The Scum Will Rise

James Otis Jr. By: Joseph Blackburn.

The social structure of America was being turned upside down during the Revolution. As James Otis warned in 1776: “When the pot boils, the scum will rise.” John Eliot to Jeremy Belknap, Jan. 12, 1777, Belknap Papers, 104.

Some Americans began to be outraged by this development, as increasingly, lower class individuals were involved in making decisions and setting policy. One man in Baltimore stated: “When a man, who is only fit ‘to patch a shoe,’ attempts ‘to patch the State,’ fancies himself a Solon or Lycurgus, . . . he cannot fail to meet with contempt.” William Goddard, The Prowess of the Whig Club . . . (Baltimore, 1777), 7, 12. There were men “whose fathers they would have disdained to have sat with the dogs of their flocks, raised to immense wealth, or at least to carry the appearance of a haughty, supercilious and luxurious spendthrift.” Phila. Pa. Gazette, Mar. 31, 1779. John Jay stated that “[e]ffrontery and arrogance, even in our virtuous and enlightened days are giving rank and Importance to men whom Wisdom would have left in obscurity.” Jay to Hamilton, May 8, 1778, Syrett and Cooke, eds., Hamilton Papers, I, 483.

The Founding Fathers, and many Americans generally, were not against social mobility. However, they wished for an orderly social mobility and mobility that seemed justified.

One such example of how mobility was leading to a different kind of America was in western Pennsylvania, where Hugh Henry Brackenridge lost to an uneducated ex-weaver, William Findley. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 480. It led Brackenridge to conclude: “To rise from the cellar to the senate house, would be an unnatural hoist. To come from counting threads, and adjusting them to the splits of a reed, to regulate the finances of a government, would be preposterous; there being no congruity in the case . . . . It would be a reversion of the order of things.” Brackenridge, Modern Chivalry, ed. Newlin, xiii-xiv, 14.

Some Americans, such as William Paca of Maryland, John Smilie of Pennsylvania, and Benjamin Austin of Massachusetts, began to conclude that these changes were improving America, given that the only reason some Americans had previously held these positions was not because of their wisdom, goodness, or honesty, but because they had money.

It was within this context that the federal Constitution would be drafted and ratified. Americans were becoming increasingly aware that the unequal system of government was unjustified and unnecessary. While perhaps some Americans carried that idea beyond its logical extent, electing entirely unqualified individuals, most were becoming more comfortable with the idea that there were more capable individuals to be elected than just the wealthiest.

This acceptance of social mobility, and the recognizing that America would depart from conventional Eighteenth Century beliefs, must have created at least part of the image of America as a land of opportunity. Individuals who had never taken part in politics before were reading newspapers, engaging in political discourse, getting elected, and effecting policy changes in their cities, states, and the country as a whole.

As dangerous as that may seem, the checks and balances of the Constitution would be cognizant of the risks associated with inexperienced politicians in the legislature, with the power of veto. In short, the early Americans not only contemplated that social mobility would continue, they created a system that would protect all Americans from each other.

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