Virginia Gentleman, The


The Virginia gentleman is a concept that attaches the qualities of chivalry and honor to the aristocratic class in Virginia history and literature. Similar to the myth of the Cavalier, which suggested a connection between Virginians and Royalists during the English Civil Wars (1642–1648), the idea of the Virginia gentleman is based on a code of gentility and honor that is closely tied to the slaveholding plantation culture of Tidewater Virginia. So-called gentlemen were expected to lead and behave with courtesy toward all, regardless of social status. While not assumed to be personally flawless, they were expected to demonstrate fortitude, temperance, prudence, and justice. A gentleman’s reputation and personal honor were to be cultivated and protected above all else. Developed in the context of slavery and reaching its apogee among Virginians such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the concept of the gentleman spread from Virginia across the South and became an important theme in early novels of the region. Just as the Virginia gentleman provided an aspirational ideal, so did these novels present the South and its enslavement of African Americans in terms that idealized the slaveholders. This continued in the decades following the American Civil War (1861–1865), when the Virginia gentleman was enlisted into the Lost Cause and the justification of slavery. While twentieth-century writers treated it with more irony, the Virginia gentleman still thrives in American popular culture.

Gentleman vs. Cavalier

King Charles I

The concept of the Virginia gentleman is inextricably entwined with the historical myth of the Virginia Cavalier. The most significant distinction between these two terms is that the cavalier ideal embodies more specific genealogical associations. Largely refuted by modern historians, this historical legend was widely accepted both within Virginia and beyond its borders during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It asserted that the early settlement of the colony had been dominated overwhelmingly by thousands of aristocratic Cavalier followers of King Charles I during the English Civil Wars who fled the Puritan repression of Commonwealth England.

Contrasting slightly with the Cavalier myth, the Virginia gentleman is a term more closely associated with the Tidewater plantation system that developed in Virginia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is defined by a code of gentility that expressed the ethos of these slaveholding colonial planters. Because the plantation system was first established in seventeenth-century Virginia, the colony served as the incubator for both the Cavalier myth and the concept of the slave-owning gentleman planter. In the Chesapeake tidewater these notions were virtually interchangeable. In choosing to define himself as a nobly descended Cavalier Englishman, the colonial Virginia tobacco planter also defined himself as a gentleman, and he embraced a fully articulated code of conduct and manner of living.

Origins in Colonial Virginia

Tobacco Tamper

The seventeenth-century Virginia settler’s ambition was to recreate in the new colony the country life of the English gentry. Thus the rules of conduct to which the colonial Virginia gentleman subscribed were copied from an Old World Elizabethan pattern. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries a loosely defined and flexible social code developed to mold the manners of the newly evolving class of English gentry, a code articulated in courtesy books like Thomas Elyot’s The Book Named the Governor (1531), Henry Peacham’s Complete Gentleman (1622), and Richard Brathwaite’s The English Gentleman (1630).

This code of gentility strongly influenced the social attitudes of the plantation owners of colonial Virginia. Regardless of whether they completely embraced the idea of Cavalier blood inheritance, by the eighteenth century Virginia’s planters fully embraced the ideal of the gentleman, and they considered themselves to be the preeminent exemplars of the type in the new English colonies. This polished and cultivated self-image is clearly on display in colonial Virginia writing, from the poems and essays decorating the pages of Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette, to the supercilious descriptions of uncouth backwoods North Carolinians penned by William Byrd, the consummate eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman, in his History of the Dividing Line (written ca. 1728, published 1841).

Mount Vernon Hunting Horn

Like his English counterpart, the colonial Virginia gentleman was expected to embrace the first commandment of the genteel code—the idea that men of high social rank were born to lead, while the vast majority of common men were born to follow and serve. Assured of his own social superiority the gentleman was nonetheless obliged to embody in his interactions with his inferiors the quality of noblesse oblige, to act with courtesy and thoughtfulness toward all, regardless of their social status. The Virginia gentleman sought to attain qualities of fortitude, temperance, prudence, justice, liberality, and courtesy. These Aristotelian virtues tended to supersede strict adherence to the Ten Commandments. Sins of the flesh, for example, might be forgiven if they were not blatant, excessive, or destructive of a gentleman’s essential integrity. In colonial Virginia some degree of learning was thought to be essential for a gentleman. However, a refined social leader scorned crabbed pedantry that delved into esoteric subjects. A Virginia gentleman believed that the best and most useful knowledge was broad rather than deep. Learning was an adornment, worn lightly and gracefully, that—along with dancing, fencing, hunting, riding, and occasionally the playing of a musical instrument—combined to produce a complete and smoothly functioning social creature.

Writers of courtesy books were rather vague about the source of a gentleman’s honor. This quality was variously identified with virtue and with reputation. But though there was disagreement concerning its precise definition, there was substantial agreement with the notion that the primary purpose for a gentleman’s following his code was to possess and maintain a reputation for personal honor that commanded the respect of all his peers as well as of all those of lower social order. The colonial Virginia gentleman placed great importance on the preservation of his individual honor. Unlike his nineteenth-century heirs, however, he generally did not approve of dueling as an effective means of defending his reputation.

Jefferson Impersonator at Poplar Forest

The code of gentility was thus translated across the Atlantic from the English rural gentry to the Tidewater Virginia planters who presided over moderate-to-large landholdings cultivated by enslaved labor, and it ultimately came to define the characters of planters throughout the South. From the eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, wherever the plantations system spread into the middle and lower South, so too did Virginia’s myth of Cavalier inheritance and the closely allied code of the gentleman. Yet even among the slaveholding gentry of the Deep South there was widespread acknowledgement that the Virginia gentleman had been the original and most exalted model of gentility and that he remained the most polished and refined example of the type.

The Revolution and Antebellum Periods

The Victory Ball

The American Revolution (1775–1783) represented the high-water mark for the Virginia gentleman’s standing in the nation’s cultural consciousness. Led by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Virginia’s landed aristocracy played crucial roles both in the achieving of independence and the formation of America’s uniquely democratic national identity. Ironically, the independence to which the Virginia gentry had so brilliantly contributed led to the swift collapse of the Old Dominion‘s highly profitable tobacco trade with England. Despite the serious economic and cultural decline that befell the state’s plantation economy after the Revolution, Virginia’s gentry continued to maintain for decades an outsized influence in national politics. Seven of the first fifteen U.S. presidents, including four of the first five, were Virginia natives. Virginians of the nineteenth century retained a proud consciousness of the vital contributions of their elite leaders to the establishing of the new nation. This pride was on prominent display in the works of Virginia’s antebellum writers, which featured flattering and idealized portrayals of Virginia gentleman.

The Knights of the Horse-Shoe; A Traditionary Tale of the Cocked Hat Gentry in the Old Dominion

Among the original fictional portraits of the Virginia gentry, George Tucker‘s The Valley of Shenandoah (1824) and John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn (1832) were set evocatively on plantations presided over by high-minded and proud country squires. Minor defects in the genteel characters occasionally could be detected within the overall admiring and sympathetic treatment, but the relatively tempered tone of early Virginia fiction vanished entirely in the decades preceding the Civil War. William Alexander Caruthers, in The Cavaliers of Virginia (1834) and The Knights of the Golden Horseshoe (1845), fashioned completely idealized portrayals of colonial Virginia gentlemen. And John Esten Cooke‘s The Virginia Comedians (1854) and Henry St. John, Gentleman (1859) likewise retreated on the eve of secession into the golden age of the state’s colonial and Revolutionary past, ignoring the obsolescence of its idealized heroes in an age of highly polarized political conflict. Indeed by 1860 the fictional Virginia gentleman had been fully enlisted in the defense and justification of chattel slavery.

The Postbellum Period

Confederate Hair Relic

The Civil War destroyed both slavery and the plantation system, institutions that had served the state as the foundations of its genteel tradition. But the war did not diminish the Virginia gentleman’s appeal either within the Old Dominion or in the nation beyond. In the ashes of the Confederacy’s collapse the white South conveniently convinced itself that the cause for which the region had fomented rebellion and disunion had not been cast into disrepute by defeat. To the contrary, it had been sanctified by that defeat and transformed into a holy Lost Cause. Inevitably, the central figures of the Lost Cause myth were the South’s gallant and chivalrous gray-clad warriors. Above all these war heroes Virginia and the South were united by their worshipful reverence for the great military leader who epitomized their culture’s martial aristocracy—Robert E. Lee. Indeed, the nobility of this great Virginia gentleman, even in defeat, appealed intensely to the imaginations of both white southerners and northerners. Thomas Nelson Page drew upon Lee’s inspiring example in his highly popular collection of stories, In Ole Virginia (1887). This highly idealized celebration of Virginia’s antebellum Tidewater culture served as a powerful fictional vindication of both the plantation system and of the state’s honorable, high-principled, and racially benevolent gentlemen who had nobly sacrificed themselves on the altars of war.

The Modern Period

The Master of Hounds

By 1900 the Virginia gentleman, though not enjoying quite as high a place in the nation’s consciousness as he had during the age of Washington and Jefferson, still retained much of his favorable cultural appeal. But it was an appeal sustained by viewing history through a lens of sentimentality that tended to erase the violence of slavery. It was also a concept that at its core was bound to white racial superiority. During the opening decades of the twentieth-century Virginia writers, informed by a new tradition of literary realism, began the challenging task of disentangling themselves both from romantic memories of the Civil War and from the state’s idealized Cavalier warriors. They resolved to treat their genteel characters with more irony and complexity. Ellen Glasgow in her Queenborough novels—The Romantic Comedians (1926), They Stooped to Folly (1929), and The Sheltered Life (1932)—strove determinedly to bring realism, “blood and irony” she termed it, to her treatment of upper-middle-class gentlemen. Though most of James Branch Cabell‘s novels were set in the imaginary medieval land of Poictesme, works such as his best-selling Jurgen (1919) and The Silver Stallion (1926) addressed with seriousness and wit the powerful allure of myth and cast an oblique light on the way Virginians who had survived the fall of the Confederacy had created their own pantheon of larger-than-life Cavalier demigods.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

Later in the twentieth century writers such as William Styron began to engage even more provocatively with the idea of the Virginia gentleman. In Lie Down In Darkness (1951) the writer described with a knowing eye genteel characters molded and also warped by contemporary Tidewater Virginia culture. His Milton Loftis—a genteelly bred but undisciplined and morally soiled alcoholic—ventured daringly beyond the more tasteful spiritual lassitude of Glasgow’s and Cabell’s gentlemen. Despite the critical controversy that surrounded Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), the author unquestionably challenged the conventions of romantic Virginia fiction by describing the plantation system and its gentry though the eyes of an enraged enslaved black man. Refusing to capitulate to the romantic appeal of his novel’s Virginia gentlemen, the narrative highlighted the fundamental irony that though these antebellum planters were not individually depraved, the system of chattel slavery that they controlled and forcibly sustained was.

Advertisement for Virginia Gentleman Bourbon

As America moves into the twenty-first century it is germane to question whether the currency that has for centuries been attached to the figure of the Virginia gentleman has not been completely spent. Surely the concept retains some vestigial resonance within the Old Dominion. In Charlottesville the mounted Cavalier, the mascot for the University of Virginia, still gallops across the football field. The bottle label for Kentucky-distilled Virginia Gentleman bourbon still features squires gathered in front of a plantation mansion. But in a nation composed of ever larger numbers of black- and brown-skinned citizens who live amidst increasing social and political polarization and the subversion of traditional cultural and political norms, can the Virginia gentleman positively instruct our country today in any meaningful way? One can certainly make a case for the continued relevance to our society of the Aristotelian virtues of liberality, fortitude, temperance, and courtesy that furnished the foundation of the original colonial character ideal. And considering the survival of this hardy concept in American for nearly four centuries, it would be perhaps premature to write the Virginia Gentleman’s obituary.

  • Watson, Ritchie D. Jr. The Cavalier in Virginia Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
  • Watson, Ritchie D. Yeoman Versus Cavalier: The Old Southwest’s Fictional Road to Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
  • Wright, Louis B. The First Gentlemen of Virginia: The Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial Ruling Class. San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1940.
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
APA Citation:
Watson, Ritchie. Virginia Gentleman, The. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginia-gentleman-the.
MLA Citation:
Watson, Ritchie. "Virginia Gentleman, The" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 30 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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