Though Nathanial Bacon himself may not have been poor, the rebellion he became a leader of in 1676 eventually proved to be evidence of the class envy that existed in the British colonies of North America. The British were aware of this problem and even expressed concerns throughout the next half century and beyond. The possibility of Native Americans, slaves and poor colonists rebelling and rising up (together or separate) against the elite upper class was a very real threat. The population of the elite class was a minuscule percentage of the total population in and around the British Colonies.

How did the wealthy "elite/governing" class maintain the status quo throughout the British Colonies of North America in the early to mid 18th century?

UPDATE: I don't want the term "poor" to become a hangup in the question. In this case I am referring to those who did not own land and/or those opposite of the elite/wealthy class who governed/ruled. Also in regards to "class envy", I am referring to the discrepancy between those who had and those who did not, and the repercussions felt by the peoples of the British Colonies. I am not opposed to the idea of improving the original question as needed to reflect its true intent even though some people have already have stated they feel the question is fine.

  • 1
    well-worded, thought-provoking question! – stevvve Jun 8 '12 at 0:21
  • 2
    Agreed, a good quality question! +1 – MichaelF Jun 8 '12 at 12:12

Overall, the primary reason the "status quo" was maintained was the availability of upward mobility and the level of political and economic freedom. Restrictions placed on these freedoms by the British Crown led to the Revolution.

The thing is that in Colonial America it was easy for a man to own land, thus showing an "interest" in colony and giving them right to vote. This was different from England where hereditary landowners controlled the vote.

As the frontier opened up, more people arrived who were looking for opportunity. For example, my ancestors arrived in Louisa County, Virgina in the early 1700's, obtained land and got involved in the political process. If they had remained in England, they wouldn't have achieved anywhere near this level of success.

Economically, the mercantilism system worked well for most Colonial Americans. The English made sure that those who participated in this process became wealthy. They used revenue to build their navy into even more of a powerhouse. Of course, Americans did their share of smuggling, but this wasn't so severe as to harm the system.

The relative freedom, political and economic, made it unlikely that there would be any 'class' based uprising. There was a clear opportunity for upward advancement within the system. That meant that the average Colonist could look forward to improving their life and the life of their children.

Another factor was a reduction in the number of white indentured servants, especially those of lower skills, during the 1700's. Around 189,000 African slaves were brought in between 1701 and 1760. This meant that European indentured servants were likely to be skilled labor, such as weavers, bricklayers and even accountants. It was also easier for white servants to flee and find somewhere else to live within the Colonies. Ben Franklin did this, for example.


I think you need to start reading social histories about "mob" studies. Oliver Bringing the Crowd back in, 1985 is an example of crowd studies. Understanding the capacities of the paid and unpaid (slave) American pre-working class, the position of small farmers, and small shop keepers is important. (DOI: 10.1080/03071027808567427 ; DOI: 10.1080/00236567408584299).

The third section of EP Thompson's Making of the English Working Class explains the development of cohesive class politics in the United Kingdom. You'll note the central role of the mobility, the crowd here.

Another issue is that "the poor" isn't a useful historical category. The division in class interest between a paid white worker, and an unpaid black slave worker is a massive gulf—the development of proletarian unity between workers paid in truck and workers paid in cash, with such a serious status gulf is difficult. Then consider the gap between the artisan and farmer, and the employee.

So we need to look at "traditional" social systems for keeping down the labourers: status, militia, conventional armed forces. On top of this, the British Colonies had an unusually flexible system of status and advancement, which allowed for class transitions within the third estate.

Finally even when emergent class consciousness happened, when there was a concentration of a singular group geographically, with a shared sense of oppression... here think small farmers or renters in highland country... they're geographically removed from the centres of power, their consciousness of their problem readily relates to other systems of restriction (such as that of the British state over the colony, rather than that of the British and British colonial rentier bourgeoisie over land allocation), and even when they do mobilise (Whiskey Rebellion) they can be put down in the traditional way with fire and sword.

Apart from the bourgeois section of the third estate, early-modern and pre-modern poor and labouring classes lacked something that modern proletariats possess: modern proletariats are forged by the labour process of capital itself into a class consciousness of the social worker. Capitalism teaches labour tools to transcend capitalism (here I'd suggest Karl Korsch and Harry Braverman). While bourgeois and petit-bourgeois values eventually saturated the British colonies in the centre and north, a similar process had been occurring in Britain; and as EP Thompson demonstrates, the generation of proletarian consciousness in the United Kingdom resembles the slow development of the generation of proletarian consciousness in the United States. It is not for no reason that Zinn's People's History devotes such a limited attention to this period (You want chapters 1-4, esp. chapters 2 & 3). Zinn claims, by the way, in answer of your question that the ruling class bound a middle class (the small bourgeois and industrial bourgeois, along with the true petits bourgeois) to itself through racism, fear, and economic concession (p58 HarperCollins 1995 rev & updt. ed)

A lazy approach to Zinn's bibliography gives us:

  • Andrews ed. Narratives of the Insurrections 1675-1690 NY: 1915
  • Morris Government and Labor in Early America NY: 1965
  • Nash ed. *Class and Society in Early America. Englewood Cliffs: 1970
  • Nash "Social change and the growth of prerevolutionary urban radicalism" The American Revolution ed. Young. DeKalb: 1976

from chapter 2 alone

Regardless of the update you're still replicating the same theoretical error. You perceive "the poor" as a unitary category. They're not. There is no natural class status possessed by free petits-bourgeois, free labour, slave labour and Indian. Constructing a cross-class alliance in order to oppose British power actually happened—it was the American Revolution, and it was a cross-class alliance hegemonised by a mercantile and planter bourgeoisie against a nascent finance capital and state bourgeoisie. In fact, the reason for the impotence of the Boston Mob in causing revolutionary change was the very nature of the pre-modern class structure in North America: the revolutionary class within the third estate was always going to be the bourgeoisie, completing the bourgeois revolution of Parliament against King.

There was no "natural problem" of maintaining the moral and political order of early America. Resistance was sporadic, localised and discrete. The possibility of the variety of kinds of resisters to unite on a common basis was limited by the absence of a common basis on which to unite. It seems to me that the intent of the question reflects a failure to understand the difference between modernity and early-modernity, which is why I keep pointing to EP Thompson as an account of the transformation of early modern into modern class structures. In 1760 there was no possibility of a union of the labouring class*es* of England to produce a revolution. By 1820 national Chartism was readily visible, and the proletariat had its own theorists. The absence of a natural problem of control means that the periodic riots and uprisings were a systematic part of the structure of Colonial society—they were politics as usual on the whole, and more so when the riot or revolt was exclusively of the "lower orders." I can't emphasise this enough: colonial society despite its openness was a society of orders and not of "classes" in the common useage.

Correspondingly in North America, in 1760 the proletariat was mis-led by the petits-bourgeois (at best) or by the haute-bourgeoisie towards a conflict with the UK's bourgeoisie. In fact, the most "revolutionary" segment of the nascent United States was the petits-bourgeois, the small farmer, the small artisan, as they had the possibility of forming armed power against the power of parliament, but unlike the planters and shipping magnates were sufficiently small to place personal interest and a society organised around an idealisation of small interests before a society organised around crass gross interests. The penetration of this spirit into the thinkers of the US revolution is remarkable, only to the extent that the penetration of elements of proletarian class war into the Russian intelligentsia is remarkable.

Bacon's rebellion was not an uprising of an oppressed mass in its own self-interest. It was the use of social discontent amongst a diverse set of downtrodden groups, to advance the interest of a middling section of the elite against a greater section of the elite.—There was no natural cross class alliance of the oppressed in the British colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries; and the alliance forged in the late 18th century was one which callously abused the outraged interest of those who benefited least from colonial society, turning the artisinal poor, the poor farmer, the urban and rural labourer's interests against themselves. The support of Indians and unfree blacks for the British clearly demonstrates that they knew which side of the class war the actual revolution was on.

  • I appreciate your recommendation and your detailed answer. However, I am not fully understanding what you mean by "Another issue is that "the poor" isn't a useful historical category." in your 3rd paragraph. Also, could you expound on the "...unusually flexible system of status and advancement..." that you discuss in the 4th paragraph. As for the emergent class consciousness, I find it intriguing that you suggest it didn't at some point exist ( "Finally even when emergent class consciousness happened..." ). – E1Suave Jun 8 '12 at 20:25
  • Once again I do appreciate you providing so much in regards to material on the topic, but you have piqued my interest and I am really interested in your personal summarization of the topic. – E1Suave Jun 8 '12 at 20:25
  • There have been wage labourers in the European context since monastic societies took on peasants on rates rather than substistence; but this doesn't mean that the wage or capital, ie the proletarian and their consciousness, existed. The working class may have been there at their own making, but this was a process between 1770 and 1820. Talking about 17th century US disorder through a lens of proletarian self-emancipation is ridiculous. Regarding flexibility in the system of status and advancement, see jfrankcarr's answer regarding bourgeois advancement within the third estate. – Samuel Russell Jun 9 '12 at 4:05
  • Are you suggesting that one without property would not be capable of recognizing those who owned property as different. Though I agree with jfrankcarr's point that some of those who were at one point indentured may indeed have found themselves a new life based on their skill set, I find it hard to believe that this would be the case for all those who came to the Americas (especially in the southern colonies). – E1Suave Jun 9 '12 at 5:57
  • As for those who did not have "poor" rebelling against those who did "elite" I do not see how this would possibly be considered ridiculous. Nathanial Bacon certainly found use in said discrepancy. More to the point of my question I wonder how the "elite/governing" kept the Native Americans, slaves and "poor" from more or less banding together to overthrow the governing class as was the end result of Bacon's rebellion in Jamestown (regarding only the poor). – E1Suave Jun 9 '12 at 5:58

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