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Image Virginia Age Ways: The Anglican Idea of the Elder-Patriarch

Attitudes toward age, and actual experiences of aging, were not the same in Virginia and Massachusetts. Respect for age was very strong in both cultures—but not in the same way. In place of the Puritan ideal of the venerated elder-saint, Virginians organized a system of age deference around the paternal figure of the elderpatriarch.

In seventeenth-century England, a vital principle of Royalist political thought had been what Sir Robert Filmer called “the agreement of paternal and regal power.” In his treatise Patriarcha, Filmer explained:

If we compare the natural duties of a Father with those of a King, we find them to be all one, without any difference at all but only in the latitude and extent of them. As the Father over one family, so the King, as Father over many families, extends his care to preserve, feed, clothe, instruct and defend the whole commonwealth. His wars, his peace, his courts of justice, and all his acts of sovereignty tend only to preserve and distribute every subordinate and inferior father, and to their children, their rights and privileges, so that all the duties of a King are summed up in an universal fatherly care of his people.1

This argument worked two ways. It invested a king with the legitimacy of a father, and endowed a father with the authority of a king. Further, Royalist writers such as Filmer also identified elders with father-kings. In Patriarcha Filmer quoted with approval Aristotle’s axiom that “the eldest in every house is King.”2

This patriarchal principle of respect for age was very strong in gentry families throughout the south of England. Elders were normally treated with deference. In a Warwickshire family, Richard Newdigate II in his mature years routinely addressed his father as “Honored Sir,” and signed himself “your truly obedient son.” The letters were studded with sentences such as “your direction in this business which shall most readily be obeyed by, most dear father, your ever obedient son.” Letters from sons to their fathers were couched in language so elaborately submissive that one modern scholar describes them as “priggish,” “stiff,” and “pompous.” But the same phrases rang differently in seventeenth-century ears.3

The submission of youth to age was more than merely an empty ritual. It was also accompanied by substantive acts. When John Oglander was offered a knighthood, for example, he refused to accept it because his living father had not preceded him in that honor. “Sir John Oglander,” a friend wrote, “might have been knighted before all the gentleman of the Island [of Wight] but out of too much niceness, as his father, then living, refused it.”4

Respect for age was strongest when elders were men of high rank in society. But the same principle also extended to people of humble stations. In the west and south of England during the seventeenth century, elders who were not gentlemen received the honorific title of Gaffer, and older women were called Gammer. These salutations were used as genuine titles of respect even by young noblemen when they addressed elders of low rank. They were also accompanied by acts of highly complex mutual deference from young men of high rank to elders of a lower order. When, for example, the Dorset gentleman John Richards had a falling out with a young servant named Arthur Cryde, the boy was sent home “to take his father’s advice.” When the father supported his son, the master himself deferred to the judgment of “father Cryde.”5

This rule of respect for age was not confined to private affairs. It also appeared in public life during the seventeenth century. In the south of England, young gentleman-justices routinely deferred to senior colleagues. Sir John Oglander, for example, when appointed to the Commission of Peace in England’s Isle of Wight at the exceptionally early age of twenty-two, described a sense of “shame” that he felt because of his youth. “I was put into the Commission of peace at the age of 22 years,” he wrote, “when I not well understood myself or place, and was ashamed to sit on the bench as not having then any hair on my face and less wit.”6

The same principle of a patriarchal respect for age was carried to the Chesapeake. In the county courts of Virginia, justices were ranked and seated by seniority. When openings occurred, older men were preferred over younger ones. The court of Essex County as late as 1787 stated the common belief that “senior magistrates would keep more order and decorum on the bench.”7 The laws of Virginia gave special responsibilities to the justice who was “the eldest in every commission.” In actual practice, the eldest was sometimes not very old; high rates of mortality rapidly promoted the young. But seniority remained the rule.8

The patriarchal principle was also very strong in family relationships throughout tidewater Virginia. Historian Daniel Blake Smith, in a general survey of family correspondence throughout the Chesapeake colonies finds a “general pattern of paternal dominance and deferential conduct in sons that prevailed in most gentry families until the late eighteenth century.”9

This Virginia habit of deference to elder-patriarchs was different from the New England practice of veneration for elder-saints. Empirical evidence appears in patterns of age-heaping: that is, the systematic distortion of ages reported to a census taker. In twentieth-century America, with its intense youth bias, people tend to make themselves a little younger than they actually are; many choose to remain 39, or 49, or 59. In early America a very different sort of age bias appeared: people of mature age tended to make themselves a little older. This was the case both in New England and Virginia. But in the Puritan colonies the tendency to inflate one’s age was strongest in later life, and comparatively weak in early adulthood. In Virginia, on the other hand, people tended to make themselves a little older in every stage of adulthood. The explanation may be found in cultural ideals. In the Puritan colonies, which made long life into a Calvinist “Sign,” the status of elder saint applied only to people of advanced age. But in Virginia, the idea of patriarchy applied to senior adult males of any age. One culture exalted old age; the other rewarded seniority—two very different systems.10

In Virginia, this patriarchal system of respect for seniority made a major difference in family relations—particularly between fathers and sons. As fathers grew older, they commonly kept at least one son beside them. Thus, George Hume, of Spotsylvania County, in 1751 wrote, “I thank God I have now a son who does my business for me, and when he leaves me I hope to have another ready.”11

These relationships were often full of tension. A few sons rebelled outright against this treatment. An example was the strife that developed between the great planter Landon Carter of Sabine Hall (1710-78), and his son Robert Wormeley Carter (1734-97). In the year 1766, the son was thirty-two years old and married, with money of his own but not enough for independence. He was forced to live under his father’s roof, still subject to paternal authority. The two men quarreled endlessly. The son called his father a “bashaw,” an Oriental despot, and at the age of forty protested that “he was not a child to be controlled.” So heated did these quarrels become that the father began to fear for his life. “Surely it is happy our laws prevent parricide,” he wrote, “ … Good God! That such a monster is descended from my loins!”12

Open hostility of this sort was very much an exception in Virginia. But tensions so commonly existed that Philip Fithian advised another tutor in Virginia to “place yourself, according to your most acute calculation, at a perfect equidistance between the father and the eldest son.”13

Relations between patriarchal fathers and sons, even when not so stormy, were often laden with emotional complexity. William Byrd II in his mature years was literally haunted by the memory of his dead father. In 1710, he ordered his father’s corpse to be dug up, so that he could look his sire in the face. “I had my father’s grave opened to see him,” Byrd wrote, “but he was so wasted there was not anything to be distinguished.”14

William Byrd’s secret diary reveals many other things about age-relations, and also about the process of aging in that society. A secret shorthand notebook that he kept from 1739 to 1741 (age 65-67) exposes the inner feelings of a Virginia patriarch in his sixties, who was feeling his age in many ways. He was plagued by illness and worried about the decline of his mental faculties. “God preserve my head,” he wrote in 1740, “and grant I may not lose my memory and sense.” Yet his diary showed little loss of activity in the last years of his life, by comparison with our own world. To the end of his life he continued his career in politics, reaching his highest office in the last year of his life when he was elected president of the Virginia council. This was an important office in the colony, and it came to Byrd because of his age. He was senior councilor and had been so for many years. But the incumbent president James Blair clung stubbornly to life, dozing in his chair of state for many years until the end finally came at the age of eighty-seven; and Byrd, a mere stripling of seventy, inherited the office.15

In his last years, Byrd’s private life continued to be as crowded as his public career. He began each morning with lessons in

Latin, Hebrew and Greek, and took his exercise almost every day. In the evenings he proved himself a mighty trencherman, and at any hour of the day he could be dangerous to unwary housemaids who came within reach. Even in his seventies, William Byrd continued to be a sexual predator:

9 May 1741 I played the fool with Sally …

15 June 1741 In the evening I played the fool with Marjorie. God forgive me.

In old age Byrd moved more slowly, and rarely caught his prey. But he preserved most activities in his life even as he approached the end of it.16

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