Government by Gentry

IT WOULD BE A great mistake to assume that the cozy, aristocratic character of Virginia society had nothing to do with its civic virtues. Only a perverse hindsight has made the political institutions of colonial Virginia a leveling democracy in embryo. When George Washington feared for the preservation of self-government and the rights of Englishmen, it was the political customs of mid-18th century Virginia that he must have had in mind, for he knew no others. Those customs were the representative institutions of a Virginia-bred aristocracy, whose peculiarly aristocratic virtues nourished American representative government at its roots. And those roots reached back to Virginia’s Golden Day.

Never did a governing class take its political duties more seriously: power carried with it the duty to govern. Thus, while Virginia had a restrictive suffrage throughout the colonial period, it also had a law of compulsory voting. In a few other colonies occasional statutes punished the qualified voter who did not appear at the polls, and it is uncertain how strenuously the Virginia law was enforced, but the continuous course of such legislation in Virginia from the early days till after the Revolution testifies to the persistent belief that government was a duty. If the ordinary voter was required to cast his ballot, men of greater substance were expected to carry heavier burdens. When Jefferson, under particularly unhappy circumstances in 1781, yearned for “the independance of private life,” he was describing the relief for which many men of prominent Virginia families must have longed.

Just as the owner of a large plantation had thrust on him tasks of management which he could not escape—he had to lay out orchards, decide on the time to plant and to cut the tobacco, find raw materials for shoes and clothing, and look after the health of the slaves—so he had political duties which he could not shirk. The successful planter developed perforce the habit of command. He came to manage the affairs of the colony with the same self-assurance he showed in managing his private estate. If the plantation was a little colony in itself, which had to be governed with tact, authority, and prudence, the colony of Virginia was in turn ruled like a large plantation. The major dignities and decisions rested on those who held the largest stake.

The roster of the House of Burgesses is a list of leading planters. The upward political path from the seat of the vestryman or justice of the peace to the Governor’s Council was guarded all along the way by the local gentry. Seeking a political career without their approval was hopeless. And the House of Burgesses, which increased in power during the colonial period until it dominated the Governor and Council, was hardly more than the political workshop of a ruling aristocracy. Here were made the major decisions about the price and quality of tobacco, taxation, education, Indian relations, and religion. It was here that men were trained and scrutinized before advancement to higher office. Freeholders elected the Burgesses, but only the Burgesses themselves had the power to advance Virginians to higher honors, and the Burgesses conscientiously sifted upper-class Virginians for the tasks of government. Although there were less than a hundred seats in the House of Burgesses in the mid-18th century, nearly all prominent Virginians of the century had served an apprenticeship in the House.

Members disagreed much less than we might suppose, and their discussions little resembled the debate of a modern legislature. Although outspoken conflict marked the years of the Stamp Act, the politics of the House did not harden into party lines. Virginians were not prepared for the idea of political parties in the early years of the new government. As the 18th century wore on, the ruling Burgesses seemed to become more harmonious and singleminded, willing to recognize leadership among men of quite different political complexions. Thus when the House, sitting as the Virginia Convention of 1774, chose its delegates to the first Continental Congress, it elected Peyton Randolph, Richard Bland, and Edmund Pendleton, who had been conservatives in the recent Stamp Act controversy, as well as their opponents, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry.

Perhaps never in recent times has a ruling group taken a more proprietary attitude towards public office. During the years of the Revolution and the first decades of independence, the Burgesses selected (almost exclusively from their own membership) the Virginia governors, council-members, judges, military officers, and delegates to Federal conventions. Their personal knowledge of each member of the Virginia ruling class qualified them to distribute public dignities and burdens with an impressive, if not quite infallible, wisdom.

This snugness of the ruling Virginians did, of course, have its less attractive side, which was displayed in the notorious Robinson Affair. No modern journalist could have concocted anything more sensational than these sober facts. When John Robinson, Speaker of the House of Burgesses and Treasurer of the colony, died, Purdie’s Virginia Gazette (May 16, 1766) with unintended irony declared it “a calamity to be lamented by the unfortunate and indigent who were wont to be relieved and cherished by his humanity and liberality.” The embarrassing dimensions of Robinson’s generosity, though long suspected, were not confirmed until the administrators of his estate began to cast up their accounts. They then discovered that Robinson, while Treasurer of the colony, had drawn on the public funds to the extent of £100,761:7:5, which he had lent out to scores of his friends. These amounts varied from £14,921 lent to William Byrd III (who had failed to inherit his ancestors’ business acumen and was unlucky at cards to boot), Lewis Burwell’s £6274, Carter Braxton’s £3848, and Archibald Cary’s £3975, down to Richard Henry Lee’s £12 and Patrick Henry’s £11. Members of the Governor’s Council owed Robinson nearly £16,000; those of the House of Burgesses over £37,000. Edmund Pendleton, administrator of the estate, who spent twelve of the best years of his life trying to settle it, had himself been favored with £1020. As the accounts of the estate unfolded, it appeared that there was hardly a Virginia family of prominence that had not been helped in distress by Robinson’s generosity with the public funds. This vast network of indebtedness explains the reluctance of the Burgesses over so many years to separate the offices of Speaker and Treasurer or to make a thorough audit of the colony’s accounts. The affable Robinson had made the public treasury a relief chest for the ruling clique.

Two peculiar facts about this affair give us valuable clues to the morals and customs of the rulers of Virginia. First, Robinson had never used any of the funds for his personal benefit—except insofar as he was benefited by the gratitude of his friends. Second, when the facts were revealed the leading Burgesses hardly reproached Robinson for misappropriating public money; they came near praising him for his excess of virtue. When Robert Carter Nicholas (Robinson’s successor as Treasurer) hinted at some impropriety, he was denounced for the suggestion; he found it politic to deny the innuendo and declared the loans “more owing to a mistaken kind of Humanity and Compassion for Persons in Distress.” Governor Fauquier expressed the general sentiment when, after hearing Pendleton’s report on the Robinson estate, he said, “Such was the Sensibility of his too benevolent Heart.” Whatever we may think of Robinson himself, his career revealed a community where public power belonged to a privileged few.

This power did carry with it corresponding and sometimes burdensome duties. Almost from the beginning the House of Burgesses strictly required all members to be present at the opening of each session. A Burgess who failed to attend the convening of the House was, according to an Act of 1659-60 and repealed reenactments, fined three hundred pounds of tobacco for every twenty-four hours of unexcused absence. At the opening sitting, the Speaker would read letters from members explaining their absence, and their reasons would be approved or rejected. It was not unknown—as in the case of James Bray in 1691—for the House to be so offended by an explanation that the Speaker issued a warrant for the member’s arrest, holding him in custody until he offered suitable apology. Special tasks, such as the election of the Speaker, made attendance at the opening session important, but the House was only slightly indulgent toward Burgesses who missed any regular session. Before the end of the 17th century the fine of two shillings and sixpence was increased to one hogshead of tobacco for each absence from a sitting. When, during the session of 1684, five members failed to answer a roll-call and were found to have gone home without consent of the House, a resolution ordered the sheriffs of their counties to collect from each negligent Burgess a fine of one thousand pounds of tobacco. They were not readmitted to the House until they had apologized.

The House of Burgesses very early (in 1666) disclaimed the right to relieve any duly elected member of his duty of attending, even when his constituents formally requested it. This doctrine survived the 18th century to plague the unhappy Jefferson in May 1782 when, just after his retirement under a cloud of censure as Governor of Virginia, the people of Albemarle County elected him delegate to the House. Weary of office and smarting from the public ingratitude, Jefferson wished to decline the office. When he sent his refusal to John Tyler, Speaker of the House, the ominous reply informed him that “the Constitution in the Opinion of the Members will not warrant the acceptance of your resignation.” Tyler warned Jefferson “that good and able Men had better govern than be govern’d, since ’tis possible, indeed highly probable, that if the able and good withdraw themselves from Society, the venal and ignorant will succeed.” Finally Jefferson was urged “to give attendance without incuring the Censure of being siezed.”

The Virginia Burgesses were, of course, “elected.” Their election, if less corrupt and more open to talent, much resembled the English “election” of members of Parliament in the same period. It was nothing like a free-for-all in which any ambitious young man could seek his political fortune; the election was a process in which freeholders made their choice from among the gentlemen. Technically the qualifications for a Burgess were no greater than those for a voter, but in practice the candidates for the House were members of the gentry.

Elections took place in an intimate atmosphere which emphasized both the munificence of the candidates and the power of the freeholders, a strange combination of protocol and conviviality. Campaign oratory seems to have counted for very little; only an unusually pompous and obtuse gentleman would orate to neighbors who had known him since childhood. Seldom was there a public debate on the “issues,” but even the best known candidate could not hope for success unless he had taken the trouble to mingle with his constituents. Convention forbade a candidate’s soliciting votes, or even voting for himself, and there was no party organization. A candidate was, however, expected to use indirect (usually gastronomic) means of persuasion; no one could hope for election without “treating” the voters. Large quantities of rum punch, ginger cakes, and barbecued beef or pork persuaded prudent voters that their candidate possessed the liberality and the substance to represent them properly in the Assembly. Such entertainment was expensive. Samuel Overton of Hanover County estimated his cost for two elections at £75; George Washington’s expenditures when he stood for Burgess were never less than £25 and on one occasion about £50. Such a sum was several times what it would have cost a man to buy the house and land required to qualify him as a voter. A Virginia statute did, of course, prohibit anyone “directly or indirectly” giving “money, meat, drink … present, gift, reward, or entertainment…. in order to be elected, or for being elected to serve in the General Assembly,” but this law seems to have been seldom enforced. A general reputation for hospitality was actually the best defense against suspicions of bribery at election time.

Voting took place in the county courthouse or, in good weather, on the courthouse green. It differed from a modern American election mainly in the publicity given to every voter’s choice and in the resulting opportunity for gratitude or resentment between the candidate and his constituents. By an almost unbroken custom, candidates were expected to be present at the voting-place. At a table sat the sheriff, the candidates, and the clerks (including one for each candidate). The voters came up one at a time to announce their choices, which were recorded publicly like a box-score. Since anyone present could always see the latest count, a candidate could at the last minute send supporters to bring in additional needed votes. As each voter declared his preference, shouts of approval would come from one side and hoots from another, while the betting-odds changed and new wagers were laid. The favored candidate would rise, bow, and express thanks to the voter: “Mr. Buchanan, I shall treasure that vote in my memory. It will be regarded as a feather in my cap forever.” This personal acknowledgment of the voter’s confidence was so customary that in the rare case when the candidate could not be present he delegated a friend to make his obeisances for him. When George Washington’s command of the Frederick militia kept him at Fort Cumberland during the 1758 election, his friend James Wood, the most influential man in the county, sat at the poll and thanked each voter individually for his compliment to the absent colonel. A less common method of voting was by a show of hands, acclamation, or some other informal expression.

The control of the gentry over elections was by no means confined to their ability to earn the favorable opinion of the voters. For the gentry chose the sheriff from among themselves, and the sheriff managed the elections. He decided whether any individual was qualified to vote; he set the date of the election; he fixed the hour for opening and closing the polls; there was no appeal from his decisions except to the House of Burgesses, which was always reluctant to override local officials.

“Gentlemen freeholders,” the sheriff would finally proclaim from the courthouse door, “come into court and give your votes or the poll will be closed.” Sometimes the election would be ended by two o’clock in the afternoon, but if the sheriff found that many voters had been kept away “by rain or rise of watercourses,” he might prolong the election into another day. What modern candidate would not envy the Virginia gentleman his power to keep the polls open until the winning votes had been rounded up!

Virginia law permitted a gentleman freeholder to vote in every county where he possessed the property qualification. If he was qualified in three counties he could vote for three sets of Burgesses. Since a man could represent in the House of Burgesses any district where he could vote, this further widened the political opportunities of the larger planters. They could choose to run where their chances seemed best. Many great Virginians, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Marshall, and Benjamin Harrison, used their extensive and dispersed landholdings to advance their political fortunes.

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