The following excerpt comes from the “Agriculture and Rural Life” section of Melissa Walker and James C. Cobb’s book The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Agriculture & Industry:
“Southerners developed a distinctly rural worldview that shaped their political ideas as well as their culture. Historian Timothy Breen has shown how a “tobacco mentality” developed among late colonial Virginia tobacco farmers. Their shared experience of tobacco cultivation – their pride in the judgment and skill requires for successful tobacco cultivation – provided them with “a common body of rules and assumptions that helped bind them together.” As tobacco planters sank further and further into debt in the middle years of the 18th century, this commonly held worldview evolved into an ideology about independence from tyranny of all kinds, be it British creditors or British lawmakers. Farmers all over the South extolled rural life as a simpler and superior one. Some people, most notably Thomas Jefferson, argued that farmers the ideal citizens of the new Republic. In his famous 1781 writing (published in 1787) Notes on the State of Virginia, he argued, “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Unlike factory workers, who depended on others for their livelihood and thus were less able to make independent and virtuous political decisions, Jefferson said, “corruption of morals in the mass of cultivated is a phenomenon of which no age or nation has furnished an example.” In August 1785 he wrote to John Jay, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.” Agrarian ideology would permeate southern culture for decades to come.”
There is a lot to unpack here.
We’ve already explored what liberty meant to the people of Tidewater on the eve of the American Revolution. It meant classical republicanism, not classical liberalism.
There is a bigger story here though. It turns out that it was a combination of the environment, the economy and the context of British culture in the 18th century which caused the gentry class in Virginia to adopt this ideology. In other words, it was a product of unique historical circumstances.
There was even a great deal of nuance to the response of the gentry class in Virginia to the American Revolution. There was a divide on seceding from the British Empire between the Piedmont and Tidewater tobacco planters. Colin Woodard brings this up in his book American Nations:
“The aristocratic gentlemen who controlled Tidewater were not nearly as unified and saw no need to gauge public opinion. Like the Yankees, they opposed the new imperial policies, but were divided as to whether to go so far as to contemplate treasonous acts. As usual, the Chesapeake gentry were primarily motivated by the threat the empire posed to their own privileges of “liberties.” For generations they had enjoyed near-total control over the politics, courts, and vestries of lowland Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina, and their influence was spreading in Delaware. They felt themselves to be the equals of the country gentlemen of Britain, to whom many were related, and they were insulted by the idea that English liberties stopped at the shores of England. The arrival of British-appointed bishops introduced on their dominance of parish affairs. The new imperial taxes reduced their plantations’ profitability. But in Virginia the Tidewater gentry were divided into regional camps. Those gentlemen living in the Piedmont – Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and George Washington – had more regular contact with the Appalachian backcountry and a greater awareness of the enormous potential of the lands beyond the mountains, of which Virginia claimed a wide ribbon running all the way to the Pacific. Confident their society could stand on its own, they spearheaded resistance to Britain, applauded the Boston Tea Party, and refused to pay debts to British creditors. But gentlemen from the core Tidewater settlements south of the Rappahannock River were far more cautious, opposing efforts to create a provincial militia and condemning the Tea Party as an attack on private property. They were outvoted in the House of Burgesses, however, as their colony included a large swath of Appalachia, whose representatives were eager to throw off British restraints on the settlement of what would become Kentucky and Tennessee. But the social cohesion among the gentry was such that even the losers took things in stride; ultimately very few members of the Tidewater elite were willing to fight for the empire or against their Chesapeake countrymen. As for the white commoners in the lowlands, they pretty much did as they were told. …
The Yankees greatest allies were the representatives from the Piedmont section of Tidewater: Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and George Washington of Virginia and Thomas Johnson of Maryland. Confident in their ability to rule independent states, they aligned with the Yankees and convinced their more moderate “old Tidewater” colleagues to join them …”
At the end of the day, the Tidewater gentry on the eve of the American Revolution was cohesive because the plantation elite had intermarried over the course of several generations. Everyone was related by blood, culture, history and common interest so there was less infighting. “Liberty” worked for them because 1.) obviously it wasn’t for everyone and 2.) the elite were cousins.
The conservative patrician in Old Virginia felt a sense of obligation to his “hands” and to the lower ranks of society. The Jeffersonian ideal was economic independence in a rural society. He distrusted the virtue of the wage slaves in industrial areas who he saw as lackeys of their employers. The intense political correctness we suffer under in our own times is a byproduct of the spread of wage slavery.