The Formation of New Social Conventions in Early America

By Sujay Kulshrestha
2011, Vol. 3 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

Early American society experienced moments of great change, politically, economically and socially. With the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Americans shattered previous paradigms of political thought, providing the opportunity for a new form of government to emerge from the ruins of tyrannical oppression. The founding fathers set up this new republic to be, simply put, a government for the people, by the people. This atmosphere of revolution and self-determination extended itself from the political arena to the social arena−Americans began to question longstanding social practices they had carried over from Great Britain. The creation of a new republic led to the concept of a new republican selfhood, in which Americans reevaluated their identity and existing social practices. As a result, Americans began to disregard previous social norms, creating wholly new American ideals of social order. In effect, the infant nation created a new version of self.

Three men who typified this new break in social practices were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and William Cooper. Each of these men made a significant break from existing social practices in their own way and to varying extents. Benjamin Franklin, American intellectual and diplomat, made a break from existing systems of patrilineage and general social advancement−one could argue that he was one of the first self-made Americans. Theorizing on society, Thomas Jefferson questioned the existing social hierarchy, challenging both social standing and notions of race in society. Finally, William Cooper strongly desired to move from his humble beginnings as a Quaker to become a member of the gentry, a seemingly lofty task. While all three did effect some change from past social practices to a certain extent, each did so to varying levels of success, reflected both by their achievements during their time and by modern American conceptions of each man.

Arguably one of the most revered of the Early Americans, history remembers Benjamin Franklin as a highly talented and gifted individual, who served as statesman, inventor, intellectual, publisher, among other achievements. Considered to be an example of the quintessential American intellectual, Franklin overcame humble beginnings to establish himself as a genuine member of the upper class and intellectual elite. One can view Franklin to be the first self-made American; Franklin shattered notions of patrilineal inheritance by proving that he did not require his father or any other familial help to succeed. During his lifetime, society functioned in a patrilineal manner, a common practice originating in Great Britain−sons expected to inherit money, land, or titles from their fathers; this inheritance served as a springboard from which to attain greater success. Franklin had no such foundation. In his autobiography, he notes his lack of any sort of inheritance by detailing his family tree: he was the last son of his father, Josiah, who in turn was the last son of Franklin’s grandfather, Thomas.1 In order for Franklin to succeed as an individual, he clearly had to overcome his humble beginnings and lack of any inheritable aid−his success indicates a significant break from prior social practices.

Franklin seized upon every opportunity to move upward socially, even shedding bonds with his family to continue his ascent of the social ladder. First working for his father and subsequently his brother,2 Franklin left Boston in search of a way to attain success without the help of his family. From here, Franklin joined a ship at the age of 17,3 helping out until he decided to settle briefly in Philadelphia.4 In Philadelphia, he began to make both political and intellectual connections−this ability to make relationships with important individuals becomes a central facet of Franklin’s success. For example, in Philadelphia, Franklin impressed the colonial governor, William Keith; this link led Keith to offer Franklin money to start a printing shop.5 Despite circumstances not working out for Franklin, this example demonstrates Franklin’s ability to scale the social ladder without the assistance of his family. In a world built upon familial links, Franklin, who lacks any such ancestral aid, made his own connections simply through the virtue of his persona.

Franklin further demonstrates his ability to foster relationships in his attempts to become an intellectual. He began by mastering reading and writing by studying The Spectator,6 eventually formed a discussion group with British intellectuals,7 and created a library in Philadelphia solely for the purpose of improving self-education.8 These connections, while also enlarging Franklin’s social circle, also proves Franklin’s value for self-improvement through self-education; Franklin believed that if he became an intellectual, he would more easily accepted as he moved socially upward. By leaving Boston and shedding the bonds to his family and offsetting his humble beginnings through self-education, Franklin was able to successfully ascend socially, which he remarks upon at the beginning of his autobiography, stating that he “... emerg’d from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation…”9 Franklin’s self-approval is reflected in modern American society’s admiration and reverence for Benjamin Franklin, the first self-made American.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson, in letters to his love interest Maria Cosway, wrote of a conversation between his head and his heart upon leaving Paris. Jefferson’s letter detailed the struggle between his head and his heart, representing the conflict between reason and passion. The letter argued about the heart’s tendency to incite revolutionary thinking; in fact, just as Jefferson’s passion led him to start a relationship with Cosway, so too did Jefferson’s heart incite revolutionary and inquisitive thinking on conventions of social hierarchy and racism. A significant question that underscored the formation of the new republic was the potential for an aristocracy, a concept stemming from the nobility of Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson questioned the concept of a hereditary aristocracy by detailing the notion of a “natural aristocracy”−one in which individuals who were virtuous enough to make important decisions and hold a higher place in society would be automatically selected. In a letter to John Adams dated October 1813, Jefferson notes that the “form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the office of government…”10 Apparently, Jefferson’s passionate side questions attainability of gentility; Jefferson seems to believe that a natural aristocracy, one in which the government naturally selects individuals for nobility, is preferable to an inherited aristocracy, in which individuals gain titles through familial connections. The institution of a natural aristocracy has the potential to revolutionize the social hierarchy−no longer would the upper classes be ruled exclusively by those who inherited wealth, virtuous and upright citizens could ascend into the elite classes, purely on their own merit.

Jefferson’s disregard for existing social hierarchy is also evident in the case of the Mammoth Cheese. On New Years, 1802, then-President Jefferson was given a 1235 pound piece of cheese from Massachusetts Dairy Farmers who came to visit the open White House. Jefferson, not accepting gifts, refused to take the cheese for free and instead paid two hundred dollars for the cheese. This curious event demonstrates many facets of Jefferson’s reconsideration of existing social hierarchy, in this case the one that exists in representative politics. First, the concept of an open White House equalizes the leader, President Jefferson, with the constituents, the Massachusetts Dairy farmers who have come to visit the President. Furthermore, by insisting on paying, Jefferson establishes that the President is an ordinary citizen and not a monarch deserving of lavish gifts. Once again, Jefferson revolutionizes the social hierarchy of the time; in this case, he narrows the wide social gap between the citizens of the United States and the President.

In addition to questioning the notion of aristocracy, Jefferson questions African and enslaved persons’ position in the new republic. Jefferson, a Virginian plantation owner, appears to have struggled with notions of race for quite some time. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, written in 1781, he speculated on the possibility of the termination of slavery, stating that the possibility of emancipation existed if blacks are removed from America, as retaining the Black people for labor would lead to “ the extermination of the one or the other race.”11 These musings on emancipation resurrect themselves in the Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence−perhaps considered Jefferson’s masterpiece−where he notes that, in encouraging the enslavement of Africans, King George has “waged cruel war against human nature itself.”12 From these documents, one can draw the conclusion that Jefferson questioned the very idea of slavery and its role in American society, both before and after the creation of the United States. Such revolutionary thinking demonstrates a significant break with social practices of the past on Jefferson’s part, however, his actions demonstrate that he did not do much to counter the status quo. Jefferson owned slaves throughout his life and only freed about 10 percent of them upon his death−a significant portion of this tenth included his progeny with Sally Hennings, a slave with whom he had an affair.13 Furthermore, as a plantation owner in colonial Virginia, Jefferson obviously had membership in the wealthy elite−countering his desire for the notion of a natural aristocracy. While in theory Jefferson made a significant break with past social conventions dealing with aristocracy and racism, in practice Jefferson seems to have made little headway.

Similar to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, William Cooper also upset existing social practices during his lifetime. Cooper’s attempt to enter the gentry deeply reflects Franklin’s attempt to move upward socially, with a few key differences. Cooper, born second of three sons to Quaker parents, started his life in poverty, with nowhere to go socially but upwards.14 In order to begin his ascendance into the gentry, a position which he deeply desired, Cooper married a woman with considerable wealth, Elizabeth Fenimore.15 This union was the first step in Cooper’s plans to rise to the top of the social ladder, and any subsequent moves he made were carefully calculated to propel Cooper into the aristocracy. For example, after successfully beginning the settlement of Cooperstown, Cooper took over the development of the Beech Woods, an area of land in northeast Pennsylvania.16 Alan Taylor notes that this arrangement was only to “prove his [Cooper’s] worth to an elite audience in Philadelphia…” 17 It seems that the majority of Cooper’s actions intended to impress his contacts in the gentry, with the hopes to one day gain acceptance into their ranks. This calculated climb into the gentry represents a significant difference in the methods that William Cooper and Benjamin Franklin employed to increase their social status; while Franklin’s actions had the by-product of impressing members of the aristocracy−such as William Keith, Cooper’s actions were taken only with the expectation that members of the aristocracy would be observing and would be impressed by Cooper. As Alan Taylor states, Cooper’s actions were meant “to bring..[him]…to the attention of the Republic’s preeminent gentlemen.”16 Cooper’s overeagerness to become a member of the elite class ends up leading him into ruin; Taylor notes that Cooper tries to please too many members of the aristocracy by agreeing to take on more responsibilities, eventually leading to his own social downfall.18

Another key difference that marks Cooper’s break with social convention from Franklin’s deals with their respective self-education. As mentioned previously, Franklin valued self-education as a way to increase one’s social standing−Cooper failed to employ the same means. Cooper remained unable to write correctly throughout his life14−this inability to write grammatically marked Cooper as pseudo-aristocrat, something that followed him throughout his life. Furthermore, when Cooper did self-educate, reading an unusual selection of books from the Library, Taylor notes that Cooper’s selections indicated an “old-fashioned, backward-looking quality to the gentility that Cooper acquired.”19 One can conclude that Cooper self-educated only to convey the impression that he was an actual member of the gentry, but not to actually enter the gentry class. This contrasts Benjamin Franklin’s methods of self-education; Franklin self-educated in order to be accepted into the gentry and participate in active intellectual discussion.

These two key differences between the lives of William Cooper and Benjamin Franklin, both men of humble origins who ascended the social ladder upon their own accord, demonstrate why Cooper’s break with existing social practices and subsequent social ascension concluded in social ruin whereas Franklin’s in social triumph. Cooper’s crazed obsession with being accepted into the aristocracy led him to take shortcuts to become an aristocrat, self-educating to adopt a fake persona of a member of the gentry. Conversely, Franklin’s desire to improve his social standing through genuine self-education led him to associate with members of the gentry; his ability to carry on intellectual conversations with them allowed for his acceptance into the upper class. When it becomes apparent that Cooper calculates his actions to increase his social worth and prevent the upward social movement of others, Cooper’s social status dwindles, and eventually leads to his own downfall.20 While both Cooper and Franklin started in roughly the same place on the social ladder, their different paths to the gentry led to radically different ends for both; history remembers Benjamin Franklin as a self-made American, but tragically forgets the effort of William Cooper to do the same. Unfortunately, Cooper’s bold attempts to upset the social balance and break with convention ends in failure.

With the creation of a new country came the reevaluation of national and individual identity. In Early America, the establishment of the new republic allowed for the establishment of new social practices. Breaking from the past, Americans disregarded social conventions that originated in their mother country, Great Britain, and forged new social practices that became distinctly “American.” Both Benjamin Franklin and William Cooper moved well beyond their social standing at birth and Thomas Jefferson questioned the social norms of the time and theorized more ideal versions of social aristocracy, arguably because the atmosphere of revolution extended itself to all spheres of society. While all three achieved social change to differing extents and to varying degrees of success, simply their efforts to change some aspect of social convention indicates a desire to rethink the norms and conventions of the time, reflecting the creation of a new sense of self in the fledgling republic.


Adams, John, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, The Adams-Jefferson Letters; the Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, ed. Lester J. Cappon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography and Other Writings, edited by Ormond Seavey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Literary Classics of the United States., edited by Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Library of America, 1984, (accessed October 19, 2010).

---. “Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence.” Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. =4 (accessed October 19, 2010).

Rothman, Joshua D. Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Taylor, Alan. William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. New York: Random House, 1995.

1. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography and Other Writings, ed. Ormond Seavey (New York: Oxford UP, 1993), 5-9.

2. Ibid., 12-14.

3. Ibid., 22.

4. Ibid., 26.

5. Ibid., 29-32.

6. Ibid., 15-17.

7. Ibid., 61.

8. Ibid., 71.

9. Ibid., 3.

10. John Adams, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, The Adams-Jefferson Letters; the Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, ed. Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 388.

11. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Literary Classics of the United States, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), accessed October 19, 2010,, 264.

12. “Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence,” Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, accessed October 19, 2010,, ¶ 31.

13. Joshua D. Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 44.

14. Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Random House, 1995), 16.

15. Ibid., 17.

16. Ibid., 117.

17. Ibid., 116.

18. Ibid., 127.

19. Ibid., 24.

20. Ibid., 290.

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