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Population and Social Rank

In 1760 the population of the thirteen colonies was approximately 1,600,000, about one fourth of whom were negro slaves. The people were scattered thinly over the vast region along the seaboard between New Brunswick and Florida, extending from the coast in decreasing numbers to the foothills of the Alleghanies. A few settlers and traders had occupied the valley of the Ohio, but in one colony only, Pennsylvania, had the settlers crossed the Alleghanies in any considerable numbers. About half the population lived on either side of Mason and Dixon's line. The most populous of the colonies was Virginia, Massachusetts coming second and Pennsylvania third. The largest city was Philadelphia, with 25,000 inhabitants; the only other cities exceeding 5000 were Boston, New York, and Charleston.

In New England and the South, the people were almost wholly of English stock,1 with a sprinkling of Scotch-Irish and other nationalities, and, especially in the South, of French Huguenots and Germans. In the middle colonies less than half the population was English; the Dutch of New York, the Germans of Pennsylvania, the Swedes of Delaware, and the Irish of all these colonies, together with small numbers of other nationalities, made up more than half the population..

In all the colonies there were well-drawn social lines; birth and pedigree counted for more than in the free America of today. The lowest stratum of society was composed of African slaves. Slavery existed in all the thirteen colonies, but the great bulk of the slaves, perhaps four fifths of them, were in the South. The institution did not pay at the North, and it never became an important social factor in that section. Few were the rights of the slaves before the law in any of the colonies; but with regard to their condition they may be divided into three classes. Those in New England and the middle colonies were for the most part domestic servants, and they usually received mild and humane treatment, were instructed in religion and morals, and were not infrequently admitted to the family circle. In Virginia and Maryland, where all social life centered round the owners of the great plantations, the slave was a body-servant to his master, or more frequently a plantation laborer, living a life of ignorance and contentment in his rude hut with his family. At certain seasons of the year his labor was arduous, but, on the whole, his condition was a happy one. Among this class we find mechanics and artisans, trained for the various duties about the plantation. A severer form of slavery marked the third class, which was found farther south, where the blacks were brought from Africa or the West Indies in great numbers, and where, under the lash of the taskmaster, they wore away their lives in the rice swamps with unrequited toil.

For many years there was no particular public sentiment against slavery; but about the time of the English Revolution, the Quakers and Germans of Pennsylvania began to be heard in opposing the institution on moral grounds. Thus began a public feeling against slavery that was destined to increase in volume for more than a hundred and fifty years, and at last to bring about the overthrow of the institution in America.

Next above the slaves, and not far above them, stood the indented white servants. Many of these were criminals, who, being thrust upon the colonies by the mother country, escaped imprisonment or death by a long term of servitude in America. Others were waifs from the streets of London, sold by their inhuman parents, or kidnapped by cruel traders and sold into servitude across the sea. Still others, known as redemptioners or free-willers, voluntarily sold their services for a term of years, not usually more than five, in order to pay their passage across the sea. The shipmaster would bring a company of them to an American port, and dispose of them to the planters, farmers, and merchants. The majority of the redemptioners, after serving their time, merged into the great middle class and became substantial citizens. Many left the scenes of their servitude and pushed out to the frontier, hewed their homes out of the frowning forest, and led a quiet, industrious life. Of the convict class, few were reformed by their service; the majority continued shiftless and worthless, and constituted, especially at the South, the most undesirable element of society. On election days and other special occasions they, and too often citizens of the more respectable classes, would gather at the taverns and courthouses and spend the time drinking, gambling, and fighting. They also, with the free negroes, oonstituted the chief criminal classes in most of the colonies. Crime was punished by hanging, whipping, ducking, branding, and by exposure in the pillory and the stocks -- less frequently by imprisonment, except in some of the northern colonies. The indented servants, like the slaves, were far more numerous in the South than in the North, but in no place were they socially or politically of much importance.2

The next higher class, the most numerous of all, comprised the traders, shop-keepers, and small farmers -- the rank and file, the bone and sinew of the land. Especially was this true of the northern and middle colonies. To this class belonged the great mass of the people, and they were for the most part prosperous, contented, and moderately educated, but not highly cultured. They were sturdy, honest, usually religious, and hospitable to strangers. There is no doubt that in morals the colonists as a whole were equal to any people in the world. Governor Spottswood of Virginia wrote to the bishop of London that in that colony he had observed less profaneness, drunkenness, feuds, and villainy than in any part of the world where his lot had been.

At the top of the social scale stood the ruling class, composed in New England of the clergy, magistrates, college professors, and other professional men; in New York of these classes, and, above all, of the great landholders along the Hudson; while in the South the proprietors of the great plantations were uppermost in society, and near them stood the professional men. In all the colonies social lines were distinctly drawn, more so than in our own times. The style of dress was, in some colonies, regulated by law, and no one was permitted to dress "above his degree." Worshipers in church and students in college were obliged to occupy seats according to their social standing. The upper class made much of birth and ancestry; and, whatever our prejudices against rank, it is significant that from this class came many of the leading statesmen and generals of the Revolution. With all the class distinctions, however, it was not unusual in those days, as at present, for an aspiring youth to rise from the lower walks of life and take his place among the leaders of society.


1 New England was of more purely English stock than was the South. [return]

2In Virglnia the indented servants outnnmhered the slaves for a hundred years. In all the colonies there were strict laws against their running away. Sometimes man and wife, or parents and children, were separated, to meet no more for years, or even for life. See Bolles's "Pennsylvania," p.177 sq. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter X p. 198-200. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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