Becoming America: Thinking through Identity, Culture, and Traditions in Early America

Prosperity for All?

Americans Create a Social Hierarchy

People settling in the American colonies and later emigrating to the United States came from all walks of life. In the years immediately following the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the emerging American society was very stratified. Basically, the society mirrored the societal hierarchy of European nations. The dividing of society into ranks is known as “hierarchy.” That means a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority. “Status” is based on the perceived importance of a person to the society.

The America hierarchy was constructed on the view that men who owned property were the most important. The enslavement of people, especially of African and Native American descent, was legal and commonplace and placed those individuals very low in the hierarchy. Free people of color, as well as women, were often prohibited from owning property, voting, or obtaining an education and thus were not highly regarded. As America became home to many different groups, some views of the status of people changed, but the basic structure remained.

The idea of a “middle class” as it developed during the early period of development in the eighteenth century was much more focused on certain qualities that would define the American people as different from the elite. They wanted to show that they were different and were able to maintain certain values. Benjamin Franklin defined these qualities as frugality, temperance, humility, sincerity, and resolution. It was not until the nineteenth century that the idea of the middle class came to reflect one’s economic standing in a community. As time went on, the idea of the middle class was much more about a way of defining access and control to resources and a perception about identity and way of life.

As the nation grew, more and more people were able to build wealth and become consumers of all manner of objects and works of art. Artisans throughout different communities contributed greatly to the economy not just in cities but in rural areas too. The objects of their success comprise many of the objects in the Fielding Collection.

How do objects and artifacts shape our sense of success, prosperity, or happiness?