In all of these chapters, Appleby draws on autobiographies to feature the contributions of the middling
white men who propelled social and cultural change, yet she also judiciously contrasts their experiences of empowerment and success against those less fortunate.
From Loma Weatherhill's detailed quantitative probate work, in particular, we know that it was among the urban middling orders that the new consumer goods were most plentiful.
Hunt's examination of the limits and possibilities for the women of middle-class households is deft and pivotal to her interpretation of middling life.
Two excellent chapters on economic, cultural and financial shifts in Halifax between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries provide a nuanced and nicely interactive account of the rise of this "class." As Smail shows, the differences between "the middling
sort" and the "middle class" were substantial.
The leading student of the antebellum middle class, Stuart Blumin, defines it along fairly arbitrary occupational lines, focusing on the line between the middling and lower sort, and arguing that what distinguished the two was nonmanual versus manual work.(7) It is such a definition that allows him to claim that a middle class did not exist in the eighteenth century, for the vast majority of the population were farmers and artisans, and the tiny elite who did not work with their hands were able to live off inherited or accumulated mercantile wealth.
While the middling sort in late eighteenth-century America had different occupations from the increasingly white collar middle class of the antebellum decades, they may have shared other attributes.
Stuart Blumin and other scholars have insisted that the most important social cleavage in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America was between the elite and everyone else; that the middling and lower sort were lumped together in contemporary visions of the social order.(11) This was indeed the primary social cleavage suggested by the conduct literature that circulated during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (at least in New England, the primary book importation and production center).
Contrary to historians' recent claims about the verticality of most relationships in the revolutionary era, the deferential model of manners, designed to reinforce inequality in the early colonial period, began to be replaced by a new model that focused on relations between equals.(14) Taken together, the changes suggest that the older patriarchal conception of the social order was being challenged by a rise in the status of the middling sort (also of youth, and, to some degree, women, although these changes will not be discussed here).(15) The new etiquette was not intended to guide the behavior of these groups in reference to their superiors, as had formerly been the case; rather it was designed to help them step into new, less subordinate, roles.