Caste and Sex Fighting for Old Privileges

SOCIAL caste is an Old World plant that did not flourish so well in the New World soil. It thrives best on landed privilege and when buttressed by law among a landed aristocracy. The inequality of classes was glaring in the colonies, but that arose mostly from the possession of money, which changes hands so readily that it is only "three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves," and the lines are forever shifting. The first of New York's mob of rich men, Frederick Phillipse, came over as an immigrant from what is now Czecho-Slovakia and swiftly rose from the trade of carpenter.

Many of the colonists brought over with them the Old World plan for preventing the dividing and breaking up of estates at the death of the owners. New York, New Jersey and Virginia imported the English law of primogeniture, and even in New England the eldest son received a double portion.

Persons who got up in the world disdained to speak to poorer folk or even to notice their existence. But next they were complaining that "a gentleman no longer meets with what used to be called civility." In other words, the snubbers were being snubbed!

The colonists were slow to learn that this was not to be a land of castes. They supposed, at first, that men and families would be rigidly set apart and tagged and labeled in the colonies as they always had been in England. Harvard College did not catalogue its students alphabetically before the Revolution, but printed their names and seated them at mess in the order of their family rankings. Churches also followed the same plan, and one proud Virginia family required all others to wait outside until its members had arrived and marched to their pew. The line was drawn even in the cemetery. Poor folk were not interred in burying grounds but dumped into holes anywhere, like dead horses and dogs.

An American standard of wages made its appearance as soon as the colonies were settled, and the ruling class strove in vain to keep it down. Wages were fixed by law in Massachusetts before that colony was a month old, and were marked down again in the next month. Nevertheless they continued to rise, "to the great dishonor of God . . . and of God's people," as the General Court said. But it gave up the attempt to stop it.

There was caste even in the punishment of malefactors. The General Court of Massachusetts provided, in 1641, that no "true gentleman nor any man equal to a gentleman" should "be punished with whipping unless his crime be very shameful." The common people, on the contrary, could be beaten with as many as "forty stripes."

When ordinary people began to discard the old badges of inferiority that had always been worn in Europe, the colonial Legislatures prescribed just how the lower classes should dress, and the Massachusetts Legislators recorded their "detestation" of persons of "mean condition dressing like their betters." A woman in Connecticut, who was arrested for wearing a silk coat, escaped punishment only by proving that her husband was worth more than £200.

Even the ancient privilege of sex was undermined in this social quicksand, and the superior sex manfully struggled to keep women where they belonged.

The most jealously cherished privilege of man was to dictate the dress of women, and the Massachusetts Legislature drew a long face at women going about in bare arms and for the "cutting, curling and immodest laying out of their hair." A woman convicted of being a "common scold" was ducked in a pond in some colonies. Or she was put on public view with a gag in her mouth, as the penalty was in early Massachusetts and Connecticut to wear the scarlet letter, "A."

The education of girls, even in the highest circles of Massachusetts, stopped at writing and arithmetic. In Virginia, it was enough if they were trained in music, dancing, the graces and "such things as are fit for women to know." As the perfect fruit of that policy, 38 percent of the women of property in Massachusetts, at the end of the first century, could not sign their names to their deeds. In New York, 60 percent and in Virginia 75 percent had to make their mark.

The inferior sex was hedged about and sequestered by the sultans who ruled the colonies. Massachusetts forbade a woman to lodge a man, even her own father or brother, in the absence of her jealous lord and master. A Boston girl who let a chap make love to her, without sending him to her parents, only got her beau in trouble, and he was fined for his invasion of the harem. The colonies started out to keep marriage a matter for negotiation between families, as in Europe, with a financial settlement attached to it. A colonial newspaper frankly announced in a wedding notice that the bride was "a most amiable young lady with £10,000 to her fortune." A dead husband's debts went with his widow, and anyone wedding her was liable for them, unless he took the precaution of wedding her on an open highway, clad only in her chemise!

As the European-born passed, Young America came on the scene, and the old order changed. The Puritan elders grieved, in the 1650s, over "dancing in the ordinaries," or the taverns of Boston, and that maidens and their swains, without chaperonage, should walk together in streets and fields.

Vain were all the interdicts laid upon the rise of woman in the New World. Man soon lost his ancient privilege of wife-beating. That quaint, time-honored English custom was even forbidden by law in some colonies.

The hand that rocked the cradle in America reached out for the pay envelope also, as far back as 200 years ago and more. Judge Sewell of Massachusetts only yielded to the atmospheric pressure of the New World when he surrendered his salary to his wife and kept but a bit of pocket money for himself, as he recorded in his renowned diary. How many millions of Mrs Sewells are there in the land today, and treasurers of the household?

Let all who sigh for a return of the age of homespun simplicity only imagine a President of the United States today in the scarlet and silk and satin and plush, brass and pearl buttons, powdered wig and sword of George Washington! The colonial rich were not content to ride in their chaises, but flourished about in gilded coach and chariot, gayly lined and bearing armorial crests, drawn by four and six horses in glittering harnesses, with tinkling bells and waving plumes. Never since has America seen the fuss and feathers, frills and flunkeying, the airs and ostentation that obtained before 1776.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Nov 26, 1927, p. 14