Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Thinking about Elites in the Early Republic

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Thinking about Elites in the Early Republic

Article excerpt

Despite the ever-growing pile of books about individual elite men and women in the early republic, few historians in the past thirty years have directly addressed the issue of elites in terms of class in the new nation. Perhaps we should not be too heavily blamed, because even some of the more aware Americans of the time unconsciously or even intentionally obfuscated questions regarding their elite status: consider the absurd but politically effective spectacle of plantation-born and college-educated William Henry Harrison posing as a cider-drinking frontier bumpkin in his successful run for the presidency in 1840 (and, no less, trouncing the supposedly elite son of a tavern-keeper). Despite or perhaps because of the contemporary confusion and scholarly reticence on the issue of elites in the context of class, considering elites is crucial if we are to understand class in the early republic. This essay is a conceptual exploration designed not only to provoke further consideration and discussion of how we might better analyze elites, but also, by extension, to offer a framework for investigating class and class differences in the early years of America's nationhood.1

Let me first offer at least a basic definition of the term "elite" as a group of people who are (a) a distinct minority, who cannot even be a sizeable plurality, and (b) distinguishable from the rest of the population by some fairly objective criteria that most of society would recognize. So, for example, whites in the antebellum South, while clearly having a common sense of identity and obviously enjoying legal, political, and economic superiority to most blacks, would still not be an elite because they were in the majority (except perhaps in those few areas with an enslaved majority). Conversely, enslaved women working in the big house of a large plantation could be considered elite within their community because of the potential for less harsh treatment and living conditions and better access to food and shelter beyond that of the rest of the slave population. Elites must be considered in context.2

I propose two bifocal lenses through which to conceptualize how historians might better define and analyze elites in the early republic. Each of the lenses can be used to identify elites within communities and on different scales, are historically attuned to changing economic, political, and social conditions in the early republic, and reflect on the intersections between issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. One of the lenses deals with power, while the other deals with perception, the first being concerned more with materialistic and mechanistic considerations, while the second reflects on the potentially contradictory issues of identity and behavior. Together, they can offer a picture of class in the early republic that blends the structuralist tradition explored by Seth Rockman in the first essay of this symposium, with the class-consciousness school of thought that Jennie Goloboy focuses on.

The bottom of the materialistic/mechanistic bifocal lens through which we can view class is the most basic: follow the money, and specifically, the degree to which people had access to capital as a critical measure of elites in the early republic. This suggestion might seem to be so obvious as not to require articulation or elaboration, but it deserves considerable attention for both historical and historiographie reasons.

Historiographically, the paradigm of the "market revolution" has presented many ways to think about the reorganization of labor in the early republic. But when thinking about elites, remember that the great economic transformations of the so-called "market revolution" did not significantly alter class relations in terms of changes in the control over modes of production, for the simple reason that most Americans worked in agriculture, either on family farms or on plantations, the structure of which did not much change. Though yeoman farmers (still a plurality of the population) may have oriented themselves more toward market production than their parents, small farmers could really only aspire to local elite economic status. …

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