At the beginning of the 1800s, the American economy was becoming an unconventionally successful economy. Domestic commerce was “incalculably more valuable” than foreign commerce and “the home market for productions of the earth and manufactures is of more importance than all foreign ones.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 707 quoting Nathan Miller, The Enterprise of a Free People: Aspects of Economic Development in New York State During the Canal Period, 1792-1838 (Ithaca, 1962), 42.
Meanwhile, a middle class was emerging in the United States. In the 1780s, Benjamin Franklin predicted “the almost mediocrity of fortune that prevails in America . . . [made] its people to follow some business for subsistence,” which made the United States “the land of labor.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 709 quoting Benjamin Franklin, “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America” (1784), Franklin: Writings, 975-83. This new middle class was gaining “a powerful moral hegemony over the society, especially in the North.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 709.
Both Benjamin Franklin and J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur hoped a society could exist that lacked “both an aristocracy and a lower class.” Id. at 711. As Charles Ingersoll observed in 1810, “Were it not for the slaves of the south, there would be one rank.” Id. quoting Charles Jared Ingersoll, Inchiquin, the Jesuit’s Letters (1810), in Gordon S. Wood, ed., The Rising Glory of America, 1760-1820 (New York, 1971), 387.
These developments would lead to some to conclude that the Americans in the North were “probably the happiest people upon the earth.” J.M. Opal, Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England (Philadelphia, 2008), 135, 136.
These early years of the Republic, where prosperity was so widely spread that a seemingly universal middle class existed is of course a bit of an exaggeration in that there were poor and rich segments of society. But, on the other hand, the fact that so many individuals during that time commented on the subject reflects that it was a phenomenon occurring. A more cohesive, more uniform society was emerging. It was a society free from the highest highs and lowest lows that had come to characterize Europe.
Since those early years, there has been a fluctuation in the strength and size of the middle class. One thing has not changed, however. The notion of a prosperous middle class has come to be an aspiration for all Americans. The early aspirations of Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers transformed this dream into a reality. That reality is one that Americans hope to carry forward for many generations to come.