Digital History

The Roots of American Economic Growth

Social Mobility in the North Previous
Digital History ID 3523



During the decades preceding the Civil War, it was an article of faith among Northerners that their society offered unprecedented economic equality and opportunity, free of rigid class divisions and glaring extremes of wealth and poverty. It was a land where even a "humble mechanic" had "every means of winning independence which are extended only to rich monopolists in England." How accurate is this picture of the pre-Civil War North as a land of opportunity, where material success was available to all?

In fact, the percentage of wealth held by those at the top of the economic hierarchy appears to have increased substantially before the Civil War. While the proportion of wealth controlled by the richest 10 percent rose from 50 percent in the 1770s to 70 percent in 1860, the real wages of unskilled northern workers stagnated or, at best, rose modestly. By 1860 half of all free whites held fewer than 1 percent of the North's real and personal property, while the richest 1 percent owned 27 percent of the region's wealth--a level of inequality comparable to that found in early 19th century Europe and greater than that found in the United States today. In towns as different as Stonington, Connecticut, and Chicago, Illinois, between two-thirds and three-quarters of all households owned no property.

The first stages of industrialization and urbanization in the North, far from diminishing social inequality, actually widened class distinctions and intensified social stratification. At the top of the social and economic hierarchy was an elite class of families, linked together by intermarriage, membership in exclusive social clubs, and residence in exclusive neighborhoods, as rich as the wealthiest families of Europe. At the bottom were the working poor--immigrants, casual laborers, free blacks, widows, and orphans--who might be thrown out of work at any time. These poor, propertyless unskilled laborers comprised a vast floating population, which trekked from city to city in search of work. They congregated in urban slums like Boston's Ann Street and New York's Five Points, where starving children begged for pennies and haggard prostitutes plied their trade.

Between these two extremes were family farmers and a rapidly expanding urban middle class of northern shopkeepers, merchants, bankers, agents, and brokers. This was a highly mixed group which ranged from prosperous entrepreneurs and professionals to hard-pressed journeymen, who found their skills increasingly obsolete.

Does this mean that the pre-Civil War North was not the fluid, "egalitarian" society that Jacksonians claimed? The answer is a qualified "no." In the first place, the North's richest individuals, unlike Europe's aristocracy, were not ostentatiously rich; they were a working class, engaged in commerce, insurance, finance, shipbuilding, manufacturing, landholding, real estate, and the professions. Even more importantly, wealthy Northerners publicly rejected the older Hamiltonian notion that the rich and well-born were superior to the masses of people. During the early decades of the 19th century, wealthy Northerners shed the wigs, knee breeches, ruffled shirts, and white-topped boots that had symbolized high social status in colonial America and began to dress like other men, signaling their acceptance of an ideal of social equality. One wealthy Northerner succinctly summarized the new ideal: "These phrases, the higher orders, and lower orders, are of European origin, and have no place in our Yankee dialect." Above all, it was the North's relatively high rates of economic and social mobility that gave substance to a widespread belief in equality of opportunity. Although few rich men were truly "self-made" men who had climbed from "rags to riches," there were many dramatic examples of upward mobility and countless instances of more modest climbs up the ladder of success.

Industrialization rapidly increased the number of nonmanual jobs in commerce, industry, and the professions. There were new opportunities for lawyers, bookkeepers, business managers, brokers, and clerks. Giving additional reinforcement to the belief in opportunity was a remarkable rate of physical mobility. Each decade, fully half the residents of northern communities moved to a new town.

Even at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, prospects for advancement increased markedly after 1850. During the 1830s and 1840s, less than one unskilled worker in ten managed in the course of a decade to advance to a white-collar job. After 1850, the percentage doubled. The sons of unskilled laborers were even more likely to advance to skilled or white-collar employment. Even the poorest unskilled laborers often were able to acquire a house and a savings account.

It was the reality of physical and economic mobility that convinced the overwhelming majority of Northerners that they lived in a uniquely open society, in which differences in wealth or status were the result of hard work and ambition.

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