Sunday, October 14, 2012

America's Social Origins

I devoted my last post to Christopher Columbus. Although other Europeans (and maybe some Polynesians) made it to the Americas before him, his voyages led to the European colonization of the “New World.”

The next few posts will look a England on the eve of colonization. The first will survey English society.

Most English saw themselves as a traditional society. They conceived society as an organic whole, perhaps derived from Paul's biblical language comparing the church to a body. As a Christian society, it was seen as possessing the same unity and wholeness as a body.

Unity did not imply uniformity. Society revealed a delicate hierarchy from the highest monarch to the lowest pheasant. Very little movement occurred within this hierarchy. Relations between people in different degrees in the social hierarchy were marked by the concept of deference. The lower orders deferred, or gave way, to those of a higher order, whether this involved a tip of the hat or stepping aside to allow a social superior to pass. It also involved deferring to the leadership of “the better sort.” What began as customs later became law. English law eventually formalized the social hierarchy and enacted laws that distinguished between members of the social hierarchy. The law created distinctions in both forms of address and legal rights and privileges.

The most fundamental division separated the nobility from the commoners.The term nobility derived from the idea of “notables.” The English nobility was itself divided into the peerage and the landed gentry. The peerage consisted of those who possessed formal titles in the descending order of status of Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron. These titles were awarded by the monarchs. The title became part of their name or they were simply addressed as “Lord” of “Lady.” They were hereditary; the sons inherited the title from their fathers. And the status of peer entitled one to sit in the House of Lords. As might be expected, these individuals devoted most of their political influence in the court in London.

The landed gentry referred to those who derived income from land rents and did not have to labor. They, too, sometimes possessed titles such as Baronet, Knight, or Esquire. They were usually addressed as “Sir.” Mostly influential out in the shires (counties) as justices of the peace, they also sometimes represented their localities in the House of Commons.

English laws sought to perpetuate a landed nobility and gentry. Primogeniture laws required that landowners passed down land to the first born son. Entailed land required that land be passed down intact; landowners could not divided their holdings between children. This meant that many younger sons remained dependant upon their oldest brothers and had to seek a living in law, the priesthood, or in the growing mercantile opportunities in England.

The remains of English society consisted of the commoners. Although the term “middle class” was unknown, sometimes references were made to “the middling sort.” These included yeoman in the country and skilled craftsmen of the cities and villages such as smiths, tailors, carpenters, masons, etc. Yeoman were small landowners who worked their own land. They were addressed as “Goodman” and “Goodwife.”

Below the property owning yeoman and skilled craftsmen were the tenants, who worked someone else's land for wages and day laborers, who roamed from place to place to secure whatever work they can. Sometime local parishes assisted in finding employment for what they called “the able bodied poor.” They were sometimes house in cottage or poor houses.

The bottom, of course, consisted of the unemployed beggars and petty thieves. Local authorities resorting to flogging and banishment from the parish. Some of these people eventually ended up in the gallows.

This is the social world that the first English colonists brought to North America and that persisted in varying degrees for nearly two hundred years after settlement.


CW said...

That's very interesting. I always tend to think that "The New World" started out with everyone on an even footing.

RightDetour said...

It started on much more equal footing that the situation back at home in England. Obviously, few if any nobles left the good life in England for "the provinces." British North America was populated largely by the "middling sort" and the poor, but gradually grew more complex and stratified as the decades passed. Deference to colonial elites characterized provincial politics. Although voting rights were far more widespread than in England, colonists repeatedly elected the same people and/or families to positions of authority. Politics then was based much more on personalities and status than on specific issues.