In De Republica Anglorum, published in 1583, Sir Thomas Smith famously described the structure of the English commonwealth in terms of four ranks of men, descending from the gentry at its apex to day-labourers at its base. Simultaneously, however, he noted the more fundamental distinction between ‘them that bear office, and them that bear none’. In this way, Smith transformed his own four-class social hierarchy into a binary, indeed adversarial, model of political participation. The threshold of access to the circuits of authority was, nevertheless, relatively low. Smith noted that, next to the gentry, yeomen had ‘the greatest charge and doing in the commonwealth’ and conceded that in villages even ‘such low and base persons’ as ‘poore husbandmen’, ‘copiholders’ and ‘artificers’ (among others) ‘be commonly made Churchwardens, alecunners, and manie times Constables, which office touch more the commonwealth’.1 Smith’s list of the considerable public responsibilities exercised by the middling sort included ‘administration in judgements’, ‘correction of defaults’, ‘election of offices’, ‘appointing and collection of tributes and subsidies’ and ‘making lawes’. Thus even in the formal tradition of political thought, the widespread participation of men of middling status was recognized as a significant structural characteristic of the English state.
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