Common section

Image Virginia Work Ways: The Ambivalence of the Cavalier Ethic

Attitudes toward pleasure in this culture were related to its ideas about work. The Wessex Royalist Sir John Oglander summarized the cavalier work ethic in a sentence. “I scorn base getting and unworthy penurious saving,” he wrote, “yet my desire is to lay up somewhat for my poor children.”1

Here was a paradox that commonly appeared in the attitudes toward work and trade among English gentlemen and Virginia planters. To characterize these workways in rounded and accurate terms is not an easy task. Most Virginia gentlemen worked harder than they cared to admit. They engaged in raising crops for the market, and as a consequence found themselves deeply engaged in trade. The great planters also functioned as merchants and bankers for their neighbors. Many owned shops, stores, ships and warehouses.2But even as Virginians did all of these things, they did not value the doing of them as highly as did the people of Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. The work ethic in Virginia thus became a classical study in cultural ambivalence.3

Many people who actually visited the colony of Virginia—natives, immigrants and casual travelers alike—testified that the ethic of work was very weak in this society. As early as 1622, John Martin observed that in the Chesapeake, even the Indians “work better than the English.”4 The Virginians themselves commonly agreed with this assessment. From the planter’s perspective, William Byrd wrote, “Nature is very indulgent to us, and produces its good things almost spontaneously. Men evade the original curse of hard labour, and sweat as much with eating their bread as getting it. … if plenty and a warm sun did not make us lazy and hate motion and exercise.”5

Robert Beverley shared this view. In a book that generally celebrated the virtues of Virginians, he wrote, “I must … reproach my countrymen with a laziness that is unpardonable.”6 Beverley believed that the problem developed not from the climate but from the culture, and particularly from the inability of Virginians to think in what he called “oeconomic” terms. “Nay,” he declared, “they are such abominable ill husbands, that though their country is overgrown with wood, yet they have all their wooden ware from England.”7

These judgments did not accurately describe material conditions in Virginia. But in company with other evidence they revealed an important truth about cultural attitudes in that society. Many Virginians of middle and upper ranks aspired to behave like gentlemen. In the early seventeenth century an English gentleman was defined as one who could “live idly and without manual labor.”8 The words “gentleman” and “independent” were used synonymously, and “independence” in this context meant freedom from the necessity of labor.9 But in Virginia, independence could be achieved or maintained only by labor of the sort that a gentleman was trained to despise. Here was the root of an ambivalence toward “base getting” which became part of the folkways of Virginia.

These ideas about labor were closely linked with attitudes toward commerce. The gentlemen-planters of Virginia repeatedly expressed an intense contempt for trade, even as they were compelled to engage in it on a daily basis. They were even more contemptuous of traders, at the same time they were forced to deal with them. Governor William Berkeley, for example, raged against the greedy materialism of merchants. “We cannot but resent,” he wrote, “that forty thousand people should be impoverished to enrich more than forty merchants.”10 It did not trouble him that forty thousand people should enrich forty landed gentlemen. On another occasion he collectively described merchants as “avaricious persons, whose sickle hath bin ere long in our harvest already.”11

But Berkeley also recognized the necessity of these mercenary people whom he so despised. He actively recruited them for the colony, and encouraged the creation of markets and entrepôts. One of his statutes provided that if any “particular persons shall settle any such place whither the merchants shall willingly come for the sale or bringing of goods, such men shall be looked upon as benefactors to the publique.” The wording of this law did not suggest that the merchants themselves were “benefactors to the publique,” but that any man who attracted them and their wares to Virginia might be thought of in such a way.12

The same ambivalence also appeared in attitudes toward money, which Virginians liked to have, but hated to handle. The writings of William Byrd provided many examples. To his friend the Earl of Orrery, William Byrd boasted (far beyond the material fact) that he lived apart from the market: “Half a crown will rest undisturbed in my pocket for many moons together,” he wrote. But Byrd often manifested an obsessive interest in money, and shared a tendency (more common in Virginia than in New England) to rank people in proportion to their riches.13

There was a deep ambivalence in attitudes toward wealth, which was much valued by Virginians, but not for its own sake. Wealth was regarded not primarily as a form of capital or a factor of production, but as something to be used for display and consumed for pleasure. A gentleman could never appear mean-spirited (in the old-fashioned sense of niggardly and grasping) without losing something of his rank. The display of wealth was important to Virginians not only as a way of demonstrating material riches but also as a means of showing a “liberal” spirit, which was part of the ideal of a gentleman.14

The economic consequence of this attitude was debt. Most great families of Virginia fell deep into indebtedness. Even the richest planters were permanent debtors. Robert Carter of Nomini Hall had heavy debts to British creditors. In 1758, he wrote that “the produce of my land and negroes will scarcely pay the demand requisite to keep them.” He was often compelled to sell capital in order to stay afloat.15 The magnitude of private debt was greater in Virginia than in other parts of British America. After the War of Independence, it was officially determined that Americans owed about three million pounds to British creditors. Of that total, nearly half (£1.4 million) was due from the planters of Virginia, and a large part of the remainder from the neighboring colony of Maryland. In 1776, at least ten gentlemen of Virginia owed more than £5,000 to British creditors, a very large sum. Many owed in excess of £1,000, among them George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.16

Some economic historians believe that the chronic debts of Virginian gentlemen arose mainly from the difficulties of tobacco growing, and also from the structure of credit in the British empire. But it is interesting to note that chronic indebtedness had long been part of the life style of country gentry in the south and west of England. One study of the Warwickshire gentry found that heavy debts were a common and continuing part of their economic condition. In Warwickshire, as in Virginia, some men were more prudent than others, and some seasons were better than the next. Debt was sometimes an instrument of growth, and sometimes of decline. But chronic indebtedness itself was a normal condition of life.17 Among both English gentry and Virginia planters it arose not so much from a material but a cultural imperative.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!