How was Society Divided?


The Founding Fathers knew that divisions in society were unavoidable, as it would go against the nature of men for everyone to have the same interests. In Federalist 10, Madison stated several causes of societal divisions, including religious differences, unequal distribution of property, creditors, debtors, property owners, manufacturers, merchants, bankers, and other occupations, all of which are necessary parts of a civilized nation.1 Madison claimed that “The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation,” and the government would need to balance these competing interests in order to protect the rights of all groups.2

At the time the Constitution was written, many divisions were evident within American society. Some of the largest divisions throughout the country and within individual states were over social class, religion, and nationality. Since competing groups were motivated to act out of their self-interest, all of these divisions had an enormous impact on politics and government.

Social Class

During the Constitutional debates, class divisions between the rich and the poor were a defining feature of American society. These class divisions were apparent in the distribution of wealth. By 1775, the elite class made up no more than 20 percent of the population but held 68 percent of total assets.3 In spite of the ideals of equality that characterized the American Revolution, after the war men of the higher classes worried that “Power had fallen into low hands” and “feared their declining status in this new democratic society.”4 The social upheaval of independence brought many men into higher social classes, and they were determined to maintain their high status after the war. Ideas of equality were therefore replaced with ideas of “a governing elite dedicated to limiting democracy.”5

Following the Revolutionary War, the economic depression of the 1780s sharpened the divide between the rich and poor. Under the Articles of Confederation Congress could not levy taxes or regulate currency, so it was up to the state governments to find ways to pay off their war debts. As a result, state legislatures increased taxes to pay off these debts, placing the tax burden primarily on those with lower incomes. As a result, many local authorities were forced to confiscate the lands of many American farmers in order to pay off the rising debts, and discontent spread throughout the states.6

The competing interests of creditors and debtors were prominent during this time of economic hardship. Creditors are people who lend money on the expectation that it will be paid back, and debtors are those who borrow money. Therefore, the debtors owe money to the creditors. During the economic depression of the 1780s, the poor debtors, mostly middle class farmers, did not have the cash to pay off their creditors.7 Many Americans were forced to declare bankruptcy and had their lands taken away, and the public was enraged because the “wealthy merchants, moneylenders, and ‘creditors’…seemed to profit from public suffering.”8 One man even referred to creditors at this time as “playing the part of Satan.”9

As creditors continued to confiscate the land of many American farmers with the help of local authorities, protests spread throughout the country. One farmer in Massachusetts, Daniel Shays, led a group of protestors who tried to prevent foreclosures and debt related imprisonments. Eventually their protests turned violent, and their movement was known as Shays’ Rebellion.10 Such insurrections only increased the fears of wealthy Americans who worried that the rebels threatened private property. Clearly, the Constitution would need to establish a system of government that balanced the competing class interests in American society.


Even before the United States declared its independence, a large number of different religious sects coexisted in the colonies. During the ratification debates, religion was a major cause of division in society.

Anglican Church

The Anglican Church, or the Church of England was the official religion in Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and part of New York during the colonial period. After the American Revolution and throughout the 18th century, followers of the Church of England became a minority.11

Congregational Church

The Congregational Church grew out of the Puritan faith, and was prominent in New England.12

Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Church was closely associated to the Congregational Church. Many of its followers were from northern Ireland and Scotland.13

Lutheran Church

The Lutheran Church was popular in Pennsylvania and states that had a large population of German immigrants.14


Quakers were prominent in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Rhode Island.15


The first Jews arrived in the colonies in the mid-17th century to Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and South Carolina. By the mid-18th century, there were around 1,500 Jews.16

The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening occurred in the 1730s-1740s, and was the first mass social movement in America. The movement was based on personal faith and reformed church practices.
The Baptist and Methodist denominations grew out of the Great Awakening, and they were the two larges churches in the United States by the 19th century.17


The inhabitants of the American colonies and later the United States came from diverse backgrounds. Before and after the Revolution, people immigrated to America from many different countries. People of the same nationality often had the same interests, as they had shared traditions, cultures, languages, and religions. Therefore, nationality was a major source of division in American society.

Although many believe that most Americans before and after the Revolutionary period were of English descent, people came from many other countries. A large number of people came from northern Ireland, lowland Scotland, and south Whales. The Scotch-Irish settled in Pennsylvania, the back country of the southern colonies, and New Hampshire, and “accounted for one-tenth of the total population.”18 The Welsh were concentrated in eastern Pennsylvania and the Scots settled in East Jersey and the Carolinas.19 Dutch settlers were also present in New York and New Jersey.20

Furthermore, German settlers arrived in great numbers and settled mostly in Pennsylvania. By 1775, approximately one in ten colonists were of German descent.21 Germans were the largest group of non-British European immigrants in North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”22 German immigrants “accounted for 50 to 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s population in 1760 and 33 percent in 1790.”23. This group was known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and they quickly became a “potent force in shaping the social, economic, and political life of the mid-Atlantic region.”24

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