Eighteenth-century Virginia was a colony filled with contradictions. In many ways it was the most philosophically progressive of Britain's North American possessions; in other ways it was the most backward and dishonest. Wealthy Virginians viewed themselves as refined and their lifestyles as genteel but their entire society was filled with—if not indeed built upon—violence. The colony recognized the Anglican Church as its established religion, but its influence was uneven at best, and religious reform, when it came, came from outside the colony.
Politically, Virginia boasted the oldest popularly elected legislature on the continent. Its House of Burgesses was founded in 1619. But it was more than just the first representative governmental body in America. By the eighteenth century its members had crafted a uniquely well developed institutional identity—Burgesses viewed themselves as bulwarks against executive power, the last line of defense against overreaching kings and governors. The Burgesses' authority, moreover, was drawn from the people—a large majority of Virginia's adult white men were eligible to vote and did so.
But while Virginia's political philosophy was enlightened, its racial views were not. Virginians' barbaric labor system was linked to their equally backward understandings of racial difference. Moreover, these understandings deviated not just from contemporary standards of justice, they deviated from their own experience as slaveowners. While Virginians based their version of slavery on an understanding of the races as radically separate, within their own society the two races were increasingly intertwined—socially, sexually, and thus even genetically.
Wealthy Virginians also believed that they were building the most refined society in North America. As the eighteenth century progressed, large planters traded in their modest clapboard homes for gaudy brick mansions. At places like Gunston Hall, Carter's Grove, and Westover, the architectural grandeur was echoed by new types of consumer indulgence as Virginia's aristocrats filled their homes with the finest imported furniture, china, and wine. In these ostentatiously built and opulently decorated homes they hosted lavish entertainments—and proclaimed to the skeptics on the other side of the Atlantic that, at least here in Virginia, America was a cultivated and genteel place.
But underneath these sophisticated forms, Virginians built a society entirely dependent on violence. Slaves were beaten and raped; on occasion their bodies were mutilated to render their wills obedient. Only violence could control the slave system on which this society was built. And as this dependence on violence grew, it turned back on its wielders, infecting Virginians themselves. Southerners adopted martial values that celebrated violence and developed forms of entertainment that turned violence into spectacle.
Among their gestures to gentility, Virginians recognized the Anglican Church as the official church of the colony. The colonial government promised to support the Church financially, and pledged to keep its pews filled by requiring attendance. The clergy, at least the well placed, married into the colony's planter elite—and a few were named to the Governor's Council. Wealthy Virginians sanctimoniously demonstrated their commitment to the Church in by serving as vestrymen and assisted the clergy in meeting their responsibilities.
But here again there was more form than substance. Despite its official status, the Church exercised little meaningful influence. And when a wave of religious enthusiasm did come to the colony around 1750, it was ushered in by a group of very un-Anglican clergy. The New Light preachers of the Great Awakening delivered a Christian message that challenged the hierarchical premises of the entire society. And they followed up their doctrinal challenge with a multifaceted critique of the values, the lifestyles, and even the slaveowning practices of the established order.
By the end of the colonial period, Virginia was a colony filled with contradictions—yet despite these, wealthy Virginians saw themselves as the natural leaders of America. When the Revolution broke out in 1775, they looked naturally to themselves to provide the leadership—and even more curiously, so too did much of the rest of America.
As we explore the contradictions that filled colonial Virginia, it might be useful to think about the reasons why other Americans tended to embrace the leadership of Virginians during America's revolutionary era—which among the contradictory features of the colony prepared Virginians for leadership, and which made them attractive to other revolutionaries outside the colony. To complete the analysis, it might also be useful to consider the reasons why Virginians provided many of the leaders of Confederacy during the Civil War. Perhaps it makes sense that this colony, so filled with contradiction, played a large part in both the creation and near-destruction of the United States of America.