Power: Assertion, Practice, and Resistance

Payton Rose

Nicolette Gable

History 216

27 July 2014

Power: Assertion, Practice, and Resistance

After founding Jamestown, the English contingent in the Chesapeake Bay faced numerous challenges including disease, starvation, and war. Upon tobacco’s diffusion, immigrants crossed the Atlantic in droves. Virginia’s population swelled, turning the once-sparse Jamestown into a unique, burgeoning civilization with numerous communities upon the James, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers. As the colony entered the eighteenth century, the classes stratified. Three parts composed society. They were the slaves, farmers, and gentry. The slaves stood at the bottom of the social structure. Just above them toiled the farmers: poor whites with freedom, but without social standing and honor. The gentry stared down from the top of the social pyramid. They controlled Virginia and built an exclusive society centered around an individual’s “honor.” One with more honor has more influence. If one fails to assert or project his honor, his honor fades away. Therefore, the gentry projected its honor through its flamboyant appearance toward Virginian society. Through their honor-based society, the gentry self selected those who exercised political power while the remainder used their immense wealth to fuel the Virginian economy. Those without power used deference to defend their interests, in that they chose not to challenge the ingrained elite and averted further descent through the social pyramid. In return, the gentry peacefully built up their own wealth while avoiding direct contradiction with the poor’s demands, constructing an unbalanced, but functional society.

The Virginia gentry needed not ascend further up the social ladder. They had the power. Their estates were built, their wealth was potent, and their power was attained. The only discriminant in 18th century Virginia amongst the elites was honor. Therefore, Virginian gentry wished to build as much of it as possible. (Treckle, 128) One’s reputation stood on honor. If one’s reputation dissipated, so would his honor. Therefore, the Virginians engaged in a zero-sum game to attain honor. They focused much on appearance, dressing in the highest quality clothing possible, using horses and carriages for transportation rather than simply walking, and building ostentatious manor houses at which passersby marvel. The more poor see the Virginia gentry flaunting wealth, the wealthier the elites’ reputation becomes. At church, the gentry arrived late with the goal of being seen by as many people as possible. They would slash their clothing in order to display more high quality clothing beneath. They would develop plots of land by the river with massive, heated, and symmetrical, brick homes with the hope that merchants and other gentry passing by on the river would see the development. The gentry had the wealth for far more than the aforementioned. They also dabbled in gambling, especially when it concerned horseracing. Many of the wealthiest gentry families raised horses with the goal of racing them. Many of these horses would have ancestries as thoroughly traced as those of the gentry themselves. In order to display that they had sufficient wealth, the gentry would gamble on their horses. (Breen, 193) If they won, it would gain honor. If not, they would lose honor to others. The gentry made such bets under jurisdiction of the court with the goal of prohibiting dirty conduct. (Breen, 250) If a member of the gentry had the best racehorses, his peers and inferiors bestowed upon him the same reputation that would be attained if he had the most lavish house, the most luxurious clothing, or the most lucrative farm. With this reputation would come authority, as only the most reputable of gentry would gain elected or appointed office and a share of political power in the colony. (Sydnor, 40) In short, the society’s nature endowed the gentry with power, but it was up to the gentry to build honor to get more, which was done through flaunting one’s assets with the goal of building a reputation.

While the gentry harnessed political and economic power in 18th century Virginia, the deference of the remaining facets of society contributed to the gentry’s control through deference. A series of stalemates stabilized Virginian society. The gentry maintained nominal control over the lower classes, which held the gentry’s policies in check under threat of resistance. In effect, the gentry and the masses coerced each other into not asserting themselves. The gentry’s stalemates stood with the slaves, poor farmers, and women of gentry stock. For the slaves, resistance was never feasible. A plantation’s slave population always had the facilities to challenge their masters’ authority, but Virginia’s population was more than capable of quelling an open slave rebellion. After Bacon’s Rebellion only succeeded in indentured servitude’s rapid decline in popularity, the lower classes, now dirt-poor farmers made an unofficial deal. For freedom without social mobility, the lower classes agreed not to challenge the gentry’s authority. Most intriguing of the stalemates the gentry held was that with the women of their stock. In exchange for their wives’ deference of authority over family matters to their husbands, foregoing any possible advances in women’s rights, the gentry gave them a pampered lifestyle. (Hellier, 178) In 18th century Virginia, those without power, including slaves, poor farmers, and women, maintained stalemates with the gentry. With these stalemates, the gentry held and exerted its power while not threatening the rest of the population. Through this system, Virginian society remained stable despite massive inequality.

The gentry dominated 18th century Virginia society. The gentry exerted its power through flamboyant practices to advertise wealth and build reputation, which equated to power in their view. While the class as a whole controlled the economy and the government, some were more powerful than others. To attain more power than fellow gentry, one had to build honor through self-promotion and gambling. Virginia’s legal system made gambling government-sanctioned, further supporting such an honor system. Those without power (poor farmers, slaves, and women,) resisted through non-resistance. This deference gave the gentry power, but only enough to continue their way of life. If the gentry looked out for the interests of the masses, the masses would defer power to the gentry. Such a system was stable, although with a massive disparity between the social classes.

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