Control: A Candid Contemplation of Conspicuous Consumption

The First Families of Virginia never attempted to hide their wealth. Far from the biblical picture of modesty, these self-styled Lords would flaunt their wealth in the face of the poorer brethren in social settings, seemingly out of a sense of vanity. However, upon closer examination it can be observed that the Tidewater Gentry used this conspicuous consumption, this display of their wealth to equate themselves with the aristocracy of England, and thereby assert their tenuous position of power over the masses. This can be examined in their carefully tailored appearances in social settings, and the lavish homes and life-styles which they presented not for the practicality of it all, but for the lofty appearance which psychologically reinforced their position on the peak of the social pyramid.
Virginia was a new world for the people coming over, but not in simply geographical terms. The social order, while closely resembling that of the colonists native England, included the mingling of the upper crust of the social order with those outside their particular caste. Without an army to reinforce their power, and vulnerable to the passions of the masses, the Tidewater Gentry carefully created an image for themselves that would match that of the English Lords at home. Chief in these images included flaunting their wealth in public, through horses and gambling. Riding a horse signaled one of high social standing: it indicated great wealth and dignity, and was in England a purely aristocratic practice. While many Virginians did own horses and would frequently, according to the Rev. John Hughes,  “spend the Morning in ranging several Miles in the Woods to find and catch their Horses only to ride two or three Miles to Church” (Breen, 198), it was also commonplace for the wealthy to send a stallion to church simply to display its bloodline, and by extension, the wealth of one so lucky and affluent to acquire it. An employee of Sir Peyton Skipwith informed him that he had taken a fine stallion of his to the local church, “so that the people might look the proud creature over with a view of having him cover their mares” (Rhys, 148). Such a display in the church, a place of immense social importance (and often the only place all the members of a parish would meet) indicates that the gentry took upon themselves to display their wealth and therefore their power to the common planters. Additional social displays included the horse races and gambling which became commonplace as a method of proving an aristocrat’s boldness to the people of his community: the people would therefore be more willing to vote for whichever member of the family of the gambler who was likely running for office at the time (or perhaps the gambler himself). It became a social characteristic and display: planters would wager immense sums on seemingly trivial issues: T.H. Breen documents that “Robert Beverly, a member of Virginia’s most prominent families, made a wager ‘with the gentlemen of the country’ that if he could produce seven hundred gallons of wine on his own plantation, they would pay him the hefty sum of one thousand guineas” (Breen193-194). The idea of wagering such a enormous sum on such a petty matter of pride seems preposterous, yet this displaying of wealth, that one even had one thousand guineas to lose, served to psychologically elevate the Tidewater Gentry above their common brethren.
The FFV would seek to project their influence not only in their social interactions, but in the way they lived their lives at home, manifesting itself in the massive plantation  homes which would impose on the surrounding populace, being some of the largest (or the largest) structures they would see in their short lifetimes. When visiting Rosewell, the historic home of the Paige family, it is revealed that the clay for the bricks would also include an enormous pit scraped out of the ground several hundred meters in length and width and several feet deep, changing the landscape in essentially a way that is unnecessary: the Paige family did not require a three-story superstructure to live in. Yet they chose to create Rosewell out of three-quarters of a million to one million, five hundred thousand bricks mostly to show that they could: such an imposing building would give the impression of power which was not actually held, but would show off enough to get the Paiges elected to numerous political offices throughout the state. This pattern of enormous expenses being spent on homes can see additional evidence in the home(s) of Robert “King” Carter. In reference to the various homes, including Carter’s Corotoman plantation, Carter Hudgins explains that “however fitting the Tidewater’s mansions are as a symbol of the success of the elite, they are also symbolic of the decline of the economic and political fortunes of almost everyone else. The flagrant display of economic wealth, in the homes’ emulation of English architecture to it’s purely decorative touches and flourishes demonstrates the power that the gentry held, and towers over the fortunes of everyone else, psychologically reinforcing the concept that they are in charge to all who might look upon it.
The FFV held power over the country, but their grip was hardly iron: the very militia and constables who would enforce the laws which the FFV would pass were made up of Yeomen and farmers who needed to be accounted for. They could easily have risen up and grabbed power from the FFV, but many factors stopped them. One which is prominent is the use of conspicuous consumption. The display of wealth, the constant reminders of the fact that money can move mountains, served as a reminder of the power which money equated to. Yet it was this harkening back to the English aristocracy, and their translation of money into power by aweing the lower classes into submission that the FFV used to cow the middle classes into accepting their position.

Comments are closed.