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Image Massachusetts Rank Ways: A System of Truncated Orders

On board the ship Arbella, John Winthrop entertained his fellow passengers with a typical Puritan lay-sermon on the subject of social rank. “God Almighty,” Winthrop declared, “in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the Condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.”1

From the beginning, the colony of Massachusetts Bay did indeed make some New Englanders “high and eminent,” and others “mean and in subjection.” These distinctions derived from East Anglian ranking practices, but were modified in major ways by the builders of the Bay Colony. The system of stratification in eastern England, like that of Europe as a whole during the seventeenth century, was marked by inequality in high degree. At the top was the Crown, the Peerage, and the greater gentry, who held title to much of the farmland in the region, and even to some of its urban centers as well. The county of Norfolk, for example, was divided into approximately 1,500 manors in 1630. Of that number, a majority were owned by a few dozen great landowners.2 The county of Essex in the year 1640 had approximately 1,100 manors, of which 780 were in private hands. Of that number, 64 were held by the Earl of Warwick alone. Ten families owned 222 Essex manors, and dominated the economic affairs of the county. Entire market towns were owned by single families; the community of Saffron Walden, for example, belonged to the Earl of Suffolk.3 In Kent the pattern was a little different. Here the Church of England was the largest landowner in the early seventeenth century. But close behind was a temporal peer, the Earl of Thanet, with vast estates that brought him a princely income. After him came twenty or thirty close-knit county families, who owned a very large part of the Kentish countryside.4

At the bottom of this social order were large numbers of desperately poor people: small leaseholders and landless laborers. Most adult males held fewer than five acres. A majority possessed no land at all. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the poor were increasing more rapidly than the population as a whole. In one farming village (Heydon, Essex) during the year 1568, half the householders had struggled to survive on four acres or less. By 1625, that proportion had risen above two-thirds. Similar tendencies appeared in many East Anglian villages. King, peers and gentry all grew richer, while a landless tenantry sank deeper into the slough of poverty and degradation.5

Even this wretched rural proletariat was not the very lowest stratum of East Anglian society. At the bottom was a large vagrant population of wandering poor who overran the larger towns and much of the countryside as well. On 1 December 1623, for example, the selectmen of the English town of Braintree hired an officer called the Beadle of the Beggars, whose job was “to gather up about dinner and supper time all the beggars at mens’ doors.”6 Chronic unemployment was a major problem throughout the region. In the year 1630, many poor men and women, “complaining for want of work,” were given make-work jobs by the towns. Women were set to spinning; men, to picking stone. Most towns looked after their own; their records show that elderly residents were often treated with decency, respect and compassion.7 Many East Anglian towns bought large quantities of coal from Newcastle, butter from local farmers, and bread from bakers to keep the “town-born” poor from perishing of hunger and cold.8

But the vagrant poor were treated with great brutality. Pregnant women were expelled so that their newborn babies would not become a charge upon the town. In the English town of Braintree again, the town records recorded that “notice is given to us of a wench entertained at John Beckwith’s dwelling that is supposed to have a great belly, which the constables have warning to look after, and to take order to remove.”9 In Essex, some of these vagrants were sent to the county gaol which was kept in the dark dungeons of Colchester castle. Others went to houses of correction and almshouses. The lucky ones found their way to “hospitals,” which were hostels for the poor. In the year 1630 when the ship Arbella sailed for America, these places were filled to overflowing—so much so in Essex that whenever one person was accepted, someone else had to be removed.10

Between these upper and lower ranks of East Anglian society, there were middling strata, from which came the founders of Massachusetts. This broad middle class included lesser gentry, yeomanry, prosperous farmers, artisans and tradesmen, all of whom were more numerous in the eastern counties than in other parts of England. Freeholders were a small minority in most parts of England. But there were many thousands of freeholders in Kent and large numbers in Essex and Suffolk.11 They held their lands in fee simple. Even so, they were required to pay quitrents and feudal dues which could be very burdensome. These middling families also contributed the great bulk of the king’s revenues and the church’s tithes, as well as local poor rates. They were thus compelled to support the people who were both above and below them. This double burden lay heavily upon the stratum that sent so many people to New England.

The experience of social oppression in England caused the founders of Massachusetts to modify the ranking system in their society. After much discussion, they deliberately eliminated both the top and bottom strata of the East Anglian social order, and at the same time carefully preserved its middling distinctions. The result was a social revolution which happened not as the result of some “mysterious Atlantic sea change,” as one historian has called it, or as a product of the migration process itself, or as a reflexive response to the material environment. This revolution was a conscious act which rose from religious ideals and social purposes of the founders.

One of the critical decisions was made in the year 1636, when a group of Puritan noblemen considered moving to Massachusetts, and sought assurance that their hereditary powers would be protected in the New World. Their letter began with a “demand” that “the commonwealth should consist of two distinct ranks of men, whereof the one should be for them and their heirs, gentlemen of the country, the other for them and their heirs, freeholders.” The Puritan peers also asked that honor, power and authority should be made hereditary.

The letter caused consternation in Massachusetts. The magistrates and ministers of the Bay Colony debated the question at length, and commissioned John Cotton, minister of the first church in Boston, to draft a reply. The tone of their answer was conciliatory, and deferential in high degree. But its substance was negative. To “demand one,” the leaders of Massachusetts willingly granted “hereditary honor,” but “hereditary power” was firmly refused. The Bay colonists declared:

Two distinct ranks we readily acknowledge, from the light of nature and scripture; the one of them called Princes, or Nobles, or Elders (amongst whom Gentlemen have their place). … Hereditary honors both nature and scripture doth acknowledge (Eccles xix. 17) but hereditary authority and power standeth only by the civil laws of some commonwealths, and yet even amongst them, the authority of the father is nowhere communicated, together with his honors, unto all his posterity.

When God blesseth any branch of any noble or generous family, with the spirit and gifts fit for government, it would be taking God’s name in vain to put such a talent under a bushel, and a sin against the honor of the magistracy to neglect such in our public election.

But if God should not delight to furnish some of their posterity with gifts fit for the magistracy, we should expose them rather to reproach and prejudice, and the commonwealth with them, than exalt them to honor, if we should call them forth, when God doth not, to public authority.12

The Puritan peers decided to stay home.

Here was an event of no small importance in American history. The founders of Massachusetts, unlike the rulers of other European colonies, deliberately excluded an aristocracy from their ranking system.

At the same time, the leaders of Massachusetts also made a concerted and highly successful effort to discourage immigration from the bottom of English society. They prohibited the entry of convicted felons (many of whom had been punished for crimes of poverty) and placed heavy impediments in the path of the migrant poor. A series of poor laws were enacted in Massachusetts, with rules of settlement and “warning out” that were even more strict than in England.

Poverty persisted in New England, but it had a different meaning from other cultures. An inhabitant of Boston in 1726 defined the poor as those who “always liv’d from hand to mouth, i.e. depended on one day’s labor to supply the wants of another.”13

The poor in this sense were remarkably few in New England—a much smaller part of the population than in England or in other parts of British America. Social attitudes were mixed. Most towns made a genuine effort to look after their own poor, as indeed they required to do by law. But for the town poor, provisions went beyond the minimum. In Salem one man was ordered “to be set by the heels in the stocks for being uncharitable to a poor man in distress.”14

Even as the founders of Massachusetts sought to eliminate extremes of rank from their society, they were very far from being egalitarian. Most Massachusetts towns deliberately preserved inequalities of status and wealth within a narrow range. Practices varied in detail from one town to another. But most communities deliberately attempted to preserve the system of social ranks which had existed within the small villages of East Anglia. The King, peers, great gentry, landless laborers and wandering poor were all outsiders to those little communities. Most actual members belonged to three ranks—the lesser gentry, yeomanry and cottagers. These people lived, worked and worshipped together, in ways that were bound by ancient customs of stratification, which had existed from “tyme out of mind” in East Anglian communities.”

Social distinctions between English gentry, yeomen and laborers were reproduced in Massachusetts, and maintained for many generations. John Adams wrote, “Perhaps it may be said in America we have no distinctions of ranks … but have we not laborers, yeomen, gentlemen, esquires, honorable gentlemen, and excellent gentlemen?”15 By “honorable gentlemen” and “excellent gentlemen” John Adams referred to men who were addressed as “Your Honor,” and “Your Excellency.” These titles of address also continued in Massachusetts. The gentlefolk of the Bay Colony were addressed as “Mister” and “Mistress” just as in England. Yeomen and their wives were called Goodman and “Goodwife,” or “Goody” for short. Only landless laborers lacked titles. Legal proceedings of Massachusetts, like those of England, required that every plaintiff and defendant must be identified by social order, as “gentleman,” “yeoman,” or “laborer,” or else the case could be thrown out of court and new papers would have to be filed. The faculty of Harvard College ranked their students by the social order of their families. Seating committees of New England meetinghouses also used social order as one of several criteria for assigning seats.

By and large, these ranking systems were pluralistic in their definition. The seating committees of most New England towns normally used three criteria in the assignment of benches and pews—age, estate, and a third indicator that was variously called “reputation,” “place” or “usefulness.” Of these determinants, age was often (but not always) the most powerful. Seaport towns such as New Haven tended to give more weight to wealth. But most New England communities, if their seating lists are an accurate guide, were more respectful of age than estate. In any case, age, estate and reputation tended to be strongly correlated in Puritan New England. Together they defined a ranking system that persisted for many generations.16

In short, the ranking system of East Anglia was reproduced in Massachusetts with two decisive differences. First, the top and bottom strata were removed, and inequality persisted within a more narrow range. Second, the importance of material differences was qualified by age and moral standing, for which the Puritans entertained high respect.

There were strict rules of social deference in this society. People of lower rank were expected to bow and curtsy to their superiors, even when passing on a public road. Travelers as late as the early nineteenth century expressed astonishment at the sight of New England children who turned and bowed at the edge of the highway when their “betters” rode by. Most societies in the seventeenth century were deferential systems, but the rules of deference in New England were different from those in other parts of British America. The lines between masters and servants were not so sharply drawn. Servants and even slaves were always called “help,” a word that was brought from England in the seventeenth century. Madame Sarah Knight, when traveling in New England wrote that New Englanders were much too “indulgent” to servants and even slaves, “suffering too great familiarity, permitting them to sit at table and eat with them.” By comparison with the twentieth century, New England was indeed a deferential society, but in a very special way.17

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