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Image Virginia Family Ways: The Anglican Idea of the Patriarchal Family

The family customs of the Virginians were as distinctive as their architecture and speech ways.1 The gentry of southern and western England brought to this colony a sense of family which was as strong as that of Puritan Massachusetts. The political theory of Robert Filmer, for example, has been described as “above all things an exaltation of the family. It made the rules of domestic society into the principles of political science.”2 The same attitude routinely appeared among the English gentry. An example was Sir John Oglander, a Royalist gentleman with Virginia connections who lived on the English Isle of Wight. It was observed of him that “family pride indeed was the ruling passion of his life.”3

Among Virginians and New Englanders, ideas of the family were similar in strength, but different in substance. Virginians gave more importance to the extended family and less to the nuclear family than did New Englanders. Clear differences of that sort appeared in quantitative evidence of naming practices and inheritance patterns. The language of familial relationships differed too. The word “family” tended to be a more comprehensive term in Virginia than in Massachusetts.4 Virginians addressed relatives of all sort as “coz” or “cousin,” in expressions that were heavy with affective meaning; but the term “brother” was used more loosely as a salutation for friends, neighbors, political allies, and even business acquaintances. It is interesting to observe that an extended kin-term tended to be more intimate than the language of a nuclear relationship. The reverse tended to be the case in Massachusetts.5

Individuals in Virginia were stereotyped by traits that were thought to be hereditary in their extended families. Anglican clergyman Jonathan Boucher believed that “family character both of body and mind may be traced thro’ many generations; as for instance every Fitzhugh has bad eyes; every Thornton hears badly; Winslows and Lees talk well; Carters are proud and imperious; and Taliaferros mean and avaricious; and Fowkeses cruel.” Virginians often pronounced these judgments upon one another. The result was a set of family reputations which acquired the social status of self-fulfilling prophecies.6

For most Virginians the unit of residence tended to be a more or less nuclear household, but the unit of association was the extended family, which often flocked together in the same rural neighborhoods. Jonathan Boucher noted that “certain districts are there known and spoken of … by there being inhabited by the Fitzhughs, the Randolphs, Washingtons, Carys, Grimeses or Thorntons.” These kin-neighborhoods developed gradually during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century by continuing subdivision of estates.7

From an early date in the seventeenth century, extended families were also buried together in Virginia—a custom that was uncommon in Massachusetts. Hugh Jones noted, “ … it is customary to bury in gardens or orchards, where whole families lye interred together in a spot generally handsomely enclosed, planted with evergreens.” This had also been the practice of country gentry in England for many centuries. In New England, extended family cemeteries rarely existed; people of every rank were normally interred in a common burying ground near the meetinghouse—and were not grouped by family until the late eighteenth century.8

Relations within Virginia’s extended families were not always harmonious. John Randolph, for example, looked with contempt upon many of his uncles and cousins. He wrote:

It was not necessary or even desirable that the descendants of these families should be learned or shining men, but they might have been better than mere Will Wimbles. Ah! I wish they were no worse than humble Will. But some are what I will not stain my paper with.9

The actual unit of residence in Virginia was not the extended family, but a more or less nuclear unit. Its physical constitution differed very much from those of Massachusetts. Many of these households (more than in New England) included servants, lodgers, and visitors, sometimes on a scale that did not exist in New England. The northern tutor Philip Fithian was astonished to learn from the wife of his employer, Mrs. Robert Carter of Nomini Hall, that “this family one year with another consumes 27,000 pounds of pork and twenty beeves, 550 bushels of wheat, besides corn, four hogsheads of rum, and 150 gallons of brandy.”10 In winter, 28 large fires were kept burning constantly at Nomini Hall, and six oxen were needed every day to haul in the wood. The pattern of consumption was very similar to great country houses in the south and west of England. No household in Massachusetts operated on such a scale.11

Chesapeake households also tended to include more step-relatives and wards, fewer children in the primary unit and also many more servants than in New England. This was largely because the southern colonies had higher rates of illness and death. Children died young, and marriages were cruelly shattered at an early age.12

In tidewater Virginia during the seventeenth century, most children—more than three-quarters in fact—lost at least one parent before reaching the age of eighteen. One consequence was to enlarge the importance of other kin; for when a nuclear family was broken in Virginia the extended family picked up the pieces. Another consequence was to change the structure of the household in a fundamental way. Historians Darrett and Anita Rutman observe that in “just about any” household one might find “orphans, half-brothers, stepbrothers and stepsisters, and wards running a gamut of ages. The father figure in the house might well be an uncle or a brother, the mother figure an aunt, elder sister, or simply the father’s ‘now-wife,’ to use the word frequently found in conveyances and wills.”13

Yet another consequence was to increase the emotional complexity of domestic life. The courts of the Chesapeake colonies heard many complaints of cruel step-parents, who often lived up to their reputation. The courts also dealt with bitter conflicts over step-children. In 1696, for example, one Thomas Price was presented to a county court “by the information of Hannah Price his wife for selling a child of the said Hannah which she had by another husband in the colony of Virginia.”14

There were also large numbers of servants in these households. Throughout tidewater Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, the number of servants in an average household was always much greater than in New England. As early as 1667, in Middlesex County, Virginia, male heads of households held as many as five servants and slaves on the average.15

On both sides of the Atlantic, these large households were very complex in their internal structure. Masters and house servants lived close together—often sleeping in the same room. “I called up my man, who lay in my room with me,” one English gentleman noted in his diary.16 Things were the same in Virginia, where masters, servants and visitors often shared the same room and sometimes even the same bed.17

The doors of these houses were rarely closed to strangers. A bed and a meal were offered to visitors of every rank, from the governor of the colony who was received as a royal personage to the most wretched beggar who was given a mat before the kitchen fire. There was a class of impoverished gentlemen in England and America who made “visiting” their profession. The Yankee tutor Philip Fithian met one of these threadbare gentry, who lived almost entirely upon the hospitality of others, and became a semi-permanent fixture in other men’s houses. Fithian wrote:

To day about twelve came to Mr. Carter’s Captain John Lee, a gentleman who seems to copy the character of Addison’s Will

Wimble. When I was on my way to this place I saw him up in the country at Stafford; he was then just sallying out for his winter’s Visit, & has got now so far as here, he stays, as I am told about eight, or ten weeks in the year at his own house, the remaining part he lives with his waiting man on his Friends.18

A gentleman of Virginia took pride in his hospitality, and gained honor by its display. Those who accepted his invitation tacitly agreed to place themselves under his protection and authority. This custom had long existed in England, but in the seventeenth century English country houses were rapidly closing their doors to all but invited guests, much to the regret of those who remembered the old way. In 1709, one gentleman wrote in his diary:

Died Sir Richard Brooke of Norton, Bart., an honest friendly gentleman whose hospitality justly gained him the prayers of the poor & applause of the rich … that good and ancient way of housekeeping has decayed to bring in new and more pernicious fashions.19

In Virginia the “good and ancient way” of open hospitality continued to flourish for a longer time. While it survived, a Virginia patriarch extended the word “family” to include all the people who slept under his roof—his nuclear family, visiting relatives, impecunious friends, tutors and clerks, servants and house slaves, and even total strangers who accepted his hospitality. When George Washington was at Valley Forge, he referred to his wife, servants, aides, staff and visitors as his “family,” for they had placed themselves under his fostering hand. Here was yet another clue to the meaning of “family” in Virginia. In the great houses of the Chesapeake, as in the works of Filmer, “family” was fundamentally a sphere of authority, in which everyone was placed under a patriarch’s protection.

These Virginia families tended to be more hierarchical than those of New England. Fathers and fathers-in-law were addressed not merely as “Sir” but “Worthy Sir.”20 The head of the family thought of himself as a patriarch, a word that often occurred in their self-descriptions, but was not much used in Massachusetts.

William Byrd liked to compare himself with the biblical patriarchs. He wrote, “Like one of the Patriarchs, I have my flocks and my herds, my bondsmen & bond women and every sort of trade amongst my own servants so that I live in a kind of Independence of every one but Providence.”21 On another occasion, Byrd wrote, “Our comforts, like those of the good patriarchs are mostly domestique. …” Patriarchy was a word that came to be much used in Virginia, as it had been by English Royalists such as Filmer. It was rarely employed by the Puritans, and sometimes actually condemned.22

This patriarchal idea also appeared in the law of the family. The courts of Virginia regarded the slaying of a father by his son, or the killing of a husband by his wife, or the murder of a master by his servant not as homicide but treason. The penalty was to be burnt to death—a sentence which was actually inflicted upon a woman who murdered her common-law husband in Maryland. Even these laws were thought to be insufficently severe by Robert Filmer, who wished to extend the law of petty treason to include adultery by the wife.23

The laws of Virginia added a material base to the patriarchal idea by requiring the “masters of the several families” to “detain and keep within their hands and custody the crops and shares of all freemen within their families,” so as to ensure the payment of taxes.24

The hard realities of life in the Chesapeake colonies tended to reinforce these ideals in unexpected ways, and to make the family ways of Virginia more extended and patriarchical than they might otherwise have become. Altogether, the family ways of Massachusetts and Virginia were two distinct cultural systems. Even as they shared important qualities in common, they rose from different English roots, and responded to different American environments.

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