Virginia produced and welcomed a strong group of aristocratic families. These kept their lines intact through many decades through the use of primogeniture and entail. But this legal bulwark fell under the ferocious attacks of revolutionary egalitarianism, led by one of Virginia's own sons? Were, then, the First Families crushed, dispersed, ruined? Not appreciably. Custom took the place of the legal bulwark. Did the competition of Mississippi cotton, of Missouri corn, of northern industry, ruin and bring despair to the "planter class?" Not appreciably. The war between the States was a great blow, but the descendants of the old leading colonial Virginians became, largely, lawyers, bankers, real estate men, editors, politicians. They are still on top today. -- not all of them and not exclusively, of course. The idea of social class stability and continuity becomes deeply impressed upon anyone who studies the prestige groups in Virginian society through the years.Next Page
If these facts are substantiated by the data to follow, the story of social classes in one part of the United States will be complete. Furthermore, it will be demonstrated that even in this so-called land of "shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations" there was rigidity in the social class structure, continuity in social class lines, sufficient to cast doubt upon the validity of the great American Dream.
Virginia before 1650. Virginia was not settled chiefly by middle class elements. If the middle class was not well represented in the immigrant stock, no one should expect to find it well represented in the colony thirty or forty years later. It was not.
Up to the year 1635, about one quarter of the immigrants were free persons. "After 1635, the percentage of free settlers became much smaller." 25 Wertenbaker goes on to say: 26
With the exception of the merchants and other well-to-do men that formed the basis of the aristocracy, the free immigrants were ignorant and crude. But few of them could read and write . . . .
Where a void existed -- where no sizable middle class came over, and few aristocratic families came and remained during the early decades -- it is not surprising that at first there were "few men of good standing in the colony," and that some poorly educated persons of humble origin should be found in "important positions." 27 Wertenbaker states that this "is notably true of the first half of the 17th century," and that had "there been many men of ability or rank to select from, these Plebeians would never have found a place in the assembly . . . . " 28
Thus the land of opportunity was especially grateful for the assistance of energetic persons of very common origin because there was work to be done, even legislative work, so long as the upper classes were shorthanded. Later, when enough well-born individuals arrived or were born in the colony, it was natural, as indicated above, that people of lowly birth should become personae non gratae. After 1650, and especially after 1700, this exact development took place. One reads: 29
Instances of the election of freedmen to the House, fairly frequent in the early years of the colony, became rarer as the century advanced and the field of selection widened . . . even so late as the middle of the century the door of opportunity was still opened to the freedman.
The door of opportunity, in other words, was open in Virginia during the few decades before the coming of many respectable families, before many people at all had come. "Prior to the passage of the navigation acts . . . Virginia and Maryland were lands of opportunity for the poor immigrant." 30 As usually recounted, the American Dream makes no provision for such a sudden ending in two of the rich and prosperous colonies before 1680!
25. Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Patrician and Plebeian in Virginia (Charlottesville, 1910) p. 155.
26. Loc. cit.
27. Ibid., p. 11.
28. Loc. cit.
29. Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, The Planters of Colonial Virginia (Princeton, 1922) p. 740.
30. Wertenbaker, op. cit. (5), p. 33.