Artist: Sarah Miriam Peale
Commentary by Matthew Mason
Associate Professor of History
In nineteenth-century America, the aesthetics of class kept pace with the stunning political changes of the era. In 1800, most states still had property requirements to vote, so politics remained the preserve of the middle and upper classes who could meet said requirements. By 1830 almost every state had cast aside property qualifications in favor of what their generation called “universal suffrage” and we would more descriptively call “universal white manhood suffrage.” The enfranchisement of almost all white men gave American politics and society a much stronger tinge of democracy than it had had in the early national period.
Members of the elite, especially if they had any political aspirations, were now best advised to keep any elitism under wraps. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina, a big-time cotton planter, considered his poorer neighbors “among the ‘most ignorant, vulgar & I may add most narrow-minded set of people in the world.’” But Hammond had the good sense to keep such statements private. And he wrote in a letter to a friend that, much as he would have liked to horsewhip a local upstart with whom he had a quarrel on a local road, the “thing that deters me is the prospect of the Governorship. This ties my hands.”
Style followed suit in this Era of the Common Man. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries American elites had used dressed along with other refinements to set themselves apart from their neighbors of the lower ranks. But in Jacksonian and antebellum America, even the president of the United States dressed essentially like any country lawyer or other professional. These changes are reflected in the understated, middle-class sartorial choices reflected in this portrait.
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