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Social Order in the New World

J. H. Elliott

Family and hierarchy were the twin pillars supporting the social structure of Early Modern Europe. The ordered family, under the control of the head of the household, patterned the state in microcosm, just as the state, under royal government, was a microcosm of the divinely ordered universe subservient to its Maker. Some in this universe were born to rule and others to obey; or, as John Winthrop expressed it in his famous sermon, A Modell of Christian Charity, said to have been preached on board the Arbella, but more probably in Southampton before the ship’s departure: ‘in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.’ The doctrine of degree, transplanted to Spanish America and more recently to the English dominion of Virginia, now crossed the north Atlantic again, this time in the Arbella to Puritan New England.

Yet the New Englanders would find, as Spanish Americans and Virginians had found before them, that old European certainties and new American realities did not necessarily coincide. During the Peruvian civil wars, Hernando Pizarro, in a rousing speech to his infantry soldiers before they engaged in battle with the army of his rival, Diego de Almagro, told them that he understood, ‘they were saying among themselves that soldiers without horses counted for little when it came to the distribution of land; but he gave them his word that no such thought had ever crossed his mind, because good soldiers are not to be judged by their horses, but by the valour of their persons. Therefore whoever showed himself brave would be rewarded in conformity with his service; for not to possess horses was a matter of fortune, and no disparagement of their persons.’

The extent to which such words represented a dangerous subversion of traditional notions of the proper ordering of society is suggested by a passage in a sermon preached by a New England minister, William Hubbard, in 1676: ‘It is not then the result of time or chance, that some are mounted on horse-back, while others are left to travel on foot. That some have with the Centurion, power to command, while others are required to obey.’ God’s design was clear, and was spelled out by an early viceroy of Peru when he wrote that, ‘in conformity with other republics it is necessary that there should be persons of different quality, condition and estate, and that not all should be equal, just as for the good government of the human body not all members are equal.’ Yet could this grand design be as successfully sustained in the New World as in the Old? Hernando Pizarro’s words gave an early warning of the difficulties.

Throughout the colonial period there was to be a persistent tension between the traditional image of the ordered society and the social practices and arrangements arising out of the conditions of conquest and settlement. No doubt in Europe too there were wide disparities between theory and practice, especially in periods like the sixteenth century when economic change brought accelerated social mobility. But, in general, social change in Europe would be contained and absorbed by the society of orders, which would only begin to be eroded in the late eighteenth century under the double impact of the French and Industrial Revolutions. In America, it remained an open question whether the society of orders could even survive the Atlantic crossing, and, if so, whether it could be reconstituted in ways familiar to those who came from Europe.

Not everyone, however, necessarily wished for such an outcome. In the course of the great social and religious upheavals in sixteenth-century Europe, what passed for dangerously radical and egalitarian doctrines had risen alarmingly to the surface. In the Tyrol, Michael Gaismayr had put forward proposals for a drastic reordering of society along evangelical communitarian lines, and the Anabaptists introduced forms of communal organization in Münster which were ruthlessly suppressed by the forces of law and order in 1535. In spite of the tragedy of Münster, Anabaptists, Hutterites and other splinter religious movements managed to keep egalitarian doctrines alive, while the popularity of Thomas More’s Utopia ensured that visions of an alternative organization of society based on community rather than hierarchy would not be lost from view. With the forces of repression in the ascendant in Europe, where better to establish a more just and egalitarian society than in the New World of America?

From Empires of the Atlantic World by J. H. Elliott. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


J. H. Elliott is Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History, University of Oxford. His previous books include The Count-Duke of Olivares, A Palace for a King (with Jonathan Brown), and Spain and Its World, 1500—1700, all published by Yale University Press. Among the many honors he has received are the Wolfson Prize for History, the Prince of Asturias Prize for the Social Sciences, and the Balzan Prize for History.


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