Author: Albert H. Tillson

a professor of history at the University of Tampa

Gentry in Colonial Virginia

The gentry were a small class of men who dominated the economic, social, and political life of Virginia through much of the mid- to late eighteenth century. Of landed but not noble lineage, the gentry established themselves in Virginia as tobacco planters relying heavily on the labor first of indentured servants and then enslaved Africans. As the richest men in Virginia, they dominated colonial government, sitting on the governor’s Council and in the House of Burgesses and running Anglican vestries. They constructed large homes, especially in the Tidewater, that dominated the landscape and symbolized their great power. Another symbol of the gentry’s prestige was the inordinate amount of time the planters spent on leisure activities such as gambling and dancing. Over time, however, the gentry’s power began to decline. Already overwhelmed by debt, they had trouble negotiating changes that came with a diversifying economy, religious dissent, and the social shifts that accompanied the American Revolution (1775–1783) and its emphasis on the rights of the common man. Many of the nongentry, drafted into the Continental Army, resented the planters’ ability to avoid the fighting. Nevertheless, the gentry weathered these storms and remained in power well into the nineteenth century.


Charles Carter (1732–1806)

Charles Carter, a planter and member-elect of the Council of State, spent much of his adulthood managing Corotoman, the Lancaster County plantation he inherited from his father, John Carter. Later he inherited Shirley Plantation in Charles City County and relocated there after renovating its main house. He was a successful and wealthy planter and entrepreneur, owning more than 13,000 acres of land in thirteen counties at his death. Carter served as a member of the House of Burgesses from 1758 until the American Revolution (1775–1783). Carter supported the reaction against greater parliamentary regulation of colonial affairs and sat in the four Revolutionary Conventions that met in 1774 and 1775. Despite these efforts, he declined a seat on the Council of State in the new commonwealth of Virginia. He died in 1806.