“Power Play”

One minute the colonists are starving at Jamestown the next the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer.  A class society came about during the early eighteenth century, with the rich cultivating their cash crops and the middle and lower classes trying their best to get in on the action.  With the rise of the early eighteenth century gentry and the First Families of Virginia, a game of power play ensued with the upper class trying to better their others.  The arrogant, selfish and downright “God” like attitude of the Virginia elite expressed through their treatment of slaves and the way they showed off their power family had a profound impact on the culture of early eighteenth century Virginia.

The first example of immense power and wealth involves the famous member of the gentry Robert “King” Carter.  As historian Carter

Robert 'King' Carter played a pivotal role in early-eighteenth century Virginia gentry lifestyle.  Image - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/89/Robert_Carter_I.JPG

Robert ‘King’ Carter played a pivotal role in early-eighteenth century Virginia gentry lifestyle. Image – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/89/Robert_Carter_I.JPG

Hudgins has put it, “not many planters began life with as many advantages and privileges, and not many achieved as much as Carter.” (Hudgins 60)  As a young man, Robert Carter inherited

Corotoman, a plantation located between the Corotoman River and Carter’s Creek, thus beginning his illustrious career as a planter.  Being a part of this planter aristocracy, Carter reaped in the rewards of large scale agriculture.  “By the time he died, his plantation empire stretched from the Tidewater to the foothills of the Appalachians through more than a dozen Virginia counties.” (Hudgins – 60)  The example above clearly shows that the gentry had so much wealth that their power was shown through their mass accumulation of land.

Religion played a major role in day to day early eighteenth century Virginia lifestyle.  One could be taken to court for not showing up to church at least once a month.  The church was as much a place of social gathering as a place of worship.

That being said, the architectural layout of some churches, such as Christ Church in Lancaster County Virginia, helped reinforce who was on top and who was on the bottom.   Christ Church was funded and construction was supervised by the wealthy Robert “King” Carter.  Christ Church was built in the Georgian Style popular in England; Carter knew that this use of Georgian architecture would show off his intelligence and knowledge of old world architecture.  Moreover, Carter would have further demonstrated his social status in the way in which he entered and arrived at church, either by carriage or horseback.  The meaning of such actions would not have been lost upon contemporary observers, as “the words and forms of action at church clearly asserted the hierarchical nature of things, confirming definitions of authority within the rural community itself.” (Isaac 64)  Upon my visit to Christ Church I learned that Robert “King” Carter and his family and friends had large high-backed pews and used to drape curtains above the pew so they could not be seen by the lower class.  This act of concealment by the Carters would be seen as a show of power because they believed that common folk should not be able to lay their eyes upon them.  This arrogant “Royalty” like attitude reflects the social culture of early eighteenth century Virginia.  The examples shown above substantiate my thesis by showing how the gentry showed off their power thus having a profound impact on early eighteenth century Virginia culture.

Honor was the main principal that governed the gentry’s day to day lifestyle.  From the way they dressed to the way they acted in public the gentry were governed by the principal of honor.  “The winning of respect, from superiors and inferiors, was the goal of the gentry’s actions and was, in some respects, a special kind of currency in which the gentry traded.” (Hudgins – 68)  The gentry gained this respect in many ways by having horse races, gambling and in Robert “King” Carter’s case keeping track of how much he spent on public entertainment and he bragged that none of his peers spent more.  This haughty attitude of needing respect to feel like a “King” shaped the social culture and interactions of the early eighteenth century Virginia gentry.

Another prime example of how the gentry brandished their power involves early eighteenth century Virginia marriages.  The idea at the time was that married Englishwomen were the “heart of the home” and they brought “harmony to the domestic sphere”. (Treckel – 128)  However, this philosophy was a total self-contradiction for early eighteenth century Virginia gentry wives.  “They were told their

real “freedom” came through submission to their husband’s will.”  (Treckel – 128)  A famous clash of wills during this time period

William Byrd II influenced his plantation with his “God” like authoritarian attitude. Image – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/William_Byrd_II.jpg

William Byrd II influenced his plantation with his “God” like authoritarian attitude. Image – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/William_Byrd_II.jpg

involves William Byrd II and Lucy Parke.  “Lucy Parke Byrd’s marriage to William Byrd II occurred during a transitional moment in the history of Virginia.  As the Chesapeake was transformed into a plantation based economy dependent on slave labor, women’s and men’s roles began to change.” (Treckel – 155) William Byrd II treated Lucy Parke like she was an extension of him; he believed he owned everything so Lucy basically became a commodity to him.  “These self-styled gentlemen planters wielded great authority over all in their domain – their wives, their children, their servants, and their slaves.”  (Treckel – 156)  The example above clearly demonstrates how the male Virginia elite showed a “God” like authority to everything they owned including their “loved” ones.

Early eighteenth century Virginia was shaped by the First Families of Virginia and the gentry.  The gentry’s arrogance and “King” like stature had a profound historic impact in Virginia.  From the way the gentry dressed to the way they advertised themselves in public all had an influence on day to day colonial Virginia life.  The likes of William Byrd II and Robert “King” Carter ran their plantations with a “God” like dictatorial attitude.  The gentry and the First Families of Virginia played a game of power play which had a pivotal influence on early eighteenth century Virginia.

 

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