“Thus, in the beginning, all the world was America, and more so than it is now….”


“In the beginning, All America was Virginia.”


VIRGINIA is a different story. Here we see no grandiose scheme, no attempt to rule by an idea, but an earthy effort to transplant institutions. If other colonies sought escape from English vices, Virginians wished to fulfill English virtues. Let other colonies dazzle the world with a City upon a Hill, inspire by a commonwealth of brotherly love, or encourage with a vast humanitarian experiment. The model in Virginians’ heads was compounded of the actual features of a going community: the England, especially the rural England, of the 17th and 18th century. If Virginia was to be in any way better than England, it was not because Virginians pursued ideals which Englishmen did not have; rather that here were novel opportunities to realize the English ideals. A middle-class Englishman was to find space in Virginia to become a new kind of English country gentleman. An unpredictable alchemy transformed the ways of the English manor-house into the habits of a New World republic. Squire Westerns and Horace Walpoles underwent an Atlantic sea-change which made them into Edmund Pendletons, Thomas Jeffersons, and George Washingtons. What made them American was not what they sought but what they accomplished.


English Gentlemen, American Style

IN ENGLAND in the later 17th century the ambition of a prosperous tradesman was to become a country gentleman. To retire from a place behind the shop-counter or from a seat at the clerk’s desk to a spacious manor house in the midst of broad acres—this was the daydream of the rising middle class. It was the counterpart in that age, of the 20th-century businessman’s dream of a costly suburban estate, membership in the country-club, and winters in Florida. But it was more than that; becoming a country gentleman in those days meant joining the governing class. To acquire a manor house meant also to become a justice of the peace, a power over the local pulpit, a patron and father-confessor to the local peasantry, an overseer of the poor, and perhaps sooner or later a member of Parliament, a knight, a baronet—even conceivably a member of the House of Lords.

The country house was thus the rising Englishman’s way station to heaven. Although it offered good living, it was no wallow of luxury or indolence. And in the wholesome English folklore the burden of government and public responsibility rested on those who sat comfortably in the seats of gentlemen. “In the greatest fortune,” observed Richard Brathwait in his English Gentleman (1630), a handbook which substantial Virginians consulted, “there is the least liberty.” “He sinnes doubly, that sinnes exemplarily: whence is meant, that such, whose very persons should bee examples or patternes of vigilancy, providence and industry, must not sleepe out their time under the fruitlesse shadow of Security. Men in great place (saith one) are thrice servants; servants of the Soveraigne, or state; servants of Fame; and servants of Businesse. So as they have no freedome, neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times.” The ideal of the English gentleman, then, while surely not ascetic, was decidedly moral and public. Rising English tradesmen who aspired to become gentlemen were aiming, not only at a life of ease, but at a realm of larger and more dignified responsibilities.

In the earliest years of colonial Virginia the opportunity to rise into the ranks of the gentry was not uncommon. Until nearly 1700, white immigrants were probably better off in Virginia than they had been in England. Scarcity of labor made wages higher; in 1623, George Sandys complained that the Virginian expected, in addition to his food, a pound of tobacco every day. With tobacco valued at a shilling a pound, the Virginian earned in a day what his English counterpart earned in a week. And there was the promise of rising in the world. After only a few years of service, youths who had come as mere apprentices, according to the author of A Perfect Description of Virginia (1649), could expect “Land given them, and Cattel to set them up.” The records of land transfers studied by Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker show that in Virginia in the later 17th century there was a numerous “yeomanry”—men who owned between 20 and 500 acres. At the upper end of the social scale, the man who had come with moderate capital also probably had a better chance of enlarging it; moreover, his money could buy more social status in Virginia than in England. The system of granting land by “headrights,” under which anyone could receive 50 acres of land for every person he transported to the colony, made it simple enough to buy an entourage of dependents.

To sit in a seat of power in a new country like 17th-century Virginia, it was not yet necessary to nudge someone else out. If one could not lead an already-existing community, one could start a new one. Many Virginia families were founded by tradesmen or artisans, men of extraordinary talents, prosperity, or good luck, who acquired broad acres and soon could afford the style of life appropriate to a country gentleman. The standards of gentility, if self-consciously modeled on those of England, were necessarily vaguer and less rigid. This fluidity of social classes was shown in many ways. For a while every free white man could vote for members of the House of Burgesses; there was no property qualification. The carping author of Virginia’s Cure (London, 1662) objected that wise legislation seldom passed the Virginia House of Burgesses, because a majority of them “are usually such as went over Servants thither, and though by time and industry, they may have attained competent Estates; yet by reason of their poor and mean education they are unskilful in judging of a good Estate either of Church or Common-wealth, or of the means of procuring it.” So long as white indentured servants remained the principal source of labor, that is, until around 1700, there was no racial barrier against the rise of fortunate or industrious workmen. Those were the halcyon days of “democracy” in Virginia.

But they did not last long. Near the end of the 17th century, a host of circumstances dissipated that fantasy-world where any man might become a gentleman. “There is little or no incouragement for men of any tolerable parts to come hither,” Governor Francis Nicholson noted in his report to the Council of Trade and Plantations on Dec. 2, 1701. “Formerly there was good convenient land to be taken up, and there were widows had pretty good fortunes, which were incouragements for men of parts to come. But now all or most of these good lands are taken up, and if there be any widows or maids of any fortune, the Natives for the most parts get them; for they begin to have a sort of aversion to others, calling them strangers.”

Virginia society was beginning to be frozen. By 1670, the legislature, following the English example, established a property qualification: voters included only “such as by their estates real or personal, have interest enough to tye them to the endeavor of the public good.” As time passed, the suffrage was further restricted to exclude leaseholders and life-tenants; after 1699 one could not vote unless he was a “freeholder,” that is, one who owned land outright. One hundred unsettled acres or 25 acres with a house and plantation came to be required for a voice in choosing burgesses. Suffrage in Virginia had become substantially the same as that in England.

It was not only that the most fertile lands and the richest widows had been taken up or were no longer available to casual immigrants. The character of the laboring class had begun to change. By 1680 Negro slaves were being imported in increasing numbers; the six thousand brought in during the first nine years of the 18th century probably exceeded the entire importation of the previous century. Negro slaves were displacing white indentured servants as the dominant labor-supply, and slavery in Virginia grew at an accelerating pace during the early 18th century, for slavery made the large plantation more profitable. The increasing difficulties of the small planter discouraged immigration of white servants, and the decrease of white servants in turn made the colony more dependent on Negro slaves.

Toward the end of the 17th century every decade saw the situation of the small planter grow less promising. After 1660 the stricter enforcement of the Navigation Acts, designed to tighten the Empire’s mercantilist fabric, narrowed the margin of colonial profit and created new problems for planters of all classes. The small man found himself constantly in debt. A short-lived rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon in Virginia in 1676 was at least partly due to these sufferings. Bacon himself declared small farmers to be indebted beyond “the power of labor or industry” to save them. Until around 1660 it was customary for an indentured servant to remain in the colony at the end of his term of service to acquire a piece of land, and to look hopefully up the social ladder. When land for this purpose became scarce, the General Court of the colony had even from time to time (as in 1627) specially provided certain parcels. But in the last decades of the century, liberated servants looked to the greener fields which some of the other colonies were offering.

In the early 18th century Virginia had become for most of the poorer white immigrants nothing but a port-of-entry—southward to the wilderness-frontier of North Carolina, westward over the mountains, or northward to Delaware, Maryland, and western Pennsylvania. This exodus of the poorer white colonists, who might have formed a solid yeomanry after the English pattern, worried Virginians but they could not agree on its causes. Before the end of the 17th century, the English Board of Trade instructed Governor Nicholson to see how it could be stopped. Over the next decades the Board and the Governor debated how to keep a future yeomanry from leaving Virginia. Governor Nicholson complained that the main cause of emigration was the special encouragement offered by colonies like Pennsylvania to craftsmen to set themselves up in the woolen manufacture and in other skilled trades. “The members of the Council and others … in the Government,” explained Edward Randolph in 1696, “have from time to time procured grants of very large Tracts of land, so that there has not for many years been any waste land to be taken up by those who bring with them servants, or by such Servants, who have served their time faithfully with their Masters, but it is taken up and ingrossed beforehand.” In 1728, Governor Gooch denied this explanation by showing that Spotsylvania County, where large grants were the rule, was more heavily populated than Brunswick, where there had been many small grants.

While observers disagreed over the causes, the effect was unmistakable: Virginia had become an aristocracy. By the beginning of the 18th century, according to Wertenbaker, not more than five per cent of the newcomers were becoming landowners. Most of the families which were to rule Virginia later in the century—the Fitzhughs, Byrds, Carters, Wormeleys, Lees, Randolphs, Harrisons, Digges, Nelsons, and others—had already laid the foundations of their fortunes in vast land grants acquired before 1700. The “best” families tended to intermarry and by mid-century probably not more than a hundred families controlled the wealth and government of the colony.

Virginia had arrived at a society strangely resembling that of the English countryside, but the resemblance was less in content than in form. It was as if the landed families of Virginia had brought with them the text of a drama long played on the English stage which now would be played on the American. A bizarre, and in some respects inept, set of players was taking the old English parts: The English Country Gentleman—Lord Effingham Blank or Squire Brown of Ancient Acres—was now played by The American Planter; The English Peasant, by The Negro Slave; The Steward, by The White Overseer. We recognize the parts by certain conspicuous signs. The Virginia (like the English) Country Gentleman rode in a coach, ate off silver inscribed with his family coat of arms which had been approved by the College of Heralds in London, sat on the bench as justice of the peace, served as vestryman of the local Anglican church, read the books of a gentleman, and even flavored his conversation or his letters with an occasional literary allusion in a classic language. The uncouth Negro slave, only a generation or two from the African jungle, was taught to play the role of peasant.

The contrast with the British West Indies, where so many other circumstances were similar, is dramatic and revealing. There, absenteeism prevailed, and the plantation owner, following the Spanish pattern, expected to establish colonies of slaves, housed in barracks and daily driven to the fields, like the Indians in the Spanish encomiendas. But the Virginian, with the model of the English country gentleman before him, had to cast his slaves in another role to make his own role probable. “He expected to live on his estate himself,” John S. Bassett reminds us, “and he wanted to group his slaves around him where he would know them, physic them, give them in marriage, and in his good-natured way train and swear at each one individually.” The successful Virginia planter came to live a life far different from that of the indolent West Indian planter; he worked long hours and was close in his supervision. The planter’s wife acquired new, and hardly ornamental, tasks.

The new Virginia pattern was surprisingly old English, especially in the relationship of social classes. At first, the American situation had opened up some of the privileges and pastimes of English gentlemen. For example, the keeping of a deer-park was a centuries-old symbol of gentility: to hunt deer and to prosecute poachers were prerogatives of an upper class. But in the wilderness of seventeenth-century Virginia, deer were not confined to the lordly estates of gentlemen. Promotional brochures, like A New Description of Virginia (1649) and A True Relation of Virginia and Maryland (1669), advertised that native deer and elk were found in wild abundance. “One sees at times many hundreds together,” William Byrd boasted as late as 1737, “They are, however, not quite as large as the European ones, but on the other hand, much better flavor, and big and fat all the year long.” Symbolically, few facts were more important than that America had made the very idea of poaching obsolete.

If the Virginia gentry had been deprived of ancient insignia like the deer-park, they were not slow to devise others more American. Horseracing, for example, though not yet the Sport of Kings, was already confined to gentlemen. In 1674, the York County Court ordered:

James Bullocke, a Taylor, having made a race for his mare to runn w’th a horse belonging to Mr. Mathew Slader for twoe thousand pounds of tobacco and caske, it being contrary to Law for a Labourer to make a race, being a sport only for Gentlemen, is fined for the same one hundred pounds of tobacco and caske.

When Governor Sir Francis Nicholson declared an annual field day in 1691 and offered prizes, he limited contestants to “the better sort of Virginians only.”

There appeared other evidences of more rigid social classes. Even the Negroes, who in the later 17th century had been “servants” (not necessarily for life) were gradually forced into the life-long status of slavery. The universal manhood suffrage of the mid-17th century was restricted, step by step, until by 1700 voting requirements in Virginia were virtually the same as those in the mother country.

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