Times Change–and So do Political Cultures

How about a page of conceptual hogwash to place the reader into a conceptual context of how political cultures change. Why here and now? Because as we proceed on the obvious reality is the Virginia planter oligopoly of 17770 is not what it was in 1670, or even 1710. The Royalist political culture installed by Governor Berkeley built on the Jamestown Company heritage, de facto control of local government and it dominance over the local economic base jelled and solidified by 1710–but had simply moved on. Moved on does not mean, or even imply, that the Royalist Virginia planted elite abandoned its previous culture, its values, beliefs, expectations, but it clearly does little to explain George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry who were obvious manifestations of the 1770 Virginia planter elite {BTW, Henry was a plantation planter, owned slaves, despite his being a populist).

It does little to explain James Madison, the principal author of the 1789 Early Republic constitution. It also does not explain a host of lesser known Virginia Founding Fathers, like Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and even a later hero, John Marshall. It also offers little insight that within this group of Virginia planters were the chief players of two radically different and opposing political Tribes/parties that would rise up in the decade after 1789. What’s more, knowing what’s ahead, the old 1670’s Royalist political culture does not help us to understand Virginia’s colony-level policy system or its future path to economic development. There is certainly considerable continuity of that initial political culture–how it dealt with slavery and tobacco plantations for example–and the manor as a way of life clearly remained its core pillars, but other elements of that culture were clearly stressed.

A Royalist political culture was by definition loyal to the King, and to the “way-of-life” that had supported the royalist aristocracy for literally hundreds of years. The plantation, I and others have argued, is the American version of the 15th century English manor and the core of the Royalist Virginia oligopoly were, after all, aristocratic/gentry refugees from the English Civil War debacle. If this Virginia planter elite was arguably first on board in the American colonies to resistance against post-1763 British governance, then something had changed.

Continuity and change simultaneously–that’s arguing from both sides of my mouth, which I take special pride in doing BTW. My answer to this dilemma is that political cultures are not static, they change, but are also prone to resist change that challenges the fundamental pillars of the culture. The issue I wish to address in this module is how do political culture change–and still maintain core continuity? Since I am only offering my version of one political culture in one state/colony, my limited objective in this module is to introduce the key dynamics of that change-continuity that seemingly impacted the Virginia oligopoly and see how they fit in other colonies and in states of the Early Republic in future chapters. I want to take the remainder of this section to list and outline what the reader can expect to find in our discussion of the Virginia oligopoly’s drift to Independence and War.

First, the list of key dynamics. For the moment, in no special order it is evident to me that (1) changes in Virginia’s economic base, the economics of tobacco plantations had occurred; (2) changes in the global political/economic and cultural environment had occurred–the French were removed from North America, and the future British Empire was on the rise, so was Britain’s glacially incremental drift to democracy/partisan politics–British politics was drifting from monarchy/aristocracy to middle class democracy. The same could be said of the democracy that had evolved in the initial colonial policy systems, when compared to the aspirations for a democracy that was found on the colony’s frontiers and western counties; (3) New groupings, chain migrants from Pennsylvania mostly had taken residence in large numbers in Virginia’s western counties–and further on south down the old Great Wagon Road.

(3) Virginia’s old gray mere, the cohesion of its planter oligopoly, ain’t what it used to be–it had fragmented, factionalized and individual personalities-personal characteristics, education, and family rivalries had variegated the adherence of the the elite to the old culture and made relevant new factors of import (i.e. the old royalist culture now functioned on a continuum. Finally, (4) we can’t forget, even with political cultures that we are dealing with individuals. Individuals have their own fingerprints, personalities, health, and skill sets–never mind their own individual socialization, education, and career experiences. Propensities to take risk, sympathy with order and authority versus the opposite, resilience, intellectual-bent versus action, Agents of socialization, friends, religious institutions, mentors as a path to the future  who were especially critical in 1750 in breaking the chains of a closed and often inflexible social-political-economic elite

In particular, these changes were most evident when we compared elites across generations. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters were not always on the same age–think Mary Ball Washington and her dutiful and often distant son George–almost reminds me of Abe’s relationship with his father, or the simple observation that Thomas Jefferson was not a chip of the old block of Peter Jefferson. Since 1670 at least three generations had passed, and we are working on a fourth (think James Monroe and John Marshall). (5) Generational change combines any number of elements on the list, and does so in a distinctively individual, and surprisingly geographical fashion. Time and geography can interact–giving rise if nothing else to sub-state and regional sub-cultures.

A second aspect to consider is that in 1760 we are dealing with a North American colony of the English, now becoming the British Empire. Colonization is itself a factor in the drift to Independence and War–so logical it is hidden in plain sight. Colonization, whatever else it may be, is dependence on a mother country and subordination of goals, aspirations and interests to those of a political master. Talk about generational change–the colonies, their policy systems and economic bases had matured and were producing their own sons and daughters, which fit rather poorly with those of a mother country, itself in the midst of serious change. For many in the older settled lands of the American colonies, the memories of England had diminished considerably–five or more generations in the past. For others, newly-arrived western migrants, the English memories were recent–many–most– were British native born.

Probably a numerical majority had fled Britain in their own lifetime; being refugees of some nature, this suggested a serious tilt to independence. Still an awfully lot of Americans, a lot of Virginia planters, had strong family, and economic ties to the mother country  and were of two minds regarding this independence thing–and war meant many would at some point have to leave the colony. That America’s drift to Independence did not lead to a compromise, a commonwealth or whatever, but led to War polarized and fragmented cultural and generational change hugely. Add to this the potential to shift to a new path to democracy–and an accelerated movement into a brave new political world, if not an economic world also and we realize the stakes were very high in this abbreviated little more than a decade drift to Independence, War– and Democracy in a hostile global climate. Not mentioned, it will be developed in the next two chapters, is the emergence of a new finance, industrial capitalism, with its attendant class structures and inequalities. There was a lot of change going on during this very short period–and it will be impossible to sort each of these dynamics from the aggregate mass of hope, fears, expectations and value conflicts that followed.

In each person these dynamics would interact, interweave, and blur. Contradictions and inconsistencies would inevitably appear. Individuals would reach decision points under different conditions and on their own time. Events would force decisions. Eventually a mass movement(s) would develop, tribes and herds would appear, opportunities and threats emerge, and birds of a feather will fly together. Chemicals interact under the heat of a Bunsen burner–and lobsters and frogs boil–we cannot expect political culture change to be simple and painless.


Let’s Apply this  Conceptual Hogwash to Virginia’s Drift to Independence and War

We will see that the Virginia planter oligopoly assumed a speedy dominant role/leadership in the earliest stages of Virginia’s drift to Independence and War. I attribute this to a variety of factors, but chief among them is the Planter elite underwent considerable stress and change beginning around the mid-late 1740’s. These pressures, which shall be summarized below, induced economic and cultural change in Virginia’s plantation-export way-of-life that set the stage for their reaction to British post-1763 policy changes. The Virginia elite reaction to the 1763 Proclamation Act, arguably the first in a series of much-despised British legislation, was atypical of most colonies in its intensity, and is evidence that Act cut deeply, and negatively, into the change dynamics ongoing within that oligopoly.

This early leadership by Virginia’s domestic elites was distinctive in degree from other colonies/states where the general populace were involved, sometimes intensely. While there were anomic reaction in Virginia, it was not Boston or New York. In Virginia important elements, of the wealthy planter oligopoly crossed swords with British policy early on. They challenged, aggressively lobbied for a change in the Proclamation Act–and ignored it for the most part continuing a bit more quietly their western expansion activities. When the Stamp Act came, two years later, Virginia organized reaction, managed by elite Northern Neck planters, almost immediately occurred. Planters did challenge British legislation head on, and they did so secure in the knowledge they dominated the key Tidewater and Piedmont regions of Virginia; their power base was not threatened by restive populists, as were the urban centers of Philadelphia and Boston, for example.

The cornerstone of the Virginia Tidewater oligopoly was its dominance over the county, its politics, economy, and society and that made it unlikely in the dispersed plantations that anomic resistance by the lower “classes” could occur without the active involvement of plantation owners. Planter dominance over the affairs of the lower house of Virginia’s legislature, observed by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, made that body, one of the most “undemocratic” legislature in America at that time, a more or less natural leadership in resisting British legislation –and the royal governor’s efforts to enforce the legislation. As time evolved, the Burgesses became deeply involved in inter-colony resistance and politics, and when the time came, the body that set in motion a replacement American legislature and state of Virginia policy system:

They could do because they acted in the interests of the whole people, a conviction that appeared to be regularly ratified by elections in which a substantial proportion of freeholders voted. Exclusively a planter elite, this group had a homogeneity of interest not found in any of the northern colonies, and of all the various southern elites it was easily the oldest and stablest.  This stability was reflected within the House itself in a remarkable continuity of membership [1]. 

That stability offered opportunity for a career path to leadership, and sanctioned the Burgesses to entrust younger members with key responsibilities as step-stones in that rise. The latter factor was key as generational change was a major factor in the Virginia’s elite’s leadership in the drift to Independence. The Burgesses election of 1758 was a pivotal one in which a number of young, first time delegates were elected (twenty-five year old Washington was one, so were Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry). This rise of a new generation therefore was facilitated by  the Burgesses, and it was no surprise that many a Founding Father got his first taste in politics at that time. Little noticed today, but remarkable at the time was that in these critical years, Burgesses reversed the traditional dominance of the Council of State in Virginia policy-making. As we shall see that body would be hard hit by a colony-wide corruption scandal, which coincidentally weakened and made vulnerable an older more conservative planter elite. Virginia’s path to revolution–and post-Revolution as well–would be paved by the Burgesses.

The laundry list of challenges and stress that befell the post-1720 Virginia planter elite, were outlined above. Of particular relevance to our economic development focus is the stress from its tobacco export plantation economic base.

Tobacco-Export Economic Base

The Tidewater Virginia economic base was chiefly the mass-produced (plantation slave workforce agriculture) export of tobacco. Size of landholding and volume of production mattered in these commodities such as tobacco, especially in logistics, financing and costs of production.  As we already have discussed a low no-cost workforce was also required. But if tobacco created Tidewater Virginia, it also placed limitations on it as well. The Virginia tobacco export economic bases produced profits, but also required these profits be used to finance new and replacement land to generate the production required to maintain its markets. A large part of this need for replacement fields was that a typical tobacco field exhausted itself after four or five years. The importance of soil nutrients was simply not well-appreciated by many/most Virginia tobacco planters. There were exceptions, of course, but most planters had a constant need to acquire new fields, which after a hundred years or so greatly reduced the supply of unused land available for new plantations.

The need for additional plantations was also created in order to handle plantation owner succession planning. Virginia had a primogeniture law (not always obeyed by any means) that created a problem for others sons, and dowries for their daughter’s marriage.  The expectation was that if a way-of-life was to be preserved for future generations, the plantation owner was responsible for ensuring opportunities for his children to become plantation lords. To ensure their economic viability, a certain size was necessary. This only compounded the land issue for the planter elite. The opening up and settlement of the Piedmont had solved this crisis, temporarily, but once on the edges of the Appalachians tobacco farmers discovered tobacco did not grow well in the higher elevations, and Shenandoah soils and rolling hills with grand vistas meant that estate manors (residential in nature), not plantations were more highly prized. It increasingly became evident the further into the interior plantations were, the more they needed concentrated settlements (urbanization) to support the population, and most importantly the development of coastal ports where export could be aggregated for tax collection and efficient transportation to London or end markets. Virginia had neglected its development of significant scale coastal ports, preferring to use the piers of coastal and river piers of each plantation. Once above the Fall Line, however, transportation became more costly, time-consuming and more complex. Not surprisingly, after 1750 many tobacco planters, Washington for example, switch production away from export of tobacco, to wheat/grains/livestock for domestic consumption. Grains were less burdensome on the land and more suitable in higher elevations.

By 1750, Virginia tobacco plantations were range-bound; limited chiefly to Piedmont and coastal Tidewater geographies. The continued need for land, however, inspired many plantation owners to turn to Shenandoah and trans-Appalachian land development as alternative sources of income–and a potential source for new tobacco plantation opportunities. As we have already seen, a series of land development companies, closely linked to various Council of State plantation owners flourished after the late 1740’s. Obviously, when issued in 1763, the British Proclamation Line made trans-Appalachian expansion illegal–and British policy for that unsettled land clearly tilted not to plantation agriculture, but to yeoman household farm-size plots.

Tobacco, whatever the supply of available land, required sustained investment capital for new tobacco fields and more slaves to work them. Whatever profits produced by the sale of tobacco therefore were used chiefly to purchase new lands and slaves–and establish new plantations when necessary. Little investment capital was left over to fund other sectors or even addition crops to diversify or productive equipment. The Tidewater elite’s political culture did little to solve that problem, in fact it made it worse. “To the Manor Born” meant maintaining a lifestyle, an expenditure pattern, across multi-generations–and tobacco was not the best crop for that task. Over generations, families simply rolled over debt and locked man Virginia planters into what seemed like a plantation debtor’s prison.

Debt, to external financiers in Great Britain–and their Highland Scottish logistical “factors” whom they recruited to reside in Virginia and manage the export trade–created a cycle of planter indebtedness that grew worse with each decade, and each generation. (It also created an occupation overwhelmingly populated by an ethnic group that became increasingly unpopular with planters who became grossly dependent on that middleman. The export trade was managed by “factors” or large commercial trading merchant houses mostly housed in London dealt in volume. The produce of a small yeoman, or even a moderate sized plantation of several hundred acres could not support a transaction in London, never mind the cost and complexity of arranging–and managing the risk– its transport there.

That meant that even within the planter oligopoly a serious inequality between the very largest and medium-sized planters emerged. While this strengthened the political and economic influence of the local planter class that could aggregate export and serve as a bridge to the Scottish factors and London Houses, it also increased the former’s responsibility and vulnerability when crop prices or export market demand fell–which it did periodically and increasingly as global competition intensified in price,quality, and cost of transportation to end user. Having effectively “sourced” the finance and logistics of Virginia tobacco export to London and the factors, Virginia planters could not easily develop and exploit their own market opportunities or maneuver ways to reduce costs. Cost reduction was in fact virtually impossible–by a British version of today’s Jones Act which required shipment by British owned ships–and amazingly, shipment to British ports (not the ports of the end use), where its was either used by domestic smokers, or transshipped to other vessels for final export. American tobacco, of uneven quality, was often more expensive to global end-users.

To pay debts, live in the lifestyle a planter had become accustomed to meant cost reduction–and that led to sharecropping. Without land ownership, the sharecropper was entirely dependent. The sharecropper had no asset on which to borrow–which in the long run rendered him footloose, as well as hardscrabble. That dependence was further intensified in a specie (hard money)-deficient export economy. Serious economic transactions (tax payment) required hard money (gold coin), not paper money printed by legislatures (there were no banks); otherwise barter or fur sales, and pledging future crops was the only other sources of money. If this did not drive sharecroppers and subsistence planters to the west–where they could at least trap furs and log, if not produce whisky for income. The need for hard money turned into an almost existential crisis for large scale Virginia planters–and when a tobacco recession hit Virginia in the late 1760’s, it caused a Council of State scandal so widespread (the governor and the Burgess speaker had allowed for taxes to be paid in tobacco itself and covered up in false audits). The aftermath was worse than Watergate in post-1770 Virginia politics.

The dependence of a non-land owner, making him vulnerable to “bribes” and land owners, was deemed at that time to be so crushing that it became in the eyes of many (Jefferson for one) that to be free to cast a vote independently required ownership to be eligible to vote. The scandal of 1758, for example, was that many Burgesses delegates in their election campaign plied voters with whiskey.  He inevitably became a venture capital lender as key infrastructure and products had to be funded for the community to grow and function. He also managed the port, the pier and barrel-making, distribution of imports that were ordered through him by other locals. He frequently set up small manufacturing facilities to log and cut, ironworks and husbandry items, and not infrequently a distillery and some form of gristmill. It was he who imported in bulk required commodities like salt or gunpowder, nails–and set up a merchant to handle its sale. Of itself, the dominance of the plantation families over the local economic base speaks for itself, as a natural perhaps somewhat inevitable consequence of an export based agriculture.

In this atmosphere, the land development companies, discussed in the previous module, appear in a different light. The more venturesome of the planter oligopoly saw their future in these western interior, trans-Appalachian lands, and that opportunity did not fit well into the political, social and economic order on which the Tidewater/Piedmont coastal tobacco economic base rested. Planter oligopoly “land jobbers”, many of whom emerged from Lord Fairfax’s Northern Neck, saw a path out of the cycle of dependency offered by the tobacco export economy. That path, deep into our nation’s hostile interior, however, involved sale of land to yeoman householders, and required development of settlements–and an expensive road/bridge/river infrastructure to access the new land, and ship its production. Land developers had to become town-builders, and concern themselves with the provision of transportation infrastructure. There are obvious economic development implications in this, but less apparent, its the land development strategy was not congruent with the type of coastal plantation community on which their tobacco economy and political oligopoly rested. Land developed threatened a new type of policy system, compatible and congruent with the realities of frontier egalitarianism.

The settlers massing in the Shenandoah, and the western counties wanted this land, it was their American Dream, but they needed access to money to buy the land and establish themselves and their farm. Land development required that land developers acknowledge and deal with the new immigrants/migrants and to some degree accommodate the economy and politics with their needs, wants, and adjust to the (usually more egalitarian) values of their very different political cultures, vastly different from the Tidewater culture. That path into the interior required not only political, social and economic adjustments, it also necessitated new economic development strategies and programs that required the support of the British Crown–and in the end, that support was not forthcoming. That element of the planter oligopoly, accordingly, began its drift to Independence.

Not surprisingly, Northern Neck and western Piedmont planters were in the vanguard of that drift. That these “land jobbers”–which is what they were called in this period–people like George Washington drifted over time to for a distinct political tribe in the post-American Republic, a Tribe called the Federalists, is understandable in that they came to democracy through economic necessity imposed by the deterioration in tobacco plantation export economics. Others, a decade younger, and less inclined to frontier life than Washington, came to their democracy through Enlightenment thought, and their perception of corrupt British politics that led to their establishment of a popular Republic in an independent United States.

Of particular interest at this juncture was Washington. In many ways Washington not only typifies but is the demonstrable leader of those in the planter elite that gravitated into land development, than western land development, into town-building, population attraction, and the infrastructure that made it accessible and livable. Most of these Virginia planters, including the populist Patrick Henry gravitated to the Federalist Party (Henry only in his last years), and as such constituted the southern vanguard of a national movement that consciously or not evolved into industrial-commercial finance capitalism during the Early Republic. Favoring a strong national government, and stressing the development of an American economic that was to create an trans-continental market as the best form of national self-defense and the expansion of democracy–as they defined it. Washington, as we shall discover, came early to this view, and he became the nation’s spokesperson for its advancement. Accordingly the next module is a “prequel” to the opening two modules of this history which focus chiefly on his post-Revolutionary War economic development activities. In the next module we see a different George Washington as not only a leading opponent of the British Proclamation Line, but an active land developer in Virginia and in the trans-Appalachian west. We will also see a frontiersmen who spent considerable time and effort in the wilderness–as well as on Mount Vernon and in politics/military. He began this after his French and Indian War military service (post 1758) and by his ascension to commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1774 he was considered as one of America’s most wealthy individuals. His wealth was mostly in land and land development.