Origins and PowerThe term “gentry” was imported from Britain, where it referred to similar groups of well-to-do men in England and Ireland, normally not members of the titled nobility, who owned extensive country estates and lived off the rental income of their tenants. Their land ownership entitled them to a share of political power, and their leisured lifestyle supposedly facilitated the cultivation of refined standards of personal conduct and cultural appreciation.
The process by which Virginia’s gentry emerged is somewhat uncertain. Many of the leading families arrived and established themselves as planters in the middle third of the seventeenth century. The colony’s transition from a primary reliance on indentured servants to the predominance of slave labor late in the seventeenth century clearly facilitated the gentry’s rise because it required more capital than many smaller planters could muster and because the slaves’ reproduction further enriched their owners. More debatable is whether the transition to slavery was the unplanned consequence of changing market conditions throughout the Atlantic world or the result of deliberate promotion by the great planters who saw its economic advantages and, after, its utility as a means of reducing class conflict and promoting racial solidarity among whites. By the 1720s and 1730s, the gentry were well established and were erecting substantial and impressive churches, courthouses, and homes throughout Tidewater Virginia to symbolize and strengthen their power.
By this time, the foundation of gentry wealth and power was the production of tobacco. Members of the gentry further increased their fortunes by cultivating other crops, milling, and practicing law. Some profited from investments in the slave trade and in land in the West and elsewhere, and many engaged in retail trade in a variety of commodities with their poorer neighbors. They clearly understood the market economy, and some began to be influenced by the writings of the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, who published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776.
Nevertheless, the gentry preferred to see themselves as removed from and superior to physical labor and the commercial exchange economy. Instead they sought to portray themselves as men of leisure and generosity. This was visible in what strangers to Virginia saw as the inordinate amount of time they devoted to visiting one another and to participation in gambling, dancing, and other fashionable pursuits as well as in the attention they gave to the acquisition of prestigious homes, furnishings, clothing, and other consumer goods. Indeed planters often sought to portray their relations with merchants as noncommercial in nature. They sent gifts of food and other Virginia products to English merchants, asked them to supervise their children who visited the mother country, and consistently referred to themselves and other Virginia clients of particular merchants as the “friends” of those merchants. Thus in 1770 when Westmoreland County planter Philip Ludwell Lee informed his merchant brother William Lee that he would promote his interests as well as those of a rival London tobacco merchant, he assured his brother that he “earnestly” wished that the two men might be “good friends,” “as I love you both.”
The gentry also used these displays of wealth and leisure to reinforce their standing in relation to their peers and their social inferiors. Their barbecues, fish feasts, harvest festivals, and other entertainments brought together and presumably impressed a wide spectrum of their neighbors. The same was true of the treatment of voters atand of militiamen at musters. The homes of the gentry were designed to reflect and enhance the power of their owners. Whenever possible they were placed on hilltops so that they commanded the surrounding countryside and could be seen from nearby waterways. Newspaper advertisements for houses and tracts of land emphasized these characteristics. ‘s ad for some property across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg proclaimed that it had “a clear and distinct view of almost every house in the town and every vessel that passes to and from it.” By supplying credit to poorer white neighbors and doing other favors for them, the gentry also hoped to gain their loyalty and support.
Although the gentry often competed among themselves for election to the General Assembly, their collective domination of this body and of the county courts and Anglican vestry boards that formed the backbone of local government further enhanced their power. The governor formally appointed justices to the county court each year and the vestries were elected when initially formed. Yet once appointed, justices normally served indefinitely, and vestries seldom stood for re-election. Moreover, the sitting members of both courts and vestries normally recommended the persons who would fill vacancies in their ranks, and their recommendations were rarely questioned.
Despite all this, the gentry felt themselves to be under challenge in the decades before the American Revolution. Confrontations with poorer whites occurred even in the proceedings of the county courts and vestries. When Virginia was at war, the increased demands for military manpower could create problems, especially in frontier areas. Further conflicts occurred as the gentry and their poorer neighbors clashed over issues relating to property lines, tenancy rights, conditions of employment, timber exploitation, wandering livestock, and other issues. The growing presence of Scottish tobacco merchants after midcentury in many areas was worrisome because the credit they supplied to poorer whites reduced their economic dependence upon the bigger planters, added to the planters’ problems in collecting their own debts, and sometimes pulled planters into greater debt as the guarantors of the merchants’ loans to their poorer neighbors.
Slaves, of course, resisted their owners’ control in a myriad of ways that included sabotage, flight, small-scale violence, and sometimes concerted attempts at insurrection. Moreover, the gentry could never ignore either the threat of subversive collaborations between African Americans and poor whites or the more likely prospect that the racial prejudices of poor whites could lead to resentment, not only of the slaves but also of the gentry themselves as the beneficiaries of that form of human property. These resentments appeared in frictions over the employment of slaves, popular concern with crime by slaves, the functioning of the slave patrol system, and elsewhere. Even within their own families, the leading planters often faced challenges to their authority from wives and especially from adult children. The published diary ofof Richmond County documents this in particular detail, but his “uneasy kingdom,” as he called it, was by no means unique.
In much of Virginia, the growth of dissenting evangelical religious groups in the 1760s and 1770s caused further anxiety for the gentry. Most obviously, the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists challenged the hegemony of the established Anglican Church. The Baptists in particular appealed most strongly to lower class whites and African Americans and seemed to foster a sense of empowerment in both groups, especially because their emphasis on austerity and egalitarianism challenged the conspicuous consumption and hierarchical values that supported the gentry. Many white evangelicals came to implicitly and sometimes explicitly challenge the institution of slavery. Yet in the end, all of this posed little threat to the established patterns of Virginia life. The dissenters came to terms with slavery. Often they borrowed from prevailing patterns of government, custom, and social prestige, and at least occasionally they employed the gentry-sanctioned language and values of deference among themselves.
Throughout Virginia, the American Revolution challenged the gentry, who generally supported the “patriot” resistance to British authority and the movement toward independence. In the prewar years, they struggled to gain the support of much of the populace who felt little commitment to the patriot movement. Walter Jones, for example, reported that many of those present at a Richmond County meeting in the spring of 1774 entertained “an opinion too common among the vulgar” that because they did not consume tea, imperial regulations regarding it did not affect them. During the war, the gentry confronted enslaved African Americans drawn to the British by the promise of freedom, open advocates of the Crown, and ordinary Virginians who had different ideas on how to organize their society and to fight and finance the war. Some planters worried that the Revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality might threaten both their leadership and their property. More tangibly, the material hardships of the war years produced substantial popular dissidence, particularly in regard to military service. In 1780 and 1781, draft riots occurred in at least eight counties, and in the latter year more than half of the state’s counties failed to implement the conscription law. One dissident was reported to have said “that the rich wanted the poor to fight for them, and defend their property whilst they refused to fight for themselves.”
Despite all this, the gentry remained in control of Virginia as the Revolutionary era ended. Some scholars have suggested that their economic position began to erode as early as the mid-eighteenth century as they abandoned their former economic diversification, focused on tobacco cultivation and land speculation, and increasingly indulged in excessive consumption fueled by borrowing. Others have pointed to the growing recognition in the post-Revolutionary generations that young men from prominent families needed to forsake plantation agriculture in favor of the professions. Yet despite changes in the membership of the elite, that class clearly dominated Virginia’s politics without substantial challenge well into the nineteenth century.