Power of the Gentry

Power was everything to a man in eighteenth century Virginia. Power was accumulated through being part of the gentry, the elite First Families of Virginia, and this power was shown by their home surroundings, the life they led, and how much risk they took in order to reinforce their self identity and to send a message to their social peers and inferiors.

The idea of power is great. During the eighteenth century, one could tell if someone had power by what they did. A gentry man was a part of the political power in Virginia, serving on the justices’ bench and holding public office (Roeber, 132). The gentry was the center of attention; at church, the wealthiest men and their families sat at the biggest pews with the best view of the altar and pulpit, at home, they told everyone how to live their lives. Gentry men of this time dominated their households (Treckel, 164). These men had power in everything in life, including over their families, which sometimes caused tensions in the homes between men and women. Women of the eighteenth century had very little power when there was a man in their life. Manipulating the power of the men in the gentry class gave the women of the time some leverage and transferred the position of power, when it was able to work. Women could withhold things from them men, changing the power hold and using it to their advantage. The marriage of William Byrd II and Lucy Parke Byrd is one example of how this was used. Lucy rebelled against her domineering husband; in Byrd’s diary he wrote about an argument they had about Lucy plucking her brows before going into Williamsburg. He ultimately had the final say and only under rare circumstances didn’t get his way. Treckel wrote, “She fought back. In doing so, she both embraced and violated notions of womanhood espoused by English family reformers and admired by William…”This was common in marriages of the time period; the men had the power.

Another thing that gave men power, or the idea of masculinity and social privilege, was gambling; the gentry of the eighteenth century was very much into risk taking to show power. A man could only bet as much as he could afford to lose, therefore those with the most wealth could afford to lose more, but could also engage in riskier bets with potentially greater reward; casually asserting this ability to engage in risky behavior thus translated into recognizable  power throughout society (Whittenburg). “Competitive gaming involving high stakes became a distinguishing characteristic of gentry culture,” Breen writes. This is because of the respect and affluence received from gambling, despite the risks of losing. Plus, during this time, whether you were gentry or middle class, as long as you had the money you could bet on just about anything (Breen, 97). Gambling created a competitiveness between the gentry men that didn’t disrupt the social order of things in Virginia and which could also be replicated on a smaller scale in the lower classes of society (Breen, 98). Horse racing was different, though. Because horses were a status symbol, only the one percent of the one percent could participate in horse racing. First you needed a horse to race, which meant you had a horse you could spare, which in itself would only apply to some of the gentry class. Secondly, most planters rode their own horse in horse races, therefore you had to be willing to risk your life for a bet, due to the dangerous nature of jockeying (Breen). Gambling helped the gentry “preserve class cohesion,” by ameliorating the social tensions created by the business of the time, creating a socially condoned outlet for aggression, as well as keeping the non-gentry at a distance (Breen, 96).

Westover Plantation was home to William Byrd II and Lucy Parke Byrd. There still stands a five person necessary with a fireplace on the property.(Photo taken by Elsa Larsen)

Westover Plantation was home to William Byrd II and Lucy Parke Byrd. There still stands a five person necessary with a fireplace on the property.
(Photo taken by Elsa Larsen)

Westover, the home of William Byrd II and Lucy Parke Byrd showed the enormous amount of power that William Byrd had during his time. He had a home with a five seater privy with a fireplace (Westover tour). Byrd had too much power for his own good and used it to get what he wanted out of life, including his wife. However, as Paula Treckel writes, “[William and Lucy] struggled to reconcile their often conflicting notions of men’s and women’s proper roles in the colony’s emerging plantation economy.” The Byrds fought about everything, but especially about gender roles; or essentially, a “battle in the eighteenth-century war between the sexes.” The power men had over women was astronomical in that period. In the Byrd’s marriage, William micromanaged Lucy; he did not allow her the freedom to run the house, despite the fact that prescribed roles for women in the eighteenth century limited female prerogative and authority to a domestic setting (Treckel, 165). Dysfunction only begins to describe the marriage between the two, and it may never be known for sure whether William truly loved Lucy, but did love power, and the power William gained by marrying Daniel Parke’s daughter was great; despite Parke being a womanizer, he was still a respected Colonel and then Governor of the Leeward Islands (Treckel, 165). The time period in which Lucy Parke Byrd and William Byrd II were married was during a key time in Virginia’s history: transformation to a plantation-based economy using slave labor (Treckel, 171). This change in history caused gender roles to shift, making women dependent on the patriarch and the slaves for status; Lucy Byrd is a key example of a woman not e embracing this variation of social roles, perhaps due to wealth or wanting more leisure time. Whatever the reason, she changed the way men thought about women’s roles.

Shirley Plantation is still home to descendants of the Hill-Carter family. The wealth and power this family had, particularly in the eighteenth century is abundant.

Shirley Plantation is still home to descendants of the Hill-Carter family. The wealth and power this family had, particularly in the eighteenth century is abundant.                         (Photo taken by Elsa Larsen)

However, the women of Shirley Plantation, home to eleven generations of Hill-Carters, descendents of Robert “King” Carter’s eldest son, John Carter and his wife, Edward Hill I’s, great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Hill, had a bit of a rebellious side as well (Shirley Plantation tour, Julian Charity). Mary Braxton Randolph Carter cared for the Union soldiers who laid dying on the lawn of the Shirley mansion (Shirley Plantation tour). The mansion on Shirley Plantation emanates power, wealth, and gentry culture of that time period. The flying staircase wowed guests who entered the hall, whether on business or pleasure trips, and surrounded them with a sense of how much power was in the family. The five portraits of Hill-Carters who greet you in the hall must have intimidated even some of the gentry class. Which entrance visitors came through depended on who they were and how important they were to the family (Charity). Those who came to the plantation could immediately feel the wealth and greatness but also the hospitality of the family, symbolized by pineapples throughout the architecture and décor of the home.

The notion of power was incredible. The men of the century had all of the power; the women were stuck in the middle of not being in charge but not being a slave, causing issues in marriages, most notably between William and Lucy Byrd. This idea of power caused gambling to become popular because of the competitive setting it gave, caused magnificent houses that are still standing today to be built, trying to outdo your neighbor, and hospitality to be run rampant throughout the gentry class. The eighteenth century was the transition period into a whole new culture where social relationships will start to change.

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