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Governor Berkeley and the Creation of the Virginia Aristocracy: The landed gentry rose to prominence in Virginia with the arrival of Sir William Berkeley as Royal Governor. Governor Berkeley, an Oxford-educated playwright, soldier and diplomat, arrived in Virginia in 1642, when Virginia was a frontier society of roughly 8,000 colonists. He was to hold office longer than any other governor of Virginia. Born in 1606 in England, Berkeley had been a courtier in the court of the British monarch Charles I, and came with a desire to invigorate the colony and create an imitation of British society in the New World. Under his administration, the first generation of what would be known as the Virginian aristocracy came into existence before the English Civil War ended. These included the founders of powerful dynasties such as John Carter, Richard Lee, Benjamin Harrison, the first Randolph and Thomas Stegg (or Stegge) who amassed the Byrd wealth. All of the colonizers who rose socially had connections, wealth and education. These advantages promoted them to the highest rungs of the colonial society. The families they founded ruled the Royal colony of Virginia for more than a century.
The Byrd, Beverley, Carter, Culpepper, Isham, Washington, Spencer, Randolph, Jefferson, Bland, Beverely, Bolling, Eppe and Hackett families intermarried, creating a web of overlapping kinships. They sat on the governing boards of the colony and promoted each others interests. Berkeley also fostered the rise of the General Assembly from a small body into a replica of the Parliament in England, and promoted a separation of power between provincial and county governments. He worked to create a royalist society, where an elite ruled over the great masses of yeoman farmers, free and enslaved African Americans, indentured servants and marginal farmers who leased their land. A brief look at some of the families who served in the Virginia House of Burgesses displays a continuity of the landed-gentry class in the governing class of the colony. In 1664 Lawrence Washington and William Randolph were elected members of the House of Burgesses. The 1736-1740 legislative session had representatives of the Randolph, Carter, Fitzhugh, Beverely and Berkeley families seated, and the 1776 Assembly had Carters, Randolphs and Lees as well as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
In England, the country was torn by a civil war (1642-46) pitting the supporters of the King against Parliament. Fleeing the war, the first members of the Culpepper, Hammond, Honeyweed and Moryson families arrived in the colony. These cavaliers (as supporters of King Charles I during the English Civil War were called) found a ready home in Berkeley’s Virginia. Indeed, Virginia was the last English colony to relinquish its allegiance to Charles I and the first to proclaim Charles II King. In 1652 British soldiers, arriving from Parliamentarian England, faced off, without battle, against Berkeley’s colonial royalist troops. Berkeley knew the royal cause was lost, and successfully bartered with the Parliamentarian forces for three concessions. He managed to safeguard Virginia’s royalist political establishment from retribution, preserved the loyalty of Virginians to the King, and protected the property of the Virginians who opposed Parliament. He was asked in return to vacate his office, and the new Governor was Richard Bennett. Sir William Berkeley removed himself to his estate, and upon the restoration of the Stuart dynasty in 1660 became Royal Governor again. After his restoration as Royal Governor, Berkeley lost some political contests with Charles II—in particular, the right of the colony to trade with the Dutch, and the right to repeal the Navigation Act of 1660 that forced Virginia goods to transit through English ports exclusively, where they were taxed.
It was Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) which ended Berkeley’s reign as Virginia’s Governor. Bacon’s Rebellion was a struggle between the tightly-knit Tidewater colonists and those colonists living on the frontier, where the Indian presence overshadowed other concerns. Preceding Bacon's Rebellion was a period of declining tobacco prices, frustration at losses in the recent naval war with the Dutch, and harsh weather which caused the colonists to vent their frustrations on the neighboring American Indians. In 1675 escalating clashes between the Indians and colonists helped ignite the unrest. After some Susquehannock chiefs living north of the Potomac were killed while under a flag of truce by Maryland and Virginia militia, the Indians retaliated by slaying a number of planters in Virginia. Berkeley was anxious to keep peace with the Indians, but the Virginia Assembly responded in 1676 by ordering forts to be built in the frontier area. Nathaniel Bacon Jr., a cousin of Berkeley by marriage, became the leader of the rebellion. Bacon urged retaliatory measures against the Indians, and when Governor Berkeley refused to raise the necessary militia, Bacon raised a militia of frontier planters.
Bacon and his men marched on Jamestown and captured the colonial capital, forcing the governor to flee. However, on October 26, 1676, Bacon died of a disease called the “bloody flux” and his rebellion began to fall apart. Berkeley returned to Jamestown to reestablish his authority, and the frontier warfare with the Indians died down once order was restored. A royal inquiry lead by Colonel Herbert Jeffreys, who arrived in the colony with 1,000 British troops too late to deal with the rebellion, caused the Governor to go to England to protest his innocence. Colonel Herbert Jeffreys declared himself Governor once Lord Berkeley left Virginia.
Dying in England on July 9, 1677, before he was to have an audience with the Stuart King, Berkeley left behind a lasting legacy in Virginia. When he arrived in Virginia it was a frontier society with about 8,000 colonists, and in the 35 years of his tenure the population increased to 40,000. Desiring to recreate the English social structure, he recruited a Royalist-mercantile elite for the colony, with strong ties to the Mother Country in custom, religion and government. By expelling all “non-conformists” (puritans) from the colony in 1642 he established the undisputed primacy of the Anglican Church of England in the colony.
Lifestyle of the Gentry: A network of familial connections defined the Virginia gentry. Since surviving spouses often remarried and had more children, an extended number of kinships existed across the colony. This was recognized by the British government when Virginia Governor Major Hugh Drysdale in 1724 recommended John Carter, the son of the most powerful man in the colony, Robert “King” Carter (1663-1732), to fill the office of Secretary of the Colony. The Secretary, after the Governor, was the second most important office in colonial Virginia, as the Secretary possessed the right to appoint all county clerks, and was keeper of the colonial seal. Drysdale wrote, “There is scare a qualified person in the Colony unattended with some such like inconvenience, for they are all incorporated either in blood or marriage.”
The Virginia gentlemen cultivated arts, sciences and learning. William Byrd II possessed one of the largest libraries in colonial America, and a garden noted for its rare specimens. Books were ordered from England, and the Byrd library at Westover held roughly 4,000 books. The diaries and letters of Virginian gentlemen are filled with orders to London publishers and booksellers, and they were kept abreast of the latest theories in agriculture, science, philosophy and history. As symbols of their status, a family of the gentry would own a plantation house, a family library, a collection of furniture often imported, and silver engraved with the family crest. Indeed, the desire for coats of arms kept the College of Heralds in London busy. Among this class also, portraits were important, and often displayed in a procession of ancestors. The Randolphs and Fitzhughs in particular were noted for the number of their family portraits. In sports, the first gentlemen of the colony preferred horse racing and betting. The upper class made great displays of dining well on highly seasoned and fried foods, and cultivating the art of dinner conversation.
Wealthy Virginians dressed elaborately. William Fitzhugh, writing from his King George County estate in 1686, understood the need for a person to present a well-bred façade to the Virginians in order to be socially accepted. Writing to his sister in England he advised her to come to Virginia “Handsomely & gentleley & well cloathed, with a maid to wait on her & both their passages paid there. This would give us both credit & reputation without which is unfortunate living.” By the time of George Washington’s birth this social custom and posturing was so established in Virginia that a Philadelphian was warned to go “handsomely dressed” to the colony because people there look “more at a man’s outside than his inside.”
As the Tidewater region became full, ambitious families settled in the Northern Neck region and west of the Fall Line to build their fortunes. Thomas Randolph founded the plantation he named Tuckahoe, 15 miles west of the Falls, in what is today Richmond, while Peter Jefferson (ancestor of Thomas Jefferson) developed holdings in Orange County. The fluidity within the colony showed that there was still room on the higher rungs of society, making possible the rise of individual families, but many began removing west for their fortunes, a trend that would continue into the American era. Virginia lost more than an estimated million people before the Civil War to westward migration.
The American Revolution and After: In the decade leading up to the American Revolution, many wealthier Virginians found themselves in debt to British merchants. Tobacco exports fell (although in 1775 the tobacco sent abroad was estimated at four million pounds and as a crop accounted for the leading export to England), but the demand for British goods rose, as did the taxes to pay for the recent French and Indian War. As a group, most of the landed gentry supported the American Revolution. One exception was William Byrd III (1729-1777) who had loyalist leanings. During the Revolutionary War many Virginians from the gentry class made their mark in the Revolutionary cause including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, William Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee and Henry Lee, known as Light Horse Harry.
By the conclusion of the American Revolution, the Virginia gentry feared losing their status. In the post-Revolutionary era, some gentry families faced economic decline. Thomas Mann Randolph of Goochland, who helped fund the American Revolution, bemoaned the social consequences of the victorious cause he supported. The “spirit of independency” he explained, “was converted into equality, and every one who bore arms, esteemed himself upon an [equal] footing with his neighbors.” Colonel Landon Carter of Sabine Hill, in his diaries (written between 1752-1778, the year of his death) displays some of the anxiety at the growth of republicanism. Carter agreed with the Continental Congress that ties with England had to be severed; but he writes with real conviction of the dishonor of his son having to appeal to the mob to win election.
The American Revolution brought to the fore the question of freedom for the enslaved peoples in America. The Virginia slaveowners, bound to the system by custom and economic ties, could not, with rare exceptions, bring themselves to emancipate their slaves. Robert Carter III was one of the exceptions. In 1791 he freed all 461 slaves he owned. Carter seems to have been religiously motivated. The customs and laws that had held the ruling planters’ colonial-feudal society in check were rapidly changing with the advent of American independence. In October 1776, Thomas Jefferson began amending Virginia’s laws to create a more republican form of government. In 1776, he introduced a bill in the Virginia House of Delegates to abolish the laws of "entail," in which ownership of land was restricted through inheritance to biological descendants of the original grantee in order to preserve the size of large estates. He also led the effort to abolish primogeniture (inheritance of all family property solely by the first born son). Both efforts were successful. Jefferson considered one of his greatest accomplishments his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which ended the role of the Anglican Church as the legally established religion in Virginia. Many of the gentry opposed these reforms. John Randolph of Roanoke, a wealthy planter, complained that, “The old families of Virginia will form connections to low people, and sink into the mass of overseers’ sons and daughters; and this is the legitimate, nay, inevitable conclusion to which Mr. Jefferson and his leveling system has brought us.”
If the American Revolution changed the social environment, the Civil War (1861-65) altered the landscape entirely. The Civil War saw some plantation homes ruined, some spared, and some used by the Union and Confederate forces. Berkeley Plantation was used by Union General McClellan’s troops to recover from its wounds in the ill-fated 1862 Peninsula Campaign to take the Confederate capital of Richmond. Neighboring Westover was Union Fifth Corps headquarters while Edgewood gave refreshment to Confederate Cavalry commander, General J.E.B. Stuart, after he made a 36-hour ride behind enemy lines, followed two weeks later by the encampment of General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Flowerdew Hundred was occupied during the 1864-65 campaign when Union soldiers built a pontoon bridge over the James River and seized the strategic spot. After the Civil War some of the old gentry families held on to their ancestral estates in a rapidly changing world. A romanticism about the great colonial and pre-Civil war Virginia and Southern planter families has long occupied the American imagination, as seen in popular literature and film, and continues to do so. The great plantations along the James River stand as a testimonial to the power and culture of the Virginian aristocracy in colonial and American history.
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