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Chapter 20: classes and masses

When we read in the newspapers of balloon-flying or horseless vehicles, it hardly comes home to us that impending changes in human invention may transform our lives anew and make these days of bicycles and electric trains seem very far away. The most impressive thought inspired by the great Columbian Exposition was the reflection that the vast Machinery Hall, if locked up for fifty years, might be valued only as a museum of antiquities. Men always feel for a time that the inscription Ne Plus Ultra is written on the latest step forward. It is the same with all great social changes. A lifelong New-Yorker, still under seventy, told me, some years since, that he remembered the time when he could easily name the owner of every private vehicle in that city. It was like a country village, where one distinguishes at a [143] glance the doctor's sulky from the minister's chaise. Take your stand at the main carriage entrance of Central Park and see how vast the transformation implied by this simple reminiscence! In smaller and more compact cities the change is yet more easily illustrated. In Boston, this year, the largest individual estate pays a tax of $60,567. In 1834 the largest individual tax paid was $2225, and the estate on which it was paid, that of Gardiner Greene, was valued at only $360,900. In other words, the largest estate, sixty-two years ago, was only six times as large as the mere tax bill of the largest property of to-day. In 1834 there was not even a semi — millionaire in Boston; there were but thirty-five persons whose property was assessed at $150,000; they were regarded as rich men. In a country town in Massachusetts, at a period a little later, a witness testified in court that by a rich man he meant a man worth $10,000.

It is such changes as this which lead men to talk, for the first time in America, at the last Presidential election, of classes and masses. It is to be wished, perhaps, that Mr. Gladstone had never introduced that undesirable phrase; but since he did, it is not strange that, like other English slang, it should be [144] transplanted. It does not come alone from the dissatisfied; one of the leading American newspapers, speaking from a conservative point of view, accepts the attitude, and distributes the classes in the following way. According to this writer, the “upper class” in American society consists of those whose income is above $100,000; the “upper middle,” of incomes from $6000 to $100,000; the “lower middle,” from $1000 to $6000; while the “lower class” consists of those whose whole income is below $1000. As applied, this practically keeps farmers, mechanics, and day laborers in the lower class; ordinary professional men, shopkeepers, head clerks, judges, and Congressmen in the lower middle; the best-paid men of these pursuits in the upper middle; while the higher class includes only great speculators or mine-owners or owners of real estate or employers of labor on a large scale-or else the children and heirs of these last classes. Of course the whole classification is frankly based on wealth alone, leaving birth, education, or character out of sight, except, perhaps, as recognizing that brains at least have some share in money-making. Of the golden rule there is not a hint, nor is there any recognition of the fact that in some [145] American communities these other elements still count for something. In all college towns, for instance, education usually outranks wealth; and in some communities as Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, and the Southern States generally-great-grandmothers and even cousins still represent a good deal. But as to all the newer and most of the busier parts of the United States, the classification hits pretty near home.

Now we have all wished to postpone forever all talk of masses and classes in this country; but the important thing is to weigh the facts just as they are and govern ourselves accordingly. It has been pointed out several times in these papers that there is no essential difference, in origin, between the aristocracy of wealth and that of birth. Hereditary aristocracy is simply a skilful device for perpetuating the prestige of wealth; it is a longer investment, a securer mortgage, the structure being built in stone instead of wood. The rich man in this country knows that if his son loses his wealth he loses everything; the rich man in England knows that his descendants, once ennobled, can hold their own in spite of poverty, folly, and even vice. This is a very poor result for the community, as [146] most Americans would agree, but it is a great convenience for the family immediately concerned. Nothing works better in American life than the promptness with which the degenerate scions of honored parents drop out of sight; in England they simply marry a fortune and retain their power. As one result, most people in England, even radical reformers, have acquired the habit of cringing more or less before hereditary rank. In America there is more or less jealousy of wealth, but very little cringing. It is doubtful whether a mere aristocracy of wealth can ever create much cringing beyond its immediate village or city. It is only an hereditary aristocracy that is sufficiently intrenched to assert such universally recognized prestige.

It is to be remembered, however, that another pillar of hereditary aristocracyland-ownership — is easily enough created in a nation of mere wealth. In the country town where this is written — a village of about a hundred permanent families, and in local situation the highest village in New England--the main territorial ownership is steadily passing into the hands of a comparatively few “city people.” There are three men who own a thousand acres apiece or thereabouts. The farms [147] they have bought up are either abandoned or worked on shares or let out at a low rent, rarely being occupied by the original farmers. The tendency is to substitute for the original freehold system what is practically a tenantry, with a group remaining in the village of what were once farming families, but who now obtain, by trade with the “city people,” or work done for them, a better living than the farms ever yielded. All this is not the result of any tyranny or mortgage-grasping, but of simple purchase and transfer acceptable to all classes; there is the best of feeling, but it points to a vast and far-reaching change of tenure. Nothing apparently can sustain what is called in Europe “peasant proprietorship” except those iron laws which in France subdivide the inheritence of real estate into as many strips as there are children in a household — a method that would be utterly intolerable to the American mind. The upshot of it all is, that while our Constitution and general laws are secure, our social structure is still fluid and changing before our eyes, and our wisest advisers cannot yet tell us just what is to be the outcome. The impending changes imply some evil, and yet it seems altogether likely that they will at last take some form that will make for good.


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