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Politics in Colonial Virginia

"Swilling the Planters with Bumbo"

George Washington spent about £50 campaigning for a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1758. But he did not spend it on advertisements or direct mailings; he did not hire a campaign manager or a pollster. He spent the £50 on alcohol—28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and two gallons of cider, to be precise. The voters he sought to impress were apparently discriminating—but they were also thirsty. The 160 gallons of booze he bought served only 391 voters. Washington won the election, but it cost him about one and one-half quarts per vote.6

"Treating" voters was an old Virginia tradition. It was also illegal; a 1699 Virginia law prohibited candidates from purchasing votes through alcohol or gifts. But it was not illegal to provide a drink for your friends. So on election day, Virginia candidates routinely rolled out the barrels for their "friends" gathered on the courthouse lawn. Nor could a candidate really afford to take the high road (or would that be the dry road?); voters expected those interested in securing their votes to pay them a little respect. Therefore while the practice had its critics, it was an integral part of colonial Virginia's tried and true political process.

Virginia's distinctive political culture has long interested historians. The colony produced more than its share of influential colonial figures. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Peyton Randolph were all Virginians; only Massachusetts even came close to matching Virginia's contribution to the Revolution's political elite. But historians have been struck not just by the quality of the leaders Virginia produced, but also by the dramatic stability of the colony's political system. For most of the eighteenth century, a handful of families dominated the Governor's Council and the House of Burgesses. Nor have historians found much evidence of popular discontent with the monopoly on power maintained by this small group of planters. After the popular outburst known as Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, Virginia's small farmers and artisans seemed to have settled comfortably into their subordinate positions. In other words, for most of the eighteenth century, a handful of families dominated Virginia politics—and the rest of the population did not seem to mind.

Was it all the alcohol?

Explaining Virginia's Political Stability

Some historians have suggested that Virginia's voters were simply shut out of the process—that the gentry were able to dominate the colony's government because common people simply could not participate. But in fact, a solid majority of Virginia's white male population over age 21 was eligible to vote. Of course, Virginia, like the other American colonies, excluded huge blocs of potential voters. Women were explicitly denied the vote in 1699; free blacks, mulattos, and Indians were forbidden the vote in 1723. Virginia also restricted the vote to property holders in 1670. But the amount of property necessary to satisfy the requirement was pretty small—only 25 acres of improved land or 100 acres of unimproved land. Men living in towns were provided with an even more attainable property requirement—so long as a man owned a house on a lot of locally-defined size, he could vote. Moreover, in 1684 the colony expanded the franchise further by allowing men with a lease-for-life to vote—that is, men who did not own property but had signed what amounted to permanent lease agreements could vote.

What this all meant was that by 1750, about 70% of Virginia's adult white men were able to vote.7 Moreover, it seems that Virginia's voters generally exercised their right to vote—estimates suggest that roughly 40-60% of all eligible voters did so—a participation rate roughly equivalent to that of today.8

Other historians have suggested that even though most men were able to vote, the electoral process was manipulated by the wealthy gentry through their control of critical county offices—in particular the county sheriff's office. Sheriffs were responsible for coordinating local elections. When an election was called, it was the local sheriff who decided when exactly it would be held. He also determined when to open and close the polls. This gave sheriffs opportunities to tilt elections in the direction of one candidate or another. For example, Virginia law allowed a person to vote in every county in which he held property. A wealthy landowner, in other words, could cast a ballot in one election, and then ride to another county and vote there as well. If a sheriff's favorite candidate was counting on a large number of these multi-county voters, he might schedule the election so as not to conflict with elections held in other counties—thereby ensuring that traveling voters could show up to support his candidate.

But complaints about these sorts of practices were rare—and when voiced they came from disappointed wealthy candidates, not from some common upstart trying to enter the political arena.

In short, Virginia's political stability was not the result of a narrow franchise or rigged elections. If we want to understand Virginia's remarkable political stability throughout the eighteenth century, we need to look closer at the colony's history and the complex set of political, economic, and social factors that served to elevate the local gentry into positions of leadership while providing just enough room within the political order to absorb the aspirations of ambitious small planters.

The Lessons of Bacon's Rebellion

A century of political stability did not look likely in 1676. In that year, disgruntled small farmers stood up against the colonial government in an insurrection labeled Bacon's Rebellion. The government's failure to more aggressively deal with the Indians that threatened these farmers—many of whom lived far in the interior—led their list of complaints. But they were also unhappy with the extravagant stipends paid to government officials. Led by an ambitious wealthy planter, Nathaniel Bacon, they temporarily drove the governor, William Berkeley, from the capital at Jamestown. But after Bacon's death, the rebellion quickly subsided and Berkeley returned to power.

Even though the crisis passed quickly, London officials were disturbed by all the turmoil in their most profitable colony. The taxes collected in England on Virginia tobacco generated considerable revenue for the British government. And English merchants earned high profits re-exporting Virginia's tobacco to other European nations. The King was therefore anxious to restore stability to this revenue-yielding colony—and so he dispatched a commission to investigate the rebellion. The commission quickly concluded that the rebelling farmers had some legitimate complaints. Virginia's colonial government, from the governor to the Council to the House of Burgesses, was overpaid and exploitive. They received exorbitant stipends and salaries, they charged the citizens high fees for sundry services, and they provided little accounting, or even explanation, for their budgetary decisions.

But while identifying the problem was relatively easy, remedying it was more complex. After several months, the commissioners were able to convince Governor Berkeley to resign. But the Council and Burgesses that remained resisted all recommendations for reform. And so when the commissioners returned to England and reported to the King that further rebellions were likely unless the power of the House of Burgesses was trimmed, the King sent off a new governor with instructions to do just that. The power to initiate legislation was to be transferred to the governor, the House of Burgesses was to be called into session only when ordered to do so by the King, and the House would no long serve as the highest court of appeals in the colony.

There was a certain amount of logic in these proposals—and they were at least partially shaped by the complaints from Virginia's small farmers about the arrogance and abuse of the House of Burgesses. But in proposing that the solution lay not in expanding the political power of the small farmers, but in shrinking the power of their elected assembly, the King made a critical tactical error. For it allowed the Burgesses to cast their opposition to these reforms within the language of democratic right—they were able complain not just that these measures reduced their own power, but that they violated the traditional British commitment to representative government.

Battling for the Support of the Small Farmer

For the next century, the royally appointed governors of Virginia would battle the House of Burgesses for political dominance in the colony—and throughout these battles, the House was able to defend its power as critical to the survival of representative government in Virginia. Of course, to make this argument credibly, the wealthy gentry that dominated the House had to reach out to the common people in some fashion—they could not just present themselves as champions of democratic government without addressing at least some of the concerns of the small farmers. And consequently, over the next several decades the House of Burgesses did pass a number of measures that improved the lot of common people. It was during these years that the franchise was expanded to include lifetime lease holders, and it was during these years that the property requirement for voting was set at attainable levels. Perhaps most important to Virginia's struggling farmers, the House systematically lowered the poll tax collected to support the colonial government. In 1686, when the political wrestling match between the governor and the House began, Virginians were annually taxed about 45 pounds of tobacco per person. By 1700, the tax had been reduced to eleven pounds per person; by 1750, Virginians only paid 4.6 pounds per person.9

Some of the governors appointed by the Crown also realized that if they were ever to prevail in their power struggle with the gentry they had to earn the loyalty of the common farmers. Francis Nicholson, for example, attempted to win small farmers' support by introducing a couple of reform measures of his own. In 1701, he asked the local militias to identify a handful of their most skilled soldiers for membership in an elite corps. In addition, he authorized this super militia to elect its own officers democratically. It was a clever proposal, one which threatened the gentry on two levels. Thus far they had enjoyed a monopoly on the militia officer corps. And they believed that the military titles they thus acquired strengthened their social authority. But more directly, these gentry recognized that an elite militia, under the direct control of the governor, could be used to coerce their cooperation.

Whether Nicholson would have used this militia to discipline the powerful gentry and House of Burgesses is unclear—but it was not hard for the gentry to convince Virginia's small farmers that the governor planned to do exactly that. In describing this threat, they were able to tap into a set of widely embraced historical lessons about the risks to liberty posed by tyrannical leaders who maintained "standing armies"—that is, armies formed during times of peace. These lessons further taught that small encroachments on a people's rights often grew into more far reaching assaults on democratic institutions. Governor Nicholson, the gentry argued, had no respect for England's traditional commitment to liberty—and this militia proposal was only the first step in his liberty-stealing scheme. He planned next to dissolve the House of Burgesses, they said, and to eliminate representative government altogether. And according to one of Nicholson's critics, James Blair, when the governor was accused of violating the sorts of guarantees laid out in the Magna Carta—the historic English document asserting that even the King was bound by law—Nicholson had responded "Magna Charta, Magna F____a."10

Blair was probably the most effective voice in this attack on Nicholson and his plan to revamp the militia. An Anglican minister, Blair was sent to Virginia by the Church in 1685. But he quickly built ties with the more secular sources of power in the colony by marrying into one of Virginia's most powerful planter families in 1687. He parlayed his church and gentry connections into a seat on the Governor's Council in 1694, and from there he became a skilled lobbyist for the interests of Virginia's wealthy planter class. He secured the funding for the establishment of Virginia's first college, William & Mary, and starting with his attack on Nicholson, he became the thorn in the side of one Virginia governor after another until his death in 1743.

Nicolson was recalled from Virginia in 1705. By that time, Blair and his planter friends had succeeded in raising enough alarm about the governor to secure his removal. But even had Nicholson stayed, it is doubtful that he would have been able to draw off much of the common people's support for the Burgesses. For in this contest for the support of Virginia's common farmers, the gentry had just too many advantages.

The Economic Power of Virginia's Wealthy Planters

One of these advantages was economic; wealthy planters held an almost natural position of authority and leadership within the economy of Virginia. This was largely due to the fact that virtually everyone in Virginia grew tobacco—Virginia's economy, for most of the colonial period, relied on this one product. This meant that all farmers, large and small, had similar interests—the price of tobacco, the size of the English import tax, the access to foreign markets allowed by British trade policy. When tobacco farmers looked to the political arena to address their economic concerns, it was only logical for the larger, more successful planters to command greater authority and credibility.

In addition, many small planters were dependent on the larger planters. Small farmers in the interior, far removed from major rivers, were particularly dependent on large planters to deliver their crop to market. Large planters served as critical middlemen for the small growers—taking their tobacco on consignment for sale to English and Scottish merchants. Many large planters went a step further, receiving the goods small farmers imported from Europe. And many of these large planters eventually assumed the role of creditors for the small growers, extending loans to them as they negotiated the sale of their tobacco and the purchase of their imported goods.

The Social Power of Virginia's Wealthy Planters

The leverage secured by large planters through their economic power was huge. But this was not the only source of their social and political influence. As the eighteenth century progressed, the large planters' economic power was buttressed by the leadership roles they assumed in other parts of Virginia society. For example, these gentry served as vestrymen in the church—they collected tithes, assisted the clergy, and oversaw the range of charitable works that fell to the church in the eighteenth century. But Virginia's church was notoriously weak; Virginians tended to be more worldly than the religious pilgrims who settled farther north in New England. Therefore, despite the laws requiring church attendance, most Virginians spent their weekends at the cockfights and horse races, not in the church pews. But within these alternative Sabbath activities, large planters played just as prominent a role.

Virginians were famous for their gaming; social events were not complete without a series of horse races. The format and style of racing changed over the course of the eighteenth century. Initially the quarter-mile sprint was most common. (Virginians introduced the quarter horse, distinguished by its speed over a quarter mile.) More like a high-risk equestrian duel in which attempts to dismount one's competitors were allowed, these races often ended when one of the riders was tossed or broke a bone. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, Virginians had adopted English course racing—longer races over a circular or winding course. But regardless of the format, the opportunities for wealthy planters to showcase carefully bred horses were the same. Presiding over these events, and providing not only champion horses but also bountiful refreshments, planters visibly and repeatedly asserted their place at the top of the social pyramid.

On other Sundays, tobacco farmers, rich and poor, gathered for militia practice. These days were often filled with more drinking than drilling but they provided yet another opportunity for the large and small planters to mingle together in an activity that combined shared purpose with clear social hierarchy. Having defeated Nicholson's militia proposal, the gentry, as officers, presided over these events just as they did the horse races. But in commanding a corps of volunteers—just like themselves—united by their dedication to the colony's security, the wealthy militia officers asserted their common bonds with the small planter as well as their social superiority.

These militia days demonstrated yet another source of commonality between the small and large planters. Periodically, the officers would march their troops through the slave quarters. Part of the intent was to inhibit any seditious plotting among the slaves. Even though not a single white Virginian was killed in a slave rebellion during the colonial period, several slave conspiracies were uncovered, especially during the first third of the eighteenth century. A periodic demonstration of white power seemed a useful way of nipping these insurrectionary ambitions in the bud. But these militia rituals served as more than demonstrations of military power, they provided regular rituals of racial fraternity—cocky, testosterone-enhanced pageants of racial and masculine posturing participated in by the rich and the poor, celebrating a shared domination over the least powerful members of society.

The Political Opportunities of the Small Planter

In the final analysis, it is clear that Virginia's wealthy planters were able to draw upon a whole range of sources in establishing their political power. The idiosyncrasies of Virginia's economy, social pastimes, regional interests and racial identity all came together to forge a social ideology that combined fraternity and hierarchy—these combined to create an understanding of the world among white Virginians, both rich and poor, that blended a sense of shared purpose with an acceptance of rigid hierarchies and social deference. Moreover, in consequently presenting themselves as the natural leaders of Virginia society, the wealthy gentry were also able to position themselves as the defenders of representative government—the counterweights to the grasping ambitions of the King's appointed governors.

Finally, while all this contributed to the wealthy gentry's political dominance, there also existed just enough opportunity within the political system to absorb the ambitious small planter. During the eighteenth century, the number of county offices and services increased—and so also did the ability of smaller planters to access these offices. Formerly monopolized by the wealthier gentry, by 1750 smaller farmers were able to attain low-level county positions as constables, road surveyors, deputy sheriffs, and bridge keepers. And they were able to work their way up within this hierarchy of county offices. Of course, there were limits as to how high a person of moderate means could go within Virginia's governmental order; the higher county offices, such as tobacco inspector, and seats in the House of Burgesses remained attainable only to the wealthier planters. But the political structure was open just enough to absorb and appease the ambitions of the upwardly aspiring among Virginia's small planter class.

When a small farmer stepped up to cast his vote on election day, therefore, decades of political, social, and economic development were being expressed. In casting his vote for some member of the gentry he was also casting a vote for a fellow tobacco farmer, a colleague in the militia and a neighbor with whom he had shared a day, and a drink, at the races. Just as important, in that moment, when his name was called and he stepped forward to publicly cast his vote, he was making a statement to the governor, and the King who appointed him, that Virginia's representative government would not be encroached upon during his watch.

Clearly, then, it wasn't just the alcohol—although the gallons of booze may have helped take the edge off of the social and economic differences that actually did separate the rich and the poor in Virginia. But there were enough sources of commonality between the small farmer and the wealthy planter soliciting his vote, that with just a little alcoholic assistance, the small farmer could believe that he was a vital and integrated member of Virginia's political establishment.

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