I’m feeling inspired after reading Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition In America.
Do we find Lockean liberalism in pre-Revolutionary Tidewater Virginia or something else? Do we find Hartz’s frustrated aristocracy or rather a triumphant elite that had amassed great landed wealth and intermarried and was steadily molding Virginia into a country gentleman’s paradise?
This excerpt comes from Jack P. Greene’s excellent book Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern Colonies and the Formation of American Culture:
“Even if one includes not only the largest estates – those with several thousand acres of land and at least forty to fifty slaves – but also the merely substantial estates – those with at least a thousand acres and five to ten slaves – this emergent elite constituted only a small fraction of the landowning population – from 2 to 5 percent in most counties. Nevertheless, members of this group controlled close to 50 percent of the total wealth and exerted a disproportionate influence on Chesapeake life. During the first four decades of the eighteenth century, they transformed the spatial and social landscape by establishing the large slave-powered plantations, those diversified and, in a few cases, perhaps even almost self-sufficient communities that quickly became “the principal symbol of Chesapeake society.”
During the half-century beginning around 1720, the great families who presided over these plantations – the second and third generations of the creole elite that had begun to emerge between 1680 and 1720 – consolidated their economic, social and political position by intermarrying across local political boundaries. In the process, they establishing a far-ranging and complex network of provincewide, to some extent even regionwide, interrelated, highly visible, and prestigious elite families. As they amassed more and more wealth, they pursued a lifestyle appropriate to an English rural gentry. They built grand new brick houses commanding the countryside and broad rivers and inlets of the Chesapeake; they employed more of their slaves in domestic service; they filled their houses with luxury possessions, including imported carpets, silver plate, books, and other items that would help to confirm their own self-conceptions and to identify them to other people of status and wealth. They provided their sons, sometimes in Britain, with the formal classical educations appropriate for gentlemen of English descent.
Though they by no means neglected their private interests, they gradually learned to sublimate the drive toward personal aggrandizement and the impulse toward anarchic individualism that had been so powerfully evident among their seventeenth-century ancestors. They proudly maintained that militant devotion to personal independence and the sanctity of individual property that was thought to be the hallmark of true Britons, but they also consciously cultivated traditional British upper-class political and social values, including politeness, liberality, sociability, and stewardship. Setting themselves up as exemplars of public spiritedness and authority and eagerly grasping the social and political obligations appropriate to their status, they assumed an almost total hegemony over civil and religious institutions at both the local and provincial levels and thereby endowed those institutions with enormously more energy and authority than they had ever enjoyed during the region’s first century of existence.
To symbolize that authority, they built new, classically proportioned brick buildings in the provincial capitals in Williamsburg and Annapolis and courthouses and churches at central places in their localities. Further to “traditionalize” their societies, they sought to bring Chesapeake legal, inheritance, and religious practices into closer conformity with those in Britain and thereby eliminated many of the “creolisms” that had formerly made those practices both more simple and more flexible than those of metropolitan culture. As sources of capital, services, and counsel for their less affluent neighbors, they became the centers of local networks of dependence in much the same way, if probably not to anywhere near the same degree, as had the landed elite in Britain. With their great wealth, their affluent and more refined lifestyles, their provincewide connections and cosmopolitan outlook, their growing family charisma, and their social and political authority, members of the Chesapeake elite came through the middle decades of the eighteenth century to be ever more sharply distinguished from people of less wealth.
As the elite became increasingly more tightly interconnected and as political and religious institutions acquired more vigor, the Chesapeake also became less conflicted, better integrated, and more cohesive. Intra-elite competition, which in the seventeenth century had contributed to a high degree of public divisiveness, had by the 1730s been largely confined to much less disruptive and highly structured cultural channels, including horseracing, gambling, social display, and political debate. With no serious vertical or horizontal social fissures within the free white population, the lower and middling ranks became ever more depoliticized and deferential toward this relatively cohesive, responsive, even paternal elite, and an astonishing degree of public harmony prevailed, especially in Virginia, where leaders took great pride in their society’s political tranquility, in the liberality and community-mindedness – the patriotism – of its wealthiest and most prominent inhabitants, and in the almost total absence of factionalism and party strife …”
This is very interesting.
We are told today by our current political establishment in Washington that Old Virginia whose soil and culture produced men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Patrick Henry, John Randolph, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, Edmund Ruffin and George Fitzhugh has been completely discredited by their “progress” and their way of doing things is vastly superior to the way of our ancestors. In fact, it is time to tear down all of their public monuments because the cohesive and harmonious society they created is shameful.
In Old Virginia, we don’t find a social order that is yet built on universal natural rights or the abstract ideals of “liberty” and “equality.” Instead, we find an organic society in Virginia that was becoming much more cohesive as the emerging planter elite, which rested on the foundation of slavery and indentured servitude, intermarried and became cousins. It had a classically educated elite which prized that the virtue of “liberality.” It had a peculiarly British devotion to the sanctity of individual property.
It is easy to see what happened here. Under the spell of the fashionable Enlightenment philosophy of that age, late 18th century Virginians like Thomas Jefferson who was immersed in European intellectual trends would later universalize elements of their own culture, which was invoked as a rationalization and foreign policy ploy in the Declaration of Independence to justify the American Revolution.
This is why I love doing historical research.
Here’s another excerpt from Jack P. Greene’s book Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern Colonies and the Formation of American Culture:
“But the vast majority in this slave society seems to have been compulsively unyielding only in regard to the exertion and maintenance of that love of liberty and personal independence and autonomy that were thought by contemporaries all over the British-American world to be the defining characteristics of free British men and therefore absolutely essential to the credibility of all claims to a British identity …”
Specifically, I want to continue to probe how this love of “liberty,” which had previously been an ethnic marker associated with British male identity came to be distorted into this abstract universal ideal that Thomas Jefferson associated with the 18th century Enlightenment.
There was an older tradition of “liberty” in the Virginia Tidewater which wasn’t universal. Certainly, the African slaves who were being imported to work on the plantations weren’t thought to be entitled to “liberty” in the sense we understand it today. It only makes sense when you realize the lack of liberty of the slaves made the “liberty” of the master caste more meaningful.
Here’s a thought provoking excerpt about “libertas” from Colin Woodard’s book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America:
“Power in Tidewater had become hereditary. The leading families intermarried in both America and England, creating a close-linked cousinage that dominated Tidewater generally and Virginia in particular. The Virginia Royal Council served as that colony’s senate, supreme court, and executive cabinet, and it controlled the distribution of land. By 1724 every single council member was related by blood or marriage. Two generations later, on the eve of the American Revolution, every member was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660 …
One might ask how such a tyrannical society could have produced some of the greatest champions of republicanism, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison. The answer is that Tidewater’s gentry embraced classical republicanism, meaning a republic modeled after those of ancient Greece and Rome. They emulated the learned, slaveholding elite of ancient Athens, basing their enlightened political philosophies around the ancient Latin concept of libertas, or liberty. This was a fundamentally different notion from the Germanic concept of Freiheit, or freedom, which informed the political thought of Yankeedom and the Midlands. Understanding the distinction is essential to comprehending the fundamental disagreements that still plague relations between Tidewater, the Deep South, and New Spain on one hand and Yankeedom and the Midlands on the other.
For the Norse, Anglo-Saxons, Dutch, and other Germanic tribes of Northern Europe, “freedom” was a birthright of free peoples, which they considered themselves to be. Individuals might have differences in status and wealth, but all were literally “born free.” All were equal before the law and had come into the world possessing “rights” that had to be mutually respected on threat of banishment. Tribes had the right to rule themselves through assemblies like Iceland’s Althingi, recognized as the world’s oldest parliament. Until the Norman invasion of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England had ruled themselves in this manner. After the invasion, the lords of Normandy imposed manorial feudalism on England, but they never fully did away with the “free” institutions of the Anglo-Saxons and (Gaelo-Norse) Scots, which survived in village councils, English common law, and the House of Commons. It was this tradition that the Puritans carried to Yankeedom.
The Greek and Roman political philosophy embraced by Tidewater gentry assumed the opposite: most humans were born into bondage. Liberty was something that was granted and was thus a privilege, not a right. Some people were permitted many liberties, others had very few, and many had none at all. The Roman Republic was one in which only a handful of people had the full privileges of speech (senators, magistrates), a minority had the right to vote on what their superiors had decided (citizens), and most people had no say at all (slaves). Liberties were valuable because most people did not have them and were thought meaningless without the presence of a hierarchy. For the Greeks and Romans there was no contradiction between republicanism and slavery, liberty and bondage. This was the political philosophy embraced and jealously guarded by Tidewater’s leaders, whose highborn families saw themselves as descendants not of the “common” Anglo-Saxons, but rather of their aristocratic Norman conquerers. It was a philosophical divide with racial overtones and one that would later drive America’s nations into all-out war with one another.
Tidewater’s leaders imposed libertas on their society in countless ways. They referred to themselves as “heads” of their respective manors, dictating duties to their “hands” and other subservient appendages. Finding Jamestown and St. Mary’s City too crude, they built new government campuses in Williamburg and Annapolis from central plans inspired by Rome; Williamsburg featured a sumptuous formal “palace” for the governor (surrounded by Versailles-like formal gardens) and the elegant Capitol (not “state house”) decorated with a relief of Jupiter, the god whose temple stood at the center of Roman civic life. They named counties, cities, and colonies after their superiors: English royals (Prince George, Prince William, Princess Anne, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Annapolis, Georgetown, Virginia, Maryland) or high nobles (Albemarle, Baltimore, Beaufort, Calvert, Cecil, Cumberland, Caroline, Anne Arundel, Delaware). While they were passionate in defending their liberties, it would never have occurred to them that those liberties might be shared with their subjects. “I am an aristocrat,” Virginian John Randolph would explain decades after the American Revolution. “I love liberty; I hate equality.”
A few years ago, lolbertarian writer Jeffrey Tucker claimed that the Alt-Right doesn’t believe in universals. While it is true that our ancestors believed in “liberty,” they didn’t attach the same meaning to the term that we do today. Liberty was originally an ethnic marker, not a universal abstraction. It was thought to be something that made Anglo-Protestants different from and better than, say, the Spanish Catholics whose Spanish Armada had been defeated or the France of the absolutist Sun King Louis XIV. In Tidewater Virginia, “liberty” had even come to mean something even more different than it meant in Britain or to the Scots-Irish. It meant “libertas” in the Greco-Roman sense.
As an Orthodox Lutheran and one of the Right-Hegelians who Jeffrey Tucker warned about in his book Right-Wing Collectivism: The Other Threat To Liberty, I want to develop a new discourse of “liberty” for the deracinated descendants of men like Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, one that is grounded in time, culture, identity, history and place rather than in false universal abstractions. We need a new idea and way of talking about “liberty” for our own times that can inspire the sort of Great Men who Thomas Carlyle wrote about as well rather than just the sort of moral and cultural degenerates our society continues to churn out as our common culture rots under the decaying model of Free Society.
Note: As in every single post in this series, our goal is to understand the past and make sense of it to the present, so if you are getting mad about history you need to chill out and remind yourself this is the year 2019 and California will likely become the first slave state in the age of artificial intelligence.