The Early Republic Culture of the Tidewater (State) Policy System

Virginia Tidewater elites devised a democracy expressed in policy systems with distinctive elements. Kentucky, more than Tennessee, was to inherit them, adapt them, and in some respects update them as time passed.The planter elite typically draws the greatest attention, as it should. It produce remarkable characters and leaders of great diversity, ranging from Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and George Mason, Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, and a host of major players, folk such as George Nichols, George Rogers Clark, John Sevier, and Issac Shelby–and nearly all Kentucky governors for the next three decades. Several characteristics of this Tidewater approach to politics and policy stand out as hallmarks of a political culture that will exercise a larger influence on our history, and the Early Republic period.

First, There is a tenuous fusion in Tidewater elites of its desire to preserve as much as possible the late medieval culture and society, the emphasis on tradition, and the plantation as modern equivalent to the medieval manor roots them literally and economically to the land. At the same time, there is an openness to trade, but a willingness to embrace manufacturing, transportation/agricultural/scientific innovation and experimentation. While they are willing to tolerate economic disruptions, Tidewater elites decidedly push back on social change. Slavery gets caught up in this tension. Primogeniture-heredity-family, the first dispensed with in this period, ensured the integrity of their rule over time. Their clash with a rising capital industrial economic system/culture is more muted than say the Scots-Irish, but more questioning than the Puritan Yankee. The quest for profit is restrained, often derided, and social/community responsibility is held in higher regard than pure entrepreneurism. These changes in tone and complexity in purpose will play out in their economic development policy choices and non-decisions. We will see this in Part II.

The Tidewater planter elite culture was far from monolithic. The most important ED-relevant was the what came to be called “Federalists” and “anti-Federalists” fracture. The latter were in many ways strongly individualist-anti authority, an autonomous, to the point they verged on what we call “libertarian”. In Virginia, they were the not-so-silent majority of Virginia politics. From them will come the infamous states rights perspective. States from the planter’s perspective is where the plantations met to do business, coordinate mutual interests, and defend themselves from the external world.  The plantation was the Tidewater function equivalent of the New England town, without town democracy, of course. Each plantation was a fiefdom, each county a geographic collection of individual fiefdoms, and from this a distinct and durable bias emerged: the state policy system was to large degree regarded as a compact of plantation-fiefs. The Virginia Burgesses did this job well–as judged by the number of populist insurrections tossed against it. In any case, Tidewater policy systems looked down for inspiration and direction. The county was their basic unit of governance. The state policy system was a a sort of marketplace for county and local elites to seek their desired policy goods.

The bottom-line take away, is that Tidewater state policy system possessed an inherent decentralization, a predisposition to what we will call county courthouse cabals, controlled by what passed for local elites. Tidewater states in the Early Republic were not meant to develop their own agendas; they were meant to respond to the agendas of lower levels of government and local elites. What is not commonly recognized is that planter elites, federalists or anti-federalists, were often “indifferent” politicians. Local autonomy was all-important, and defense of the economic and social order that prevailed locally was their heart of their self-interest.

Slavery was the most obvious, and the most focused on element of that social order. That became the “third rail” of Tidewater state and national politics, and moreover the prism through which policy-making in any policy area was viewed. We see in the making of Tennessee and Kentucky state constitution that so long as slavery is legitimized and preserved, Tidewater planter elites were willing to compromise on other vital features, such as the electoral franchise. Recognized by constitutional convention delegates that slavery’s termination was not to be achieved, opponents satisfied themselves with checking its impact on the ability of non-planter economic classes to get their just deserts from the policy-making institutions and processes. Neither state adopted the federal “three-fifths compromise” which counted slaves as part of the eligible citizen population in an electoral district (even though they could not vote, and were not freed men). Slaves were taxed–but slavery was not threatened as an institution. Both states adopted several criminal justice sections which, however vastly imperfect, so that Tidewater policy systems were often labeled as a more humane slavery. Tennessee even theoretically allowed all free men, including freed former slaves, to vote. This is no heaven on earth, no attempt to normalize slavery, but rather a mere observation on the distinctiveness of the Tidewater policy culture. Reflecting the incredible ambivalence, to be expanded upon below in the discussion of the Tennessee constitution, of Tidewater elites toward slavery itself. Slavery was part of their way of life; it could not be abruptly ended, but it was not something all Tidewater planter elites were proud of, and its preservation for an indefinite future was not necessarily included in their definition of that third rail policy-making.

But hidden in this “compact” state policy system are salient tendencies which will play havoc with its future policy-making.  Local fiefs, be they plantations or counties, brought matters to the state policy system–not vice versa. State policy systems were empowered to create institutions which served mutual ends and shared tasks and fears, but no more. Since it always comes down to money, taxes and expenditures were to be increased only when proven imperative, and only to the extent perceived as necessary. This is the core to Tidewater limited government. It meant–ironically and paradoxically–that state policy systems were not Winthrop’s city on a hill, with a moral mission underlying their existence, but as a marketplace where local elites and local geographies worked out their self-interests.

While anti-federalist states righter resisted bitterly against an aggressive and expansionist federalist national government, they did not really intend to make their states by any means a strong, aggressive policy-making level of government with an expansive policy agenda. That could mean, and it often did, that when states righters were able to check the agenda of an aggressive national government, it did not mean they were intending that agenda was more properly to be carried out by their state government. Frequently, just the opposite happened. The federal government was checked, and the state government did not effectively, sometimes at all, deal with the policy or even policy area. This is, as we shall see, the critical failing of the Tidewater state policy system. This is the reason why Virginia’s debacle in implementing developmental transportation infrastructure happened despite it being the pioneer in that strategy paradigm.

Inevitably, factions, rivalries, personalistic-charismatic, often of a temporary nature were formed or resulted from this marketplace debate. Policy-making inevitably built-in self-interest rather than develop strong empowered state-level institutions and leadership. Like New York’s individualist-entrepreneurial culture, the Tidewater state policy system was extractive or protectionist. Modern rational-based professional policy-making was not its forte. What did happen, from the start in Kentucky and Tennessee, however, was that the planter elite conception of state level policy system clashed, seemingly head-on with its non-planter  classes, including its “populist” majority. In Kentucky, the planters won, sort of, in the first constitution, only to lose control in the second in 1799. Tennessee from the start was not dominated by its planters, but by its land speculating elites who just happened to own plantations. Tennessee, a victim of our infamous lag, saw the same happen in 1834–with considerably greater changes. Within the Early Republic Tidewater policy systems there was a very important second factor-dynamic that caused a major earthquake in Tidewater policy-making.

Second, Tidewater policy systems, whether they wanted to or not, coexist with a built-in opposition which checked the unrestrained exercise of planter power. Essentially the disruptive politics of the manor continued in the New World. Always in a minority, a small minority planters knew their vulnerability. The famous “bell in the night” fear of slave insurrection is reasonably well-known, but also as we see through the entire of Virginia pre-1860 political history there is a constant dilemma of what to do with land-holding former-indentured servants, and later migrants who settle on the coastal frontiers, the huge Scots-Irish migration was the one with which we are most concerned. Because plantation economics made special demands on topography, soils and weather, the class opposition that arose from free householders, yeoman farmers Jefferson called them, whether Scots-Irish hardscrabble or more stable and prosperous middle-class homesteads assumed a geographical dimension. The great debate in Tidewater policy systems was how to handle class tensions, tensions which often assumed geographic overtones. In several Parts and chapters that lie ahead we will see how planter elites–and their masses–worked out these tensions. As we shall see “deference” was a part of this workout–but toleration, mutuality of interests, and surprisingly a level of respect also entered into this very important Tidewater cultural dynamic. Stereotypes do not do justice to this dynamic which will become a hallmark of Tidewater policy systems during the Early Republic. Understanding this dynamic will explain a great deal about the future rise of the Cotton Belt.

Anything west of the Tidewater, even central Virginia where non-Royalist Tidewater elites like Jefferson, Madison and Monroe called home hid a lesser nobility distinction, and the yeoman dominated western counties–including Kentucky could be hostile territory indeed.Open to economic opportunity, driven in part by tobacco economics,  was very much attracted to “conquering–settling” new territories, the planter elite established itself in Middle Bluegrass Kentucky, and tried hard, if unsuccessfully to extend themselves into eastern Tennessee. They found greater success in the rich flatland valley of Middle Tennessee–and when a brave new world (cotton) opened up along the Mississippi decades in the future western Tennessee became their new-found home base. But with each drift west, along came, settling in the hinterland the agricultural middle and working classes. Their permanent built in check and balance. Tidewater policy systems while dominated by their planter elites, economically to be sure, were bimodal politically. Wanting to devise a government that was sufficiently powerful to protect their economic and status position, they resisted the efforts of non-planters to empower typically the legislature government to advance and protect their interests.

Perhaps, in its own way, just as critical is the founder of a new neo-Federalist approach to economic development, a largely unknown political super-power of the Early Republic, Henry Clay, (and Thomas Hart Benton, author of the expression “Manifest Destiny”) who were from Kentucky/Tennessee. Clay’s stress on economic development will infuse a new political party, the Whigs (who will themselves relaunch into the Republican Party) and will profoundly affect 19th century economic development across the nation. That presidents from Kentucky and Tennessee (Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Jefferson Davis) would lead us through the Civil War and a great deal of Reconstruction reinforces the importance of the tide of Kentucky/Tennessee westernization, and its distinctive impact on our ED history, if not the history of the US.

Unappreciated, the character, the huge success, and the eventual failure of Virginia-Tidewater approach to ED–due to the rise of the Cotton Belt and the industrial North/Midwest–which made a political sandwich of its regional base–etched its heritage on the history of our policy area, a heritage which affects us to this day. Herein lies the origins of our present-day Red State–Blue State dichotomy.