Southern History Series: The Tidewater Patrician

This is turning out to be an excellent book.

Who were the Southern Founders? What was the Tidewater elite like on the eve of the American Revolution? It’s not good enough to say they were “Americans.” Instead, they were the products of a unique regional culture that evolved between the Susquehanna and Dan Rivers.

The following excerpt comes from John Richard Alden’s book The South in the Revolution, 1763-1789:

“At the time of the Revolution the great planters of Virginia and Maryland, located usually on Tidewater, but also occasionally on the Piedmont and to the west as far as the Shenandoah, formed a true American aristocracy, although hardly a genuine one according to European standards. In Virginia and Maryland no resident save Thomas, Lord Fairfax, born in England, was officially a lord – and at last some members of an authentic European aristocracy should bear lofty titles; there was no great planter who was opulently rich – and persons of vast wealth were numerous among the aristocrats of contemporary Europe; relatively few of the upper-class Virginians and Marylanders could prove respected and gentlemanly ancestry through several generations – and many European aristocrats could. The Carters, Randolphs, Carrolls, and their kind had loftier social and economic stature than English squires, lower standing than English families such as the Wentworths, Stanleys, and Cecils.

Whether or not the European forebears of the First Families of Virginia and Maryland were frequently of gentle birth is a question much canvassed. It would appear that the Chesapeake aristocracy arose principally from the English middle class, with some ancestors of higher estate and as many, doubtless, of inferior status. It is perhaps as idle to extol the antiquity of their superiority as it is to speculate about the origins of their means and the meanness of their origins. Certainly membership in the select portion of Chesapeake society was based upon property rather than heredity. To be sure, substance and family superiority are intimate associates rather than inveterate enemies. The possession of wealth, however, was a sure key to the door of the elite in Virginia and Maryland, as it was and is always and everywhere, sooner or later. The man or woman of ample means was not long excluded from the best circles, nor even from the occasional triangular relationships among them.”

In spite of the Cavalier legend, the Tidewater elite wasn’t drawn in the main from an Anglo-Norman master race that had nobly fought for King Charles I against Cromwell and the Puritans in the English Civil War. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that Tidewater was a Slave Society run by a permeable elite of gentleman tobacco planters who were often of middle class origins and who modeled their lives and society on the English country gentry of the West Country back home. To be sure, there were actual Cavaliers who settled in Virginia and who helped establish this ideal.

“Indeed, the Chesapeake aristocracy was then decidedly fluid, accretions being frequent and welcomed. Although its members highly prized and eagerly sought wealth in land, they did not despise the proceeds of trade or mining, and engaged in the one and the other. Nor did they look down upon persons who acquired property, in whatever decent fashion, but accepted them, when not obnoxious in terms of character or personality, as equals or near equals. George Washington, who was born into a substantial middle-class family rather than a great one, in his mature years occupied an unassailable niche in that aristocracy; Horatio Gates, the son of an English upper servant, but a military officer and late in life the possessor of wealth, was persona grata in stately mansions; other men and women less known to history but of means, education, and repute in varying quantities similarly ascended the social ladder. Fluidity appears, alas, in another fashion, for the members of a Virginia family which had lost its money did “not now meet with so great respect, as … they formerly did.”

Tidewater was an upwardly mobile society.

Social status was determined by birth, manners and property. There were plenty of descendants of lowly indentured servants who over time acquired land and slaves, married well and rose into the Tidewater elite. Virginia was overwhelmingly English. Not only was it English, it was also mainstream in the sense that it admired and emulated the British elite back in the Mother Country and kept up with fashionable trends like the Whiggery that eventually led to its embrace of the Revolution.

“It may be said that the aristocrats of the Chesapeake were chiefly of middle-class antecedents and that they displayed some “bourgeois” qualities, but not that they were town dwellers. They did not reside in Norfolk, Alexandria, Dumfries, or Frederick Town, but upon their estates, in comfortable and often elegant mansions, of which several are happily preserved. Stratford, home of the Lees of Westmoreland County, Virginia, Sabine Hall, built by Landon Carter in Richmond County, the Nomini Hall of Robert Carter, the Gunston Hall of George Mason, the Mount Vernon of Washington were rural residences, their owners the masters of one, two, or several plantations. Handsome and imposing without, such mansions were often luxurious and beautiful within. Studding the landscape, sometimes at large intervals, they were the seats of elegance, culture, and power on both banks of the Potomoc.”

This is certainly how I imagine them.

The Tidewater elite was a world of refined English country gentlemen who lived in mansions scattered across the rural countryside. These men were slaveowners who were educated on the classics. They were highly sensitive to “liberty” because it was such a strong class marker.

“The patrician order of Virginia and Maryland, comprising no more than a few hundreds of families much interrelated by descent and marriage, had reached full flower at the day of the Revolution. Its men, often tall, slender, strong, graceful, and handsome, were splendid physically, fine specimens of the most imposing type of American manhood; its women were commonly extremely attractive in youth, although perhaps merely amiable and charming after their middle twenties, after bearing several children. Finely clad, poised, easy, polite, hospitable, these gentlemen and their ladies formed an elegant country society. Against a background of retinues of Negro slaves they feasted, drank their Madeira, watched cockfights and horse races, played whist and billiards, performed minuets, country dances, and jigs, conversed about the worlds of tobacco and politics, visited each other frequently and at length.

It was not an idle and consequently vicious aristocracy, although the traveler Johann David Schoepf wrote in 1784 that the Virginia gentleman passed “the greatest part of the summer on soft pallets, attended by one or several negroes to ward off the flies, light pipes, and proffer punch, sangry, toddy, or julap.” Such sybaritic and parasitic persons were by no means unknown, but the typical great planter was a man occupied with private affairs of crops, slaves, lands, and business, and with public problems as well. He had much leisure only when he neglected the duties which he owed to his family, his slaves, and his neighbors, who looked to him for leadership. The multifarious activities of a plantation required constant supervision; the Anglican Church, to which in Virginia he almost invariably belonged, demanded some attention and more support; the courts, local and otherwise, called him to service; the militia of his neighborhood took up arms at his order; the House of Burgesses and the councils of the government beckoned him to labor. His wife, without public responsibilities, was burdened with the concerns of her children and household.”

This rings true.

Tidewater was created by normal, well adjusted people from England who came to the New World to improve their situation in life, NOT to create a religious or ideological utopia that was to be some kind of “beacon” for mankind. These men were all Anglicans who identified with the establishment. They created a happy and content society which was ruled by an elite that intermarried and ruled through consensus on most issues. Their lives were absorbed by their families and plantations. Republicanism appealed to them because it seemed obvious that the disinterested gentleman should rule. …

“The typical patrician in terms of education is rather to be found in men like Edmund Pendleton, John Marshall, and George Washington, who had little formal instruction, who acquired information by desultory reading, by the study of law, through their association with others in courtrooms, polite assemblies, and politics. The value of an education obtained by such means should not, of course, be despised. The reading of works upon statecraft, history, religion, the classics, and current poetry and fiction – and there was much of such reading in the mansions of the select – together with the inspiriting and refining influences of social and public intercourse produced well-informed and polish gentlemen, though not necessarily devoted scholars, and hardly pedants. The Chesapeake patrician, not unfamiliar with the world of books, was above all the man of the country, court, council and camp …”

Tidewater produced an elite of brilliant autodidact lawyers.

The typical great planter was less like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison than George Washington. These men weren’t being molded and churned out by institutions like Harvard or Yale in New England. Later, elite Southerners like John C. Calhoun would go to Yale which dishonored him a few years ago by renaming Calhoun College. There is increasingly no place whatsoever for White Southerners, Confederate or otherwise, in elite institutions in 21st century America.

Further reading:

American History Series: Review: Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture

American History Series: The Origins of New England and Virginia

Southern History Series: Review: Planting an Empire

Southern History Series: Race War! The Origins of White Nationalism

Southern History Series: The Emergence of White Identity in the Chesapeake

Southern History Series: The Virginia Model

Southern History Series: Thomas Jefferson’s Anglo-Saxon Identitarianism

Southern History Series: Tobacco Mentality

Southern History Series: Libertas: Identitarian Liberty

Southern History Series: Liberty: Its True Meaning In Tidewater

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  1. I’m not an expert on the Revolution but after the British defeats at Saratoga and Ticonderoga the fighting shifted to the South and was pretty brutal. A boy in South Carolina named Andrew Jackson lost most of his family as well as the family farm to the British, who then forced him to become a servant to a redcoat general. Funny how Establishment historians always downplay the South’s role in winning that war, eh?

  2. “Funny how Establishment historians always downplay the South’s role in winning that war, eh?”

    The way they tell it, the war was fought and won on the outskirts of Boston.

    Until I learned the truth, I thought that Yorktown was in Massachusetts, not Virginia, and that George Washington was from Vermont.

  3. >>In spite of the Cavalier legend, the Tidewater elite wasn’t drawn in the main from an Anglo-Norman master race that had nobly fought for King Charles I against Cromwell and the Puritans in the English Civil War<<

    Hunter, now you are being a myth-buster! Perhaps that legend is due to more how colonial Southerners envisioned themselves.(not necessarily a blue bloodline) That can also be important. Who were their heroes? How did Maryland and the Carolinas get named for Stuart family members….(I admit…I've not studied the matter) And while we are at it, why was every single southern colony named for English Royalty? (ditto)

    I don't think many-if-any Virginians or Carolinians went back to fight in the Civil War….but I'm pretty sure a lot of Puritans went back and even stayed on to enjoy Cromwell's Christmas-and-mincemeat-pie-banning paradise. If there is a contrast to made with southern sympathies vs new England it might be seen there. How many Southerners got so happy about Cromwell winning they decided to pull up stakes and go back? probably zero.

  4. Maybe not terribly important, but the following is something that jumped out at me, years ago, in the George Washington entry in my1962 World Book Encyclopedia (in which, of course, John Kennedy is the sitting U.S. president):

    George Washington’s admiration for his half-brother Lawrence (1718-1752) also influenced his development. Lawrence had been educated in England. He had the polish of a young English gentleman.

  5. There were so many estimable Virginians, some no modern historian knows, that counting them is impossible!

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