Darling Degenerates to Democratic Dynamos

Today we hold our founding fathers on a pedestal, viewing them as some of the greatest people to grace the face of this planet.  Actually, we don’t just hold them up on a pedestal- we hold them in much higher regard than that, going so far as to carve their faces into the side of a mountain!  Without them, the revolution would not have been successful, if it had come about at all.  Although we hold our founding fathers high in our minds and on Mt. Rushmore, in reality they lived in a highly flawed society. The upbringing of the gentry gave them the unity, education, and resources to bring about a successful revolution and subsequent government; however, their dominance and sense of entitlement meant the government they created was not one of equality, but of continued class divisions.

Jamestown originally began as an economic venture and not a royal colony.  The first representative government, the General Assembly, met in 1619.  Movement up the social ladder and into the gentry in the 17th century was feasible for people who came into America- by establishing a prosperous plantation, although not easy, you could carve yourself a place in high Virginia society and therefore government.  Later in the 18th century people began to live longer and amass wealth they could pass on to their children.  This meant the gentry class solidified and began to distance itself further from the common people, increasing the gap between the classes.  In the 18th century social mobility was much less common as the gentry were established into great families, the First Families of Virginia.

The First Families of Virginia dominated the social and the political scene of the colonial era.  Vastly superior status and education meant that the gentry, “begets some magnificent notions… becomes as infallible as the Pope; gradually acquires the habit of making long speeches… and is always very touchy to the point of honor”  (Kennedy 35).  The supposed “infallibility” and “magnificent notions” of the gentry arose from a developed power complex.  They were kings of their plantations, ruling over their wives, children, servants, and slaves; controlling all aspects of their isolated dominions.  Isolation meant that European texts occupied their spare time, as the other members of the household were not of high enough status to really socialize with.  This meant when the revolution began in the late 18th century, there was already precedence among the gentry of being acquainted with English and Enlightenment philosophers, ideas such as natural-born rights and all men being equal before the law.

Philosophy, literacy, and governmental ideology, although rampant among the gentry, were severely lacking among the common people.  Certain teachers and romantics today would love to claim the revolution was greatly inspired by the teachings of Locke, natural borne rights, and desire for freedom and equality.  Common people, however, were motivated instead by issues more immediate to them- the oppressive taxes imposed, desire to sell tobacco for higher prices, and fear the British would free their slaves.  Had the gentry not been in power, our government would not have the founding principles it does today, since the founding principles were drawn from the gentry’s classical education.

The common people also lacked the unity of the gentry.   In 1759 an English traveler remarked that there was such “the difference of character, of manners, of religion, of interest, of the different colonies, that I think… were they left to themselves, there would soon be a civil war from one end of the continent to the other”  (Breen 73).  Not only were the colonies religiously and geographically different, they were also not inclined to work with each other out of self-interest. Beginning in Jamestown, the people of the colonies, especially Virginia, were highly individualistic.  They looked for personal gain, instead of gains for society as a whole.  Focus on individual profit lead to the forming of individual tobacco plantations and farms spread out across the land to the west.  Geographic distance impeded communication, and as a commoner you would only have contact with your family and town members when you saw them at church or in the courts.  Furthermore, the individualism that caused early Virginians to spread out meant differing of interests; even if the common folk had contact with other communities, they would not have any bonds to them.  Communication with the rest of the colonies and world was only a luxury the gentry could afford through horses, newspapers, and contacts in England.  These means of communication were critical for organizing revolutionary troops and the congress during the revolution.   Communication also led to stronger bonds among the gentry of different areas than the lower classes.

Artist: Kevin Moore

Bonds among the gentry were stronger in the 18th century than ever before, due to common birth in America, giving rise to the “creole elite” who cooperated more than their immigrant forefathers (Breen 241).  Gentry were raised with a sense of entitlement, causing them to jealously guard their power.  They did so from royal governors such as Nicholson and Spotswood through use of the power of the Assembly and the Committee of Privileges and Elections.  The Committee was designed to watch the doings of the governor, often overstepping onto his terrain, and  kept the governor from building a large court part within the House of Burgesses (Sydnor 13-14).  The lack of a strong court party in the Assembly at the time of the revolution was key in Virginia’s ability to declare its independence, spurring other states to do so. All gentry were involved in political life, establishing a connection between the government and the rich, able persons long before the revolution — an ideal Alexander Hamilton believed was essential for a stable democracy.  In his eyes, the common folk are turbulent and ever changing, and needed the rational, educated upper class to keep them in check through good government (Govan 675).  The government certainly was effective in ensuring the upper class remained in power by restricting votes. The entire social structure of deference and limited social mobility furthered this cause.

Essentially the government was not created by “We the people”- more accurately, it was created by the gentry, for the gentry.  The government could claim it was representative because the House of Burgesses was elected.  But these elections were ultimately unfair because only a small number of the population could vote and therefore be represented.  Voters had to be free, landholding white males over the age of 21.  While these voters were not necessarily super rich, a quarter of them having owned less than 100 acres, and as many as a third not having slaves (Sydnor 37), they were not average farmers.  Slaves and women were also not represented, important groups who comprised over half the population.  The few who could vote on election days were bribed by the gentry with alcohol and treats.  This corruption was not consistent with the ideal we hold today, that everyone over 18 should be able to vote, free on any influences.

Source: The Standard Review, September 2009

Our nation was formed as one that protects individual freedoms — an enlightened ideal in theory, but not one used in practice.  The gentry of Virginia were highly conscious of their honor, a legacy they passed down through generations and that was present with the founding fathers.  They were highly conscious of the fact that the government they formed would be their legacy; and that by including enlightened ideals they were ensuring they would be remembered.  Although the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom and Bill of Rights secured freedom of religion, they still did not see religions as equal.  The Baptists remained persecuted, dissidents might still be stoned in Massachusetts (Schumann), and when democratic governments in Latin American failed, John Adams blamed the failure on the countries being Catholic.  This prejudice against the Catholics was a belief inherited from Virginia gentry forefathers, who believed voters had to be Protestant since the Catholics may be influenced to vote by the Pope or their priests.  Another prejudice inherited by the founding fathers from their Gentry fathers was that against slaves.  According to the gentry in the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves were property and as such did not merit natural born rights.  In 1812 Virginian John Randolph called the belief that all men were created equal a “falsehood, even though I find it in the declaration of Independence,” and that man is born “in a state of the most abject want, and a state of helplessness and ignorance,” which subjects certain men to the control of others.  Other elites in government at the time echoed these senitments, including congressman Joseph Clay and senator John Calhoun (Knopf 199).  Although some of the founding fathers, such as Patrick Henry, believed slavery was wrong, the government they came up with did not address the issue of slavery.  If anything, one of the causes of the revolution was to keep the institution of slavery in place, since the British threatened to free and arm slaves.  The government put in place claimed all men were created equal so the gentry could maintain their ingrained sense of honor, but in reality the new government was also created as a way to keep the gentry in power of those below them.

The gentry believed themselves to be like the patriarchs of the Old Testament, and “live a kind of independence on every one but providence” (Breen 244).  Although they kept themselves from falling under the control of others, they were conscious that their power did rely on deference of the people below them.  When revolutionary ideas rose in popularity among the common people in response to the British taxes and taking of gunpowder, many gentry needed to side with them to stay in control.  Sure, the government derived power from the people — power to control them.  The gentry were tied closer to Britain than the commoners since they modeled their social lives off of those of the British aristocracy, whom they had peers among, and only joined the revolution when it seemed nothing further could be done.  Without their cooperation, the war would have been much further drawn out, as without the gentry the common folk did not have a reliable network for communication nor as many commonalities in goals.  The different religions of the colonies, along with different currencies and cultures, would have meant the common folk probably would not have come up with any sort of government that united them internationally.  They would not have followed proper channels- drawing up constitutions and Declarations of Independence, making it harder to have common ideals and support from the international community.  Lack of cohesion and French support would probably have led to them lose to the British though a much bloodier and more drawn out conflict.

For democracy to function well in a society, the society must develop men who are fit to govern, and these men must be able to succeed and enter office over their subordinates (Sydnor 1).  Today we view our forefathers as saints whose government definitely fitted Sydnor’s standard. After all, the gentry’s lifestyle formed leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, Marshall, and Madison, who shaped the government and were active in it.  These men changed the meaning of democracy by introducing it in a positive light, linking democracy to individual freedoms instead of mob rule and suppression of minorities.  The distance between the gentry and common folk developed in the 18th century gave the gentry all the power, and lead them to guide the revolution in such a manner that they would not lose it.  Even though the revolution and our government would not have come to existence without the knowledge and resources of the gentry, it was because of the gentry’s control that inequalities in our nation persisted, and the ideals of our government were not put in practice.

Artist: Ben Sargent, 2008; Universal Press Syndicate


Works Cited

Govan, Thomas P. “The Rich, the Well-born, and Alexander Hamilton.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review (1950): 675. JSTOR. Web. 26 July 2014.

Sydnor, Charles S. Gentleman Freeholders. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1952. Print.

Works Cited

Richard Schumann- CW Patrick Henry interpreter

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