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The Fall of the Gentry

The Transformation of Virginia: 1740-1790

by Rhys Isaac
University of North Carolina Press, 451 pp., $29.50

It would be hard not to like this book. It places familiar events in new perspectives. It uses new techniques for making the past surrender meanings not previously available. It gives the reader a visual experience missing in most historical works by using illustrations as part of the argument. Not since that forgotten classic The Wind that Swept Mexico by Anita Brenner and George R. Leighton1 have I seen illustrations so effectively combined with text.

The author’s purpose is to reconstruct the society that had developed in Virginia by 1740 and then to observe the transformation that it underwent in the succeeding fifty years. There is, as always in historical works, an implication that this particular transformation was somehow more curcial than any that occurred in the preceding or succeeding half century. But we have to forgive an author this sort of myopia. The question is how well he is able to see, and make us see, the society and social changes of his chosen time and place.

What distinguishes Isaac’s vision is his insistence that relationships among people in any society must be understood not only through the written records of what they said about themselves (which are not in this case voluminous) but also through mute kinds of evidence that the historian must learn to “read” as “statements.” He must extract social relations from what people did to the landscape, from what sort of houses they lived in, from their festivities and amusements as well as their work. In this examination he will make large use of physical survivals—houses and house plans, for example. Although he may have to rely mainly on the written record, he will read it for what he discerns behind it, like an anthropologist trying to discover the patterns of pre-Columbian Indian society from the casual and uncomprehending remarks of the invading Europeans. The method, in fact, is borrowed from ethnographic anthropology, and the author supplies a lengthy explanation of it at the end of the book.

The Virginia of 1740 that this method reveals contains few surprises. It is composed of three elements. The first is a group of great tobacco planters, presiding over princely domains worked by groups of black slaves, who form a second element. The third is composed of independent small farmers with no slaves or very few, who also are engaged in growing tobacco for the world market. While the planters dominate the whole society and not simply their slaves, each of the component elements has its own character. For Rhys Isaac that character, as well as the changing character of the society, is to be found in greater or lesser degrees of individualism and communalism. He gives no precise definition to these terms but allows their meaning to develop from his reading of the different kinds of surviving evidence.

The prevalence of communalism or individualism in each of the three elements is most strikingly exhibited in their housing. Originally almost all Virginia houses were small and simple one-story affairs, with no more than two rooms, one of which was entered from the other. Inside them space was undifferentiated and privacy was minimal. By 1740 this was still standard for small farmers, but large planters were moving toward greater differentiation, with a central hall from which one entered separate rooms both upstairs and downstairs, and with outlying buildings symmetrically subordinated to the “great house.” The only buildings not included in the formal layout of the plantation were the slave quarters, rude one-room barracks that were placed somewhere out of sight.

In these different buildings the author reads a growing individualism among the great planters, expressed in the privacy of separate rooms; a continuing communalism among the small farmers, expressed in the absence of privacy; and a more thoroughgoing communalism among the slaves, whose quarters, off by themselves, did not necessarily house family units but several families or individuals together. By virtue of their isolation and their communal housing the slaves were able to retain or develop an autonomous culture within the larger society, preserving values and social attitudes inherited from an African past. Despite their status, they were in some ways more independent culturally than the small farmers, who tended to repeat in dilute form the attitudes of their large neighbors, to whom they deferred socially as well as politically.

The author draws out the relations between and among the different groups, especially between the large planters and the small farmers, through the occasions on which they came together—at church, at the county court, at taverns, horse races, cockfights, militia musters, elections, and most revealingly at balls and dances. On all these occasions the superiority and authority of the planters as a class were exhibited and acted out, but there was also exhibited an element of contest among them and even of tension among the different classes. The formal balls of the gentry were imitated and satirized among the slaves, and the planters in turn borrowed dance forms from the slaves. Along with the regular English “country” dances at a ball there would be “jigs” in which a couple improvised pursuit and retreat, until one or another was cut out by a newcomer. Isaac sees in this not simply a symbol of courtship but “a palpable element of contest” that pervaded all the amusements of the upper class (another expression of the individualism displayed in their architecture) while the continuity of the whole society was exhibited in the fact that the form itself originated with the slaves (among whom paradoxically it must somehow have expressed communalism).

The transformation that altered this society by 1790 came from two directions. One was the quarrel with Great Britain, which produced a wide assertion of the political ideology imported from the radical Whigs of the mother country. The author does not go into the question of how this ideology came to be present at all in a colony where there had been few signs of it at the opening of the eighteenth century. Nor is he especially interested in the ideology itself, except as it affirmed a voluntary contractual basis for society and thus undermined the hegemony of the planters by extending their individualism throughout the free portion of the society.

Indeed, this element of transformation commands the author’s attention less than the other more complex one, which he has made his specialty: the rise of evangelical religion. After 1740 Pres-byterians, Baptists, and Methodists invaded Virginia and began winning converts among the small farmers and slaves. Their whole way of life challenged that of the dominant class. Where the culture of the gentry was based on the written word, that of the evangelicals was oral. Where the gentry enjoyed contests and rivalry, the evangelicals enjoyed brotherhood. Where the gentry went to the Anglican parish church to display their grandeur, the evangelicals went to their separate meetings to be saved. Where the gentry enjoyed nothing quite so much as dancing, the evangelicals forbade it. While exhibiting communalism in their daily lives, where the gentry were banishing it, the evangelicals affirmed individualism in religion (in their insistence on rebirth) where the gentry wanted none of it. Moreover, they extended their individualistic missionary efforts to slaves, a potentially subversive gesture. Without directly questioning the political dominance of the large planters, the evangelicals repudiated the symbols and rituals on which it depended.

That the large planters perceived the evangelicals as a threat is evident from the violent hostility and contempt with which they were often greeted. But the revolution against British authority dealt a blow to the established Anglican church and gave an opening to the evangelicals to win recognition. Isaac even suggests that the unanimity with which the planters embraced the Revolutionary cause may have been in part an effort to co-opt the evangelicals and reunify the whole society under their own continued domination. But if so the effort was in vain. The close of the Revolution by 1790 saw the three elements of Virginia society more widely separated, with the planters’ patriarchal control destroyed or impaired and their individualism appropriated by their social inferiors. It is of course paradoxical, to say the least, that the evangelicals, stressing communal brotherhood, should also be carriers and beneficiaries of a triumphant individualism, and still more paradoxical that the individualism cherished by the great planters should be the instrument for the destruction of their dominance.

To state the thesis of the book in such bald terms is to do less than justice to the richness of the author’s perceptions. But it is also to suggest the inadequacy of such fuzzy concepts as individualism and communalism for understanding what was happening in Virginia. In spite of the author’s insight and imagination in interpreting the challenge presented by the evangelicals—and this challenge dominates the book—there is too much left out, too much that is unexplained in the transformation that he posits.

There is, for example, comparatively little attention to changes in the Virginia economy during the period covered. The author begins with a description of tobacco cultivation, and there can be no doubt that the special demands of that crop had much to do with the structure of the society that grew it. But the years between 1740 and 1790 saw the introduction of wheat as a major crop. How did this affect the transformation that Isaac portrays? That one did affect the other is almost certain, yet we hear nothing about it. Indeed we are told that “land usage…had scarcely changed.” The shift to wheat was accompanied by another development that must also have affected social relations, namely a surplus of slaves who could not be profitably employed in either tobacco or wheat production. How did this change in the economic position of slavery relate to communalism and individualism?

Since the author’s treatment of slavery is focused on the autonomy of slave culture, he gives little consideration either to the direct relations of slaves to masters or to the effect of racial slavery on the relations between large plantation owners and small farmers. In his “Discourse on Method” at the end of the book he examines at length a set of episodes on Landon Carter’s plantation that reveal something of the complexity of relations among slaves and between slaves and masters, but his analysis in this section has not visibly contributed to his portrayal of Virginia society in the body of the book. Although there was no developed concept of race as such in the period he deals with, there is more than a little evidence that the blackness of blacks and the whiteness of whites powerfully affected every kind of social relationship. It is not enough to demonstrate simply that black culture was not overwhelmed by white. Interracial attitudes by whatever name they are called deserve more attention than they receive here.

Still another missing element in the picture is the role of the Virginia gentry in the move to strengthen the central government. Isaac shows us that the establishment of a United State government in 1789 brought a reduction in the powers and importance of the state legislature and county courts as instruments of great-planter hegemony. But he does not consider how or why James Madison and his gentry friends deliberately sought that reduction or whether the national government furnished or was intended to furnish new instruments of planter dominance. This is not to say that the author should have written a political history, but he is very much concerned with the distribution of power. It is dangerous to read the signs of that distribution in architecture and rituals while ignoring the overt expressions of it.

It is dangerous because, in spite of the effort to systematize the discovery of hidden meanings in ballroom dancing or horse racing or church attendance, the meanings that emerge must depend heavily on intuitions that derive from what one expects to find. When dealing with words that have an ostensible meaning, the interpreter who thinks there is a different, hidden meaning is at least obliged to offer reasons why he dismisses the ostensible meaning. There is no such control in “reading” horse races or architecture as “statements.”

We are told, for example, that the undifferentiated dwellings of early Virginia expressed and promoted communalism, while the later, more elaborate ones expressed and promoted individualism. If this is anything more than a tautology equating individualism with privacy and the absence of it with communalism, can anyone actually demonstrate the proposition? Can anyone show that in any culture lack of privacy has promoted power or prestige in the group as opposed to the individuals composing it, or vice versa? One is reminded of John Demos’s different reading of the effect on the inhabitants of Plymouth colony of living in small one- or two-room houses. As Demos sees it, the lack of privacy made for the temporary suppression of aggressive impulses that later erupted in quarrels among neighbors.2 In other words, lack of privacy worked in the long run against communalism. Either reading is intuitive. Probably neither is susceptible of empirical demonstration, but they are scarcely compatible.

Or take the author’s discussion of the conflicting tendencies within evangelical religion toward communalism on the one hand and toward individualism on the other. In explaining a continuing communalism in evangelical churches, he concludes by observing: “The proximity of a black society that was highly communal in its religion and way of life could only reinforce the latter tendencies in white popular evangelical forms of worship.” Although he has argued that the evangelicals welcomed blacks to their meetings, thus presumably overcoming racial prejudice, it is surely gratuitous to suppose that any group of white Virginians in 1790 would find support for any practice in the fact that it prevailed among blacks. The evangelicals may have overcome racial prejudice for a time and up to a point; but their attitudes toward slavery and race were not simple, nor were they unchanging, as a recent study of them in depth by James Essig demonstrates.3

In short, the book has blind spots. The transformation it describes may not have been quite what we are told it was. Nevertheless, the author did not make it up out of thin air. The evangelicals did come to Virginia, they did change things. If they did not change them in quite the way he says, if he neglects other changes, he has nevertheless set us thinking about a society and its social relations during the period of the American Revolution in ways that we never did before. That is perhaps as much as one should ask.

  1. 1

    Harper and Brothers, 1943. 

  2. 2

    John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 46-51. 

  3. 3

    James Essig, The Bonds of Wickedness: American Evangelicals Against Slavery, 1770-1808 (Temple University Press, 1982).