Saturday, September 22, 2007

Albion's Seed, Part II: The Cavaliers 1642-1675

Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia

-- by Sara

Part I

The wave of Puritan migration from England to America slowed dramatically after 1641. Through the English Civil War and Cromwell's Protectorate, the Puritans found themselves politically and economically ascendant in England -- which greatly diminished their interest in leaving it. But the Puritan victory came at the expense of another English subculture, whose flight from Cromwell propelled the second wave of English migration to America.

These were the Cavaliers -- loyal Royalists, many of them nobles and courtiers, who sought refuge from the chaos in Virginia. David Hackett Fischer notes that Southern historians have long debated the actual extent and effects of the Cavaliers' influence on the region's culture; but 210 pages of Albion's Seed are given over to studying their specific folkways and cultural values as they existed on the estates of southern England, and as they later expressed themselves in the Chesapeake region. The detailed analysis is convincing: like the Puritans, the Cavaliers brought the culture they knew, and transplanted it firmly and deeply in the soil of tidewater Virginia. In the process, they added a second enduring English voice to America's conversation about rights, freedom, and power.

Aristocrats and Peasants
The Cavalier wave actually brought two kinds of people to Virginia. About the quarter of the immigrants between the peak years of 1641 and 1675 were either "distressed nobility," or (later) the younger sons of England's best families, looking to re-create their older brothers' grand English farming estates in their Virginia plantations. Frequent visits, business interests, and intermarriage across the Atlantic kept their ties to the old country close: culturally, the Old Dominion still looks back to England with more fondness than most of the rest of America does.

Sir William Berkeley, Virginia's governor throughout this period, granted these fortunate sons high offices, titles, and vast land grants upon their arrival -- thus creating an instant oligarchy of elite landholding families that kept an iron grip on the colony's developing economic and social orders. Where John Winthrop worked to prevent class extremes on either end in Massachusetts, Berkeley deliberately set out to recruit a new Royalist aristocracy, and put control of the Chesapeake entirely in its hands. These families built their self-sufficient plantations all throughout the Tidewater, duplicating the rural model of their old southern English country estates in almost every detail.

Of course, there's no point in being an aristocrat if you don't have serfs to boss around. After the local Indian tribes were offered the job -- only to vigorously decline it -- Virginia's would-be elite sent home for indentured servants. By 1675, these servants -- almost entirely uneducated, unmarried, unskilled young men between 15 and 35 -- comprised the other three-quarters of the colony's white residents. At the same time, the number of African slaves began to burgeon as well. Between 1642 and 1675, the population of Virginia Colony grew from about 8,000 to an estimated 50,000 souls.

Most of the white servants worked as farmers on the plantations. Illiterate, unpropertied, unlikely to marry, and locked into the most rigid social hierarchy in the Colonies, they were in no position to determine the direction of Virginia's culture, despite their far greater numbers. For that reason, Fischer's story only touches on them. Their lives, like so much of the history of the Chesapeake, were dominated by the actions of their masters.

Like agricultural societies around the world (and in strong contrast to the mercantilist Puritans), the Cavalier culture that emerged during these early generations was tradition-bound, static, patriarchal and hierarchical, suspicious of book-learning, and more than a bit authoritarian -- attributes which were buttressed by the teachings of Virginia's state-supported Anglican churches. As a direct result, Virginia very soon distinguished itself with the widest inequities in wealth, social mobility, education, domestic conditions, and political rights in colonial America.

While the Puritans held up the Calvinist belief that power, freedom, rights, and authority all legitimately rested with the community, early Virginians brought with them the reigning view of the British upper classes: that is, that the legitimate exercise of power, freedom, rights, and authority properly belonged in the hands of free white male landowners. They believed that the country would be best served if these autocrats were given their liberty to create wealth, exercise power, and lead the lesser folk forward toward a future of their choosing.

This second view of "liberty" is still a very recognizable part of our national conversation to this day, so it's useful to have Fischer's account of where it began, and how it played out in the earliest years of English settlement in America.

Gilded Cages
In Virginia, we find the American roots of the idea that only a free white man of property can be a legal person in his own right. The identities of everyone else in his household -- wives, lower-ranked siblings, children, servants, and slaves, who often numbered into the hundreds on Virginia's estates -- were merged into him as extensions of his identity, and legally existed only in relationship to him. The patriarch was invested with a serious moral obligation to provide for and protect his many charges; but in return, he held absolute decision-making power over every detail of their lives -- including the explicit right and duty to exploit them all for his own pleasure and profit.

And the Cavaliers did revel in their pleasures -- and their profits. Like their families back home in England, they loved beautiful clothes in the latest London fashion, grand houses, fast horses, elaborate manners, and sumptuous feasts and balls (their diet was the freshest and most varied in the Colonies, and they preferred their food roasted or fried -- a cooking legacy that came straight from the kitchens of southern England to the tables of southern America). They also loved gambling, especially on blood sports: shooting games, coursing small game, cockfights, and every kind of hunting.

Beyond that, many married men openly indulged in another kind of sport -- the seduction of women, which many of them energetically pursued to well into old age. Fischer suggests that those old Virginia gentlemen (a few of whom left diaries documenting their liaisons with several women a week for decades on end) would be regarded today as dangerous sexual predators.

Cavalier marriages, like those in upper-class England, were often arranged, and usually had more to do with social or economic advantage -- or the cold calculus of "good breeding" -- than love. The result, according to observers of the time, was an unusual number of bitterly hostile marriages, some of which were legendary in their mutual cruelty. Unlike their Puritan sisters, women in Virginia could legally be beaten by their husbands, and had no property and no rights apart from marriage. Undereducated and openly referred to as "breeders," they were known far and wide for their explosive domestic fury, which was usually aimed at children and servants. (Apparently, William Faulkner merely recorded recurring scenes from a very old drama.) In too many cases, this rage was fueled by their husbands' endless dalliances with mistresses, neighbors, servants, and slaves.

Like the slaves, the children, and the livestock, a woman was simply another piece of chattel to be counted among a man's holdings, and used as he saw fit. Small wonder, then, that by the 1730s, even before Virginia's male nobility began discussing its oppressive relationship with the Crown, its formidable women stepped up to petition for their full and equal rights as Englishwomen. The time came, very early in the colony's history, that they simply had enough.

Matters of Honor
Wherever you find rigid hierarchies and powerful men asserting their liberties, you find a preoccupation with personal honor. The Cavalier insistence on honor expressed itself in some unique ways, some of which are still visible in parts of American culture.

While women, children, servants, and slaves got the worst end of Cavalier notions of hierarchy, Virginians accorded a great deal of respect to the seniority conferred by age. Fischer notes that even young noblemen of manners were taught to speak with deference to older men of lower rank. People figured that if a man had lived a long time, he'd probably accumulated wisdom worth listening to. And that seniority made him a patriarch in his own right, regardless of the size of his holdings.

Cavalier religion reinforced cultural ideals of honor, too. Where Puritanism was intensely personal and private, Anglican Virginia was led by priests recruited from England's upper crust; and their devotionals were High Church affairs full of formal liturgy, public piety, fine music, and learned (and mercifully brief: you don't waste the time of powerful men) sermons. As with much else in Cavalier culture, church participation was all about holding up the family honor by putting on a good public show.

The Cavalier work ethic honored the indolent -- or, at least, those who could manage to look like they were indolent. Gentlemen, by definition, were only allowed to supervise other people's work. It violated the code for them to be seen doing anything for themselves, so Cavalier men hid all signs of labor with the same obsessive sense of shame that the Puritans brought to hiding their sexuality. Running a plantation really was hard work. But that work had to be done out of sight and in secret, lest anyone be moved question your rank. The Cavaliers' unofficial work motto was "Never let 'em see you sweat."

One of Fischer's recurring themes is that how you define "freedom" and "authority" -- and whom you allow to exercise both -- determines what you consider a crime. In the Puritan colonies, crimes against God were regarded as crimes against the integrity of the community (which, as we've seen, is where all legitimate authority resided). Thus, Massachusetts courts obsessed over private moral lapses like sexual indiscretions, drinking, swearing, and so on. However, in Virginia, where Cavalier society saw all legitimate authority as resting with the landholder, the crimes that filled the courts were predominantly crimes against property: theft, trespassing, poaching, and any other act that transgressed against a lord's absolute right to control over his own holdings.

Because of the Cavalier's extremely well-developed sense of honor, the worst crime of all in early Virginia was failing to defer to your betters. Surviving and succeeding in the Old Dominion meant knowing exactly where you stood in the pecking order -- and, thus, who owed you deference, and whom you were required to defer to in turn. Lower-ranked people were expected to pay obsessively careful attention to the feelings and opinions of those above them; but the upper ranks had no obligation to spend their time or pity listening to those less fortunate (though the willingness to grant "condescension" -- yes, they called it that -- toward the lower orders was a mark of good breeding). Failure to defer to your betters could get you whipped; among gentlemen, it was a leading cause of duels (another popular Cavalier blood sport).

Deference reinforced a stiflingly fixed class system. It ensured that in Virginia, wherever you were born, that's where you were going to stay.

Death in the Tidewater
It probably won't come as a surprise to anyone who's read Jared Diamond that the geography of America's eastern coast played a critical role in the success of European colonies there. The Puritans contended with scant, poor farmland and bitter winters; but Virginia's English settlers had far and away the highest rates of illness and death in colonial North America. The Chesapeake -- beautiful, warm, and fertile as it was -- was also essentially a subtropical swamp. The occupants of its lovely waterfront plantation homes spent their lives continually ill from malaria, typhus, amoebic dysentery, parasites, and assorted fevers-of-the-month. Every year, in late summer and early fall, "the dying season" took a heavy toll (and is quite likely why a dismal succession of early Virginia colonies failed entirely).

Visitors from England often wrote home about the general sickliness, low energy, bad tempers, and poor color of the Virginians; but modern geographers are now realizing that the stereotypically slow-moving pace of Southern culture may have far more to do with the characteristics of the land than with those of the people. It was just plain hot and humid. But, beyond that, from birth to death, they were all fighting something -- and usually, several particularly lingering somethings at once.

The horrific death rates made the Virginians (in contrast to the sentimental Puritans, who made a daily ritual out of contemplating death) extremely stoic in their acceptance of loss. They buried the body, made a cursory nod to the vagaries of fate, and went on about their business without much further fuss. Life is for the living. Let's carry on.

Of the four groups Fischer discusses, the Cavaliers were the only ones who didn't take off in large numbers for the western frontier during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Southern aristocracy eventually colonized the coastal lowland crescent that skirts the southern states from the Chesapeake and the Carolinas down through Georgia and Alabama, then along the Gulf Coast ending at New Orleans. They didn't venture into Texas; they left that, along with the southern interior highlands, to the Borderers, who proved much better suited to it. Bound to England, to the land, to family, to tradition, to farming, and to slavery, they had very little incentive to pull up stakes and try their hand elsewhere. In retrospect, this may have been a good thing for the nation as a whole.

The Cavalier Legacy: Hegemonic Liberty
Fischer quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson, pondering the Cavalier view of freedom. "How is it," Dr. Johnson asked, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" And, frankly, we're still wondering: How did the descendants of these Royalist plantation owners, who among all the English settlers held on most stubbornly to their noble British roots, end up supplying so many of the revolutionaries that ultimately led America to independence?

Fischer has an answer. He argues that the Cavalier cry against tyranny expressed by Jefferson, Washington, and other Virginians wasn't the least bit out of character. In fact, it came straight out of their essential conviction that free white men of property are the morally proper holders of all the rights and liberties that matter:
Virginian ideas of hegemonic liberty conceived of freedom mainly as the power to rule, and not to be overruled by others. Its opposite was "slavery," a degradation into which true-born Britons descended when they lost their power to rule....It never occurred to most Virginia gentlemen that liberty belonged to everyone. It was thought to be the special birthright of free-born Englishmen -- a property which set this "happy breed" apart from other mortals, and gave them a right to rule less fortunate people in the world....

One's status in Virginia was defined by the liberties one possessed. Men of high estate were thought to have more liberties than others of lesser rank. Servants possessed few liberties; and slaves [and women] had none at all. This libertarian idea had nothing to do with equality. Many years later, John Randolph of Roanoke summarized his ancestral creed in a sentence: "I am an aristocrat," he declared. "I love liberty; I hate equality."

In Virginia, this idea of hegemonic liberty was thought to be entirely consistent with race slavery....The growth of race slavery in turn deepened the cultural significance of hegemonic liberty, for an Englishman's rights became his rank, and set him apart from other less fortunate than himself. The world thus became a hierarchy in which people were ranked according to many degrees of unfreedom, and they received their rank by the operation of fortune, which played so large a role in the thinking of Virginians. At the same time, hegemony over others allowed them to enlarge the sphere of their own personal liberty, and to create the conditions within which their own special sort of libertarian consciousness flourished.
Edmund Burke made similar observations when describing this new Southern breed in Parliament:
A circumstance attending these colonies...makes the spirit of liberty still more high and haughty than in those to the northward. It is that, in Virginia and the Carolinas, they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom...

I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the southern colonies are much more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty than those to the northward...In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible."
Since Albion's Seed was written 18 years ago, a lot of writers have drawn on it to explain events in modern America (a tradition I plan to continue, in due time). It's notable that the overwhelming majority of them seized on Fischer's dissection of the Scots-Irish Borderers, pointing out that the rednecks, white trash, holy rollers, crackers, and other assorted lower-class yahoos that supported Bush have been with us from the beginning -- and been nothing but trouble from then to now.

In the rush to blame the Borderers, though, this section on the Cavaliers has been almost entirely ignored. Yet I found it to be at least as powerful in its explanatory power. Because, as Dr. Robert Altemeyer's work makes clear, authoritarianism is always a two-part problem. While the Borderers may supply more than their fair share of right-wing authoritarian followers, they'd go nowhere without a high-social-dominance authoritarian leadership to guide them. And in Fischer's description of the Cavaliers, we see the early American prototype of that high-SDO authoritarianism.

It's all there: the love of luxury, the crony capitalism, the unabashed right to exploit others for what you can take, the love of hierarchy for its own sake, the tacit understanding that those who have more stuff also have more rights. Altemeyer's description of the high-SDO leader -- amoral, manipulative, intimidating, hedonistic, pitiless, exploitative, prejudiced, nationalistic, hostile to equality, religious only for outward appearances, and almost always politically conservative -- fits Fischer's portrait of the Cavalier gentleman like a fine Spanish kid glove on the hilt of a Sheffield dress sword.

And these people are still very much with us. It's not a coincidence that the Religious Right's two most influential leaders, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, built their headquarters in Virginia; and that Washington's Republican elite still clusters in the old Cavalier city of Arlington. We hear Cavalier voices whenever someone tells us that wealth gaps are no big deal; that women and racial minorities are naturally inferior; that nobody besides the rich have a right to education or health care or anything else; that torture and war are necessary to maintain the American order; that the nation's corporate oligarchy will solve all of our problems if we simply give them their unfettered "freedom" to exploit every possible opportunity; and that we are upsetting the God-given moral order of the universe if we even think about trying to restrain them.

Among Cavaliers and corporatists, there is no morality beyond might makes right. There is no law -- and no honor -- beyond their own desire to expand their own sphere of power. There is no equality, no justice, and no universal freedom as we understand it. Theirs is the ancient plantation mentality we Americans have spent over 220 hard, bloody years trying to put behind us. It's an outdated social system that has no place in a modern technological society -- yet, in almost every detail, it's the very world our new corporate royalists want to drag us back to.

In the back of their minds, they're just Virginia gentlemen, taking the liberties such gentlemen have always rightfully enjoyed at the expense of others. It's true that we owe a handful of Cavalier gentlemen a tremendous debt for so clearly articulating the principles of American liberty during the Revolution. But we should also remember that when these first men asserted their God-given right to life, liberty, and happiness, they had no intention of sharing those blessings with anyone else.

Update: Paul Krugman's latest blog entry shows how the Cavalier attitude still echoes through the upper classes in the south, and leaves its imprint on our national politics.

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