THE ARISTOCRATIC CHARACTER of Virginia republicanism helps explain why Virginians like Jefferson and Washington had more confidence in representative government than had many of their thoughtful contemporaries from other parts of the country. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris came from colonies where “the people” were a volatile city crowd: “a great beast.” For Virginians a “republican” government was an intricately balanced traditional arrangement.
If a modern historian had invented an allegory to tell this story he could hardly have done better than The Candidates; or, the Humours of a Virginia Election, a comedy in three acts written by Robert Munford of Mecklenburg in 1770. This little play is perhaps the first to express the American talent for making sport of politics. In it a small group of voters plays an affable and passive, but by no means foolish, role. Everyone, including the candidates, is confident that these voters can judge human quality and that they will see through a designing, ambitious, or dishonest candidate.
Well, I’ve felt the pulse of all the leading men, and find they beat still for Worthy, and myself. Strutabout and Small-hopes fawn and cringe in so abject a manner, for the few votes they get, that I’m in hopes they’ll be soon heartily despised.
The prudent candidate who hopes to rise,
Ne’er deigns to hide it, in a mean disguise.
Will, to his place, with moderation slide,
And win his way, or not resist the tide.
The fool, aspiring to bright honour’s post,
In noise, in shouts, and tumults oft, is lost.
The gentlemen freeholders naturally come to despise Strutabout and Smallhopes and the wealthy toper Sir John Tody, while they learn to respect Wou’dbe and Worthy.
I have little inclination to the service; you know my aversion to public life, Wou’dbe, and how little I have ever courted the people for the troublesome office they have hitherto imposed upon me.
I believe you enjoy as much domestic happiness as any person, and that your aversion to a public life proceeds from the pleasure you find at home. But, sir, it surely is the duty of every man who has abilities to serve his country, to take up the burden, and bear it with patience.
The well-oiled machinery of aristocracy, far from thwarting the will of the people, simply saves the people from mistakes: the sheriff is always there to close the polls at the appropriate moment. The sensible neighbors finally elect the two able candidates by acclamation. This is happy evidence, Wou’dbe rejoices, of “a spirit of independence becoming Virginians.”
These customs of the Virginia countryside bred a similar independence among the Burgesses themselves. Everything that made Virginia’s elections aristocratic—the tendency to inherit posts in the House of Burgesses, the self-assurance and security of the large planters—encouraged Burgesses to be reasonable and independent in their judgment. Once in the legislature they seldom glanced over their shoulders for the smile or frown of their constituency, a habit which often makes a modern representative the fragile mirror of those who elect him.
It was generally accepted in Virginia in those days that the ruling planters of good family had a prescriptive right to become ruling Burgesses, always, of course, provided they had earned the good opinion of their less substantial neighbors. “There is a greater distinction supported between the different classes of life here,” observed John F. D. Smyth as late as the Revolution, “than perhaps in any of the rest of the colonies; nor does the spirit of equality, and levelling principle, which pervades the greatest part of America, prevail to such an extent in Virginia.” The large planter, busy with his own affairs, was deterred from standing for Burgess less by the risk of defeat than by the certainty of victory.
This security of social position bred a wholesome vigor of judgment which made the Virginia House of Burgesses a place for deliberation and discussion rarely found among modern legislatures. Burgesses came close to Edmund Burke’s ideal of the representative who owed allegiance not to the whim of his constituency but only to his private judgment. The voters in colonial Virginia had just enough power to prevent the irresponsibility of their representatives, but not enough to secure their servility. This was a delicate balance, but it had a great deal to do with the effectiveness of the legislature. In Munford’s Candidates the virtuous Wou’dbe scrupulously avoided promising to do whatever the people wished, since the people would not have chosen him unless they had preferred his judgment to theirs. The most famous example of this Burkean independence comes from a later day: in 1788, in the Virginia Convention called to ratify the new Federal Constitution, at least eight delegates voted for the new government against the wishes of their electors.
The contrast between the atmosphere in the Virginia Burgesses and in a modern state legislature is only partly explained by the talents of the representatives. The seriousness, wisdom, honesty, and eloquence in the deliberations of the Burgesses during the crucial years of the Stamp Act—the “most bloody” debates which Jefferson, then a student at the College, heard from the door of the chamber—was not due only to the greatness of the men and the issues. These men were not satisfied to be spokesmen of their voters’ whims. Their speeches were serious and sometimes subtle arguments directed to fellow-legislators. Their debate lacked that meandering and miscellaneous, if amusing, irrelevance of the modern Congressional Record and its local counterparts. In those days it was still customary for a legislator (at least in Virginia) to give more time to the deliberations of his House than to answering mail from his constituents, to making “news” in legislative committees, or to seeking jobs for faithful supporters. American folklore has only a little exaggerated: the Virginia House of Burgesses was a meeting of gods on Olympus compared to a modern state legislature.
These men were talking to each other; none of them was much impressed by the flowery phrase. With the conspicuous exception of a few like Patrick Henry, Virginia’s representatives talked in sober and conversational style; there has seldom been an age of representative government when the power to orate was less important. Within the intimacy of the House of Burgesses, which any visitor to Colonial Williamsburg can sense today, persuasive argument was of first importance; demagoguery was useless. Jefferson was not an eloquent speaker, a fact which led him later to send his annual messages to Congress rather than deliver them in person; Washington and Madison were hardly better. And the leading figures in the Burgesses in the 18th century—men like Richard Bland, Peyton Randolph, and John Robinson—were all ungraceful speakers. The House of Burgesses (like its English counterpart, the House of Commons) was an exclusive club where gentlemen seriously discussed public problems.
Virginia was governed by its men of property. There was no family of substance without members in the Governor’s Council, the House of Burgesses, the county court or other governing bodies; and there was no governing body of the colony that was not dominated by the men of substance. These men presumably, and usually in fact, possessed the best knowledge of the large economic and political problems of the community: the price of tobacco and the cost of producing it, the quality of essential imports, the location of indispensable markets, the character of necessary shipping, the routes of primary roads, the places of the most useful ferries.
Land—land to use, to waste, to divide among one’s children—was the foundation of all the governing families and the fortunes of Virginia. The power to give or to deny land, those vast virgin tracts expected to appreciate most in the next decades, rested in the hands of the government, especially in the House of Burgesses and the Governor’s Council.
The Burgesses also possessed important routine powers over already-settled land, powers which in England were held by the courts. In England if a landholder inherited entailed land which he wanted to deal with as full owner, he followed certain complicated but routine court procedures which ingenious lawyers had developed. Not so in Virginia. There any heir who wanted to get rid of such restrictions had to secure in his own name, and for that particular piece of land, a private Act of the House of Burgesses. Between 1711 and 1774 a total of one hundred and twenty-five such Acts were passed; nearly three-fourths of them for members of such leading families as the Armisteads, Beverleys, Braxtons, Burwells, Carters, Dandridges, Eppes, Pages, Tazewells, Wormeleys, Washingtons, and Yeates. All these, either in their own person or through relatives, would have been represented in the House which acted on their petition. Such private Acts of the House were a necessity for the substantial planter: without them he was not free to deal with his land, to move his labor force, or to dispose of worn-out parcels in order to acquire lands farther west.
Still more important was the power of the Burgesses and the Governor’s Council over that treasure-house of the West to which they held the legal keys. There was nothing secret or underhanded about any of this. Under the prevailing system of soil-exhaustion, with fluctuating tobacco prices and the exorbitant demands of London merchants, simple prudence had made tobacco planters into land speculators. George Washington, though shrewd and ambitious, was no gambler, but he seized opportunities to enlarge his holdings. He saw that a westward-pushing population would raise the value of the fertile piedmont; it was important to be alert and acquire good land early. In June 1767 Washington advised his friend, the unfortunate Captain John Posey who had been sinking deeper and deeper into debt, to “look to Frederick, and see what fortunes were made by the Hites and the first takers up of those lands: Nay, how the greatest estates we have in this Colony were made. Was it not by taking up and purchasing at very low rates the rich back lands which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable lands that we possess?” In the middle years of the century, after his stint with Brad-dock and before his Revolutionary command, Washington like many of his fellow Virginia aristocrats, was in Douglas Freeman’s accurate phrase, a “land hunter.”
To satisfy land-hunger in Virginia one needed not only a strong body but a shrewd political sense. The pathway to landed wealth lay, not only through uncharted tracts in the wilderness, but also through the corridors of government buildings in Williamsburg. This was the “inside track,” well-worn by leading Virginians, to the fertile expanses of the unsettled south and west. There was hardly a fortune in Virginia which had not been sought out in this fashion. When William Byrd was appointed by the government to survey the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728, he saw the wealth of the fertile bottom-land and christened it the “Land of Eden.” He seized the morally dubious opportunity to buy 20,000 acres from the North Carolina commissioners to whom it had been given for their services. In 1742, he secured the again “lucky” chance to patent another 105,000 acres, which he had hoped to get free but for which he actually paid the bargain price of £525. At his death this man owned 179,440 acres of the richest land in the colony—the fruit of his “public services” as much as of his business enterprise.
In none of the “public business” which engaged Washington’s interest during his early years in the House of Burgesses was he more active than in trying to secure parcels of land for himself and his fellow-veterans of 1754. Governor Dinwiddie’s emergency Proclamation of February 1754 had supposedly rewarded these veterans with “200,000 acres of his majesty’s lands on the Ohio,” but it was Washington’s activity—which included the promotion of bills in the House of Burgesses, letters to the Governor, and addresses to the Governor’s Council—that eighteen years later secured the actual allotment of thousands of acres. Washington took the initiative in securing the grant, in locating the land, and in allotting the acreage among different claimants in proportion to rank. His own reward was 24,100 acres. Of this 18,500 was his personal allotment, which he himself apportioned, and 5600 came from allotments of others which his special position had enabled him to buy cheap. He also had the advantage of knowing first-hand precisely the land which would be divided; and hence he could be sure that the tracts rewarding his patriotism were not unworthy of him. Under the circumstances Washington had no reason to feel that he had unduly favored himself. “I might add without much arrogance,” he wrote, “that if it had not been for my unremitted attention to every favorable circumstance, not a single acre of land would ever have been obtained.” With no more immodesty Washington might have claimed credit for the thousands of acres which he and other leading Virginians were to secure through the Great Dismal Swamp Company and the Mississippi Company; in every case the help of government agencies was essential.
The weaknesses of representative government in Virginia’s Golden Age were on the side of realism, practicality, and a too nice equivalence of economic and political power. These were the mistakes of men of affairs rather than of visionaries, reformers, or revolutionaries. While Virginians of great landed wealth could grow wealthier, white men at the bottom of the ladder sometimes found it impossible to reach the next-to-the-bottom rung, and the Negro had no chance to rise above servitude. It was, however, also true that their aristocracy showed as high a talent for government as that of any other community before or since. And once a man was on his way up the ladder, there was little to stop him.
How irrelevant to look to the bookish prospectuses of English or French political theorists—of Locke, Montesquieu, or Rousseau—to explain Virginia’s political enthusiasms! Americans who knew the reality did not need the dream. Virginians who would fight to preserve representative government and would offer “their Lives, their Fortunes, and their sacred Honor” on the altar of the British Constitution had not produced a single important treatise on political theory. Knowing what representative government was, why should they speculate about what it ought to be? The great Virginians were in the closest touch with the world of conflicting interests. They possessed a sense of full-bodied economic and political reality, but no particular genius for the abstractions of closet-philosophy. This was to prove one of their greatest strengths.
Why should Burgesses disparage the common people—or declaim in favor of government by “the rich and the well-born”? They actually lived where the people acquiesced in government by the rich and well-born; and where the rich and well-born did not overbear the people. Those Virginians who came to show an uncritical faith in the will of the people had founded it on a solid but narrow experience: their experience of rural neighbors who trusted the political talents of their extraordinarily able aristocracy. Business, the opportunity to get rich and to get poor, had vitalized and added mobility to that aristocracy, One could move into it and, if incompetent, one would almost surely drop out of it, or at least be denied the avenue to political power.
During the 18th century there was little evidence of dissatisfaction with the way of government described here. Since the people acquiesced, the ruling Burgesses had no reason to think ill of their way of life. Although there were some minor political and economic reforms in Virginia during the latter half of the century, these were all very much within the established framework of Virginia’s Golden Age. In the eyes of the more influential (and even the more Revolutionary) Virginians, the American Revolution was itself an attempt to preserve the moderate ways of that age.
As the ruling Virginians admired the ideal of the English gentleman, the genteel canon they most scrupulously followed was Moderation. Unlike some of their English gentlemen-contemporaries, they did not despise trade or labor, nor did they admire an idle aristocracy. Nor, unlike some later Jacksonian Americans or European leveling democrats. did they particularly idealize the horny-handed laborer. In Brathwait’s English Gentleman, Virginians could read that Moderation had a threefold aspect, and must be exercised equally in matters of Mind, Body, and Fortune. “Moderation” they learned, was “a vertue so necessary, and well deserving the acquaintance of a Gentleman, (who is to be imagined as one new come to his lands, and therefore stands in great need of so discreet an Attendant) as there is no one vertue better sorting ranke.” This ancient virtue, needed for governing a community, was no less desirable in those matters of religion, over which Europeans had tortured one another for centuries.