The United States is often referred to as a "class-less" society where anyone can rise to any height. Leaving aside whether this is actually the case or not, when and how did this idea originate? Was it part of the Enlightenment ideas of the founding generation, or was it something that came along later?

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    Since when is the USA class-less while all the politicians always talk about the middle class or the working class? :) Joke aside. There are clearly at least racial classes in the USA. – txwikinger Oct 25 '11 at 20:21
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    The idea stems from the French Revolution and its mantra liberty, equality, fraternity. Equality bringing the class-less idea by eliminating the aristocracy. However, even the French revolution was not true to its idea, since in some ways the aristocracy was merely replaced by the bourgeois and hence again created different classes. – txwikinger Oct 25 '11 at 20:29
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    @MarkC.Wallace: While class is a contentious term, it is also a well-established one in history and sociology. Qualifying it by special ibservations is fine; replacing it by a euphemism is inproductive. "Classless society" is a clear and useful concept. How would you put it without the word "class"? – Felix Goldberg Dec 11 '12 at 0:24
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    Felix, but unlike American Revolution, French Revolution was a war of classes, in order to provide class-less (well, at least more class-less) society. The same with communists. – Darek Wędrychowski Apr 22 '13 at 9:41
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    @txwikinger - Not really, as Felix Goldberg has already hinted. The opposite is true: American revolutionaries advised and inspired the French: Jefferson, Franklin, and Thomas Paine, among the notable figures of the American Revolution, were all friends and advisors to the French revolutionaries. The French Revolution began in 1789 - the American Revolution ended in 1783. – user2590 Aug 7 '13 at 7:49

The United States was in the "new world." As such, it didn't START with many of the class structures common to European societies.

As such, it was regarded as a good "testing ground" for theories of a classless society stemming from the Enlightenment. The "founding generation," even though heavily tilted toward the upper class, was greatly influenced by these ideas, and wrote them into the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other founding documents.

America has never been a fully "classless" society. What HAS been true is that many of the class barriers that stood in people's ways in Europe didn't operate particularly well in the U.S. In an achieving society, the ethos has been to promote a meritorious individual from the "wrong" background over a mediocre one from a good background.

Western European countries have largely adopted "American" ideas of a democratic meritocracy, to their benefit. Some of them now arguably have more social mobility than the U.S.

But the U.S. will probably long maintain its reputation as the site of the global "lab experiment" in equality.

  • Ideas in France and America about equality influenced each other in various complex ways (I don't know the details). If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that French enlightened culture exerted greater influence on America than vice versa, considering the extensive production of enlightened literature in France prior to the Revolutions; but it is remarkable that America went first. I believe the democracies of Europe, while no doubt also influenced by the American Revolution, mostly looked to French ideas in this respect; e.g. the Am. Rev. does not figure prominently in Dutch history books. – Cerberus Oct 27 '11 at 19:49
  • @Cerberus: So it seems. It appears that the relatively free and open society that the Americans enjoyed even before their Revolution allowed them to savor the works of writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, etc and eventually brought about the American Revolution. Subsequently, in spite of the horribly choking conditions in France, American Revolutionaries inspired the French to embrace a heritage that had originated with their own writers and thinkers. (Of course, it was more than just the Americans that gave rise to the French Revolution!) – user2590 Aug 7 '13 at 7:59
  • The United States embedded lots of European or in particular British principles as it started as a mostly British colony. The US legal system is based on the British legal system. So it did not start really as 100% new. – txwikinger Oct 20 '13 at 19:03

The last "class" concept I can think of the U.S. having would be segregation. I believe it was the "everyone is equal" movement (The whole "sitting at the front of the bus" thing) that lead to our current class-less "everyone is equal" state.

  • Not a bad answer. Welcome to the site. An upvote to get you going. – Tom Au Oct 27 '11 at 0:49
  • What about economic classes (labour vs capitalists)? – quant_dev Oct 27 '11 at 20:31
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    @quant_dev - care to explain how a "labour" person making >70k a year with gold-plated medical insurance and platinum-plated (on paper) pension is somehow in a lower class than a guy who starts his own company and generally sees pretty much NO profit for the first couple of years? – DVK Nov 19 '11 at 22:31
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    @quant_dev - What about a smart guy who worked hard for a couple of years, made some cash, and invested in the market and thereafter most of his income is investment returns (I personally know several, some who started from income of $10k/year)? There is no such thing as "labour" class vs "capitalist" in the European definition of a class. There are people with a spectrum of income distribution between wage income and investments - which varies through life for any given person, not separate classes. – DVK Nov 19 '11 at 22:34
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    @DVK I would like to discuss this with you but this is not a good place. Rest assured that every capitalist country has class divisions, they arise from the dynamics of the system. Americans just choose to be in denial about it. – quant_dev Nov 21 '11 at 18:43

Even if somebody can rise to height, does not make a society classless. Class is not an sealed set of people: people always can move from one class to another. You possibly confuse class with a social estate or caste the two being more closed divisions of society without easy ways to change.

What distinguishes class (by Marx) is the possession of the means of production. That means if a society has those who possesses means of production and those who do not, the society is not classless.

Income also is not a distinguishing criterion: a hired manager can have higher income than a farmer, but still he belongs to a different class.

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    This is the Marxist definition. – Anixx Jul 23 '12 at 17:57
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    It's not a very useful definition. It doesn't help you understand a person's income, ability to affect the economy, or social standing. – Joe Jul 23 '12 at 18:17
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    It is the only sense where the notion of class has meaning. – Anixx Jul 23 '12 at 23:17
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    There are non-marxist uses of the term "class" that are meaningful and useful. The term can be used for economic strata, for nobility vs commoner, etc. – MCW Dec 10 '12 at 18:01
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    Cite? Evidence? I cannot recall any use of the term "estate" in the US Colonial or Federalist period. I may be wrong, but I think the term is used in France. And I certainly recall discussions of nobility vs common sort that are useful in response to the OP's question. See Federalist #1, paragraph 3, which refers to "obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men," – MCW Dec 10 '12 at 18:12

Not sure I understand well this question: Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

"The answer is staring you in face"

"The answer is staring you in the face."

Why is the founding document of the United States, often memorized by school children, traditionally read in public on Independence Day, not sufficient to answer this question? It is the document upon which everything rests.

By law, a Constitutional Convention can be convened and a new constitution of the USA can be drafted and ratified. But the United States as a nation remains, as per our Declaration, and therein is stated quite clearly the idea of a "classless society".

(There is much more here - but alas, I have not the time to elaborate at the moment or cite some of the original sources. Perhaps in time - see the wiki on the Declaration for a starting point.)

  • Upvoting cheifly because I think you are onto the right answer here. However, were it me I'd give up on that last sentence and actually replace it with text explaining why this one random sentence from one random document with no modern legal standing is so key (or indicitive). Not entirely sure how that picture is relevant either. – T.E.D. Aug 7 '13 at 14:13
  • "no modern legal standing" - not quite: many legal scholars hold the Declaration to be key to understanding the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, among them Abraham Lincoln: A careful reading of the Bill of Rights reveals it relies on the assumption of certain rights previous to the Constitution - "the right of the people to...' etc: The Source? the Declaration: "We hold these truths to be self-evident... with certain unalienable Rights" - – user2590 Aug 7 '13 at 16:10
  • I'd agree with them. But (a) that doesn't mean it actually has any legal standing, and (b) I'd really rather see points like this put in your answer. :-) – T.E.D. Aug 7 '13 at 16:12
  • @T.E.D.: IMO it is a mistake to view the Declaration as just an inspirational document from the USA's revolutionary period. As the founding document of the United States as a nation, it has inherent legal clout. The subsequent debates were regarding exactly how to govern that nation and what form it would take-but the history of the USA as a nation/state begins with the Declaration. We can replace the Constitution through a Constitutional Convention-but that will not negate the existence of the United States as per the Declaration. Consider this, besides its connection to the BoR. – user2590 Aug 7 '13 at 16:12
  • @T.E.D. - I could put it in the answer but I'm not sure how much bearing it has on the question. The question is how did we arrive at the concept of a classless society - Jefferson's declaration provides the answer - what else is needed? Besides, I don't want to just cut and paste from Wiki and at the moment I am at work, cannot go looking around for original sources. As for (b) - if it impacts of the reading of the BoR, that IS legal standing. As for the rest, we have to move the chat - but I cannot now. – user2590 Aug 7 '13 at 16:24

Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution contains a long discussion of this concept. (personal opinion, the discussion extends longer than useful, and seems focused on responding to an argument that isn't in the book).

I believe the question is founded on (one or more) false assumption; "The United States is a class-less society" is a conclusion, not a pre-existing idea. (others have discussed ad nauseum the imprecision involved in "class-less"). During the 1740's to 1780's, the institution of "class" was dysfunctional in the united states. (Here, I reject the marxist definition as lacking in utility; I refer to the more contemporary notion of gentry class vs commoner). The things that made that institution work in Britain (including the presence and active intervention of a King, a populist Tory party, and a strongly established Church of England) were absent in America.

One could argue that classlessness is an artifact of Republicanism of the period, but even Republicanism was fundamentally oligarchic. (one of the reasons for the failure of the Articles of Confederation was the "licentiousness" of the American populace. Writers of the period lamented the notion that craftsmen and tradesmen and merchants were involving themselves in politics, which was unacceptable). But Republicanism within the British constitution (such as it was at the time) was different from Republicanism in the Netherlands or in Switzerland - I think the argument very quickly drowns under the difficulty of defining Republicanism and Classlessness.


I agree with the New World statement, classes are something inherited from kingships, Like the nobility is the highest class. In America you can lose you class status in one generation (kids run the bussiness into the ground).

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    Nobility is not a class, it is estate. – Anixx Sep 12 '12 at 13:16
  • The French called Nobility an estate - can you produce citations of the English using that term? (Honest question; I don't know the answer). – MCW Dec 10 '12 at 18:11

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