Social History, U.S.

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Social History has been a major scholarly theme for historians of the United States for over 100 years. Since the emergence of the "new social history" in the 1960s, historians have paid special attention to themes of race/ethnicity, class and gender, in addition to geographical patterns and long-term trends.

Colonial Period

Historians in recent decades have explored in microscopic detail the process of settling the new country and creating the social structure.

New England

New England was settled by community groups, that transplanted their social structure from England. In New England there was a flattening of the social pyramid--land ownership was a reality for most families, and the system of powerful landlords that pervaded English rural life was not carried over. There was no aristocracy. The strong religious base of the Puritans made the social order revolve around the local Congregational church. Education was a high priority; Harvard College was founded in 1637 and provided most of the ministers and lawyers. By 1700 a rich merchant class grew up in Boston, Salem and other seaports, linking the local economy to the entire British Empire. By 1750 land shortages were causing problems, as New Englanders (called Yankees after 1700) began expanding north into Maine and New Hampshire, and west into New York.

Middle Colonies

The German settlements in Pennsylvania and adjacent areas were communally oriented with a strong religious base. In contrast to New England Yankees, the Germans placed much less emphasis on education and business. In Pennsylvania the Quakers provided the merchant elite, with an economic stratification that contrasted with their egalitarian religion. In the Dutch areas of upstate New York, especially the Hudson River Valley, patroons acquired vast land holdings and rented the farmlands to tenants. By the early 19th century this caused serious economic and political tensions, and the poltroon system was replaced by individual land ownership. Except for a small number of patroon families, the social structure was relatively level.

Philadelphia and New York became major ports by 1750, with a growing merchant class that dominated politics and the social structure.


The main themes have been the class system of the plantation South and the role of slavery. These include the plantation masters and their families, as typified by the Byrd family. The plantation elite in general lived on tight budgets, putting their surpluses into purchase of new lands and slaves. Historians have focused on the tobacco 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 a 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 strength of republicanism created a political ethos that resisted imperial taxation without local consent.

19th century

Western Frontier

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the frontier affected the class structure in four different ways. 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 US had few cities, which were mostly small, and the vast majority of people were rural.) According to the Turner model, the East was most class-like, (most like Europe), and the further west, the more social and political (and even economic) equality.


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, and their religious and political leaders.

The Plain Folk of the Old South

Often called yeomen, The Plain Folk of the Old South were the middling white Southerners of the 19th century who owned few slaves or none. Historians have long debated the social, economic and political roles. Terms used by scholars include "common people", "yeomen" and "Crackers." The term favored in Jeffersonian Democracy and Jacksonian Democracy was "yeoman", which emphasized an independent political spirit and economic self-reliance. Romantic portrayals, especially Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1937) and its 1939 film ignored them. Novelist Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, portrayed the degraded condition of whites dwelling beyond the great plantations.

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 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.

African Americans after 1865

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.

In the black community, the highest status was accorded to professionals (especially ministers). The black business community was small, and focused on service like barber shops and funeral parlors. A large underclass existed, supported by the "numbers" games, with high amounts of gambling and petty thievery.[1] "Ghettoization" was the phenomenon of urban blacks forced to live in a confined area, which developed distinctive folkways and classways. Victimization was expressed in job ceilings and black-white gaps in income, education, public services, medical care and life expectancy, as well as residential segregation. Indirect victimization appeared at the psychological level with the problem of double identity: first, as black and only after that as American, and the powerlessness that resulted.[2] The Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s marked a breakthrough in terms of political power, and dramatic expansion of opportunities in certain areas (such as entertainment, sports and government jobs). However, the arrival of the drug culture with very high financial payoffs turned local gangs into powerful, violent forces. The Katrina disaster in New Orleans in 2005 showed how fragile was the ghetto.

In terms of child rearing practices. class differences were more important than race. Middle-class parents engaged in "concerted cultivation" by promoting children's talents through organized leisure activities and extensive reasoning. Working-class and poor parents, however, engaged the "accomplishment of natural growth," providing the conditions under which children can grow, but leaving leisure activities to children themselves. These parents also used directives rather than reasoning. While middle-class children, both white and black, gained a sense of entitlement from their family life, working-class and poor children learned lessons in constraint. The children obtained differential resources to draw on in their interactions with professionals and other adults outside the home. Middle-class children gained cumulatively important advantages. Working-class and poor children did not display the same sense of entitlement or advantages.[3]

Industrial Northeast

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 Yankees dominated business, finance, education and high society in most northern cities, but gradually lost control of politics to a working class coalition led by Irish Catholics. Hundreds of new colleges and academies were founded to quicken the pace of upward mobility by producing ministers, professionals, and businessmen. Most colleges before 1879 had with specific religious identities. State universities and state teachers' colleges became important after 1920.

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 (as Wilentz has argued) 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 the Republican party--to enjoy a strong base among Protestant blue collar workers, and prevented the emergence of a strong Socialist movement. The most elaborate an in-depth studies of social class have focused on the European 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.

Asians and Latinos

Asian Americans

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.

Before the 1950s most Chinese lived in Chinatowns in larger cities; they were male-dominated, bachelor-like communities where "tongs" (organizations controlled by Chinese merchants) handled all internal affairs.[4] Local police tolerated opium, gambling prostitution, tong wars and even murder, as long as it was confined to Chinese in Chinatown.[5] By the 1920s the violence was fading and Chinatowns became tourist attractions. Local and national attitudes became much more favorable to the Chinese after 1940, largely because of American support for China in World War II. However, in sharp contrast to the "model minority" image of Chinese Americans after 1970, the earlier generations were considered exotic, dirty, dangerous, violent and drug addicted, and certainly not a "model" in terms of achievement or adherence to social, cultural and political norms.[6]

After 1965 a vastly larger immigrant Chinese population arrived, with much higher levels of education and social status. They created an upper middle class Chinese American community that was family based and highly achievement oriented.[7]

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 away from the Pacific coast, 1942-44.

After 1945 the trickle of immigration from the Philippines, India and Korea grew steadily, creating large communities on the West Coast.


see Latino history

In 1848 after the Mexican 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.

20th century

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.

New Deal coalition

A high priority of the New Deal Coalition was reduction in inequality. During World War II, the rationing of food, clothing and gasoline had a dramatic equalizing effect. Even more important, unemployment ended, wages for blue collar workers soared, and millions left low productivity farm jobs for munitions centers where jobs were plentiful and high paying. The government tried to cap all executive salaries at $25,000 a year; Congress rejected the proposal but a presidential order did cap salaries at $25,000 for war contractors.

Labor unions

Labor unions, with a large Catholic membership and Irish leadership, systematically avoided close links with the Socialist Party, which remained small and unimportant. By 1907 the unions, led by Samuel Gompers of the AFL had cast their lot mostly with the U.S. Democratic Party, history. Unions grew rapidly in World War I, but tried through large-scale strikes in steel, meatpacking and other industries to solidify their position after the war, and failed. They finally recovered in the mid-1930s, when New Deal labor laws broke the company unions that had corporate support. During World War II the unions strongly supported the war effort and grew rapidly. Despite fears of a postwar reaction they consolidated their position in the industrial states by 1950.

GI Bill and education equalization

Trends in Poverty and Inequality

Globalization, 1970 - 21st century

Rise of the mega-rich=

Collapse of manufacturing

Collapse of labor unions

Celebrity society and the mega-rich

Foundations and philanthropy

Nativism and illegal immigrants

See also

  1. St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis (1945)
  2. St. Clair Drake, "The Social and Economic Status of the Negro in the United States." Daedalus 1965 94(4): 771-814. Issn: 0011-5266
  3. Annette Lareau, "Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black Families and White Families" American Sociological Review 2002 67(5): 747-776. Issn: 0003-1224 in Jstor
  4. Huping Ling, "Governing 'Hop Alley': On Leong Chinese Merchants and Laborers Association, 1906-1966" Journal of American Ethnic History 2004 23(2): 50-84. Issn: 0278-5927 Fulltext: [Ebsco] examines governance in St. Louis's Chinatown.
  5. C. N. Reynolds, "The Chinese Tongs," The American Journal of Sociology Vol. 40, No. 5 (Mar., 1935), pp. 612-623 in JSTOR
  6. Ivan Light, "From Vice District to Tourist Attraction: the Moral Career of American Chinatowns, 1880-1940" Pacific Historical Review 1974 43(3): 367-394. Issn: 0030-8684 Fulltext: in Jstor
  7. Andrew J. Peterson, "The Development of a New Chinatown: Post-1965 Changes in New York City's Chinatown." Chinese America: History and Perspectives 1995: 199-214. Issn: 1051-7642