Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 134

Here are a couple of excerpts from a book I recently read, "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America," by Nancy Isenberg:

Male dominance was unquestioned, and ranks so clearly spelled out, that no one could miss the power outlined in something so simple as a seating chart. Members and nonmembers sat apart; husbands and wives were divided; men sat on one side of the room, women on the other. Prominent men occupied the first two rows of benches: the first was reserved exclusively for magistrates, the second for the families of the minister and governor, as well as wealthy merchants. The more sons a man had, the better his pew. Age, reputation, marriage, and estate were all properly calculated before a church seat was assigned.

Puritans were obsessed with class rank. It meant security to them, and they could not disguise the anxiety that even the thought of its disruption—or dissolution—produced.

As the colonies’ leading man of science, Franklin popularized the latest theories. Of primary interest here are his efforts to apply scientific knowledge to that most perplexing of all subjects: the creation of classes. It was an article of faith in eighteenth-century British thought that civilized societies usually formed out of the fundamental human need for security to ensure survival, but the same societies were gradually corrupted by a preoccupation with luxuries, which resulted in decadence. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire stood behind such theorizing; what Franklin did was to shift the focus to human biology. Underneath all human endeavors were gut-level animal instincts—and foremost for Franklin was the push and pull of pain and pleasure. Too much pleasure produced a decadent society; too much pain led to tyranny and oppression. Somewhere in between was a happy medium, a society that channeled humanity’s better animal instincts.

Did North America offer the environment to achieve this happy medium? Franklin thought so. Its unique environment could strip away the unnatural conditions of the Old World system. The vast continent would give Americans a demographic advantage in breeding quickly and more fruitfully than their English counterparts. Freed from congested cities, as well as the swelling numbers of unemployed and impoverished, Americans would escape the extremes of great wealth and grinding poverty. Instead of a frantic competition over resources, the majority would be perfectly content to occupy a middling stage, what he called a “happy mediocrity.”

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