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Patrician and Plebeian in Virginia
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Patrician and Plebeian in Virginia
OR THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE SOCIAL CLASSES OF THE OLD DOMINION
By THOMAS J. WERTENBAKER
New York RUSSELL & RUSSELL
COPYRIGHT 1910, 1958, 1959 BY THOMAS J. WERTENBAKER
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOG CARD NUMBER 59-11227
PRINTED IN U.S.A.
Dedicated to H.R.W.
Forty-seven years have passed since this volume was first published; in that time a mass of source material has been made available to the historian and numerous books on early Virginia history have been published. But I believe that its main theses have not been shaken. The old belief that the Virginia aristocracy had its origin in a migration of Cavaliers after the defeat of the royalists in the British Civil War has been relegated to the sphere of myths. It is widely recognized that the leading Virginia families—the Carters, the Ludwells, the Burwells, the Custises, the Lees, the Washingtons—were shaped chiefly by conditions within the colony and by renewed contact with Great Britain.
That the Virginia aristocracy was not part of the English aristocracy transplanted in the colony is supported by contemporaneous evidence. When Nathaniel Bacon, the rebel, the son of an English squire, expressed surprise when Governor Berkeley appointed him to the Council of State, Sir William replied: "When I had the first knowledge of you I intended you and do now again all the services that are in my power to serve, for gentlemen of your quality come very rarely into the country, and therefore when they do come were used by me with all respect."
Bacon was equally frank. "Consider ... the nature and quality of the men in power ... as to their education, extraction, and learning, as to their reputation for honor and honesty, see and consider whether here, as in England, you can perceive men advanced for their noble qualifications...."
Governor Francis Nicholson ridiculed the pretensions of the leading planters to distinguished lineage. "This generation know too well from whence they come," he wrote in a letter to the Lords of Trade, in March 1703, "and the ordinary sort of planters that have land of their own, though not much, look upon themselves to be as good as the best of them, for he knows, at least has heard, from whence these mighty Dons derive their originals ... and that he or his ancestors were their equals if not superiors."
On the other side of the Potomac Henry Callister was frank in refuting the similar claims of wealthy Marylanders. "Some of the proudest families here vaunt themselves of a pedigree, at the same time they know not their grandfather's name. I never knew a good honest Marylander that was not got by a merchant."
That many prominent families in Virginia also were founded by merchants is attested by the fact that they continued to be traders after they came to the colony. "In every river here are from ten to thirty men who by trade and industry have gotten very competent estates," wrote Colonel Robert Quary in 1763. "These gentlemen take care to supply the poorer sort with provisions, goods, and necessities, and are sure to keep them always in debt, and so dependent on them. Out of this number are chosen her Majesty's Council, the Assembly, the justices, and other officers of the government."
Hartwell, Blair, and Chilton, in their The Present State of Virginia and the College, written in 1697, divide the people into three classes—planters, tradesmen, and merchants. "The merchants live best," they said. But though profits were large, their business was carried on in the face of great difficulties. The tobacco they bought from the small planters had to be carted or rolled to the landings and put on board their sloops and shallops for transfer to the merchant ships; they had to sell imported goods on credit; often there were long delays in loading the ships.
Some of the most influential men in Virginia were importers of servants and slaves. Among them were William Claiborne, Peter Ashton, Isaac Allerton, Giles Brent, Joseph Bridger, Thomas Milner, Henry Hartwell, and Robert Beverley.
The distinguished historian, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, in Tyler's Magazine, Volume I, says that "Virginia owes much to the London firms, because they were continually sending over trusted young agents ... many of whom settled down and founded Virginia families.... The business of the merchants consisted largely in buying and selling tobacco and importing settlers and servants, for each of which if imported at their expense the merchants were entitled to fifty acres of land. Then there was the usual trade in clothing and articles of general use."
Though the Virginian who acquired a degree of wealth was no aristocrat, he longed to be one. His grandfather, or his great-grandfather might have been a younger son of an English squire. He envied the honor, wealth, and power landholding brought that ancestor, just as many Virginians today envy the life of the colonial plantation owner. So when he found himself an extensive landholder, he thought of himself as an English squire. He too would build a fine residence, decorate his walls with family portraits, have a formal garden, accumulate a library, and dress in the latest English fashion.
Virginia in the colonial period was linked to England by government, commerce, religion, reading, education. The mother country sent over governors who set the fashion in courtly living. It was the planter's agent in London or Bristol who usually selected his furniture, his silverware, his clothing, and often even his books. When on Sunday he went to church he listened to a minister who had been born and educated in England. The shelves of his library were lined with books from England, if he could afford it he sent his son to Oxford or Cambridge.
When a Virginia planter visited England in the eighteenth century, he was deeply impressed by the beauty and dignity of the great country mansions there. As he viewed Longleat, or Blenheim, or Eaton Hall, he must have resolved that he too would build a stately house on the banks of the James. If he had never been to England, he might take down an English book of architecture—Batty Langley's Treasury of Designs, or Abraham Swan's The British Architect, or James Gibb's A Book of Architecture—pick out a suitable design and model his house on it. He might even send to England for an architect, as did George Mason, when he engaged William Buckland to design beautiful Gunston Hall. Westover, Carter's Grove, Mount Airy, Kenmore, Brandon, all bear the stamp of the English Georgian.
If there was any doubt that the Virginia gentlemen followed the latest English fashions in dress, a glimpse at their portraits would dispel it. William Byrd II, as he appears in the painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller would have made a fine figure in any assembly in England; no English nobleman was better dressed than Robert Carter, of Nomini Hall, as shown in the Reynolds portrait.
When a Virginian went to England he not only took the opportunity to replenish his own wardrobe, but was charged by his relatives and friends to make purchases for them. In a letter to Mrs. Thomas Jones, in 1727, Mrs. Mary Stith asked: "When you come to London pray favor me in your choice of a suit of pinners suitably dressed with a crossknot roll or whatever the fashion requires, with suitable ruffles and handkerchief." In 1752 Lady Gooch, wife of Governor William Gooch, while in London bought for Mrs. Thomas Dawson a fashionable laced cap, a handkerchief, ruffles, a brocade suit, a blue satin petticoat, a pair of blue satin shoes, and a fashionable silver girdle. But it was not always necessary to send to England for clothing, for there were tailors in Virginia who advertised that they could make gentlemen's suits and dresses for the ladies "in the newest and genteelest fashions now wore in England." It was a valuable asset for a tailor if he had just arrived from London.
The Virginians also imitated the English in their outdoor sports. The fox chase, so dear to the Englishman's heart, was a favorite amusement. When the crowds gathered around the county courthouse on court days, they were often diverted from more serious business by horseraces. And like their English cousins they were fond of cockfighting, boat racing, and hunting.
The life of the wealthy planter was profoundly influenced by his reading of English books. He took his religion more from the Sermons of Archbishop Tillotson than from the preaching of the local clergyman; as a county magistrate he had to know Blackstone and Coke; he turned to Kip's English Houses and Gardens, or John James' Theory and Practice of Gardening, to guide him in laying out his flower beds and hedges and walks; if he or his wife or a servant became ill he consulted Lynch's Guide to Health; he willingly obeyed the dictates of Chippendale in furniture.
But despite all the bonds with the mother country he was slowly, but inevitably, becoming more an American, less an Englishman. It was the plantation which shaped the daily life of the Virginian and made him different from the English squire. As he looked out over his wide acres, his tobacco fields, his pastures, his woodlands, his little village of servant and slave quarters, tobacco houses, barn, and stable, he had a sense of responsibility, dignity, pride, and self-reliance. He must look after the welfare of the men and women and children under his care, seeing that they were housed, clothed, and fed, protecting their health, playing the role of benevolent despot. He had to be agriculturalist, business man, lawyer, builder, even doctor.
Visitors to the colony were quick to notice the difference between the Virginian and the Englishman. Hugh Jones, in his The Present State of Virginia devotes several pages to a description of the colonists. Andrew Burnaby, who visited Virginia in 1760, thought that the authority had by the planters over their slaves made them "vain and imperious.... They are haughty and jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint...." Lord Adam Gordon, writing in 1764, gives a more favorable opinion: "I had an opportunity to see a good deal of the country and many of the first people in the province and I must say they far excel in good sense, affability, and ease any set of men I have yet fallen in with, either in the West Indies or on the Continent, this, in some degree, may be owing to their being most of them educated at home (England) but cannot be altogether the cause, since there are amongst them many gentlemen, and almost all the ladies, who have never been out of their own province, and yet are as sensible, conversible, and accomplished as one would wish to meet with."
In brief, the Virginia aristocracy was the product of three forces, inheritance, continued contact with the mother country, and local conditions. Coming largely from the middle class in England, though with some connections with the squirearchy through younger sons, they brought with them the English language, English political institutions, the Anglican Church, English love of liberty. This inheritance was buttressed by their political and cultural dependence on the mother country. But it was profoundly affected, even reshaped, by Virginia itself.
Dr. Samuel Johnson's charge that the Americans were a race of convicts, if he meant it to be taken seriously, is of course absurd. It is true that from time to time convicts were sent to the colonies. This is proved by the protests of the Assemblies and by laws passed to prohibit their importation. In Virginia there are records in some of the county courthouses of the crimes committed by these jailbirds. But they never entered in any appreciable numbers into the population of the colony, not even of the lowest class. They were never numerous, the planters considered it a risk to use them, some were forced to serve as cannon fodder in the colonial wars, others were shunted off to the frontiers.
The bulk of the immigrants to Virginia were poor men seeking to better their condition in a new country. Many came as indentured workers, who placed their signatures to contracts to work for four years in the tobacco fields in return for their passage across the Atlantic; other thousands paid their fare in advance and so entered the colony as freemen. They were not essentially different from the millions who came to the United States in the nineteenth century. Most of them, indentured workers and freemen alike, sooner or later acquired small plantations and became members of a yeoman class. A few acquired wealth. Many went into the trades to become carpenters, or bricklayers, or blacksmiths, or coopers, or saddlers, or wheelwrights.
Colonial Virginia has often been pictured as the land of the aristocratic planter, the owner of thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves. Scant attention has been paid to the far more numerous middle class. Yet this class was the backbone of the colony. It is true that most of the leaders came from the aristocracy, but it was the small farmer who owned the bulk of the land, produced the larger part of the tobacco crop, could outvote the aristocrat fifty to one, made up the rank and file of the army in the colonial wars.
Among the thousands of Englishmen who left their homes to seek their fortunes in Virginia there were no dukes, no earls, rarely a knight, or even the son of a knight. They were, most of them, ragged farm workers, deserters from the manor, ill paid day laborers, yeomen who had been forced off their land by the enclosures, youthful tradesmen tempted by the cheapness of land or by the opportunities for commerce, now and then a lad who had taken a mug of doctored grog and awakened to find himself a prisoner aboard a tobacco ship. But Virginia claimed them all, moulded them into her own pattern, made them Virginians.
Princeton, New Jersey THOMAS J. WERTENBAKER August, 1957
The aristocratic character of Virginia society was the result of development within the colony. It proceeded from economic, political and social causes. On its economic side it was built up by the system of large plantations, by the necessity for indentured or slave labor, by the direct trade with England; politically it was engendered by the lack of a vigorous middle class in the first half of the 17th century, and was sustained by the method of appointment to office; on its social side it was fostered by the increasing wealth of the planters and by the ideal of the English gentleman.
It will be necessary, in explaining this development, to determine the origin of the men that composed this aristocracy; for it will be impossible to understand the action of the forces which prevailed in Virginia during the colonial period unless we have a knowledge of the material upon which they worked. Much error has prevailed upon this subject. It was for years the general belief, and is still the belief of many, that the wealthy families, whose culture, elegance and power added such luster to Virginia in the 18th century, were the descendants of cavalier or aristocratic settlers. It was so easy to account for the noble nature of a Randolph, a Lee or a Mason by nobleness of descent, that careful investigation was considered unnecessary, and heredity was accepted as a sufficient explanation of the existence and characteristics of the Virginia aristocracy.
We shall attempt to show that this view is erroneous. Recent investigation in Virginia history has made it possible to determine with some degree of accuracy the origin of the aristocracy. Yet the mixed character of the settlers, and the long period of time over which immigration to the colony continued make the problem difficult of accurate solution, and the chances of error innumerable. Out of the mass of evidence, however, three facts may be established beyond controversy, that but few men of high social rank in England established families in Virginia; that the larger part of the aristocracy of the colony came directly from merchant ancestors; that the leading planters of the 17th century were mercantile in instinct and unlike the English aristocrat of the same period.
Much confusion has resulted from the assumption, so common with Southern writers, that the English Cavaliers were all of distinguished lineage or of high social rank. The word "Cavalier," as used at the time of Charles I, denoted not a cast, or a distinct class of people, but a political party. It is true that the majority of the gentry supported the king in the civil war, and that the main reliance of Parliament lay in the small landowners and the merchants, but there were many men of humble origin that fought with the royalist party and many aristocrats that joined the party of the people. Amongst the enemies of the king were the Earls of Bedford, Warwick, Manchester and Essex, while many leaders of the Roundheads such as Pym, Cromwell and Hampden were of gentle blood. Thus the fact that a man was Cavalier or Roundhead proved nothing as to his social rank or his lineage.
No less misleading has been the conception that in Great Britain there existed during the 17th century distinct orders of society, similar to those of France or Spain at the same period. Many have imagined the English nobility a class sharply and definitely separated from the commonalty, and forming a distinct upper stratum of society. In point of fact no sharp line of social demarkation can be drawn between the peerage and the common people. For in England, even in the days of the Plantagenets, the younger sons of the nobles did not succeed to their fathers' rank, but sank to the gentry class, or at most became "knights." They usually married beneath the rank of their fathers and thus formed a link binding the nobility to the commons of the country. Often the sons and brothers of earls were sent to Parliament as representatives of the shires, and as such sat side by side with shopkeepers and artisans from the towns. It is this circumstance that explains why so many middle-class Englishmen of the present day can trace back their lineage to the greatest and noblest houses of the kingdom. The healthy political development which has been such a blessing to the English nation is due in no small measure to the lack of anything like caste in British society.
These facts help to explain much in the origin of the Virginia aristocracy that has only too often been misunderstood. They make evident the error of presuming that many persons of gentle blood came to Virginia because there was an immigration of so called Cavaliers, or because certain families in the colony could trace back their ancestry to noble English houses.
Immigration to Virginia during the seventeen years after the founding of Jamestown was different in character from that of any succeeding period. The London Company in its efforts to send to the colony desirable settlers induced a number of men of good family and education to venture across the ocean to seek their fortunes in the New World. Since the Company numbered among its stockholders some of the greatest noblemen of the time, it could easily arouse in the influential social classes extraordinary interest in Virginia. It is due largely to this fact that among the first settlers are to be found so many that are entitled to be called gentlemen.
Moreover, the true nature of the task that confronted the immigrants to the wilds of America was little understood in England at this time. Those unhappy gentlemen that sailed upon the Discovery, the Godspeed and the Susan Constant hoped to find in Virginia another Mexico or Peru and to gain there wealth as great as had fallen to the lot of Cortez or of Pizarro. Had they known that the riches of the land they were approaching could be obtained only by long years of toil and sweat, of danger and hardship, they would hardly have left their homes in England. That the First Supply took with them a perfumer and six tailors shows how utterly unsuited they were to the task of planting a new colony. Many, doubtless, were men of ruined fortune, who sought to find in the New World a rapid road to wealth. When it became known in England that gold mines were not to be found in Virginia and that wealth could be had only by the sweat of the brow, these spendthrift gentlemen ceased coming to the colony.
It is true, however, that the proportion of those officially termed "gentlemen" that sailed with the early expeditions to Jamestown is surprisingly large. Of the settlers of 1607, out of one hundred and five men, thirty-five were called gentlemen. The First Supply, which arrived in 1608, contained thirty-three gentlemen out of one hundred and twenty persons. Captain John Smith declared these men were worthless in character, more fitted "to spoyle a commonwealth than to begin or maintain one," and that those that came with them as "laborers" were really footmen in attendance upon their masters. In the Second Supply came twenty-eight gentlemen in a total company of seventy. The conduct of those of the Third Supply shows them to have been similar in character to their predecessors. Smith calls them a "lewd company," among them "many unruly gallants packed thither by their friends to escape il destinies." These men, however, made practically no imprint upon the character of the population of the colony; for by far the larger part of them perished miserably within a few months after their arrival. Of the five hundred persons alive in Virginia in October, 1609, all but sixty had died by May of the following year.
As years went by, this influx of dissipated gentlemen began to wane. It could not be concealed in England that the early settlers had perished of starvation, disease and the tomahawk, and those that had been led to believe that Virginia was an Eldorado, turned with a shudder from the true picture of suffering and death told them by those that returned from the colony. Moreover, the London Company soon learned that no profit was to be expected from a colony settled by dissipated gentlemen, and began to send over persons more suited for the rough tasks of clearing woods, building huts and planting corn. Their immigrant vessels were now filled with laborers, artisans, tradesmen, apprentices and indentured servants. It is doubtless true that occasionally gentlemen continued to arrive in Virginia even during the last years of the Company's rule, yet their number must have been very small indeed. When, in 1624, James I took from the London Company its charter, the colony contained few others than indentured servants and freemen of humble origin and means. In 1623 several of the planters, in answering charges that had been brought against the colony by a certain Captain Nathaniel Butler, said that the inhabitants were chiefly laboring men.
With the downfall of the London Company one influence which had tended to send to Virginia persons of good social standing ceased to exist. The personal interest of those noblemen that had owned stock in the enterprise was no longer exerted to obtain a desirable class of settlers, and economic forces alone now determined the character of those that established themselves in Virginia. During the remainder of the 17th century it was the profit that could be obtained from the planting of tobacco that brought the most desirable class of settlers to the colony. It is true, however, that dissipated and spendthrift gentlemen still came over at times, seeking in Virginia a refuge from creditors, or expecting amid the unsettled conditions of a new country to obtain license for their excesses. It was this element of the population, doubtless, that the Dutch, trader De Vries referred to when he asserted that some of the planters were inveterate gamblers, even staking their servants. Such a character was Captain Stone, whom De Vries met at the home of Governor Harvey. This man was related to families of good standing in England, but strutted, was lewd, swore horribly and was guilty of shameless carousals wherever he went. While in New Amsterdam he entered upon a drinking bout with Governor Von Twiller, and stole a vessel of Plymouth. In Massachusetts he called Roger Ludlow a just ass, and later, having been detected in other crimes, was forced to flee from the colony. Beyond doubt men similar to Stone were to be found in Virginia during the first half of the 17th century, but they became rarer and rarer as time went on.
How few men of good social standing there were in the colony in this period is shown by the number of important positions filled by uneducated persons of humble origin and rank. The evidence is conclusive that on many occasions indentured servants that had served their term of bondage and had acquired property were elected by the people to represent them in the House of Burgesses. This is notably true of the first half of the 17th century, when the government was largely in the hands of a few leading planters, and when pressure from above could influence elections very decidedly. Had there been many men of ability or rank to select from, these Plebeians would never have found a place in the Assembly of the colony. The author of Virginia's Cure stated that the burgesses were "usually such as went over as servants thither," and although this is doubtless an exaggeration, it shows that there must have been in the Assemblies many men of humble extraction. In the case of some of the burgesses, it has been shown definitely that they came to Virginia as servants. Thus William Popleton was formerly the servant of John Davies; Richard Townsend was in 1620 the servant of Dr. Potts; William Bentley arrived in the colony in 1624 as a hired man. All three of these men were burgesses. The preacher, William Gatford, testified that persons of mean extraction had filled places of importance and trust. Governor Berkeley, stated in 1651 while addressing the Assembly, that hundreds of examples testified to the fact that no man in the colony was denied the opportunity to acquire both honor and wealth. At times men of humble origin became so influential that they obtained seats in the Council, the most exclusive and powerful body in the colony. Thus William Pearce, who came over in the days of the Company as a poor settler, was a Councilor in 1632, and was before his death one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the colony. In 1635 we find in the Council John Brewer, formerly a grocer of London. Malachy Postlethwayt, a writer of several treaties on commerce, states that even criminals often became leading men in Virginia. Although this is obviously an exaggeration, Postlethwayt's testimony tends to add force to the contention that many of humble rank did at times rise to positions of honor. "Even your transported felons," he says, "sent to Virginia instead of to Tyburn, thousands of them, if we are not misinformed, have, by turning their hands to industry and improvement, and (which is best of all) to honesty, become rich, substantial planters and merchants, settled large families, and been famous in the country; nay, we have seen many of them made magistrates, officers of militia, captains of good ships, and masters of good estates." In England stories of the rapid advance of people of humble origin in Virginia gave rise to the absurd belief that the most influential families in the colony were chiefly composed of former criminals. Defoe in two of his popular novels, gives voice to this opinion. In Moll Flanders we find the following: "Among the rest, she often told me how the greatest part of the inhabitants of that colony came hither in very indifferent circumstances from England; that generally speaking, they were of two sorts: either, 1st, such as were brought over ... to be sold as servants, or, 2nd, such as are transported after having been found guilty of crimes punishable with death. When they come here ... the planters buy them, and they work together in the field till their time is out.... (Then) they have ... land allotted them ... and (they) ... plant it with tobacco and corn for their own use; and as the merchants will trust them with tools ... upon the credit of their crop before it is grown, so they plant every year a little more (etc). Hence, child, says she, many a Newgate-bird becomes a great man, and we have ... several justices of the peace, officers of the trained band, and magistrates of the towns they live in, that have been burnt in the hand." In Mrs. Behn's comedy The Widow Ranter, the same belief finds expression, for Friendly is made to say: "This country wants nothing but to be peopled with a well-born race to make it one of the best colonies in the world; but for want of a governor we are ruled by a council, some of whom have been perhaps transported criminals, who having acquired great estates are now become Your Honour and Right Worshipful, and possess all places of authority." It is absolutely certain that the Virginia aristocracy was not descended from felons, but this belief that found voice in works of fiction of the 17th century must have had some slight foundation in truth. It tends to strengthen the evidence that many men of humble origin did attain places of honor and profit in the colony, and it shows that in England in this period people were far from imagining that many aristocrats had come to Virginia to settle.
Although it is impossible to determine with accuracy the lineage of all the leading families of Virginia during the 17th century, it is definitely known that many of the most wealthy and influential houses were founded by men that could boast of no social prominence in England. In the days immediately following the downfall of the London Company there was no more influential man in the colony than Abraham Piersey. In matters of political interest he took always a leading part, and was respected and feared by his fellow colonists. He was well-to-do when he came to Virginia, having acquired property as a successful merchant, but he was in no way a man of social distinction or rank. John Chew was another man of great distinction in the colony. He too was a plain merchant attracted to the colony by the profits to be made from the planting and sale of tobacco. George Menifie, who for years took so prominent a part in the political affairs of Virginia, and who, as a member of the Council was complicated in the expulsion of Governor Harvey, speaks of himself as a "merchant," although in later years he acquired the more distinguished title of "esquire." Menifie possessed an ample fortune, most of which was acquired by his own business ability and foresight. It is stated that his "large garden contained the fruits of Holland, and the roses of Provence, and his orchard was planted with apple, pear and cherry trees." Samuel Mathews, a man of plain extraction, although well connected by marriage, was a leader in the colony. In political affairs his influence was second to none, and in the Commonwealth period he became governor. He is described as "an old planter of above 30 years standing, one of the Council and a most deserving Commonwealth man.... He hath a fine house, and all things answerable to it; he sows yearly store of hemp and flax and causes it to be spun; he keeps weavers and hath a tan house ... hath 40 negro servants, brings them up to trade, in his house; he yearly sows abundance of wheat, barley, etc.... kills store of beeves, and sells them to victual the ships when they come thither; hath abundance of kine, a brave dairy, swine great store and poultry." Adam Thoroughgood, although he came to Virginia as a servant or apprentice, became wealthy and powerful. His estates were of great extent and at one time he owned forty-nine sheep and one-hundred and seventeen cattle. Captain Ralph Hamor, a leading planter in the days of the Company, was the son of a merchant tailor. Thomas Burbage, was another merchant that acquired large property in Virginia and became recognized as a man of influence. Ralph Warnet, who is described as a "merchant," died in 1630, leaving a large fortune. That these men, none of whom could boast of high rank or social prominence in England, should have been accepted as leaders in the colony shows that the best class of settlers were of comparatively humble extraction. Had many men of gentle blood come to Virginia during the first half of the 17th century there would have been no chance for the "merchant" class to acquire such prominence.
Nor did men of plain extraction cease to occupy prominent positions after the Restoration, when the much misunderstood "Cavalier" immigration had taken place, and the society of the colony had been fixed. Amongst the leading planters was Isaac Allerton, a man distinguished for his activities both in the House of Burgesses and the Council, and the founder of a prominent family, who was the son of an English merchant tailor. The first of the famous family of Byrds, which for nearly a century was noted for its wealth, its influence, its social prominence, was the son of a London goldsmith. Oswald Cary, who settled in Middlesex in 1659 was the son of an English merchant. There was no man in the colony during the second half of the 17th century that exerted a more powerful influence in political affairs than Philip Ludwell. He was for years the mainstay of the commons and he proved to be a thorn in the flesh of more than one governor. He was admired for his ability, respected for his wealth and feared for his power, an admitted leader socially and politically in the colony, yet he was of humble extraction, his father and uncle both being mercers. The noted Bland family sprang from Adam Bland, a member of the skinners gild of London. Thomas Fitzhugh, one of the wealthiest and most prominent men of the colony, was thought to have been the grandson of a maltster.
It was during the second half of the 17th century that occurred the "Cavalier" immigration that took place as a consequence of the overthrow of Charles I. Upon this subject there has been much misapprehension. Many persons have supposed that the followers of the unhappy monarch came to Virginia by the thousand to escape the Puritans, and that it was from them that the aristocracy of the colony in large part originated. Even so eminent a historian as John Fiske has been led into the erroneous belief that this immigration was chiefly responsible for the great increase in population that occurred at this time. "The great Cavalier exodus," he says, "began with the king's execution in 1649, and probably slackened after 1660. It must have been a chief cause of the remarkable increase of the white population of Virginia from 15,000 in 1649 to 38,000 in 1670." This deduction is utterly unwarranted. The increase in population noted here was due chiefly to the stream of indentured servants that came to the colony at this period. At the time when the so-called Cavalier immigration was at its height between one thousand and fifteen hundred servants were sent to Virginia each year. In 1671 Governor Berkeley estimated the number that came over annually at fifteen hundred, and it is safe to say that during the Commonwealth period the influx had been as great as at this date. The constant wars in Great Britain had made it easier to obtain servants for exportation to America, for thousands of prisoners were disposed of in this way and under Cromwell Virginia received numerous batches of unfortunate wretches that paid for their hostility to Parliament with banishment and servitude. Not only soldiers from King Charles' army, but many captives taken in the Scotch and Irish wars were sent to the colony. On the other hand after the Restoration, hundreds of Cromwell's soldiers were sold as servants. If we estimate the annual importation of servants at 1200, the entire increase of population which Fiske notes is at once accounted for. Moreover, the mortality that in the earlier years had been so fatal to the newcomers, was now greatly reduced owing to the introduction of Peruvian bark and to the precautions taken by planters to prevent disease on their estates. Governor Berkeley said in 1671 that not many hands perished at that time, whereas formerly not one in five escaped the first year.
Nor can the increased number of births in the colony be neglected in accounting for the growth of population. The historian Bruce, referring to the period from 1634 to 1649, in which the population trebled, says: "The faster growth during this interval was due, not to any increase in the number of new settlers seeking homes in Virginia, but rather to the advance in the birth-rate among the inhabitants. There was by the middle of the century a large native population thoroughly seasoned to all the trying variations of the climate and inured to every side of plantation life, however harsh and severe it might be in the struggle to press the frontier further and further outward." It may then be asserted positively that the growth of population between the dates 1649 and 1670 was not due to an influx of Cavaliers.
Had many men of note fled to Virginia at this period their arrival would scarcely have escaped being recorded. Their prominence and the circumstances of their coming to the colony would have insured for them a place in the writings of the day. A careful collection of the names of those Cavaliers that were prominent enough to find a place in the records, shows that their number was insignificant. The following list includes nearly all of any note whatsoever: Sir Thomas Lunsford, Col. Hammond, Sir Philip Honeywood, Col. Norwood, Stevens, Brodnax, Welsford, Molesworth, Col. Moryson, John Woodward, Robert Jones, Nicholas Dunn, Anthony Langston, Bishop, Culpeper, Peter Jenings, John Washington, Lawrence Washington, Sir Dudley Wiat, Major Fox, Dr. Jeremiah Harrison, Sir Gray Shipworth, Sir Henry Chiskeley and Col. Joseph Bridger. Of this number a large part returned to England and others failed to establish families in the colony. How few were their numbers is shown by the assertions of colonial writers. Sir William Berkeley reported in 1671 that Cromwell's "tyranny" had sent divers worthy men to the colony. Hugh Jones, writing in 1722, speaks of the civil wars in England as causing several families of good birth and fortune to settle in Virginia. This language certainly gives no indication of a wholesale immigration of Cavaliers.
Some writers have pointed to the number of families in Virginia that were entitled to the use of coats-of-arms as convincing proof that the aristocracy of the colony was founded by men of high social rank. It is true that in numerous instances Virginians had the right to coats-of-arms, but this does not prove that their blood was noble, for in most cases these emblems of gentility came to them through ancestors that were mercantile in occupation and in instinct. During the 17th century the trades were in high repute in England, and to them resorted many younger sons of the gentry. These youths, excluded from a share in the paternal estate by the law of primogeniture, were forced either into the professions or the trades. It was the custom for the country gentleman to leave to his eldest son the whole of his landed estates; the second son he sent to Oxford or to Cambridge to prepare for one of the learned professions, such as divinity, medicine or law; the third was apprenticed to some local surgeon or apothecary; the fourth was sent to London to learn the art of weaving, of watchmaking or the like. It was the educating of the youngest sons in the trades that gave rise to the close connection between the commercial classes in England and the gentry. Great numbers of merchants in the trading cities were related to the country squire or even to the nobleman. These merchant families, since they did not possess landed estates, could not style themselves "gentlemen," but they clung to the use of the coat-of-arms that had descended to them from their ancestors. Thus it happened that some of the immigrants to Virginia possessed coats-of-arms. Since they still looked upon the life of the country squire as the ideal existence, as soon as they were settled upon the plantations, they imitated it as far as possible. With the possession of land they assumed the title of "gentleman." Since the squire or nobleman from whom the right to the coat-of-arms came to them might have lived many generations before the migration to Virginia, the use of this emblem could give but little ground for a claim to gentle blood.
Finally, the opinion that the leading planters of the colony sprang from families of distinction and high social rank, in England is being discarded by the best authorities on Virginia history. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, which has done so much to shed light on the early history of Virginia, throws its influence without compromise against the old belief. It says: "If the talk of 'Virginia Cavaliers' indicates an idea that most of the Virginia gentry were descended from men of high rank, who had adhered to the King's side and afterwards emigrated to Virginia, it is assuredly incorrect. Some members of distinguished families, a considerable number of the minor gentry, as well as persons of the lower ranks, after the success of a party which they believe to be composed of rebels and traitors, came to Virginia, finding here a warm welcome, and leaving many descendants." Again it says: "As we have before urged, and as we believe all genealogists having any competent acquaintance with the subject will agree, but few 'scions of great English houses' came to any of the colonies. Gloucester ... has always been distinguished in Virginia as the residence of a large number of families of wealth, education and good birth; but in only a few instances are they descended from 'great houses' even of the English gentry. The families of Wyatt, Peyton and Throckmorton are perhaps the only ones derived from English houses of historic note; but they were never, in Virginia, as eminent for large estates and political influence as others of the same county whose English ancestry is of much less distinction. Next, as known descendants of minor gentry, were the families of Page, Burwell, Lightfoot and Clayton. Other leading names of the county, nothing certain in regard to whose English ancestry is known, were Kemp, Lewis, Warner, etc. These families were, like those of the ruling class in other countries, doubtless derived from ancestors of various ranks and professions ... members of the country gentry, merchants and tradesmen and their sons and relatives, and occasionally a minister, a physician, a lawyer or a captain in the merchant service." The William and Mary Quarterly makes the unequivocal statement that it was the "shipping people and merchants who really settled Virginia." John Fiske, despite the exaggerated importance which he gives to the Cavalier immigration, agrees that the leading planters were not descended from English families of high rank. "Although," he says, "family records were until of late less carefully preserved (in Virginia) than in New England, yet the registered facts abundantly prove that the leading families had precisely the same sort of origin as the leading families of New England. For the most part they were either country squires, or prosperous yeomen, or craftsmen from the numerous urban guilds; and alike in Virginia and in New England there was a similar proportion of persons connected with English families ennobled or otherwise eminent for public service."
Beyond doubt the most numerous section of the Virginia aristocracy was derived from the English merchant class. It was the opportunity of amassing wealth by the cultivation of tobacco that caused great numbers of these men to settle in the Old Dominion. Many had been dealers in the plant in England, receiving it in their warehouses and disposing of it to retailers. They kept up a constant and intimate correspondence with the planter, acting for him as purchasing agent, supplying him with clothes, with household goods, with the thousand and one articles essential to the conducting of the plantation, and thus were in a position to judge of the advantages he enjoyed. They kept him in touch with the political situation in England and in return received from him the latest tidings of what was going on in Virginia. In fact for one hundred and fifty years after the founding of Jamestown the colony was in closer touch with London, Bristol, Plymouth and other English seaports than with its nearest neighbors in America.
The life of the Virginia planters offered an inviting spectacle to the English merchant. He could but look with envious eyes upon the large profits which for so many years the cultivation of tobacco afforded. He held, in common with all Englishmen, the passion for land, and in Virginia land could be had almost for the asking. He understood fully that could he resolve to leave his native country a position of political power and social supremacy awaited him in the colony.
The civil wars in England greatly accelerated the emigration of merchants to Virginia. Business men are usually averse to war, for nothing can derange the delicate fibers of commerce more quickly than battles and sieges. And this is especially true of civil wars, for then it is the very heart of the country that suffers. Many prominent merchants of the English cities, fearing that their interests would be ruined by the ravages of the contending armies or the general business depression, withdrew to the colony, which was pursuing its usual quiet life but slightly affected by the convulsions of the mother country. William Hallam, a salter, wrote, "I fear if these times hold amongst us, we must all be faine to come to Virginia." William Mason wrote in 1648, "I will assure you that we have had several great losses that have befallen us and our charge is greater by reason of ye differences that are in our kingdom, trading is dead."
The most convincing evidence that the leading settlers in Virginia were of the mercantile class is to be found by a study of the characteristics of the planters of the 17th century. Contemporaneous writers are unanimous in describing them as mercantile in their instincts. De Vries, a Dutch trader, complaining of the sharpness of the planters in a bargain, says, "You must look out when you trade with them, for if they can deceive any one they account it a Roman action." Hugh Jones says, "The climate makes them bright and of excellent sense, and sharp in trade.... They are generally diverted by business or inclination from profound study ... being ripe for management of their affairs.... They are more inclined to read men by business and conversation than to dive into books ... being not easily brought to new projects and schemes; so that I question, if they would have been imposed upon by the Mississippi or South-Sea, or any other such monstrous Bubbles."
And this evidence is corroborated fully by letters of Virginia planters to English merchants. They show that the wealthy Virginian of the 17th century was careful in his business dealings, sharp in a bargain, a painstaking manager, and in his private life often economical even to stinginess. Robert Carter, one of the wealthiest men of the colony, in a letter complains of the money spent upon the outfit of the Wormley boys who were at school in England, thinking it "entirely in excess of any need." William Fitzhugh, Philip Ludwell, William Byrd I, typical leaders of their time, by the mercantile instinct that they inherited from their fathers were enabled to build up those great estates which added such splendor to the Virginia aristocracy of the 18th, century.
Having, as we hope, sufficiently shown that the leading planters of Virginia were not in any large measure the descendants of Englishmen of high social rank, and that with them the predominant instinct was mercantile, we shall now proceed to point out those conditions to which the planters were subjected that changed them from practical business men to idealistic and chivalrous aristocrats.
Undoubtedly the most powerful influence that acted upon the character of the Virginian was the plantation system. In man's existence it is the ceaseless grind of the commonplace events of every day life that shapes the character. The most violent passions or the most stirring events leave but a fleeting impression in comparison with the effect of one's daily occupation. There is something distinctive about the doctor, the teacher, the tailor, the goldsmith. There is in each something different from the rest of mankind, and this something has been developed within him by the ceaseless recurrence of certain duties required of him by his profession. Similarly the English immigrant, isolated upon his vast plantation, surrounded by slaves and servants, his time occupied largely with the cultivation of tobacco, could not fail in the course of time to lose his mercantile instincts and to become distinctly aristocratic in his nature.
The estates of the planters were very large, comprising frequently thousands of acres. William Byrd II inherited from his father 23,231 acres, but so great was his hunger for land and so successful was he in obtaining it that at his death he owned no less than 179,440 acres of the best land in Virginia. Robert Carter, of Nomini Hall, owned 60,000 acres. The lands of William Fitzhugh amounted to 54,000 acres, at his death in 1701. Other prominent men were possessed of estates not less extensive. These vast tracts of land comprised usually several plantations that were scattered in various parts of the colony and which differed widely in value and in extent. In the region to the west beyond tidewater estates of 20,000, 30,000, or 40,000 acres were not infrequent, while in the sections that had been first settled the average size was much less. Yet the plantations that stretched along the banks of the James, the York, the Rappahannock and the Potomac were so extensive that often the residences of the planters were several miles apart. From 4,000 to 6,000 acres was the average size of the farms of the wealthier men.
The author of Virginia's Cure, a pamphlet printed in 1661, says: "The families ... are dispersedly and scatteringly seated upon the sides of rivers, some of which running very far into the country, bear the English plantations above a hundred miles, and being very broad, cause the inhabitants of either side to be listed in several parishes. Every such parish is extended many miles in length upon the rivers' side, and usually not above a mile in breadth backward from the river, which is the common stated breadth of every plantation, some extend themselves half a mile, some a mile, some two miles upon the sides of the rivers."
The system of large plantations was in vogue in Virginia from the early years of the 17th century. Even before the days of Sir William Berkeley, many of the colonists possessed extensive tracts of land, only part of which they could put under cultivation. Doubtless the dignity which the possession of land gave in England was the principal inducement for the planter to secure as large an estate as his means would permit. The wealthier Virginians showed throughout the entire colonial period a passion for land that frequently led them into the grossest and most unjustifiable fraud.
The tendency was accelerated by the law, made by the Virginia Company of London to encourage immigration, which allotted fifty acres of land to proprietors for every person they brought to the colony, "by which means some men transporting many servants thither, and others purchasing the rights of those that did, took possession of great tracts of land at their pleasure." In 1621 a number of extensive grants were made to persons thus engaging themselves to take settlers to Virginia. To Arthur Swain and Nathaniel Basse were given 5,000 acres for undertaking to transport one hundred persons. Five thousand acres was also given Rowland Truelove "and divers other patentees." Similar tracts were given to John Crowe, Edward Ryder, Captain Simon Leeke and others. Sir George Yeardly received a grant of 15,000 acres for engaging to take over three hundred persons.
Even more potent in building up large plantations was the wasteful system of agriculture adopted by the settlers. It soon became apparent to them that the cultivation of tobacco was very exhausting to the soil, but the abundance of land led them to neglect the most ordinary precautions to preserve the fertility of their fields. They planted year after year upon the same spot until the soil would produce no more, and then cleared a new field. They were less provident even than the peasants of the Middle Ages, for they failed to adopt the old system of rotation of crops that would have arrested to some extent the exhausting of their fields. Of the use of artificial fertilizers they were ignorant.
This system of cultivation made it necessary for them to secure very large plantations, for they could not be content with a tract of territory sufficiently large to keep busy their force of laborers. They must look forward to the time when their fields would become useless, and if they were wise they would secure ten times more than they could put into cultivation at once. If they failed to do this they would find at the end of a few years that their estates consisted of nothing but exhausted and useless fields. Thomas Whitlock, in his will dated 1659, says: "I give my son Thomas Whitlock the land I live on, 600 acres, when he is of the age 21, and during his minority to my wife. The land not to be further made use of or by planting or seating than the first deep branch that is commonly rid over, that my son may have some fresh land when he attains to age."
The plantations, thus vast in extent, soon became little communities independent in a marked degree of each other, and in many respects of the entire colony. The planter, his family, his servants and slaves lived to themselves in isolation almost as great as that of the feudal barons or of the inhabitants of the vill of the 13th century.
But this isolation was due even more to the direct trade between the planters and the foreign merchants than to the extent of the plantations. This was made possible by the nature of the waterways. The entire country was intersected with rivers, inlets and creeks that were deep enough to float the sea going vessels of the age, and salt water penetrated the woods for miles, forming of the whole country, as John Fiske has expressed it, a sylvan Venice. Thus it was possible for each planter to have his own wharf and to ship his tobacco directly from his own estate. Moreover, it allowed him to receive from the foreign vessels what merchandise he desired to purchase. Hugh Jones wrote, "No country is better watered, for the conveniency of which most houses are built near some landing-place; so that anything may be delivered to a gentleman there from London, Bristol, &c., with less trouble and cost, than to one living five miles in the country in England; for you pay no freight from London and but little from Bristol; only the party to whom the goods belong, is in gratitude engaged to ship tobacco upon the ship consigned to her owners in England."
This system, so remarkably convenient for the planters, was continued throughout the entire colonial period despite the many efforts made to change it. The Virginians could not be induced to bring their tobacco to towns for the purposes of shipping when the merchant vessels could so easily land at their private wharves. The merchants had less reason to like the system, for it forced them to take their vessels into remote and inconvenient places; to spend much valuable time in going from plantation to plantation before their vessels were laden; to keep accounts with many men in many different places. The sailors too complained of the custom, for they were frequently required to roll the tobacco in casks many yards over the ground to the landings, causing them much greater trouble than in loading in other countries. For this reason they are said to have had a great dislike of the country. Throughout the 17th century and even later the English government made repeated efforts to break up this system but without success, for the saving to the planters by local shipping was so great that threats and even attempted coercion could not make them give it up.
It is this that is chiefly responsible for the lack of towns in Virginia during the entire 17th century. Not until the settlements had spread out beyond the region of deep water did towns of any size arise. Then it became necessary to bring goods overland to the nearest deep water and from this circumstance shipping cities gradually appeared at the falls line on the rivers. Then it was that Richmond developed into the metropolis of Virginia.
How utterly insignificant the villages of the colony were during the 17th century is shown by a description of Jamestown given by Mrs. Ann Cotton in her account of Bacon's Proceedings. "The town," she says, "is built much about the middle of the south line close upon the river, extending east and west about three-quarters of a mile; in which is comprehended some sixteen or eighteen houses; most as is the church built of brick faire and large; and in them about a dozen famillies (for all their houses are not inhabited) getting their liveings by keeping of ordinaries at extraordinary rates." This was in 1676, sixty-nine years after the first settlement, and when the population of the colony was 45,000.
The lack of towns was a source of much uneasiness to the first promoters of the colony, for they regarded it as a sign of unhealthful and abnormal conditions and frequent directions were given to the colonial governors to put an end to the scattered mode of life and to encourage in every way possible the development of cities. Sir Francis Wyatt was instructed "to draw tradesmen and handicraftmen into towns." Time and again throughout the 17th century the English kings insisted that the Assembly should pass laws intended to establish trading towns. In 1662, an act was passed at the command of Charles II providing for the building of a city at Jamestown. There were to be thirty-two brick houses, forty feet long, twenty feet wide, and eighteen feet high; the roof to be fifteen feet high and to be covered with slate or tile. "And," says the Act, "because these preparations of houses and stores will be altogether useless unless the towne be made the marte of all the adjoyning places, bee it therefore enacted that all the tobacco made in the three counties of James Citty, Charles Citty, and Surrey shall the next yeare when the stores be built be brought by the inhabitants to towne and putt in the stores there built." This absurd attempt met with utter failure. One of the complaints made to the King's Commissioners sent to investigate the causes of Bacon's Rebellion was, "That great quantities of tobacco was levied upon the poor people to the building of houses at Jamestown, which was not made habitable but fell down again before they were finished."
In an effort to build up towns an act was passed in 1680 requiring all merchants to bring their goods to certain specified spots and there only to load their vessels with tobacco. "But several masters of ships and traders ... not finding ... any reception or shelter for themselves, goods or tobaccos, did absolutely refuse to comply with the said act ... but traded and shipped tobaccos as they were accustomed to doe in former years, for which some of them suffered mouch trouble ... the prosecution being chiefly managed by such persons ... as having particular regard to their privat ends and designs, laid all the stumbling blocks they could in the way of publick traffic (though to the great dissatisfaction of the most and best part of the country)."
In 1682 Lord Culpeper was instructed to do everything in his power to develop Jamestown into a city. Charles II told him to announce to the members of the Council that he would regard with special favor those that built houses there and made it their permanent residence. Culpeper seems to have recognized the uselessness of the attempt, for he wrote, "I have given all encouragement possible for the rebuilding of James Citty, ... as to the proposall of building houses by those of the Counsell and the cheefe inhabitants, it hath once been attempted in vaine, nothing but profitt and advantage can doe it, and then there will be noe need of anything else."
The Act of 1680 was never enforced. The planters complained that the places selected for ports were too few in number and that they were put to great expense in bringing their tobacco to them for shipment. The English government then directed the Assembly so to change the Act that it could be put into practical operation, but an attempt, in 1685, to follow these instructions proved futile. The Burgesses were willing to pass a bill providing for ports in each county, but this was not what the king wanted and so the whole matter came to nothing.
These failures were attributed by many to the obstinacy of the Virginians. Men at that time understood but dimly the supremacy of economic laws, and could not realize that so long as the planters found it profitable to do their shipping from their private wharves so long would there be no seaports in Virginia, no matter what laws were enacted. In 1701 a pamphlet was published entitled, "A Plain and Friendly Perswasive to the Inhabitants of Virginia and Maryland for promoting Towns and Cohabitation." The author tried to prove that towns would be an unmixed blessing to the colony, that they would promote trade, stimulate immigration, build up manufacture and aid education and religion. A similar pamphlet, called Virginia's Cure, had been written in 1661, complaining that the scattered mode of life was the cause of the decline of religion in Virginia and advocating the building of towns.
This lack of urban life reacted strongly upon the plantations. Since there were no centers of activity in the colony where the planters could gather on occasions of universal interest, it tended to isolate them upon their estates. It forced them to become, except for their trade with England, self-sustaining little communities. As there were no towns to act as markets there was almost no trade between the various parts of the colony. During the 17th century a stranger in Virginia desiring to purchase any article whatever, could only obtain it by applying at some plantation. Nowhere else in the colony could it be had. The Friendly Perswasive dwelt especially on the evils of this state of affairs. "And as to a home-trade," it says, "by towns, all plantations far or near, would have some trade, less or more, to these towns, and a frequent trade, and traffic, would soon grow and arise between the several rivers and towns, by carrying and transporting passengers and goods to and fro; and supplying all places with such goods as they want most." Not until the end of the century was there even the beginning of home trade. Then it was that Williamsburg, Norfolk and Hampton, still mere villages, enjoyed a slight trade with the surrounding plantations.
This state of affairs made necessary the system of plantation manufacture. Those articles whose nature made importation from Europe inconvenient were produced upon the plantations, and not in the towns of the colony. It had been the purpose of the Virginia Company of London to make the colony an industrial community and with this in view they had so encouraged the immigration of tradesmen and artisans, that between the years 1619 and 1624 hundreds of carpenters, smiths, coopers, bricklayers, etc., settled in Virginia. These men soon found, however, that they could not maintain themselves by their trades, and many, giving up their calling, secured tracts of land and became planters. Others took up their abode on some large plantation to serve as overseers or head workmen. In 1639 Sir Francis Wyatt was instructed to see to it "that tradesmen and handicraftsmen be compelled to follow their several trades," but this order was entirely ineffectual and soon but few artisans remained. Makensie says, "Our tradesmen are none of the best, and seldom improve from the incouragement they have. If some few stick to their trades, they demand extravigant rates, and few employ them but out of pure necessity." Not infrequently an artisan would combine tobacco planting with his trade, since the latter alone was but a slender and insufficient source of income. On several occasions the Assembly tried to encourage the various trades by exempting free artisans from taxation, but this too proved ineffective.
The planters found it necessary to secure skilled servants to fill the place of the hired workmen, and soon every estate had its smith, its carpenter, its cooper, etc. At the home plantation of "King" Carter were two house carpenters, a ship carpenter, a glazier, two tailors, a gardener, a blacksmith, two bricklayers and two sailors, all indentured servants. In his will Col. Carter divided these men among his three sons. The inventory of the property of Ralph Wormeley, who died in 1791, shows that at the home house there were eight English servants, among them a shoemaker, a tailor and a miller. In the 18th century, when the negro slave had to a large extent taken the place of the white servant, attempts were made to teach the Africans to become artisans, but with partial success only. Hugh Jones, in speaking of the negroes, says, "Several of them are taught to be sawyers, carpenters, smiths, coopers, &c. though for the most part they be none of the aptest or nicest."
An interesting picture of the life on the plantation is given in the manuscript recollections of George Mason, by his son General John Mason. "It was much the practice," he says, "with gentlemen of landed and slave estates ... so to organize them as to have considerable resources within themselves; to employ and pay but few tradesmen, and to buy little or none of the course stuffs and materials used by them.... Thus my father had among his slaves, carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers, and knitters, and even a distiller. His woods furnished timber and plank for the carpenters and coopers, and charcoal for the blacksmiths; his cattle ... supplied skins for the tanners, curriers and shoemakers; and his sheep gave wool and his fields produced cotton and flax for the weavers and spinners, and his orchards fruit for the distiller. His carpenters and sawyers built and kept in repair all the dwelling houses, barns, stables, ploughs, harrows, gates, etc., on the plantations, and the outhouses at the house. His coopers made the hogsheads the tobacco was prized in, and the tight casks to hold the cider and other liquors. The tanners and curriers, with the proper vats, etc., tanned and dressed the skins as well for upper as for lower leather to the full amount of the consumption of the estate, and the shoemakers made them into shoes for the negroes. A professed shoemaker was hired for three or four months in the year to come and make up the shoes for the white part of the family. The blacksmith did all the ironwork required by the establishment, as making and repairing ploughs, harrows, teeth, chains, bolts, etc. The spinners, weavers, and knitters made all the course cloths and stockings used by the negroes, and some of finer texture worn by the white family, nearly all worn by the children of it. The distiller made every fall a good deal of apple, peach, and percimmon brandy.... Moreover, all the beeves and hogs for consumption or sale were driven up and slaughtered ... at the proper seasons and whatever was to be preserved was salted and packed away for after distribution."
And the isolation that was a consequence of this industrial independence was made all the more pronounced by the condition of the roads. The task of cutting highways through the great forests was more than the first settlers could undertake. During the 17th century boats were the most common means of conveyance. Each plantation possessed a number of vessels of various sizes and the settlers made use of them both in visiting their immediate neighbors and in travelling to more remote parts of the colony. Owing to the great width of the rivers, however, the use of small boats was fraught with danger. For many miles from their mouths the James, the York, and the Rappahannock are rather broad inlets of the Chesapeake Bay than rivers, and at many points to row across is no light undertaking.
Early in the 18th century efforts were made to construct serviceable roads. The settlements had by that time extended back from the rivers and creeks, and means of communication by land was absolutely necessary. The nature of the country, however, presented great difficulty. Hugh Jones wrote, "The worst inconveniency in travelling across the country, is the circuit that must be taken to head creeks, &c., for the main roads wind along the rising ground between the rivers, tho' now they much shorten their passage by mending the swamps and building of bridges in several places; and there are established ferries at convenient places, over the great rivers." But slight attention was given to keeping the roads in good condition and after each long rain they become almost impassable. The lack of bridges was a great hindrance to traffic and even the poor substitute of ferries was often lacking, forcing travellers to long detours or to the dangerous task of swimming the stream.
Thus cut off from his neighbors the planter spent his life in isolation almost as great as that of the feudal barons of the Middle Ages. The plantation was to him a little world whose activities it was his business to direct and this world moulded his character far more than any outward influence.
It is a matter of no surprise that one of the first distinctive characteristics to develop among the Virginia planters was pride. This trait was natural to them even in the early years of the 17th century. The operation of economic conditions upon a society is usually very slow, and frequently the changes that it brings about may be detected only after the lapse of centuries. This fact is nowhere more apparent than in the development of the Virginia aristocracy, and we find that its distinctive character had not been fully formed until after the Revolution. Pride, however, is a failing so natural to humanity that its development may be a matter of a few years only. Conditions in the colony could not fail to produce, even in the first generations of Virginians, all the dignity and self esteem of an old established aristocracy. William Byrd I, Daniel Parke, "King" Carter were every whit as proud as were Randolph, Madison or Jefferson.
It is interesting to note how careful were the Virginians of the 17th century not to omit in documents and legal papers any term of distinction to which a man was entitled. If he possessed two titles he was usually given both. Thus Thomas Willoughby is alluded to in the records of Lower Norfolk County as "Lieutenant Thomas Willoughby, gentleman." The term "esquire" was used only by members of the Council, and was the most honorable and respectful which could be obtained in Virginia, implying a rank which corresponded with the nobility in England. It invested those that bore it with dignity and authority such as has been enjoyed by the aristocrats of few countries. The respect shown to the leading men of the colony is evinced by an incident which befell Colonel William Byrd I, in 1685. One Humphrey Chamberlaine, a man of good birth, became angry with Byrd, and drew his sword in order to attack him. The man was immediately seized and put in jail. At his hearing before the court he declared in palliation of his act that he was a stranger in the country and ignorant of its customs, but the justices thought this a poor excuse, declaring that "no stranger, especially an English gentleman, could be insensible of ye respect and reverence due to so honorable a person" as Col. Byrd. Chamberlaine was fined heavily.
The arrogance of these early aristocrats is shown even more strikingly by the conduct of Col. John Custis in 1688. As collector of duties on the Eastern Shore he had been guilty of great exactions, extorting from the merchants unjust and unreasonable fees. This had proceeded so far that it was reacting unfavorably upon commerce, and when foreign traders began to avoid entirely that part of the colony, the people of Accomack in alarm drew up a paper of grievances which they intended to present to the House of Burgesses. Custis one day seeing this paper posted in public, flew into a great rage and tore it down, at the same time shaking his cane at the crowd that had assembled around him and using many threatening words. In this Custis was not only infringing on the rights of the people, but he was offering a distinct affront to the House of Burgesses. Yet so great was the awe that his authority and dignity inspired, that the people of Accomack not only allowed him to keep the paper, but "being terrified and affrighted drew up no other aggreivances att that time."
Robert Carter was another planter whose "extraordinary pride and ambition" made many enemies. Governor Nicholson accuses him of "using several people haughtily, sometimes making the justices of the peace of the county wait two or three hours before they can speak to him."... "In contempt of him," he adds, "he is sometimes called 'King' Carter."
Beyond doubt this haughtiness was chiefly the result of the life upon the plantation. The command that the planter possessed over the lives of scores of servants and slaves could not fail to impress him with a feeling of respect for his own importance. John Bernard, the traveller, shows that he understood this matter clearly. "Woe," he says, "to the man who lives constantly with inferiors! He is doomed never to hear himself contradicted, never to be told unwelcome truth, never to sharpen his wits and learn to control his temper by argument with equals. The Colonial Cavaliers were little kings, and they proved the truth of the saying of the royal sage of Rome that the most difficult of tasks is to lead life well in a palace."
Political conditions also tended to the same result, for the leading men of the colony were possessed of extraordinary influence and power. Many of the prominent families of the 17th century were related to each other and they formed a compact little oligarchy that at times controlled the affairs of the colony at will.
But as time went on a decided change took place in the nature of the Virginian's pride. During the 18th century he gradually lost that arrogance that had been so characteristic of him in the age of Nicholson and Spotswood. At the time of the Revolution are found no longer men that do not hesitate to trample under foot the rights of others as Custis, Byrd, and Carter had done. Nothing could be more foreign to the nature of Washington or Jefferson than the haughtiness of the typical Virginia planter of an earlier period. But it was arrogance only that had been lost, not self-respect or dignity. The Virginian of the later period had a most exalted conception of what a man should be, and they respected themselves as exemplifiers of their ideals, but they were always ready to accord to others the same reverence they paid themselves. The change that had taken place is shown in the lack of pretence and self-assertion in judges, councillors, in college presidents and other dignitaries. Thomas Nelson Page, in speaking of the fully developed Virginia gentleman, says, "There was the foundation of a certain pride, based on self-respect and consciousness of power. There were nearly always the firm mouth with its strong lines, the calm, placid, direct gaze, the quiet speech of one who is accustomed to command and have his commands obeyed."
This change was beyond doubt the result of the increased political resistance which the aristocracy encountered during the 18th century. Within a few years after the founding of Jamestown the wealthy planters may be noted as a body distinct from the other settlers. Immediately after the downfall of the Virginia Company of London they became a powerful force in the colony, and when, a few years later, Governor Harvey tried to curb them, not only did they resist him successfully, but they eventually brought upon him financial and political ruin. This state of affairs was due largely to the vast superiority of the merchant settlers to the lower class of immigrants, both in intelligence and in wealth. Those English traders that made their home in the colony, became at once leaders politically and socially. Not infrequently they became burgesses, justices, or even members of the Council after a few years' residence only, taking their place quite naturally by the side of those that had come over previously. This condition of affairs continued until late in the century. Bacon the rebel was made a councillor, although he lived in Virginia less than two years altogether, while the Lees, the Washingtons and many others obtained places of influence and power as soon as they reached the colony. On the other hand, the middle class did not become a factor of very great importance in the government until the surrender of the colony to the Parliamentary Commissioners in 1652. The bulk of the immigrants during the first half of the 17th century were indentured servants, brought over to cultivate the tobacco fields. They came, most of them, from the ignorant laboring class of England, and were incapable, even after the expiration of their term of indenture, of taking an intelligent part in governmental affairs. It is true that many free families of humble means came to the colony in this period, but their numbers were not great enough to counterbalance the power of the leading planters. These families formed the nucleus of what later became an energetic middle class, but not until their ranks were recruited by thousands of servants, did they develop into a really formidable body.
It was the Commonwealth Period that gave to the middle class its first taste of power. After the surrender of the colony to Parliament, the House of Burgesses was made the ruling body in Virginia, in imitation of conditions in England. Since the Burgesses were the representatives of the common people, it might naturally be inferred that the rich planters would be excluded from any share in the government. Such, however, was not the case. By a conveniently rapid change of front the most prominent men of the colony retained much of their old influence, and the rabble, lacking leaders of ability, were forced to elect them to places of trust and responsibility. But the Commonwealth Period helped to organize the middle class, to give it a sense of unity and a desire for a share in the government. At the time of Bacon's Rebellion it had grown in numbers and strength, despite the oppression of the Restoration Period, and showed, in a way never to be forgotten, that it would no longer submit passively to tyranny or injustice.
Although England entered upon a policy of repression immediately after the submission of the insurgents, which for some years threatened to take from the common people every vestige of political liberty, it was at this very time that the House of Burgesses began that splendid struggle for its rights that was eventually to make it the supreme power in the colony. Even in the waning years of the 17th century it is evident that the middle class had become a power in political affairs that must always be taken into account. The discontented Berkeley party turned to it for support against the King's Commissioners after Bacon's Rebellion; Culpeper, at the risk of Charles' displeasure, compromised with it; Nicholson sought its support in his memorable struggle with the Virginia aristocracy. In the 18th century through the House of Burgesses its influence slowly but steadily advanced. Governor Spotswood had once to beg the pardon of the Burgesses for the insolence of the members of the Council in wearing their hats in the presence of a committee of the House. Governor Dinwiddie expressed his surprise, when the mace bearer one day entered the supreme court, and demanded that one of the judges attend upon the House, whose servant he was. Before the outbreak of the Revolution the House of Burgesses had become the greatest power in the colony. It is then a matter of no surprise that the rich planters lost the arrogant spirit which had formerly characterized them. Long years of vigorous opposition from a powerful middle class had taught them to respect the privileges and feelings of others. They were no longer at such a height above their humbler neighbors. The spirit of democracy, which was fostered by the long resistance to the English government, had so pervaded Virginia society, that even before the open rupture with the mother country many of the aristocratic privileges of the old families had been swept away. And when the war broke out, the common cause of liberty in a sense placed every man upon the same footing. An anecdote related by Major Anbury, one of the British officers captured at Saratoga and brought to Virginia, illustrates well the spirit of the times. "From my observations," he says, "in my late journey, it appeared to me, that before the war, the spirit of equality or levelling principle was not so prevalent in Virginia, as in the other provinces; and that the different classes of people in the former supported a greater distinction than those of the latter; but since the war, that principle seems to have gained great ground in Virginia; an instance of it I saw at Col. Randolph's at Tuckahoe, where three country peasants, who came upon business, entered the room where the Colonel and his company were sitting, took themselves chairs, drew near the fire, began spitting, pulling off their country boots all over mud, and then opened their business, which was simply about some continental flour to be ground at the Colonel's mill: When they were gone, some one observed what great liberties they took; he replied it was unavoidable, the spirit of independence was converted into equality, and every one who bore arms, esteemed himself upon a footing with his neighbor, and concluded by saying; 'No doubt, each of these men conceives himself, in every respect, my equal.'"
One of the most fertile sources of error in history is the tendency of writers to confound the origin of institutions with the conditions that brought them into life. In nothing is this more apparent than in the various theories advanced in regard to the development of chivalry during the Middle Ages. The fundamentals of chivalry can be traced to the earliest period of German history. Many Teutonic writers, imbued with a pride in their ancestors, have pointed out the respect for women, the fondness for arms, the regard for the oppressed and unfortunate, of the people of the Elbe and the Rhine. Chivalry, they say, was but the expansion, the growth of characteristics natural and individual with their forefathers. This is erroneous. The early Germanic customs may have contained the germ of chivalry, but that germ was given life only by conditions that came into operation centuries after the Teutons had deserted their old habits and mode of life and had taken on some of the features of civilization.
Chivalry was the product of feudalism. It was that system that gave birth to the noble sentiments, the thirst for great achievements, the spirit of humanity that arose in the 10th and 11th centuries. Feudalism, although it was the cause of much that was evil, also produced in the hearts of men sentiments that were noble and generous. If it delivered Europe into the hands of a host of ruthless and savage barons, that trod under foot the rights of the common people, it alone gave rise to the sentiment of honor which was so conspicuous from the 10th to the 13th centuries.
Similarly it is erroneous to look to England for the explanation of chivalry in Virginia. This spirit was almost entirely a development in the colony. The settlers of the 17th century, even of the better class were by no means characterized by gallantry and honor. The mortal enemy of chivalry is commerce, for the practical common-sense merchant looks with contempt upon the Quixotic fancies of a Bayard. His daily life, his habits of thought, his associations tend to make him hostile to all that glittering fabric of romance reared in the Middle Ages. He abhors battles and wars, for they are destructive to his trade. He may be honest, but he cares little for the idealistic honor of the days of knighthood. He ascribes to woman no place of superiority in society. We have already seen that the Virginia aristocracy had its origin largely in the emigration of English merchants to the colony, and we should naturally expect to find the planters of the 17th century lacking in the spirit of chivalry. Such indeed was the case.
The Virginians were not a race of fighters. It was their misfortune to be subjected to frequent and murderous attacks from a savage race living in close proximity to them, and on this account were compelled to keep alive the military spirit, but they never entered into war with the feeling of joy that characterized the warriors of the Middle Ages. Throughout the entire colonial period there was a numerous body of militia, which was considered the bulwark of the people both against the Indians and against attack from European armies. Its commanders were selected from the leading planters of each community and at times it numbered thousands of men. It never, however, presented a really formidable fighting force, for it was at all times lacking in discipline, owing to the fact that the people were so scattered and the country so thinly settled that it was impossible for them to meet often for military exercises. Repeated laws requiring the militia to drill at stated periods created great discontent, and were generally disobeyed. The Assembly, even in times of war, shirked the responsibility of furnishing the companies with arms, while the people were far too indifferent to purchase them for themselves. At times the English government would send guns and powder and armor from the royal arsenal, and then only would the colony be in a position to repel foreign invasion. Governor Nicholson speaks of the utter insufficiency of the militia, and spent a large part of his time in reorganizing it, but conditions were so adverse that he met with little success. Governor Spotswood, who had served under the Duke of Marlborough and was an experienced soldier, also endeavored to increase the efficiency of the militia and under his leadership better discipline was obtained than before, but even he could effect no permanent improvement. When the test of war came the militia was found to be of no practical use. The companies could not be assembled quickly enough to repel a sudden invasion, and when a considerable body was gotten together desertion was so common that the force immediately melted away. In the French and Indian War Governor Dinwiddie soon learned that no dependence whatever could be placed in the old organization and turned his attention to recruiting and arming new companies. The Virginia troops that were driven from Fort Duquesne, those that fought with Braddock, and those that held back the attacks of the Indians along the frontier of the Shenandoah Valley were in no way connected with the old militia.
This distaste of the colonists for war is shown clearly by the consistent opposition of the Assembly to all measures either of defense or of military aggression. On more than one occasion they were commanded by the English kings to render aid to other colonies in America. Thus in 1695, when there was grave danger that the French would invade New York the Virginians were directed to send men and money to aid the Northern colony, which was a bulwark to all the English possessions in America. It was only after repeated and peremptory demands and even threats that any assistance at all was sent, and then it was miserably insufficient. In 1696 the burgesses were shameless enough to assert that an attempt to impress men for service in New York would probably be the means of frightening most of the young freemen from the colony, even causing many to desert their wives and children. Governor Spotswood met with great opposition in his attempt to aid South Carolina and North Carolina when those colonies were threatened with extermination by the savage attacks of the Indians. And in later years, when there was imminent danger of an invasion of Virginia itself by the French with their savage allies, Governor Dinwiddie was never able to persuade the Assembly to provide adequate means of defence. Not until the news of massacres of defenceless women and children upon the frontier struck terror to every family in Virginia did the legislators vote money for a body of men to drive back the enemy. And even then so niggardly were they in their appropriations that with the insufficient means granted him even the patient and frugal Washington was unable to prevent the continuance of the murderous raids of the Indians. In the Revolutionary War the same spirit prevailed. Virginia was not willing to raise and equip a standing army to defend her soil from the English invaders and as a consequence fell an easy victim to the first hostile army that entered her borders. The resistance offered to Cornwallis was shamefully weak, and the Virginians had the mortification of seeing their plantations and their towns devastated by an army that should have been driven back with ease. The militia to which the safety of Virginia was entrusted, like similar troops from the other states, proved ill disciplined, ill armed and cowardly.
Although it was the House of Burgesses that offered the most strenuous opposition at all periods to the improvement of the military organization, a large measure of blame must be placed upon that wealthy clique of men represented by the Council. The commissioned officers were invariably selected from the wealthiest and most influential planters, and it was they alone that could keep alive the military spirit, that could drill the companies, that could enforce the discipline that was so essential to efficiency. It is true that the Council usually favored the measures proposed by various governors for bettering the militia and for giving aid to neighboring colonies, but this was due more to a desire to keep in harmony with the executive than to military ardour. And it is significant that when troops were enlisted for distant expeditions, the wealthy planters were conspicuous by their absence. We see not the slightest inclination on their part to rush into the conflict for the love of fighting and adventure that was so typical of the aristocrat of the Middle Ages. They were more than content to stay at home to attend to the business of the plantation and to leave to humbler hands the task of defending helpless families of the frontiers. But the economic and political conditions in the colony were destined to work a change in this as in other things in the Virginia planter. The gradual loss of the mercantile instinct, the habit of command acquired by the control of servants and slaves, and the long use of political power, the growth of patriotism, eventually instilled into him a chivalric love of warfare not unlike that of the knights of old. It is impossible to say when this instinct first began to show itself. Perhaps the earliest evidence that the warlike spirit was stirring in the breasts of the planters is given in 1756, when two hundred gentlemen, moved by the pitiful condition of the defenseless families of the Shenandoah Valley, formed a volunteer company, and marched against the Indians. It is probable that the expedition did not succeed in encountering the enemy, but it was of much value in animating the lower class of people with greater courage. In the Revolutionary War the change had become quite apparent. It is to the Old Dominion that the colonies turn for the commander-in-chief of their armies. The Lees, Morgan and other Virginia aristocrats were among the most gallant leaders of the American army. But the development was even then far from its climax. Not until the Civil War do we note that dash, that gallantry, and bravery that made the Virginia gentleman famous as a warrior. Then it was that the chivalrous Stuart and the reckless Mosby rivaled the deeds of Bayard and of Rupert. Then it was that each plantation gave forth its willing sacrifice of men for the defense of the South, and thousands of the flower of Virginia aristocracy shed their blood upon the battle field. And Virginia produced for this great struggle a galaxy of chieftains seldom equalled in the world's history. Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, Johnston and many other great generals show that warfare had become natural to the people of the Old Dominion.
Even more striking is the development of duelling in Virginia. The history of chivalry in Europe is indissolubly connected with thousands of tournaments and duels. It was the ambition of each knight to increase his fame by triumphing over as many warriors as possible. He looked upon these fights as the greatest pleasure of his existence, and his training and education were intended largely to prepare him for them. As years passed and the feudal baron gave place to the aristocratic lord, the tournament was no longer indulged in, but as its successor the custom of duelling continued unabated. It remained, as it had been for centuries, the acknowledged way for gentlemen to settle difficulties. At the very time that the best class of settlers was coming to Virginia, duelling was in high favor with the English aristocracy. It was a common event for two gentlemen who were suitors for the hand of the same lady to settle the matter by mortal combat, and this was considered not only proper, but the highest compliment that could be paid the lady's charms. Angry joustings were frequent in places of amusement or even upon the streets. In London the ring in Hyde Park, the back of Montague House, and the Barns Elms were the favorite places for these combats.
That the custom was not continued in Virginia adds convincing testimony to the evidence that the best class of immigrants to the colony were not members of the English aristocracy. Had many country gentlemen or noblemen settled in the Old Dominion, duelling would have been as common on the banks of the James as it was in London. The most careful investigation has been able to bring to light evidence of but five or six duels in Virginia during the entire colonial period. In 1619 Capt. Edward Stallings was slain in a duel with Mr. William Epes at Dancing Point. Five years later Mr. George Harrison fought a duel with Mr. Richard Stephens. "There was some words of discontent between him and Mr. Stephens, with some blows. Eight or ten days after Mr. Harrison sent a challenge to Stephens to meet him in a place, which was made mention of, they meeting together it so fell out that Mr. Harrison received a cut in the leg which did somewhat grieve him, and fourteen days after he departed this life."
After this fatal affair the custom of duelling died out almost entirely in the colony. Had there been many of these encounters frequent mention beyond doubt would have been made of them. Any deaths resulting from them could hardly have escaped mention in the records, and the general interest that always attaches itself to such affairs would have caused them to find a place in the writings of the day. Beverley, Hugh Jones, John Clayton and other authors who described the customs of colonial Virginia made no mention of duelling. Only a few scattered instances of challenges and encounters have been collected, gleaned largely from the county records, and these serve to show that duelling met with but little favor. Most of the challenges were not accepted and provoked usually summary and harsh punishment at the hands of the law. In 1643 a commissioner was disabled from holding office for having challenged a councillor. Some years later Capt. Thomas Hackett sent a challenge by his son-in-law, Richard Denham, to Mr. Daniel Fox, while the latter was sitting in the Lancaster County court. The message was most insulting in its wording and ended by declaring that if Fox "had anything of a gentleman or manhood" in him he would render satisfaction in a personal encounter with rapiers. One of the justices, Major Carter, was horrified at these proceedings. He addressed Denham in words of harsh reproval, "saying that he knew not how his father would acquit himself of an action of that nature, which he said he would not be ye owner of for a world." Denham answered in a slighting way "that his father would answer it well enough ... whereupon ye court conceivinge ye said Denham to be a partye with his father-in-law ... adjudged ye said Denham to receive six stripes on his bare shoulder with a whip." The course pursued by Fox in this affair is of great interest. Had duelling been in vogue he would have been compelled to accept the challenge or run the risk of receiving popular contempt as a coward. He could not have ignored the message on grounds of social superiority, for Hackett ranked as a gentleman. Yet he requested the court to arrest Hackett, "him to detain in safe custody without baile or mainprize," in order to save himself from the risk of a personal attack. A similar case occurred in 1730, when Mr. Solomon White entered complaint in the Princess Anne County court against Rodolphus Melborne for challenging him "with sword and pistoll." The court ordered the sheriff to arrest Melborne and to keep him in custody until he entered bond in the sum of 50 pounds as security for good behavior for twelve months.