Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXXI.: THE MIDDLE CLASSES. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XXXI.: THE MIDDLE CLASSES. - Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners and Politics in the United States 
Society, Manners and Politics in the United States: Being a Series of Letters on North America, translated from the third Paris edition (Boston: Weeks, Jordan & Co., 1839).
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THE MIDDLE CLASSES.
Baltimore, Oct. 8, 1835.
American society is composed of quite different elements, from those of which European society in general, and French society in particular, consists. On analysing the latter, we find, in the first place, the shadow of an aristocracy, comprising the wrecks of the great families of the old order that have been saved from the revolutionary storm, and the descendants of the Imperial nobility, who seem to be already separated from their fathers by the distance of ages.
Next below this is a numerous body of the Middle Classes (bourgeoisie), consisting of two distinct sets; the one, the active class, is engaged in commerce, manufactures, agriculture, and the liberal professions; the other, generally designated amongst us as the bourgeoisie oisive, consists of men without active employment, landholders who derive an income of 500 or 1500 dollars from their estates, by rents or sharing the produce with the cultivator, without attempting to increase it, and the small body of holders of public stock.
These two divisions of the Middle Class differ essentially from each other, the one labouring, the other only consuming and enjoying what they have. The one increases its means, and consequently is able to keep itself above the waves, and maintain, if not to raise, its level; the other, as M. Lafitte has said, successively transported by time into one stage of society after another, in each of which large additions are made to the general wealth, finds itself growing relatively poorer, and must decrease in numbers. They differ no less in their origin; the one belongs essentially to the commons; the other has some pretensions to nobility, it is the offspring, or at least the heir and successor of the country-gentry. During the period of the Restoration, they differed also in their political views; the members of the one class for the most part took the left side, those of the other preferred the right side. At present, the former accepts the new dynasty without reluctance; the latter, more difficult to be satisfied in regard to the preservation of order, and ready to take alarm at every violation of old established privileges, still preserves a secret preference for the legitimate line. In respect to religious sentiments, the latter is sceptical, and prone to believe that the Voltairean philosophy and the theories broached by the Opposition during the fifteen years, are the nec plus ultra of the human understanding; the former, shaken in its faith, still keeps alive the sacred fire of religious feeling, rejects the disorganising doctrines of the 18th century, and holds in scorn the lucubrations of the liberal publicists of the Restoration. The one piques itself on its adherence to the positive, the material; the other concerns itself about the great conservative principles of society, but refuses to recognise the new interests, which must be allowed to share in the privileges of those of the past.
These two sections of the Middle Class are not wholly and sharply separated from each other; but they run into and across each other. A large proportion partakes somewhat of both characters, and joins one side or the other, according to times and circumstances. Yet, although often confounded in the same individual, the two interests are, nevertheless, substantially distinct from each other. The base of the pyramid is occupied by the peasants and operatives, divided into two sections; the one of which has become possessed of property, the other has not yet reached that point but aspires after it with eagerness. On one side, we have the mechanics and small proprietors; on the other, the labourers. It is universally acknowledged that the Middle Class, at present, rules in France. The aristocracy is driven from power or keeps itself aloof. The mechanics and small proprietors hardly yet begin to raise their heads. The labourers are nothing.
In the Northern States of the American Union, society is much less complex in its composition, than in France. Exclusive of the coloured caste, there are here only two classes; the middle class and the democracy. Of the two conflicting interests, one only has a public existence here; it is labour. The Middle Class consists of the manufacturers, merchants, lawyers, physicians. A small number of cultivators, and persons devoted to letters or the fine arts, is to be added to these.
The democracy is composed of the farmers and mechanics. In general, the cultivator is the owner of the soil; in the West, this rule is without exceptions. Great landholders do not exist, at least as a class, in the North and the Northwest. There is strictly speaking no class of mere labourers; for although there are day-labourers, and both in the cities and country many workmen without capital, yet these are in fact apprentices, for the most part foreigners, who become in turn proprietors and master-workmen, and not unfrequently rich manufacturers, wealthy speculators.
Between these two classes there is, however, no line of demarcation, for the attempts of some coteries to establish certain fashionable distinctions do not deserve notice, or at least are only of a negative value, as timid and often absurd protestations against the abuse of equality. The two classes have the same domestic habits, and lead the same life, and differ considerably only in respect of the sect to which they are attached, and the pews they occupy. The relations which exist at present between the wealthy bourgeoisie and the wrecks of the aristocracy in France, give an accurate notion of the relative condition of the two classes of American Society.
Political influence is, at present, entirely in the hands the American democracy, as with us it is monopolised by the Middle Classes. The latter have no chance of getting possession of power in the United States, except temporarily, or by means of accidental divisions in the democratic ranks, when they may rally to their standard a portion of the farmers and mechanics, as happened in 1834, after General Jackson’s attack on the Bank. So in France, it will be impossible for the aristocracy to raise, not its own banner (for it has none), but that of the legitimate line, unless the folly of the government should excite new troubles, and inspire the Middle Class, who now support it heartily, with fears for the public security.
In the Southern States, the existence of slavery produces quite a different state of society, from that of the North; half of the population there consists of mere labourers in the strictest sense, that is of slaves. Slavery necessarily requires great estates, which in fact, form aristocracy. Great estates still continue to be held in the South, notwithstanding the custom of equal partition has very much narrowed them.
Between these two extremes in the South, an intermediate class has sprung up, consisting, like our Middle Class, of the workingmen and the men of leisure, the new interest and the old interest. Commerce, manufactures, and the liberal professions, on one side; on the other, the land-holders, corresponding to our moderate country land-holders, living on their estates by the sweat of their slaves, having no taste for work, not prepared for it by education, and even taking little oversight of the daily business of the plantation; men who would be incapable of applying themselves to any occupation if slavery were abolished, just as our proprietors would be unable to get a living, if they were to be deprived of their estates.
It is plain that the equal partition of estates must have tended to increase the number of this class of men of leisure; it is numerous in the old Southern States, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, and also in Louisiana; the check which these States at first experienced in their career, whilst the North was advancing without let, and the contemporaneous increase of this class, are two correlative facts, which account for each other. But we do not find this class in the new States of the South. The new generation there, as in the North, devoured with the the passion of making money, has become as industrious as the Yankees. The cultivation of cotton offers it a wide field of activity; in Alabama and Mississippi, the cotton lands are sold at a very low price. The internal slave-trade furnishes hands in abundance, which are easily procured on credit when one has friends, but no patrimony. The sons of the old Southern States, instead of vegetating on a fragment of the paternal estate, with a handful of negroes, sell off their property at home, extend their means by aid of a loan, which they are sure of being able to repay promptly, and go to the Southwest, to establish a a cotton-plantation, a sort of agricultural manufactory, in which they are obliged to exercise more or less of the activity, and to feel more or less of the hopes and fears of a manufacturer.
Thus the class which works little or not at all, is disappearing in the United States. In the Western States, which are the true New World, it no longer exists at all, in the North or in the South; you meet with no one there who is not engaged in agriculture, commerce, manufactures, the liberal professions, or the clerical office. The United States, then, differ from us in having no aristocracy, no idle Middle Class, no class of mere labourers, at the least in the North. But a distinction should be made in regard to the absence of these three classes; for while it may be admitted that the two last are absolutely becoming extinct, it would be more correct to say that the first has not yet begun to exist.
Civilisation, in its passage from one continent to the other, has, then, got rid of two classes. This twofold disappearance is, however, only a single phenomenon, or, at most, two phases of a single fact, the industrial progress of mankind. It seems to me to be inevitable, that, in this matter, the Old World should follow the example of the New; it moves towards the same end under the influence of peculiar causes, and it is irresistibly driven onward by what is commonly called the force of events, that is, by the decree of providence.
There is a rule superior to all social conventions, codes of legislation, or systems of jurisprudence; it is, that when a class has ceased to take part in the workings of society, its doom is pronounced; it cannot preserve its privileges, unless the march of civilisation comes to a stand, and it is kept stationary, as it was in Rome from Augustus to Constantine; but when the column again sets forward, those who will not serve as soldiers, and are unfit to be officers, those who can do duty neither in the ranks nor in command, who can act neither in the tent nor the field, all these are abandoned as stragglers, and their names are struck from the roll. The law is inflexible and unsparing; no human power can rescue those whom it condemns from their doom; they only can save themselves, by taking part in the general movement.
This explains the annihilation of the aristocracy of the nobility in France. Between it and royalty, as between royalty and the English aristocracy, there was a long struggle, but the results were as different as the characters of the nations. In France, monarchical unity triumphed; Louis XI. struck down the aristocracy; Richelieu muzzled it; Louis XIV. obliged it to wear the collar. Thus reduced in a political point of view, it was left in possession of the field of taste and art, which it devoted to the promotion of irreligion and corruption of manners. When, therefore, it was weighed in 1789, it was found wanting; the decree of destiny had gone forth, and the revolution executed it with a cannibal ferocity. The unhappy aristocracy remembered its lofty nature only at the point of death; it mounted the scaffold with dignity.
For the same reason, the idle portion of the Middle Class tends towards its fall, for it accomplishes no purpose, which cannot be effected without it. It does not enrich society by its labour, although it lays claim to be reckoned in the number of producers, under the pretext that it holds the soil and exercises a sort of superintendence over its cultivation. The truth is, that it is wholly ignorant of agriculture; it has received by tradition a certain routine, but the peasantry is as fully possessed of the tradition, and needs no teachers on that matter. The proprietor is sometimes, indeed, paid in kind by the peasant, and then sells the grain himself; but the peasant could easily attend to that business, and would manage it quite as well as his landlord. Neither does this class serve as the representative of knowledge; for in this respect, its acquisitions are limited to a little polite literature, an agreeable accomplishment surely, but not answering to the wants and spirit of the age.
Where a nobility exists and maintains its prerogatives, as in England, it performs a twofold office. In the first place, it devotes itself to the most difficult of all arts, that of governing men, and in this it excels; whether because it cultivates it by the traditions of experience, or because it vigilantly recruits its ranks by enlisting in them such men as have already proved their superiour knowledge of the different interests of society. This reason cannot be urged by our idle Middle Class as an argument for its preservation; for it is notoriously ignorant of the science of government.
The second office of a nobility, not less essential than the first in our polished age, is to serve as a pattern and example in the art of living, to teach the art of consuming, without which that of producing procures only partial and illusive gratification, and to encourage the fine arts. On this head nothing can be said in favour of the class alluded to. It excels neither in grace, nor elegance, nor address. The importance which it has acquired by the destruction of the aristocracy, has been fatal to the old French politeness, to that exquisite courtesy on which our fathers prided themselves. Within the last fifty years, whilst the English have been improving in this respect, much more successfully than their stiff and unpliant humour seemed to promise, we have forgotten much and unlearned much, under the controlling influence of our Middle Class.
As for the art of consuming with grace and living well, and that care of the person, the only fraction of which that they can be sensible to, the English call comfort, our Middle Class has lessons to learn, but none to give. It is not, however, the fault of nature; for no people has received finer and acuter senses than ours. Surely, our nerves are more sensitive, our ear and our palate more delicate than those of the English. Our superiority on these points, is attested by the fact, that, from one end of the world to the other, we are in possession of most of the trades which relate to the person; the office of cook, head-dresser, dancing-master, valet, or tailor, is everywhere monopolised by the French. But to surround oneself with the English comfort, and that more refined comfort which we can conceive of, one must be rich. Now our Middle Class is poor, and politically considered this is one of its greatest faults; it grows poorer daily, either by the operation of the law which commands the equal partition of estates, or of that idleness which condemns it to a stationary income, whilst public wealth and luxury are increasing all around it. It cannot, therefore, encourage the fine arts, for the patronage of the arts is costly; besides taste is growing rare in France since the fall of the aristocracy.
Nor can it be affirmed that the unemployed Middle Class in France represents the element of order, and that if it were to disappear, France itself would perish in frightful convulsions. For the labouring class is already ripe for a better state of society, and requires only the advantages of instruction, and of more favourable terms and more numerous opportunities for industry, to be in a condition to exercise all the rights of a citizen as usefully as the greater portion of the Middle Class. And even if the latter represents in whole or in part the element of order, it is only by the aid and the instrumentality of four hundred thousand bayonets, exclusive of those of the Middle Class itself, and thus it retains its predominance only by opposing the multitude to the multitude; a critical and dangerous position, which cannot long be held, for the very bayonets are beginning to become intelligent.
The bourgeoisie oisive has, then, only one course to take; that is, to pass into the ranks of the working men, to fit themselves to become the leaders of the people in its labours. When this is done, our fields, which belong especially to their domain, will change their aspect as if by enchantment, and our peasants, who, it cannot be too often repeated, at present form the poorest and most numerous class in France, will be raised to a better condition, of which they are worthy. The idle Middle Class must now become with the government, to which the first step in all great projects of improvement belong, responsible for the progress of twenty-five millions of agricultural labourers.
In this change it has every thing to gain itself. By this means it will maintain and confirm its own social rank, for it will thus recover the confidence of the multitude, and will turn its superiority to a good account by exercising a beneficent patronage towards its inferiours. It will exchange a straitened condition for competency or even wealth, and the tedium of a life of inaction for the satisfaction of having done well, the consciousness of having faithfully performed a great duty. This honourable desertion of the standard of idleness for that of industry is now going forward daily. Let us rejoice at it: let us pray that it may speedily become universal. Let us especially urge government to accelerate it, by encouraging the development of industry, by all the means and aids that can improve the condition and resources of agriculture, and inspire the young generation with a desire to devote themselves to this first of arts.