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Image Virginia Child-rearing Ways: Bending the Will

“An infant coming into the world in Virginia during the eighteenth century,” writes Edmund Morgan, “had a good deal more reason to cry about it than one who arrives in any part of the United States today.”1 Roughly one-third of newborn babies perished within the first twenty months of life, and nearly half were dead before they reached adulthood.2 Those who survived also faced another ordeal, which was not physical but cultural in its nature. Growing up in Virginia was a process full of pain and difficulty for the young.

At first sight, it did not appear to be so. Visitors commonly remarked that Virginians seemed to be exceptionally indulgent toward their children—an observation that was never made in New England during the seventeenth century. The Calvinist doctrine that children were inherently evil rarely appeared in the writings of Anglican parents in Virginia. In consequence the Puritan custom of will-breaking was not much practiced in the Chesapeake colonies.3

But growing up in Virginia was in some ways even more difficult than in New England. The culture of the Chesapeake colonies placed two different and even contradictory demands upon its young. On the one hand youngsters were compelled to develop strong and autonomous wills. On the other hand, they were expected to yield willingly to the requirements of an hierarchical culture. These psychic tensions took a heavy toll.

In place of the Puritan will-breaking, young Virginians at a very early age were actively encouraged to exercise their wills. Parents took pride in their youngsters’ childish acts of psychic autonomy. In 1728, a planter named Thomas Jones boasted that his infant nephew “struts around the house and is as noisy as a bully.” The same man expressed delight at the antics of his own two-year-old son, Tom Junior. A sister-in-law complained that little Tom’s wild behavior in the house was “enough to distract all about him except his papa, and to him I believe all his [son’s] noise is music. If he can’t have and do everything he has a mind to, he is ready to tear the house the down.”4

For boys, this regime of parental permissiveness commonly continued through childhood to adolescence. The German traveler Johann Schoepf observed that “a Virginia youth of fifteen years is already such a man as he will be at twice that age. At fifteen, his father gives him a horse and a negro, with which he riots about the country, attends every fox-hunt, horse-race and cockfight, and does nothing else whatever; a wife is his next and only care.”5

Boys especially were required to develop strong wills and boisterous emotions. Not to possess them was thought to be unmanly. Philip Fithian was struck by the passionate nature of his young male charges at Nomini Hall: he described the elder son as “of a warm, impetuous disposition,” and the younger son as “extremely volatile and unsettled in his temper.”6 Foreign travelers repeatedly noticed a clear difference in that respect between children in the northern and southern colonies. One English visitor in Maryland and Virginia observed that “the youth of these more indulgent settlements, partake pretty much of the Petit Maître kind, and are pampered much more in softness and in ease than their neighbors more northward.”7

But these descriptions could mislead a reader in the twentieth century. Child rearing in the Chesapeake was not indulgent in the modern sense. By comparison with New England, it was not so much a method of freedom as a different system of constraint.

A primary goal of socialization in Virginia was to prepare the child to take its proper place in the social hierarchy. The child’s will was not broken, but in a phrase that Virginians liked to use, it was “severely bent against itself.” This end was accomplished primarily by requiring children to observe elaborate rituals of self-restraint.

Child rearing in Virginia included many rituals of restraint which did not appear in New England. An example was the dance, which children of good family were compelled to study with close attention. Dancing was discouraged in the Puritan and Quaker colonies, and in some instances even forbidden outright. But in Virginia, children were compelled to dance. The Presbyterian tutor Philip Fithian was astonished by the seriousness with which Virginians applied themselves to dancing. He described an all-day dancing lesson at Nomini Hall, taught by a sadistic martinet ironically named Mr. Christian—one of many professional dancing masters who found employment in the colony:

After breakfast, we all retired into the dancing-room, and after the scholars had their lesson singly round Mr. Christian. … There were several minuets danced with great propriety, after which the whole company joined in country-dances; and it was indeed beautiful to admiration, to see such a number of young persons, set off by dress to the best advantage, moving easily, to the sound of well-performed music, with perfect regularity, tho’ apparently in the utmost disorder.

The dance continued til two; we dined at half after three. Soon after dinner we repaired to the dancing room again. I observe in the course of the lessons, that Mr. Christian is punctual, and rigid in his discipline, so strict indeed that he struck two of the young Misses for a fault in the course of their performance, even in the presence of the mother of one of them!

And he rebuked one of the fellows so highly as to tell him he must alter his manner, which he had observed through the course of the dance to be insolent, and wanton, or absent himself from the school—I thought this a sharp reproof, to a young gentleman of seventeen, before a large number of Ladies. …

When the candles were lighted we all repaired for the last time into the dancing room. First each couple danced a minuet. Then all joined as before in the country dances, these continued till half after seven, when Mr. Christian retired.8

Altogether, the lesson lasted nine hours, from ten o’clock in the morning till after seven at night. As the exacting Mr. Christian insisted, dance was a form of discipline for young ladies and gentlemen of Virginia. The complex rhythms of minuet and country dance became metaphors for an entire cultural system. Governor Gooch boasted of Virginia’s ruling elite that there was “not a bad dancer in my government.” He had more in mind than merely their “easy movements” on the ballroom floor.

By the third quarter of the seventeenth century, the social ritual of the dance had become an important part of Virginia’s culture, and also an instrument of the socialization process. Professional dancing teachers were employed in the colony as early as the 1660s. In the course of the eighteenth century, these customs changed mainly in an involutionary way by becoming more elaborately the same. In the process, they preserved their primary cultural functions. For many generations in Virginia, the ritual of the dance became a school of manners where young people learned to bend gracefully in more than merely a physical sense.9

Another closely related child-rearing custom was the careful instruction of young people in formal rules of right conduct. In Virginia, youngsters of every rank were required to master these rules, and they were punished severely for failing to respect them. All children without exception—even orphans, apprentices and slaves—were compelled to learn them. The higher a child’s social rank, the more elaborate and constraining the rules became. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, these rules were much more than an “etiquette” in the modern trivializing sense. They comprised an entire grammar of cultural ethics.

In substance, these rules were very much the same in Virginia and the south of England. One schoolmaster in the English county of Somerset, for example, compelled his students to memorize no fewer than 96 of these cultural axioms. A selection will suggest their quality:

1. Fear God

2. Honour the King

3. Reverence thy Parents

4. Submit to thy Superiors

5. Despise not thy Inferiors

6. Be courteous to thy Equals

7. Pray daily and devoutly

8. Converse with the good

9. Imitate not the wicked …

22. Approach near thy parents at no time without a bow …

28. Never speak to thy parents without some title of respect—viz.—Sir, madam, etc. according to their Quality …

32. Ask not for anything but tarry till it be offered thee …

38. Stare not in the face of anyone (especially thy superiors) …

60. Laugh not aloud, but silently smile upon occasion …

62. Be not among Equals forward or fretful but gentle and affable …

67. Boast not in discourse of thy wit or doings.

68. Beware thou utter not anything hard to be believed …

78. Affront no one, especially thy elders by word or deed …

80. Always give the wall to thy superiors that thou meetest, or if thy walkest with thy elder give him the upper hand …

87. Give always place to him that excelleth thee in quality, age or learning …

89. Be not selfish altogether; but kindly, free and generous to others …

96. Let thy words be modest and about those things only which concern thee.10

This list was drawn from a book called The School of Manners, which went through many editions in the early eighteenth century, and circulated widely in Europe and America. Many similar works were published in England, France and Italy during the seventeenth century.11

The children of Virginia were required to learn these rules by rote. Among the earliest writings by George Washington was a list of 110 “rules of civility and decent behaviour in Company and conversation,” which the young scholar had been compelled to inscribe in his best copybook hand:

1st Every action done in Company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present …

19th Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave …

26th In pulling off your Hat to Persons of Distinction, as Noblemen, Justices, Churchmen &c make a reverence, bowing more or less according to the custom of the better bred …

31st If any one far surpasses others, wither in age, Estate, or merit [yet] would give place to a meaner than himself the one ought not to accept it …

37th In speaking to men of Quality do not lean nor Look them full in the Face, nor approach too near them. At least keep a full pace from them …

39th In writing or Speaking, give to every person his due Title According to his Degree & the Custom of the Place …

40th Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty … 42d Let thy ceremonies in Courtesie be proper to the Dignity of his place with whom thou conversest for it is absurd to act the same with a Clown and a prince …

46th Take all admonitions thankfully [even when not culpable for them] …

57th In walking up and down in a House, only with one in company if he be greater than yourself, at the first give him the right hand and stop not till he does and be not the first that turns and when you do turn let it be with your face towards him, if he be a man of great quality, walk not with him cheek by jowl, but somewhat behind him; but yet in such a manner that he may easily speak to you …

110th Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

These lists were given to children not merely as copybook exercises. They were instruments of a larger purpose, which was to discipline the will.12

Young gentlemen of Virginia were given “freedom of the will” not as an end in itself, but as a means of achieving virtue—that is, of living in harmony with reason, nature, and fortune. This idea was very far from the restless striving of New England Puritans. It was a stoic ideal which cultivated a calm acceptance of life. It taught that one must fear nothing and accept whatever fate might bring with courage, honesty, dignity and grace. The mastery of this stoic creed was one of the central goals of socialization in Virginia.

A case in point was the childhood of George Washington, whose upbringing is full of clues about the culture of Virginia.13

Washington had little formal schooling. When he was eleven years old, his family was shattered by the death of his father. The usual institutions of child rearing functioned very badly for him, as they did for many children in this world. Society itself became his schoolroom; in it he mastered a complex system of social ethics which was widely shared among the Anglican gentry in England and Virginia.

This social creed was fundamentally a form of stoicism—not quite the same as that of the ancient world, but directly derived from classical authorities. One of the few books that young George Washington is known to have owned and read was an English summary of Seneca’s dialogues. The chapter titles of this work comprised another set of rules to be learned by a Virginia gentleman:

An honest man can never be outdone in courtesy.

A good man can never be miserable, nor a wicked man happy.

A sensual life is a miserable life.

Hope and fear are the bane of human life.

The contempt of death makes all the miseries of life easy to us.

Washington was never much of a reader. But in company with his friend Sally Fairfax he read Addison’s tragedy Cato, which became one of his favorite works. That Augustan classic, with its prologue by the poet Pope, celebrated the stoic virtues of the great Roman patrician who became a model for young George Washington. In the play, one character declaims:

Turn up they eyes to Cato!

There mayst thou see to what a godlike height

The Roman virtues lift up mortal man.

While good, and just, and anxious for his friends,

He’s still severely bent against himself.

At Valley Forge, Washington ordered that Addison’s Cato should be performed for all his officers, and he attended the production himself. He quoted Cato in his presidential papers, and in his last years returned again and again to this work. Washington’s character and conduct embodied Cato’s creed. This was Virginia’s ideal of an autonomous gentleman, with a character that was “severely bent against himself.”

The inner stresses were sometimes very great. A gentleman of Virginia was expected to have boisterous feelings and manly passions and a formidable will. But at the same time he was also expected to achieve a stoic mastery of self. This vital tension became a coiled spring at the core of Virginia’s culture, and a source of its great achievements during the eighteenth century. In the personality of George Washington, Virginia’s system of child rearing had a spectacular success. Here was a character who seemed to be perfectly in harmony with his cultural environment. But other gentlemen of Virginia personified the inner tensions which were created by this culture.

A leading example was Colonel Daniel Parke (1669-1710), whose daughters Frances and Lucy we have already met. Daniel Parke was a fantastic figure, whose exploits made him a legendary character throughout the English-speaking world. He was also a typical product of Virginia’s socialization process. As a young gentleman, he gained a reputation for pride and “willfulness.” Commissary James Blair described him as a

handsome young man … who, to all the other accomplishments that make a complete sparkish gentleman, has added one upon which he infinitely values himself, that is, a quick resentment of every the least thing that looks like an affront or injury. He had learned, they say, the art of fencing, and is as ready at giving a challenge, especially before company, as the greatest Hector in the town.14

Parke once challenged the visiting Governor of Maryland to a duel at a public gathering—an act which doubly shocked respectable opinion in the Chesapeake. Challenges were properly delivered in private, and governors were thought to be exempt. He also caused another scandal when on a visit to England he eloped with a gentleman’s beautiful wife and brought her to Virginia as a thrall of love. This act prompted Commissary James Blair to thunder against adultery from the pulpit of Bruton Parish Church, which led the hot-blooded young Daniel Parke to challenge even his clerical critic—another grievous breach of the rules. In later life, Colonel Parke openly kept a mistress as his consort—and ordered that she should inherit his coat of arms, which was the most shocking impropriety of all in armigerous Virginia.

But even as he behaved so badly by the standards of his own culture, there was also another side to Daniel Parke’s personality. At an early age he imbibed the stoic creed of a Virginia gentleman,


The troubled life and violent death of Colonel Daniel Parke expressed the tension between the stoic ideas of Virginia gentlemen and the turbulent reality of their world. In an old painting Daniel Parke wears as a badge of honor on his breast a pearl-encrusted miniature that Queen Anne gave him when he was chosen for his gallantry to bring her the news of the great British victory at Blenheim. Colonel Parke honorably refused all material reward for that service except a picture of his sovereign, and an engraved silver service of the sort that Virginians loved to display. A few years after this likeness was painted, Colonel Parke became governor of Antigua, where he was captured by rebels and tortured to death. His last words, long admired in Virginia, were “Gentlemen, you have no sense of honor left, pray have some of humanity,” and he died “recommending his soul to God, with some pious ejaculations.”

and tried to live according to its precepts. To one of his daughters, Daniel Parke wrote,

Mind your writing and everything else you have learnt, and do not learn to romp, but behave yourself soberly and like a gentlewoman. Mind reading, and carry yourself so that everybody may respect you. Be calm and obliging to all the servants, and when you speak, do it mildly, even to the poorest slave.15

Colonel Parke was long remembered in Virginia for his gallantry. In 1697 he returned to England and was commissioned a colonel in the British Army. He became aide-de-camp to the Duke of Marlborough in the Wars of Louis XIV, and was ordered to carry home the report of the great English victory at Blenheim. Offered a gift of £500 by Queen Anne, Colonel Parke refused the money and asked only a small picture of his sovereign—an act of gallantry which was praised even by his enemies.16

The most memorable scene in Colonel Parke’s life was its remarkable ending. Sent as Royal Governor to the Leeward Islands, he was captured by rebels in Antigua and tortured to death. In an extremity of pain and suffering, Colonel Parke’s behavior became a model of stoic virtue. “Insulted and reviled by every scoundrel, in the agonies of death,” he made “no other return but these mild expressions, ‘Gentlemen, you have no sense of honor left, pray have some of humanity,’” and died “recommending his soul to God, with some pious ejaculations.”17

Here was a spectacular example of a Virginia gentleman, sternly bent against himself. Altogether, the process of socialization was less successful for Colonel Parke than for General Washington. In Daniel Parke’s life, the inner tensions of this culture were outwardly expressed with exceptional clarity and force. For two hundred years, the example of his troubled life and noble death was held up for the moral instruction of young gentlemen in Virginia.

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