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Social class has been an important theme for historians of the United States for over 100 years. The overall level of prosperity has grown, but much of the debate has always focused on whether social mobility has fallen in recent decades, what one scholar calls the "American nightmare."
Historians in recent decades have explored in microscopic detail the process of settling the new country and creating the social structure.
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 gen 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 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 growing strength of republicanism created a political ethos that resisted imperial taxation without local consent. Led by Virginia, the Southern Colonies resisted the British policy of taxation without representation, and supported the American Revolution, sending wealthy planters George Washington to lead the armies and Thomas Jefferson to declare the principles of independence, as well as thousands of ordinary folk to man the armies.
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner had a frontier based theory. 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 increasingly became more socially, politically, and economically equal.
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[who?] say he overemphasized the size of the Southern landholding middle class while excluding the large class of poor landless and slaveless white Southerners. 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.
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 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 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.
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 dominated by bosses and immigrants, including 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.
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 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 Republican party, to enjoy a strong base among Protestant blue collar workers, and prevented the emergence of a strong Socialist movement.
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.
The disposable income of the American upper class was sharply reduced by high income tax rates during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. During this period corporate executives had relatively modest incomes, lived modestly, and had few servants.