Polite and Powerful Society

During the colonial era, power predominantly was obtained based on your social status. This often meant high birth, since it was unlikely for the poor to move that far up the social ladder around that time. Power meant a few different things during this time period, and some of that power translated into social power, or power over others.

One major type of interaction was the interaction between spouses. During this time period marriage was more so a matter of companionship more so than it had been in the past, although there certainly still involved marrying well. As a result, some marriages in the gentry were abusive, and the wives of some gentry were in less desirable situations due to the occasionally tyrannical actions of their husbands. However, a major problem was that since the wife forfeited all her property to her husband once she married him, so if the husband asked for a divorce the wife might not have anything. The wife did hold some power in that the husband’s worth was measured by how honorable he is, and his wife was a way to show his honor. However, wives did not have honor themselves although if they were to do something dishonorable the husband would lose honor as a result. So in this respect wives had some power over their husbands.

One major social distinction between the gentry and common people was the simple fact that the gentry were educated further than just the basic levels of reading and writing. This meant that sons of upper class landowning males would likely have gone to a boarding school (or major school of some type) that would for the highest of upper class likely been in England. The sons would also likely have gone to a university, also likely in England. William and Mary had originally been only a grammar school, although it was strategically placed in an area known at the time as Middle Plantation (now known as colonial Williamsburg) which at the time was known to be an area of very great wealth (Wren Building Site Visit.)  Studying and grappling with sciences was often regarded to be only an activity that the upper class would do given that it was fairly impractical and inaccessible to the lower classes (Seminar Discussion.)

The 2% would also often make grand displays of their power through their plantations and manors. When visitors would come to the plantations of the upper class, the owners of said plantations would strategically direct them, depending on how wealthy they were, to take different paths to see different parts of their estates so as to essentially show off how wealthy they were to them. One of such places was Shirley Plantation, which although it was near a river the owner would almost never have visitors enter the house by the riverside entrance, and would have them come through a roundabout route to show the numerous houses and fields that they owned (Shirley Plantation site visit.) Even the materials the estates were made of would be used to show how wealthy the owners were. Many houses in the colonies were made out of wood predominantly, since it was plentiful and fairly easy to shape. However, many public buildings and private manors were made out of bricks, since bricks took longer to make and therefore were more expensive. This was also important for when a member of the gentry was running for political office. Only white, protestant, land-owning male adults were allowed to run for public office. While bribery was illegal, candidates would often invite the public over for social gatherings as a way to tempt potential voters (Westover Plantation Site Visit.) The gentry would also be distinguished even when they died. Usually, graves were marked with wood, which would rot and be impossible to find afterwards. The graves of the gentry were marked with large stone markers, like the one below of Robert “King” Carter. They would also be inscribed with an epitaph in both English and Latin. The main reason for this is because it showed that the individual was educated, and that the people who mattered who read the inscription on their grave would also be educated. However, the graves of the wives would only be in English. This is significant for a few reasons. The first being that the wife is essentially intended to be a reflection of the honor of the husband, and she herself would not be known to be honorable per say. Another reason would be that the wife was not usually educated to the level that the husband would have been, and might not have learned Latin.

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(I took this picture)

The other major display of power during colonial times was also the ownership of slaves. Only the very wealthy could own slaves during colonial times, so often owning many slaves would be a sign of incredible wealth. Peyton Randolph had 27 slaves just at his own household in Williamsburg, with many more on other plantations he owned (Randolph house site visit.) Members of the gentry and even their children would often have their own slave that would accompany them wherever they went; accounts of students at William and Mary’s original college building have been found regarding students that brought their own slave with them. Slaves were aware, however, that while they had no official power, they did have some power over their masters. There were very careful relationships between house slaves and their masters, as both knew that the masters’ lives would be in the slaves’ hands when they fell asleep (Peyton Randolph House Site Visit.) Slaves might also sabotage the property of the master in some way, or might do simple things like cook vermin into the masters’ food, which would give themselves some laughs (just so long as the master never knew.) As a result, the slaves would hold, to at least a  limited degree, an amount of power over their masters in the form of fear. Conversely, however, the masters did still hold the right to get rid of slaves if they were to feel afraid of them, asserting that slaves were not the ones with the real power. The wives of masters in fact also would hold an even greater degree of power by fear whenever the husband died, as they could decide what happened to the slaves purely by whim if they so choose (Peyton Randolph House Site Visit.)

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