Martin Burke traces the complicated history of the idea of class in America from the forming of a new nation to the heart of the Gilded Age. Surveying American political, social and intellectual life from the late-17th to the end of the 19th century, Burke examines the contested discourse about equality - the way Americans thought and wrote about class, class relations and their meaning in society. Burke explores a range of thought to establish the boundaries of class and the language used to describe it in the works of leading political figures, social reformers and moral philosophers. He traces a shift from class as a legal category of ranks and orders to socio-economic divisions based on occupations and income. Throughout the century, he finds no permanent consensus about the meaning of class in America and instead describes a culture of conflicting ideas and opinions.