Occupy Tidewater

Eighteenth-century Virginia was a very different world than it was a century before: the colony that had struggled to exist, against all odds had become a thriving community.  The small, fortified settlements became cities, and the landscape became defined by sprawling farms and plantations.  As life for Virginians began to settle, so to did their money, mainly in the hands of less than two percent of the population.

Westover Plantation was and is home to one of the most prominent FFV families, the Byrds.Photo taken by the author.

Westover Plantation was and is home to one of the most prominent FFV families, the Byrds.
Photo taken by the author.

Thus was created America’s gentry, which still exists in a way to this day.  These few families, the so-called FFV, saw their wealth not only increase dramatically in the early eighteenth century, but also maintained a steady level of luxury for generations afterward.  This led to increasingly divided Virginia, in which well over half the population was disenfranchised entirely and person-to-person contact between the classes was extremely limited.  Understanding how and why class discrepancies formed between the rich and the poor in the colonial period is important not only for understanding the period in which they lived, but the similarly dysfunctional economics of today.  The reason being the growing lack of person-to-person interactions between the classes.

From when the colony was founded to the turn of the eighteenth century, Virginia’s landscape underwent tremendous change.  As more and more colonists began to claim land – or be given it in some cases – plantation culture began to take root.  However, the planters of the seventeenth century were a different breed from their descendants of several generations.  Even the wealthiest of these planters likely didn’t live in great luxury.  This is evident in sites such as Bacon’s Castle, where the original house was only two rooms-excepting the kitchen and the garret.  Not only that, but the average colonist only lived into his late 30’s or early 40’s, and was, as the pronoun would suggest, male.  No sooner did a man make his fortune and build a house, than he died, leaving it, likely as not, to no one.  In short, though there were class distinctions, the lines were blurred.  An indentured servant could rise to become a wealthy planter should he actually get the land promised him and then use it well. By the eighteenth century, however, there were clear, “stark economic and cultural differences” between the classes (Hudgins, 59).  The largest difference was between the gentry, who made up about two percent of the colony, and the rest of the population.  Social mobility had all but died and the rich increased their wealth by more and more with each passing generation.

What affected this change?  Hudgins attributes it to a rising “patrician culture” that came over from the old country.  A patrician class cannot exist without plebeians to do the dirty work of society, and in order to have a pyramid of power, the large majority of people must be on the bottom.  This was accomplished in several ways.  As the tobacco industry flourished in Virginia, so too did another industry: slavery.  It was much easier for planters to buy slaves, who never had to be released or rewarded, than white indentured servants who usually only worked for seven to fourteen years and then were owed land and resources.  Not only did this introduce a new lowest class that would soon rise to 50% of Virginia’s population, it also virtually erased social mobility for poor whites.  By these means the rich were able to grow unbelievably rich while the poor stagnated in their place.

Virginia in the early eighteenth century was “a hierarchy based on race, class, and gender” (Treckel, 127), not only because of the growing population of black slaves, but also the growing population of women.  Women had gone from a meager minority to about 50%.  This meant that traditional gender roles were again applicable.  Women, who would once have been considered a valued commodity, often coming to the colonies in search of husbands (Wash and Carr, 546), were treated as second-class citizens as they would have been back in England.  This is not to say that life before the eighteenth century was easier for women in the colonies, indeed the struggle of being in the vast minority was not easy.  But it was the eighteenth century where we see women’s ‘roles’ as really taking form.

Within the gentry, a hierarchy based on gender was easy to establish.  Women were encouraged to keep to themselves in their domestic spheres, while men were free to manage the world of politics and power.  Women kept to themselves except in matters of sex and marriage.  This led to “an emotional separation of the sexes” (Treckel, 151), and widened the gap between the men who controlled the power, and the women who were instructed to bow to it.

Women were kept in their domestic setting and slaves-with the exception of personal slaves- were kept at a ‘respectful’ distance.  Even lesser white males were kept from their wealthier counterparts in almost every aspect of life.  In the home, the lavish plantations of the patrician class were far removed from the humble wooden houses of the poor (Isaac, 79).  It was this widening physical distance that made the different groups and classes feel so segregated from one another.  And the classes weren’t just separated domestically.

The corner stone of 18th century Virginia life was the court, the place where the largely rural population came to be around others, and nowhere were the distinctions in class clearer.  To the right is a photograph of the courthouse at Colonial Williamsburg, which is accurate but for the benches in the commoners’ space.  It’s clear from the layout that the gentlemen

The courthouse at Colonial Williamsburg.Photo taken by the author.

The courthouse at Colonial Williamsburg.
Photo taken by the author.

justices, who all had to be white, male, adult, and property owning, are seated not only above the common folk but separated from them by a rail.  As the income gap widened, it seemed, so did the space the wealthy wanted between themselves and their perceived inferiors (Roeber, 30 and 32).

The growing physical and economic separation between the classes, the races, and the sexes, proved a vicious circle.  As the wealth of the plantation class increased, they could afford to keep themselves more and more amongst others of their set: at plantations like Rosewell, Shirley, and Westover, great families of the FFV owned – in some cases – hundreds of thousands of acres of land, leading to an environment that consisted of friends, family, and slaves, and excluded all others.  Slaves were rarely spoken to directly by their masters, and women were encouraged to limit meaningful and potentially confrontational conversations with their husbands (Treckel, 148).  With meaningful interaction made difficult by conduct; empathy, and therefore progress toward equality could not take place.

This vicious cycle began America’s long history of economic disparity that continues to this day.  And while it may seem a thing of the past, a product of an outdated, outlawed system, the American gentry is still current and relevant.  By understanding the harm that comes of separating people by race, sex, or class, we can work toward a more equal future.


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