The common people, also known as the common man, commoners, or the
masses, are the ordinary people in a community or nation who lack any
significant social status, especially those who are members of neither
royalty, nobility, the clergy, nor any member of the aristocracy.
Whereas historically many civilizations have institutionalized the
notion of a common class within society, since the 20th century the
term common people has been used in a more general sense to refer to
typical members of society in contrast to the highly privileged (in
either wealth or influence). In the United States,
Andrew Jackson gave
hope to the common man by his own example of working his way from
being a poor Scots-Irish American to becoming the seventh President of
the United States (1829-1837). The administration of
Andrew Jackson utilized a system of choosing appointments to federal
office which one contemporary congressman labeled the spoils system,
thereby enabling previously unmeritorious individuals opportunities to
hold office. Additionally, his presidency was marked by the common
man’s right of suffrage (which had originally been limited to
property-owning or tax-paying white males) as part of his
administration’s greater democracy for the common man. Economically,
Jackson’s administration fostered trade with Europe, leading to an
increase in jobs for the common man in agriculture and industry.
2 Breakdown of the trifold division
3 Social divisions in non-Western civilisations
4 See also
5 Notes and references
6 Further reading
7 External links
In Europe, a distinct concept analogous to common people arose in the
Classical civilization of ancient Rome around the 6th century BC, with
the social division into patricians (nobles) and plebeians
(commoners). The division may have been instituted by Servius Tullius,
as an alternative to the previous clan based divisions that had been
responsible for internecine conflict. The ancient Greeks generally
had no concept of class and their leading social divisions were simply
non-Greeks, free-Greeks and slaves. The early organisation of
Ancient Athens was something of an exception with certain official
roles like archons, magistrates and treasurers being reserved for only
the wealthiest citizens – these class-like divisions were weakened
by the democratic reforms of
Cleisthenes who created new vertical
social divisions in contrasting fashion to the horizontal ones thought
to have been created by Tullius.
A Medieval French manuscript illustration depicting the three estates:
clergy (oratores), nobles (bellatores), and commoners (laboratores).
With the growth of Christianity in the 4th century AD, a new world
view arose that would underpin European thinking on social division
until at least early modern times. Saint Augustine postulated that
social division was a result of the Fall of Man. The three leading
divisions were considered to be the priesthood (clergy), the nobility,
and the common people. Sometimes this would be expressed as "those who
prayed", "those who fought" and "those who worked". The
for the three classes – oratores, bellatores and laboratores – are
often found even in modern textbooks, and have been used in sources
since the 9th century. This threefold division was formalised in
the estate system of social stratification, where again commoners were
the bulk of the population who are neither members of the nobility nor
of the clergy. They were the third of the Three Estates of the
Realm in medieval Europe, consisting of peasants and artisans.
Social mobility for commoners was limited throughout the Middle Ages.
Generally, the serfs were unable to enter the group of the bellatores.
Commoners could sometimes secure entry for their children into the
oratores class; usually they would serve as rural parish priests. In
some cases they received education from the clergy and ascended to
senior administrative positions; in some cases nobles welcomed such
advancement as former commoners were more likely to be neutral in
dynastic feuds. There were cases of serfs becoming clerics in the Holy
Roman Empire, though from the Carolingian era, clergy were
generally recruited from the nobility. Of the two thousand bishops
serving from the 8th to the 15th century, just five came from the
Up until the late 15th-century European social order was relatively
stable. There were periods where the common people felt oppressed in
certain regions, but often they were content with their lot. In
12th-century England for example, while the common people would
sometimes complain about the "Norman yoke"  there was almost no
unemployment and the average commoner only had to work only about 20
hours per week. Though incidents of savage brutality still
occurred in Europe, especially when one set of nobles displaced
another, in general nobles were seen as just protectors of the common
people, as was encouraged by Christian teaching. With early
medieval times being a period of close to absolute faith, the clergy
were also highly valued by the common people, bringing much happiness
as at the time there was close to universal belief that through
sacraments such as confession, the priest had the ability to ensure
The social and political order of medieval Europe was shaken by the
development of the mobile cannon in the 15th century. Up until that
time a noble with a small force could hold their castle or walled town
for years even against large armies - and so they were rarely
disposed. Once effective cannons were available, walls were of far
less defensive value and rulers needed expensive field armies to keep
control of a territory. This encouraged the formation of princely and
kingly states, which needed to tax the common people much more heavily
to pay for the expensive weapons and armies required to provide
security in the new age. Up until the late 15th century, surviving
medieval treaties on government were concerned with advising rulers on
how to serve the common good: Assize of Bread is an example of
medieval law specifically drawn up in the interests of the common
people. But then works by Philippe de Commines, Niccolò
Machiavelli and later
Cardinal Richelieu began advising rulers to
consider their own interests and that of the state ahead of what was
"good", with Richelieu explicitly saying the state is above morality
in doctrines such as Raison d'Etat. This change of orientation
among the nobles left the common people less content with their place
in society. A similar trend occurred regarding the clergy, where many
priests began to abuse the great power they had due to the sacrament
of contrition. The Reformation was a movement that aimed to correct
this, but even afterward the common people's trust in the clergy would
continue to decline – priests were often seen as greedy and lacking
in true faith. An early major social upheaval driven in part by the
common people's mistrust of both the nobility and clergy occurred in
Great Britain with the English Revolution of 1642. After the forces of
Oliver Cromwell triumphed, movements like the
Levellers rose to
prominence demanding equality for all. When the general council of
Cromwell's army met to decide on a new order at the
Putney Debates of
1647, one of the commanders, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, requested
that political power be given to the common people. According to
historian Roger Osbourne, the Colonel's speech was the first time a
prominent person spoke in favour of universal male suffrage, but it
was not to be granted until 1918. After much debate it was decided
that only those with considerable property would be allowed to vote,
and so after the revolution political power in England remained
largely controlled by the nobles, with at first only a few of the most
wealthy or well-connected common people sitting in Parliament.
The rise of the bourgeoisie during the Late Middle Ages, had seen an
intermediate class of wealthy commoners develop, which ultimately gave
rise to the modern middle classes. Middle-class people could still be
called commoners however, for example in England
Pitt the Elder
Pitt the Elder was
often called the Great Commoner, and this appellation was later used
for the 20th-century American anti-elitist campaigner William Jennings
Bryan. The interests of the middle class were not always aligned with
their fellow commoners of the working class.
Karl Polanyi wrote that in 19th-century Britain, the
new middle class turned against their fellow commoners by seizing
political power from the upper classes via the Reform Act 1832. Early
industrialisation had been causing economic distress to large numbers
of working class commoners, leaving them unable to earn a living. The
upper classes had provided protection such as workhouses where inmates
could happily "doss" about and also a system of "outdoor"  relief
both for the unemployed and those on low income. Though early middle
class opposition to the
Poor Law reform of William Pitt the Younger
had prevented the emergence of a coherent and generous nationwide
provision, the resulting
Speenhamland system did generally save
working class commoners from starvation. In 1834 outdoor relief was
abolished, and workhouses were deliberately made into places so
dehumanising that folk would often prefer to starve rather than enter
them. For Polanyi this related to the economic doctrine prevalent at
the time which held that only the spur of hunger could make workers
flexible enough for the proper functioning of the free market. Later
Laissez-faire free market doctrine led to British officials
turning a blind eye to the suffering in the Irish potato famine and
various Indian famines and acts of exploitation in colonial
adventures. By the late 19th century, at least in mainland Britain,
economic progress has been sufficient that even the working class were
generally able to earn a good living, so working and middle class
interests began to converge, lessening the division within the ranks
of common people. Polanyi writes that on continental Europe middle and
working class interests did not diverge anywhere near as markedly as
they had in Britain.
Breakdown of the trifold division
US Vice President
Henry A. Wallace
Henry A. Wallace proclaimed the "arrival of the
century of the common man" in a 1942 speech broadcast nationwide in
the United States.
After the French Revolution, the
Napoleonic wars and with
industrialization, the division in three estates - nobility, clergy
and commoners - had become somewhat outdated. The term "common people"
continued to be used, but now in a more general sense to refer to
regular people as opposed to the privileged elite.
Communist theory divided society into capitalists on one hand, and the
proletariat or the masses on the other. In Marxism, the people are
considered to be the creator of history. By using the word "people",
Marx did not gloss over the class differences, but united certain
elements, capable of completing the revolution. The Intelligentsia's
sympathy for the common people gained strength in the 19th century in
many countries. For example, in Imperial Russia a big part of the
intelligentsia was striving for its emancipation. Several great
writers (Nekrasov, Herzen, Tolstoy etc.) wrote about sufferings of the
common people. Organizations, parties and movements arose, proclaiming
the liberation of the people. These included among others: "People's
Reprisal", "People’s Will", "Party of Popular Freedom" and the
"People's Socialist Party".
In the United States, a famous 1942 speech by vice president Henry A.
Wallace proclaimed the arrival of the "century of the common man"
saying that all over the world the "common people" were on the march,
specifically referring to Chinese, Indians, Russians, and as well as
Americans. Wallace's speech would later inspire the widely
reproduced popular work
Fanfare for the Common Man
Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron
Copland. In 1948, U.S. President
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman made a speech
saying there needs to be a government "that will work in the interests
of the common people and not in the interests of the men who have all
Social divisions in non-Western civilisations
Oswald Spengler found the social separation into
nobility, priests and commoners to occur again and again in the
various civilisations that he surveyed (although the division may not
exist for pre-civilised society). As an example, in the Babylonian
The Code of Hammurabi
The Code of Hammurabi made provision for punishments to
be harsher for harming a noble than a commoner.
List of peasant revolts
The Common Man
Tyranny of the majority
Notes and references
^ "Andrew Jackson:'Era of the Common Man'". AP US History. Retrieved
16 November 2017.
^ "The Age of the Common Man". Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Retrieved 16 November 2017.
Andrew Jackson and the Era of the Common Man". Owlcation. Retrieved
16 November 2017.
^ Aboukhadijeh, Feross.
"Democracy and the "Common Man""] Check url= value (help). AP US
^ "The Rise of the Common Man". U.S. History. Missing or empty
url= (help); access-date= requires url= (help)
^ a b c Gary Day (2001). Class. Routledge. pp. 2–10.
Plato did recognise a fundamental division into rich and poor
– "Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the
city of the poor, the other of the rich; these two cities are at war."
– The Republic (Plato), Part I, book IV.
^ a b Roger Osborne (2006). Civilization: A New History of the Western
World. Jonathan Cape Ltd;. pp. 52–56, 292–297.
^ "The Three Orders". Boise State University. Retrieved
^ See for example:
McCord, William; McCord, Arline (2000). "
Social stratification in
agrarian societies". In Stephen K. Sanderson. Sociological worlds:
comparative and historical readings on society. Taylor & Francis.
pp. 180–182. ISBN 1-57958-284-2. Referred to as the
"common folk", the "common people" and "Serfs" in the
description. CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
Nutini, Hugo G.; Isaac, Barry L. (2009). "Estates and Classes". Social
stratification in central Mexico, 1500-2000. University of Texas
Press. pp. 20–23. ISBN 0-292-71944-2.
^ DEVAILLY, Le Berry du X siècle au milieu du XIII siècle, p. 201;
CHEDEVILLE, Chartres et ses campagnes, p.336.
^ PERROY, E., Le Monde carolingien, Paris, SEDES, 2.ª ed., 1975,
^ BRETT, M., Middle Ages, Encyclopædia Britannica, 15.ª ed., 1979,
^ Even as late as the 17th century the English common people would
still complain about the Normans, as they felt they had enjoyed more
privileges before the Norman conquest had replaced the previous Anglo
Saxon nobility with Normans– see Civilisation (2006) Roger Osbour p
^ David Boyle (2009). "Why do Modern Britons Work Harder than Medieval
Peasants?". The New Economics: A Bigger Picture. EarthScan.
pp. 77–95. ISBN 1-84407-675-X.
^ Michael Howard (1976). War in European history. Oxford Paperbacks.
p. 5. ISBN 0-19-289095-6. Knighthood was a way of life,
sanctioned and civilised by the ceremonies of the Church until it was
almost indistinguishable from ecclesiastical order of the monasteries:
equally dedicated, equally holy, the ideal to which medieval
Christendom aspired. This remarkable blend of Germanic warrior and
Latin sacerdos lay at the root of all medieval culture
^ a b Spengler, Oswald (1922). The Decline of the west(An abridged
edition). Vintage Books, 2006. pp. passim , see esp 335–337.
^ a b c
Philip Bobbitt (2003). The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and
the Course of History. Penguin. pp. 80 , 108, 486.
^ Outdoor relief means monetary or other assistance given to the poor
without them needing to enter a workhouse to receive it.
^ Though some Lords, Ladys and well to do church people continued to
offer it, in defiance of the Law.
Karl Polanyi (2002). The Great Transformation. Beacon Press.
^ Henry Wallace (February 1942). "The Century of the Common Man".
Winrock International. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29.
^ Byron Almnn; Edward Pearsall (2006). Approaches to meaning in music.
Indiana University Press. p. 88.
Robert Reich (2012-11-09). "The real lesson from Obama's victory".
Financial Times. Retrieved 2012-11-09. (registration required)
^ Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society By Marvin Perry,
Myrna Chase, Margaret C. Jacob, James R. Jacob, page 13
The common people: a history from the Norman Conquest to the present
J. F. C. Harrison Fontana Press (1989)
The concept of class: a historical introduction Peter Calvert Palgrave
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