The Emerging Middle Class and Entrepreneurial Spirit

Albert Gallatin.

Albert Gallatin knew as early as 1799 that the United States “had become commercially and socially different from the former mother country” England. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 704. At that time, Gallatin was a Congressman, but he would later serve as Secretary of the Treasury from 1801 to 1814.

In realizing that America was different, he said that Britain had “trades and occupations” that were “so well distinguished that a merchant and a farmer are rarely combined in the same person; a merchant is a merchant and nothing but a merchant; a manufacturer is only a manufacturer; a farmer is merely a farmer; but this is not the case in this country.” Id. at 704-05 quoting Annals of Congress, 5th Congress, 3rd session (Jan. 1799), 9: 2650.

He said that if one were to venture into the middle of America, that individual would “scarcely find a farmer who is not, to some degree, a trader. In a grazing part of the country, you will find them buying and selling cattle; in other parts you will find them distillers, tanners, or brick-makers. So that, from one end of the United States to the other, the people are generally traders.” Annals of Congress, 5th Congress, 3rd session (Jan. 1799), 9: 2650.

This meant that Thomas Jefferson’s dream of Americans being a nation of agriculture and avoiding the industrialization that Europe had experienced was not a dream to be realized, even after the transformative War of 1812.

While this may have been troubling to Jefferson, Gallatin’s observations showed that Americans were developing a collective entrepreneurial spirit. Trading became an integral part of the American economy.

Part of this was inevitably by necessity, where some had to supplement their income by engaging in trading that perhaps they did not have experience in. On the other hand, part of this change from England must have been that there was a wealth of natural resources and a middle class emerging in America.

This early development after the War of 1812 should sound familiar to most modern Americans. First, although the middle class may change in size and wealth generation-by-generation, it has continually existed since the early Republic. Second, and most notably, Americans still carry an entrepreneurial spirit with them. Many would cite that entrepreneurial spirit for the success of America. It is certainly a factor.

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