From Country Squire to Planter Capitalist

IN ENGLAND people had long believed in the mystique of the gentleman. “A gentleman I could never make him,”’ King James I had replied to his nurse who requested that he make her son a gentleman, “though I could make him a lord.” In Virginia, as we have seen, an aura also surrounded the gentleman, but an aristocratic family could more easily be manufactured with money. Colonial Virginia thus foreshadowed the wholesome crudity of the American attitude toward aristocracy. Whenever coats of arms can be bought for ready cash, people are bound to be skeptical of all charters of nobility. The obvious salability of social position in America has helped dissipate the mystique of the European hereditary aristocracy. If the poor see their “betters” pay cash for their titles, how can they believe the myth of a charter sealed by God?

The spirit of business enterprise was kept alive in Virginia even among the congealing aristocracy. Leading Virginia families like the Ludwells, Spencers, Steggs, Byrds, Carys, and Chews, to mention only a few, were but recently descended from merchants. For several reasons a successful planter was likely to remain something of a merchant, constantly seeking new investments for his capital. First, there were the characteristics of Virginia’s tobacco-agriculture. Since Virginians did not replenish the nitrogen and potash which growing tobacco sucked from the soil, it was only on virgin land that tobacco could flourish; the second crop was usually the best. After the fourth season land was customarily abandoned to corn and wheat, before finally being turned back to wild pine, sorrel, and sedge. Under this system a prudent planter dared not put more than a small portion—say, ten per cent—of his acreage in tobacco at any one time. Foresight required that he continually add to his land-holdings since every year he was, in the Virginia phrase, “using it up.” Soon the term “tobacco land” became synonymous with “new land.” The “sour land” or “old fields” which had presumably yielded all their profit provided the sites for schools and churches in tidewater Virginia. A prudent planter thus had to be a land speculator, alert to opportunity, ready to make new purchases. The landholdings of the principal families were constantly increasing and often shifting location. The most ancient plantation houses—like those of the Carters, Randolphs, and Byrds—remained fixed and became wellsprings of family tradition, but the lands from which these families drew their wealth were capital equipment to be discarded or exchanged when they no longer yielded a fair return. Under these circumstances, large planters discovered special advantages in an enslaved labor-force which could be moved about the countryside as one or another piece of land promised greater profit. This wasteful system was not an unmixed evil, at least from the point of view of the civic institutions of Virginia, for it subjected the wealthy planter class—who were also the political leaders—to an unrelenting test of alertness and enterprise.

The second factor which stimulated a mercantile and enterprising spirit among the planters and which had shaped the character of the plantation system itself was the lack of large towns. “The inhabitants do not live close together,” noted the French traveler Francis L. Michel in 1702, “and the country is not settled in villages, because every twenty or thirty years new ground must be broken.” This was not the only reason. The simple facts of geography were equally important. Tidewater Virginia, extending southeastward toward the Chesapeake Bay, was a rich lowland which was cut into fingers by several deep and navigable rivers: the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the York, and the James. Each finger was in turn reticulated by a veinwork of smaller rivers, many of which were large enough to carry traffic toward the ocean. These were the circulatory channels of economic life. Up came ships carrying Negro slaves from Africa and the West Indies, clothing and household furnishings from London; down went ships laden with hogsheads of tobacco from the vast plantations of the Lees, the Carters, and the Byrds.

From a commercial point of view, then, cities were superfluous. Each of the larger planters had his private dock. The tobacco grower could load his hogsheads directly from his own dockside onto the ship which went to his agent in London; his imports could be landed at his private port-of-entry. For this reason Virginia had no commercial capital, no Boston or Philadelphia, during the colonial period; her commerce dwelt in these scores of private depots scattered along the riversides. “No Country in the World can be more curiously watered,” observed John Clayton in his Letter to the Royal Society in 1688. “But this Conveniency, that in future Times may make her like the Netherlands, the richest Place in all America, at the present I look on the greatest Impediment to the Advance of the Country, as it is the greatest Obstacle to Trade and Commerce. For the great Number of Rivers, and the Thinness of the Inhabitants, distract and disperse a Trade. So that all Ships in general gather each their Loading up and down an hundred Miles distant; and the best of Trade that can be driven is only a sort of Scotch Peddling; for they must carry all Sorts of Truck that trade thither, having one Commodity to pass off another. This (i.e.) the Number of Rivers, is one of the chief Reasons why they have no Towns.” Why, asked the authors of The Present State of Virginia a few years later, should the planter-merchant, comfortably seated in the country with his customers all about him, wish to change his life or invite the competition of town merchants?

In an age when land transportation was rudimentary, in a new country where roads barely existed, the Virginia planters and those who bought at their docks seemed favored by nature. “Most Houses are built near some Landing-Place,” the Rev. Hugh Jones noted in 1724, “any Thing 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 for Goods from London, and but little from Bristol; only the Party to whom the Goods belong, is in Gratitude engaged to freight Tobacco upon the Ship consigned to her Owners in England.”

The critics of Virginia frequently complained that the low state of culture, religion, and commerce was due to this lack of towns. Because the work of English furniture-makers was so cheaply carried to Virginia plantations in the holds of ships coming for bulky hogsheads of tobacco, native craftsmen were discouraged. The very ease of river transportation actually provincialized the thinking of many planters. “At the first settlement of the Country,” Governor Spotswood reported in 1710, “people seated themselves along the banks of the great Rivers and knew very little of the inland parts beyond the bounds of their own private plantations, being kept in awe by the Indians from vent’ring farther; neither had they any correspondence than only by Water.” To promote “cohabitation” in towns would, critics said, produce the higher forms of civilization. Some proposed legislation, tax-benefits for town-dwellers, and other enticements, but all these failed and geography had its way. Until late in the 18th century, the commercial life of Virginia—and, with it, the commercial virtues—remained diffused among the larger planters. Because there were no towns, the Virginia country gentleman, more than his English counterpart, had to acquire the town talents: a spirit of enterprise, a capacity for sharp-dealing, and a townsman’s eye for profit and loss.

Tobacco, unlike the crops of many English country gentlemen, was not part of a traditional subsistence economy; it was a commercial crop, raised for profit. The planters’ investments in slaves, land, and equipment were supported by large cash loans. The account-books of George Washington and many others tell this story with discouraging vividness. Virginia was, as some complained, “a colony founded on smoke,” and Jefferson, like others before him, pleaded for a more diversified economy. But the plantation system, exemplified in the West Indies and Virginia, was, according to some historians, the first great experiment in large-scale commercial agriculture since the Roman Empire.

The English country gentleman was traditionally interested in the details of his farm. Even so great a lord as the eighth Duke of Devonshire (several decades later) experienced “the proudest moment of his life” when his pig won first prize at Skipton Fair. The large Virginia planter could not be satisfied by prizes at a local fair. His tobacco had entered the exacting competition of the world market, and he had to keep a sharp eye on the cost of a hundred different tasks. When M. Durand de Dauphiné visited Rosegill, the magnificent Wormeley estate in 1686, he thought he was entering “a rather large village.” Life on a large plantation was far from that in a simple agrarian economy. There were hundreds of slaves, white craftsmen, overseers, stewards, and traders who were producing tobacco as a money-crop, raising food, and manufacturing tools, farm instruments, and clothing for their own use and for sale in local and foreign markets to which they were sometimes carried in the planter’s own ships. A Virginia plantation was an 18th-century version of a modern “company town” rather than a romantic rural village. The plantation-owner needed both business acumen and a large store of practical knowledge to run his little world of agriculture, trade, and manufacturing. Breadth and versatility, so impressive in men like William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson, were common to the larger and more successful Virginia planters of the 18th century: they were interested in natural history, had a respectable knowledge of medical remedies and mechanics, were at home in meteorology, and felt obliged to know the law. How devious it is to explain these plantation necessities as if they were inspired by the distant example and abstract teachings of the European Enlightenment! They were nothing more than an index to the problems of a Virginia planter.

If all these influences produced a breed of men with some characteristic New World virtues, the product was none the less aristocratic. While the Virginia gentleman felt more incentive to enterprise, was less fearful of soiling his hands in trade, was more capitalistic in his frame of mind, had a sharper eye for the cash-balance sheet, and was more versatile in his intellectual interests, he was still a member of a small privileged class. Foundations of this class had been solidly laid before the opening of the 18th century. Col. Robert Quarry reported back to the Lords of Trade in 1704 that on each of Virginia’s four great rivers there lived between ten and thirty men “who by trade and industry had gotten very competent estates.” By mid-century the number of such men had increased, and there were some upstarts, like the Jeffersons and Washingtons among them. But the very process which had multiplied the larger planters had decimated the smaller ones. The social gulf between a substantial gentleman planter and everybody else was probably never wider in Virginia than around the year 1750.

That heyday of the tobacco aristocracy in Virginia—the middle decades of the 18th century—was the youth of nearly all the leaders of Revolutionary Virginia and of those who were to become the “Virginia Dynasty” in the young Federal government. Washington was born in 1732; Monroe, the last of the group, in 1758. The biographies and letters of these men reveal a closely intermarried social “four-hundred.” When Governor Alexander Spotswood reported to the Secretary of State on March 9, 1713 that he had finally filled three vacancies in the Governor’s Council with three suitable men “of good parts, loyal and honest principles, and of plentiful Estates,” he complained that but for these three he could find none qualified. All others already held places of profit under the government “or elce…. are related to one particular Family [the Burwells] to which the greatest part of the present Council are already nearly allyed.” In the list of ninety-one men appointed to the Governor’s Council from 1680 till the American Revolution, there appear only fifty-seven different family names, nine names providing nearly a third, and fourteen others about another third. Five Councilors were called Page; three each went by the name of Burwell, Byrd, Carter, Custis, Harrison, Lee, Ludwell, or Wormeley. A member of the Council would be likely to hold more than one office. “The Multitude of Places held by the Council,” some complained, “occasions great Confusion, especially in such things wherein the Places are incompatible: As when their Collectors Office obliges them to inform their Judges Office against an unfree Bottom: Or when their Honours, as Counsellors, sit upon and pass their own Accounts, as Collectors.” This monopoly of offices was not confined to the Governor’s Council; in local communities, the same substantial planter was likely to be vestryman, justice of the peace, commander of the militia, and delegate to the House of Burgesses.

The few surviving letters of Thomas Jefferson’s youth (written between 1760 and 1764), which tell us nearly all we know about him firsthand before the age of twenty-one, read much like the Society Page: the names in his social pageant are almost without exception those of the “best” Virginia families. The Rebecca Burwell who was his first romantic love came of that very family which ruled the Governor’s Council fifty years before. “Dear Will,” he wrote to young Fleming, “I have thought of the cleverest plan of life that can be imagined. You exchange your land for Edgehill, or I mine for Fairfeilds, you marry S[ucke]y P[otte]r, I marry R[ebecc]a B[urwel]l, [join] and get a pole chair and a pair of keen horses, practise the law in the same courts, and drive about to all the dances in the country together. How do you like it?” Through the letters of this young socialite run the names of Page, Mann, Carter, Nelson, Lee, Bland, and Yates, none of which could have been excluded from a Virginia Social Register.

No wall separates this world of the 1760’s and 50’s and 40’s from 1776. No mutation of ideas distinguishes the thinking of the late years from those of the middle years of the century. On the contrary, the more we learn of Virginia life the more continuity we see between the ways of the Revolutionary generations and those of their fathers and grandfathers. The more we begin to see the local lineage of their ideas, the less we need seek a cosmopolitan philosophic ancestry or try to explain them as ideas which lack a local habitation but are supposed to have been “in the air” all over the world. The motives of the Revolution will dissolve into the commonplace. The philosophers of the European Enlightenment who have been hauled into the court of historians as putative fathers of the Revolution may then seem as irrelevant as the guilty cousin who suddenly appears in the last scene of a bad mystery play. The motives and patterns of action which were to reach a climax in the Revolution were already taking form a century before in the daily life of Virginia.

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