How was America's society and political structure different than England's in the late eighteenth century? 

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The social structure of the American colonies was far less stratified than that of Great Britain. While there were extremes of wealth, as in the Hudson River Valley, the South Carolina Low Country, and to some extent the Virginia Tidewater, most Americans belonged to what was known as "the middling sort," small yeoman farmers who for the most part owned the lands they worked. These grandees paled in comparison to British aristocracy, which owned estates that dwarfed those in the colonies (indeed, many Americans attempted to mimic the lifestyles of their richer counterparts in Great Britain.)

Similarly, American cities had their working poor, perhaps more than is commonly recognized, and these people were an important political force in almost every colony. But their numbers, and their condition, did not rival that of the masses of poor that visitors often described in English cities, especially London. Americans generally enjoyed more social mobility than people in Great Britain, as well. While stratification certainly existed, many Americans escaped it by moving to the West, where cheaper land made it possible to carve out a new life. Many of the most powerful men in the United States in the early nineteenth century, including Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay achieved their station because either they or their families made the decision to move further West. 

For all these reasons, the colonies were often described as the "best poor man's country," a name that evokes the relative economic equality and enhanced opportunities enjoyed by Americans. Of course, we must remember that much of this was based on the expropriation of land from the Native Americans and of labor from African-Americans, neither of whom enjoyed the same opportunities. So in a sense, the American colonists were the freest people on earth, but the colonies also witnessed the rise and consolidation of one of the greatest affronts to freedom in human history in the form of slavery.

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