Who are we?
It is one of the most fundamental questions that can be asked. I’m not satisfied with the answer to that question that is given by mainstream conservatism. Intuitively, I have always known that we are not merely classical liberalism as the culture and history of the Southern people makes no sense if our entire identity was based on the proposition of equal rights.
The following excerpts come from William A. Link’s Southern Crucible: The Making of an American Region:
“The county courts represented local power structures and were dominated by the largest slaveholders, as was the colonial assembly. At the provincial level, the grandees who controlled local government also fashioned a colony-wide network of power. Indisputably, the reins of provincial-level government lay with the most powerful. Historian Jack Greene analyzed elite legislators in eighteenth-century Virginia – a group of 110 out of a total of the 630 Virginians serving in the House of Burgesses between 1720 and 1776. The most-powerful legislators, who served more terms and controlled key committees, were large landholders and slaveholders. Perhaps as many as ten of them might have held over 40,000 acres, while as many as sixty-four had holdings of more than 10,000. The ranks of the powerful – invariably, large landholders in Virginia – were also significant slaveholders. Eleven of the 110 men owned more than three hundred slaves, while another twenty-five had more than fifty.”
The Chesapeake wasn’t built on the ideal of equal rights.
If we look at Old Virginia, we instead find a highly stratified society that was based on plantation slavery, white supremacy and paternalism. It was ruled by a country gentry much like the one from which it sprung back home in the West Country in 18th century England.
“The one hundred or so richest and most powerful families in Virginia had established themselves by the early eighteenth century. Many were related to each other through intermarriage; these one hundred men represented fifty-one family groups with names such as Cocke, Carter, Randolph, and Fitzhugh. Marriages within this elite strategically maximized property accumulation, social status, and economic power. Virginia planters acquired power by landholding and land speculation, and they obtained land through political influence. …
After Fitzhugh’s death, Robert Carter succeeded him as the Fairfax land agent, and he used the position to acquire extensive landholdings. Carter inherited 1,000 pounds and 1,000 acres of land, which he expanded into an even-larger fortune. Eventually known as “King” Carter, he became one of the richest men in colonial Virginia through land acquisition and also by serving as a sales agent in the slave trade. He constructed a great house, Nomini Hall, which was located on 6,000 acres, befitting his status. When he died in 1732, carter owned 300,000 acres of land and 1,000 slaves, and he secured a comfortable fortune, establishing his family as one of the most powerful in the colony. A generation after his death, fourteen of his male descendants ranked among Virginia’s richest people.”
The Tidewater gentry governed a relatively homogeneous and harmonious society through consensus. Everyone of stature and rank was related to everyone else. They were all cousins and large landowners. Both the gentry and the common people were English who were largely drawn from the south and west of England while the blacks were their slave caste.
“The generation after King Carter and William Byrd extended the dominant position of the Virginia elite, which continued to intermarry with each other, creating a web of family connections. By the Revolution, the Virginia gentry had become one of the most established ruling classes in the Western Hemisphere …
In the Chesapeake, the eighteenth-century planter elite lived a cultivated life in a highly stratified, deferential society. Families were strictly patriarchal, with the father-husband exerting absolute dominion over the household. Nothing was more gratifying to a man, reflected an eighteenth-century periodical, “than power or dominion.” In the eyes of the law, the household, whether planter or non-elite, placed males in control, the father-husband ran the household like a sort of kingdom. “Like one of the Patriarchs,” wrote William Byrd II in 1726, “I have my Flocks and my Herds, my Bond-men and Bond-women, and every Soart of Trade amongst my own Servants, so that I live in a kind of Independence on every one but Providence.” Chesapeake society, stratified by race, was also stratified by gender. The dictates of an enslaved society stressed dominion and control; the household defined “such as women, children, and slaves dependents.” In more-modest homes, women worked in making clothes and cooking, and they bore the dangerous burden of childbearing. Because of a high infant mortality rate – about one in three infants died before the age of two – families procreated prolifically. More-modest homes, as well, depended on children for much of their labor on the farm.
Large families were typical of most eighteenth-century Virginia families, great or small. Robert “King” Carter fathered fifteen children by two wives; his grandson, Robert “Councillor” Carter, seventeen children. Landon Carter had four children by his first wife; after her death, he married again and fathered ten children. The first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall, came from a Virginia planter family of fifteen. The case of Virginian John Thurston exemplifies marriage, remarriage, and childbearing that was typical of Virginia planters in the eighteenth century. At age twenty-three, Thurston married Thomasine, already a widow and mother of three. Of the couple’s sixteen children, who were born in a sixteen-year span, one was stillborn, four were dead before age two, five died before age nineteen, five were unaccounted for, and only one survived into adulthood.
The Virginia planter elite greatly valued its independence and self-sufficiency, values that were accentuated in a slave society, where dependence and loss of liberty formed such important parts of the social system. Sabine Hall, Landon Carter once said, “was “an excellent little Fortress … built on a Rock … of Independency.”
William Link goes on to describe in depth the world of the Tidewater gentry. This was also the world of the Carolina gentry in the Lowcountry.
It was a world of fishing, horse racing, gambling, cock fighting, hunting, women dancing and socializing at balls, the worries of plantation management and a laidback Anglican religion. The “liberty” that the Virginia elite cared about and fought for in the American Revloution was “independency” which to them meant self government. As a ruling class, they wanted the “liberty” to govern themselves, their households, their slaves, their colony, etc. That’s the only type of “liberty” that is meaningful and would be worth fighting for anyway.
Note: The descendants of Robert “King” Carter and the Virginia gentry which produced Washington and Jefferson fought against Abraham Lincoln’s proposition based society at Gettysburg.