The Power of the Gentry

During the 18th century in American colonies such as Virginia, government intervention was at it’s lowest. Aside from basic laws about stealing, murder, and some stranger ones like being required to Church, the government could force you to do very little. Despite, this, one could not call it a time of unprecedented freedom, at least compared to today. This is because of the immense power that the ruling gentry had. Although not of royal blood, they effectively served as the aristocracy of Virginia. They were the ones with political and economic power, and therefore the ones you had to be most mindful of in those days.

The term “gentry” itself was a holdover from Britain where they had similar social stratification. Gentry only referred to those who had amassed vast quantities of wealth, and did not refer to those of royal blood, although they were certainly often treated like royalty. They almost all amassed fortunes via the mass plantation of tobacco. While indentured servants had once been used to toil in the fields, African slaves gradually replaced them, as it was easier to have control over a people disoriented and unfamiliar with their surroundings.  Although undoubtedly wealthy, their main power came from their literacy and access to books. The ability to be learned and know of the law of your country and news of the world’s affairs. Indeed, the gentry seemed to be quite proud of this ability. one planter noted that “It is a shame for a gentleman to be ignorant of the laws of his country and to be dependent on every dirty pettifogger,” while it was “commendable… for a gentlemen of independent means not only [not] to stand in need of mercenary advisers, but to be able to advise his friends, relations, and neighbors of all sorts.” (Roeber, 34) Despite their heavy wealth, the gentry tried to present themselves in a noncommercial nature, as they often saw the idea of commercial exchange as beneath them. They would send gifts to merchants in Britain and refer to them and other clients as “friends” rather then business partners. (http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Gentry_in_Colonial_Virginia) The gentry would also often host large feast and festivals to impress upon their neighbors and show just how much power and wealth they had. They would also sometimes attempt to compete with one another to curry favor from the lower classes by offering credit to those in need and offering favors. The gentry were also the ones most often voted into political office, which gave them a great deal more power then the average worker or merchant in Virginia.

 

William Byrd was one of the wealthiest people of his time

William Byrd II was one of the wealthiest people of his time

One can see the incredible power the gentry had in the form of William Byrd II. Byrd was one of the most wealthy land owners in all of Virginia, with an estate of over 176,000 acres. (http://www.shmoop.com/colonial-virginia/william-byrd-ii.html) Perhaps more than anyone else he was a great example of the style of the ruling gentry of the time. Arrogant, haughty, and wielding extreme power over others. One can most obviously see this in the example of the slaves who were of course forced to perform their master’s desires at all times. However, this was almost equally true of the women of this time period as well. The women of this time period were often looked down upon by men.  Women were seen as illogical, and irrational, ruled by their own emotions. William Byrd once wrote that “Female passions require to be managed sometimes, to confine them within bound and keep, them like a high-mettled horse, from running away with their owner.” (Treckell, 137) Values such modesty, meekness, and piety, were above all valued. Still, women were expected to have major control over how the house was run. However, William Byrd refused to delegate even those powers. He quarreled with his wife continuously over issues he deemed none of her business. One can perhaps reflect on Mr. Byrd’s state of mind when one sees in his diary all references to his family as “my wife” or “my child”, a very dehumanizing way of looking at others. It seems possible this lack of authority and a desire for it was often taken out on the one people most powerless in this society the slaves. Mr. Byrd describes often how his wife Lucy would often vent her anger onto the family slaves. This cycle of hierarchical violence was perhaps similar to most societies of time, but comes across as abhorrent to most people today.

 

William Byrd offered his wife Lucy very little freedom

William Byrd offered his wife Lucy very little freedom

The gentry of Virginia were some of the most powerful men of their time. With the immense fortunes they had amassed they made it almost impossible for anyone else to reach a similar status of wealth and power as them. They did face harder times during the revolutionary war, where scuffles with poorer whites over land and wandering livestock became more commonplace due to the increased social unrest. (http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Gentry_in_Colonial_Virginia) Yet despite this the ruling gentry would remain the reigning power after the Revolution and well into the mid-ninetieth century, where the destruction of slavery would finally tear down the system through which they supported themselves. Without a doubt, the power the gentry wielded defined much of early American history.

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