Division in Economics Leads to Instability and Conflict

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With an increase in urban populations and diversity came an increase in tensions between citizens and a deepening rift between the rich and poor. Throughout the colonies, there was a gradual shift towards a less even distribution of land and power. The rich became richer and more influential in government while the poor and middle class suffered a decline in wealth, land ownership, and influence in government. Whole cities were divided by the issues concerning the disparity between the rich and poor making protests and civil unrest commonplace in colonies like New York and Massachusetts. Less significantly, population increase also strained agricultural resources. As the colonies became more populous, richer, and more diverse, they became unstable and prone to conflict.

In 1687, the top 5 percent of Boston’s taxpayers controlled 30 percent of the community’s taxable assets. A little more than three years later, they had come to control 49 percent of Boston’s assets. This illustrates a trend occurring in all colonial society, more wealth going to fewer people. On the same token, “Those in the lower half of society, who in Boston in 1687 had commanded 9 percent of the taxable wealth, were left collectively with a mere 5 percent in 1771.” Not only were the lower half of society less represented economically by the early 1770’s, there were also more of them because of population growth.\

The deepening divide between rich and poor brought unrest to cities throughout the colonies. The rich took advantage of the poor, and the poor responded by demonstrating against the rich using inflammatory words and violence. The poor called the aristocracy “Rich Misers” and “Serpents in the Grass”. The rich ignored the disenfranchised poor and middle class calling them “ramblers”, “spendthrifts”, and “rabble”. The two sides fought not only through words but also with violence. The poor led protests against the rich and committed extralegal activities, so it was a scary time to be rich and powerful in the colonies. “It is an exceedingly gloomy time for us,” noted one clergyman from Boston.

“The opulent and educated of the city were exposed as self-interested and oppressive men… [not] public-minded community servants.”At the same time, many of the middle class citizens who incited the protests were looking for riches, power, and higher positions themselves. They were not, as they suggested, looking out for the good of their communities.

Less significant but just as divisive was the fact that a greater population meant a more taxing need for food. Grain shortages caused unrest, and the greedy, self-interested rich furthered the problems driving average colonists to violence. A merchant, Andrew Belcher, became wealthy exporting grain to the Caribbean. Even when a bread shortage was affecting his home, Boston, he continued to ship the grain to the Caribbean because he would make less money selling it locally. In response, enraged townspeople took action stealing from his silos and raiding his transport ships. The populations of the colonies became richer, more populous and more diverse; at the same time, they became more violent, radical, and divided.

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