RoutledgeFalmer. 2003
* Peter Blau and Otis D. Duncan, "The American Occupational Structure" (1967) classic study of structure and mobility
*Martin J. Burke, "The Conundrum of Class: Public Discourse on the Social Order in America" (1995), intellectual history
* [ Harold J. Bershady, ed. "Social Class and Democratic Leadership: Essays in Honor of E. Digby Baltzell" (1989)]
* John Patrick Diggins, "Thorstein Veblen: Theorist of the Leisure Class" (1999)
* Douglas M. Eichar; "Occupation and Class Consciousness in America" Greenwood Press, 1989
* Rick Fantasia, Rhonda F. Levine, Scott G. McNall, eds. "Bringing Class Back in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives" Westview Press. 1991
* David L. Featherman and Robert M. Hauser, "Opportunity and Change" (1978).
* Paul Fussell "Class (a painfully accurate guide through the American status system)", 1983. ISBN 0-345-31816-1
* David B Grusky. ed. "Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective" (2001) scholarly articles
* [ Michael D. Grimes, "Class in Twentieth-Century American Sociology: An Analysis of Theories and Measurement Strategies" (1991)]
* Lawrence E. Hazelrigg and Joseph Lopreato; "Class, Conflict, and Mobility: Theories and Studies of Class Structure" 1972.
* Susan A. Ostrander; "Women of the Upper Class" Temple University Press, 1984
* Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks; "Social Cleavages and Political Change: Voter Alignments and U.S. Party Coalitions" Oxford University Press, 1999
* Jeff Manza; "Political Sociological Models of the U.S. New Deal" "Annual Review of Sociology", 2000 pp 297+
* Michael Marmot. "The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity" 2004
* Geoff Payne. "The Social Mobility of Women: Beyond Male Mobility Models" (1990)
* [ Leonard Reissman, "Class in American Society" (1960)] , textbook
* Vanneman, Reeve, and Lynn Cannon. "The American Perception of Class" (1984)
* Walkowitz, Daniel J.; "Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity" University of North Carolina Press, 1999
* [ W. Lloyd Warner, "Social Class in America: A Manual of Procedure for the Measurement of Social Status" (1949)]
* Wright, Erik Olin, ed. "Approaches to Class Analysis" (2005)scholarly articles
* Wunderlin, Clarence E. "Visions of a New Industrial Order: Social Science and Labor Theory in America 's Progressive Era" (1992)

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