Authors: Gordon S. Wood
So scrambled was the social hierarchy becoming that men struggled to identify the various degrees and ranks that were emerging. Most people did not yet think explicitly in terms of modern “classes”—those horizontal layers of income and occupation standing in an antagonistic relationship to one another that would become common forms of identity in the nineteenth century. Instead, most late eighteenth-century commentators talked about sorts—”the better sort,” “the meaner sort,” “the ruder sort,” “the lower sort,” and, increasingly, “the middling sort.”
These “middling sorts” were middling because they could not be classified either as gentlemen or as out-and-out commoners. They could not be gentlemen, because they had occupations and worked for a living with their hands; even artisans who employed dozens of journeymen-employees were regarded as something less than gentlemen. At the same time, however, these middling sorts, such as the petty New York merchants Isaac Sears and John Lamb, were often too well-off or too refined and knowledgeable to be placed among “the lower sort” or “the meaner sort.” Of the three thousand adult males in Boston in 1790, for example, eighteen hundred or 60 percent made up the middling sort; they were the artisans or mechanics, the laboring proprietors, who held 36 percent of the taxable wealth of the city and constituted the majority of its property-holders.
From the beginning of the eighteenth-century thinkers like Daniel Defoe had tried to explain and justify these emerging middling people, including the “working trades, who labour hard but feel no want.”
These well-to-do working people with property, like the young printer Benjamin Franklin, increasingly had prided themselves on their separation from the common idleness and dissipation of the gentry above them and the property-less poor beneath them. “It was, in fact, the unique combination of work and property,” as one perceptive scholar of this social group has put it, “that distinguished the ‘middling sort’ from the elite who owned but did not engage in productive labor, and from the wage earners who labored but did not own.” These were the beginnings of what would become the middle class of the nineteenth century.
Although the gentry still tended to lump these middling sorts who had occupations and worked openly for money with the lower orders of wage-earners in the single category of commoners, many of these middling people saw themselves as the equals of the so-called aristocracy or gentry and were eager to use the republican emphasis on equality to contest those above them. Many of them had wealth enough, and they could not see why they should not be regarded as gentlemen too. Or if they themselves were not to be considered gentlemen, then they hoped, as one Pennsylvania radical put it in 1775, to bring “gentlemen . . . down to our level,” and ensure that “all ranks and conditions would come in for their just share of the wealth.”
Other middling sorts were becoming increasingly self-conscious of their separate but equal status and began, for example, to contest the right of the gentry to sit in separate boxes in the theaters. Some of them even took to writing plays and building theaters designed for their own middling kind.
Of course, there were immense differences among these middling sorts. The artisans or mechanics, for example, ranged from the very wealthy to the marginally poor. Some, such as bakers and bricklayers, required large amounts of capital for entry into the trade and thus were richer than most. Others, such as goldsmiths and clockmakers, required specialized skills that restricted their numbers and raised their incomes. And still others, such as weavers and shoemakers, were more lowly and poorer. But all these tradesmen and other middling persons tended to be united in a common antagonism to the would-be aristocracy above them.
The social struggle that took place during the three or four decades following the Revolution, especially in the Northern states of America, was essentially between these middling people and the gentry-aristocracy who claimed to be “exalted above the rest.”
Everywhere, but particularly in the North, tens of thousands of ambitious middling men—commercial farmers, master artisans, traders, shopkeepers, petty merchants, and all those who later came to be called businessmen——were acquiring not only considerable wealth but also some learning, some politeness, and some awareness of the larger world.
By the 1780s the would-be aristocrats were finding it difficult to resist such challenges. In his debate with some middling sorts in the New York ratifying convention in 1788, Alexander Hamilton conceded that in
America every governor, every member of Congress, every magistrate, and every militia officer, indeed, “every distinguished man was an aristocrat.”
If this were the case, then anyone elected or appointed to these offices thereby became a gentleman-aristocrat. The problem had become evident during the Revolutionary War. Much to the chagrin of the more established gentry, such middling sorts—”the Sons of Farmers or Mechanicks, who had quit the Plow or Workshop” to join the army as officers—had tried to use their commissions as junior officers to claim the status of gentlemen. Middling men elected to political office in the 1780s were doing the same: they were asserting their gentry status by the fact of election alone, without having acquired all the cultural attributes of gentlemen.
These middling sorts launched the momentous social struggle that eventually turned them into the dominant “middle class” of the nineteenth century. When men at the time talked about the contest between the few and the many, or the aristocracy and the democracy, taking place in the society of the early Republic, it is this social struggle they are referring to.
Historians have interpreted this complicated social struggle in very different ways. Some have denied that there was a social contest at all, contending that the Revolution had no social causes or consequences whatsoever and was simply a war for independence. Others have agreed that there was a struggle but have seen it in exclusively economic rather than social terms, with a few moneyed men exploiting the common workers. And still others have differed over who the contestants were and who was oppressing whom.
Yet the struggle was very real, and it
fundamentally changed American society in the decades following the Revolution, particularly in the North.
HE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION
of 1787 was designed in part to solve the problems created by the presence in the state legislatures of these middling men. In addition to correcting the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was intended to restrain the excesses of democracy and protect minority rights from overbearing majorities in the state legislatures. But could that be done within a republican framework? Some thought not. “You may think it very Extraordinary,” Joseph Savage of New Jersey told his son in July 1787, “but the better sort of people are very desirous of a Monarchical government and are in daily Expectation of having it recommended by those Gentlemen in Philadelphia.”
Of course, the middling sorts in the states did not think there was too much democracy in the various legislatures; on the contrary, because of the heavy taxes they were paying, they thought there was not enough democracy.
Certainly no one described the crisis of American politics in 1787 more acutely than did the thirty-six-year-old Virginian James Madison. Madison had become a member of the Continental Congress at age twenty-eight and was thoroughly familiar with the Confederation’s weaknesses. Indeed, throughout the middle 1780s he, along with other national leaders, had wrestled with various schemes for overhauling the Articles of Confederation. But it was his experience serving in the Virginia assembly in 1784–1787 that convinced him that the real problem of American politics lay in the state legislatures. During the 1780s he saw many of his and Jefferson’s plans for reform mangled by factional fighting and majoritarian confusion in the Virginia assembly. More than any other Founder, Madison questioned the conventional wisdom of the age concerning majority rule, the proper size for a republic, and the role of factions in society. His thinking about the problems of creating republican governments and his writing of the Virginia Plan in 1787, which became the working model for the Constitution, constituted one of the most creative moments in the history of American politics.
Yet Madison’s conception of a proper national government expressed in his Virginia Plan was very different from that of many of his fellow supporters of the Constitution. Although Madison very much desired to transcend the states and build a nation in 1787, his idea of the role of the proposed central government was very judicial-like.
No government, Madison wrote in
No. 10, could be just if parties, that is, people with private interests to promote, became judges in their own causes; indeed, interested majorities in the legislatures were no better in this respect than interested minorities. Madison’s solution to this problem was to create a national government that he hoped would be a kind of impartial super-judge over all the competing interests in the society. The new Constitution would create, he said, a “disinterested & dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions & interests” in the various states.
In fact, he hoped the new government might play the same super-political neutral role that the British king ideally had been supposed to play in the empire.
Madison had little or no interest in creating the sort of modern European-like war-making state with an energetic and powerful executive that other nationalists such as Alexander Hamilton wanted. In fact, Madison seems to have never much valued executive authority as a means of countering legislative abuses, even in the states, and his conception of the executive in the new national government remained hazy at best. As late as April 1787 he told Washington that he had “scarcely ventured as yet to form my own opinion either of the manner in which [the executive] ought to be constituted or of the authorities with which it ought to be cloathed.”
Through much of the Convention he assumed that the powers over appointment to offices and the conduct of foreign affairs would be assigned to the Senate, not the president. Only in mid-August 1787, three months into the Convention, when Madison and other nationalists became alarmed by the states gaining equal representation in the Senate, were these powers taken away from the state-dominated Senate and granted to the president. Madison and others so feared the state legislatures, each of which would elect two senators under the “Connecticut Compromise,” that they no longer wanted the Senate to have the degree of power earlier granted to it when it would have been proportionally elected and would not have represented the states.
Although the final version of the new Constitution eliminated what Madison regarded as essential parts of his Virginia Plan, including proportional representation in both houses of Congress, it did retain the tripartite structure of an executive, a bicameral legislature, and a judiciary. The Constitution corrected the deficiencies of the Confederation by
granting the new national government some extraordinary powers, powers that ambitious state-builders could exploit. The Convention, however, rejected Madison’s impractical plan for a national congressional veto over all state laws, a rejection that Madison feared would doom the Constitution to failure. Instead, the Convention in Article I, Section 10, prohibited the states from exercising a remarkable number of powers, including levying import or export duties, printing paper money, and enacting various debtor relief laws and laws impairing contracts. But if these prohibitions were not enough to prevent the excesses of localist and interest-ridden democracy in the states, then the expanded and elevated structure of the federal government itself was designed to help.
Madison and other supporters of the Constitution—the Federalists, as they called themselves—hoped that an expanded national sphere of operation would prevent the diverse and clashing interests of the society from combining to create tyrannical majorities in the new national government. Madison understood that it had worked that way in American religion: the multiplicity of religious sects prevented any one of them from dominating the state and permitted the enlightened reason of liberal gentlemen like Jefferson and himself to shape public policy and church-state relations and to protect the rights of minorities. “In a free government,” wrote Madison in
No. 51, “the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”
Madison, however, did not expect the new federal government to be neutralized into inactivity by competition among these numerous diverse interests. He did not envision public policy or the common good of the national government emerging naturally from the give-and-take of hosts of clashing private interests. Instead, he expected that these interests would neutralize themselves in the society and allow liberally educated, rational men—men, he said, “whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices, and to schemes of injustice”—to decide questions of the public good in a disinterested adjudicatory manner.
As “an auxiliary desideratum” to his scheme, Madison predicted that the elevated and expanded sphere of national politics would act as a filter, refining the kind of men who would become these national umpires.
In a larger arena of national politics with an expanded electorate and a
smaller number of representatives, the people were more apt to ignore the illiberal narrow-minded men with “factious tempers” and “local prejudices,” the middling men who had dominated the state legislatures in the 1780s, and instead elect to the new federal government only disinterested gentlemen.
One has only to compare the sixty-five representatives who were designated for the first national Congress with the thousand or more representatives in the state legislatures to understand what this filtering and refining process of the Constitution might mean socially and politically.