American colonists searching for religious freedom may have found all-to-familiar societal strictures in the New World. Government and Social Class in Colonial America, one of four titles in Lucent’s Library of Historical Eras, focuses on the colonial period, describing everything from Puritan sumptuary laws to standard forms of interpersonal greetings used to emphasize and reinforce the social hierarchy.
The colonies evolved a three-level social system. Wealthy landowners — including the holders of the colonial charters, such as Lord Calvert, to whom Maryland was granted as "a private empire" (p. 28) — were atop of the social hierarchy. A handful of well-off merchants provided a middle class. The mass of small farmer, laborers, servants and slaves combined to form the workforce at the bottom.
The clothes-consciousness demonstrated by the colonists is significant. The volume details the dissemination of European fashion, customization of clothes by slaves with little other autonomy, and appearance signals linked to professions. A Massachusetts law established income thresholds to ensure that the display and consumption of expensive goods was linked to tangible wealth. The temptation to dress "above one’s station" is well-documented, and, somewhat prophetically, "this tendency toward high consumer debt was one way that late colonial American society closely resembled its modern American counterpart" (p. 24).
The status of women is not addressed independently, unlike the variable status of blacks. Nardo describes how blacks enjoyed better standing than their offspring in the young America as they often served as indentured servants rather than slaves. The evolution of a system of controls to dominate and reduce the status of blacks, including laws against intermarriage, are discussed, as is the rise of democratic governments modelled on British parliamentary representation.
There is a chapter tracing the way Enlightenment thought on equality influenced the drafters of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. The volume culminates with the coming of the Revolution in response to taxes imposed upon the colonists to offset the debts incurred by the French and Indian wars. The catalog of taxes levied upon colonists illustrated the true meaning of the cry "no taxation without representation."
The book uses primary source accounts effectively to introduce period flavor, with pull-out text boxes highlighting interesting passages from other sources. Difficult vocabulary is defined parenthetically. There are a variety of full-color period illustrations, a timeline chronicling the colonies from 1620 to 1776, lists of related books and Internet sources for further information, endnotes that provide source materials for citations from the text, and a keyword index. An interesting perspective on the colonies. Recommended for school libraries.