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Gentry and Common Folk

Gentry and Common Folk: Political Culture on a Virginia Frontier 1740--1789

Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Gentry and Common Folk
    Book Description:

    In the late eighteenth century, the Upper Valley of Virginia experienced a conflict between the elitist culture of the gentry and the more republican values of the populace. Albert Tillson addresses here several major issues in historical scholarship on Virginia and the southern backcountry, focusing on changing political values in the late colonial and Revolutionary eras.

    In the colonial period, Tillson shows, the Upper Valley's deferential culture was much less pervasive than has often been suggested. Although the gentry maintained elitist values in the county courts and some other political arenas, much of the populace rejected their leadership, especially in the militia and other defense activities. Such dissent indicates the beginnings of an alternative political culture, one based on the economic realities of small-scale agriculture, the preference for less hierarchical styles of leadership, and a stronger attachment to local neighborhoods than to county, colony, or empire.

    Despite the strength of this division, the Upper Valley experienced less disorder than many other areas of the southern backcountry. Tillson attributes this in part to the close ties between the elite and provincial authorities, in part to their willingness to compromise with popular dissidents. Indeed, many of the subsidiary leaders in direct contact with local neighborhoods and militia training companies came to act as intermediaries between their superiors and popular groups.

    As Tillson shows, the events and ideology of the Revolutionary period interacted to transform the region's political culture. By creating tremendous demands for manpower and economic support, the war led to greater discontent and forced regional leaders to make substantial concessions to popular sentiment. The republican ideology sanctioned by the Revolution not only justified these concessions but also legitimated popular support for challenges to established leaders and institutions.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6482-3
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Map, Tables, and Figure
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Two issues dominate much of the historiography of eighteenth-century Virginia and carry substantial implications for the emerging scholarship on the southern backcountry. First, historians have differed in analyzing the characteristics and delineating the limits of the deferential political culture that sanctioned the power of Virginia’s leading men. Second, they have debated the extent to which the American Revolution challenged and altered that deferential culture. This study explores both these issues in the development of the upper, or southern, Valley of Virginia.

    Historians of eighteenth-century Virginia have long emphasized the role of deferential and hierarchical values in maintaining that society’s political...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Land, People, Economy, and Government
    (pp. 5-19)

    Diverse circumstances combined to make the upper Valley of Virginia distinct from the rest of the colony and yet to connect it closely to the center of the province. The region stretches south and west from approximately the present northern border of Augusta County for some two hundred miles to the North Carolina line. It is bounded on the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains and on the west by the main body of the Appalachians. In the eighteenth century, geography and population set the area apart from eastern Virginia and to some degree from the lower valley to the...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Political Culture of the Colonial Elite
    (pp. 20-44)

    Throughout the colonial period a small elite group dominated upper valley politics. These men shared the major social characteristics of the eastern Virginia gentry. Moreover, ties with the east were an important source of political and economic power and were one reason why upper valley leaders adopted the hierarchical and deferential values of eastern Virginia. Ultimately neither the upper valley’s Scotch-Irish and Presbyterian character nor the unstable conditions of frontier life substantially weakened their acceptance of eastern political values. Nevertheless, the differing degrees of that acceptance apparently contributed to factional divisions among the region’s leaders.

    Despite the frontier conditions of...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Militia and Popular Localism
    (pp. 45-63)

    The upper valley gentry espoused the values of eastern Virginia in defense activities as well as in civil government. As in the county courts, militia leaders showed a tremendous concern with the maintenance of status and authority, demanding deference from subordinates and according it to their superiors. In addition, the elite consistently supported offensive expeditions that ranged far beyond the frontiers, conciliation of potential Indian allies, and other methods of imperial expansion in preference to the localized defense of upper valley communities. These defense priorities reflected upper valley leaders’ cosmopolitan orientation, as well as their desire for prestigious and remunerative...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Roots of Backcountry Order
    (pp. 64-77)

    Given the strength of popular dissent from the political values of the gentry, it is surprising that the upper valley experienced less disorder than many other parts of the colonial backcountry. In the Carolinas and Pennsylvania, the Regulator movements and the Paxton Boys threatened established authorities at the regional and provincial levels. The upper valley’s greater political stability may be partially attributed to the presence of an elite group that was recognized and supported by provincial leaders and attained sufficient economic and moral stature to command at least the grudging respect of local settlers. Yet such a contrast between the...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Toward the Republic
    (pp. 78-100)

    Despite its slow and conservative beginnings in the upper valley, the Revolution transformed the region’s political culture. For a time in 1775 and 1776, the discrediting of royal authority threatened to undercut the local structure of power as well. The more lasting changes, however, arose from the continued strength of popular localism and from the growing social and economic demands imposed by the war effort. To maintain their own authority, upper valley leaders made more substantial compromises with popular dissidents than they had before. Eventually they moved toward a new political ethos centering on the values of regionalism, voluntarism, and...

  11. CHAPTER SIX The Tory Challenge
    (pp. 101-116)

    The most serious challenge to patriot authority in the upper valley arose from the Tory movement during the years around 1780. In its pattern of development, the magnitude of its support, and the ethnic composition of its membership, upper valley loyalism differed from the other popular unrest of the colonial and revolutionary years. Yet in the interests and values that shaped the movement, as well as the attitudes that contributed to its failure, loyalism shared many attributes of popular localism. As with other aspects of the war effort, defeating the Tories pushed upper valley leaders to greater acceptance of popular...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Finishing the Revolution
    (pp. 117-137)

    During the 1780s the growth of popular discontent and of support for republican political values continued in the upper valley. Until peace was finally achieved in 1783, the Revolution’s military and economic demands clashed with the localist values of common settlers. Because of the war and its aftereffects, taxation and fluctuations in the value of currency remained volatile issues throughout the decade. By the early 1780s, moreover, republican political values were being widely espoused in disputes beyond those related to the costs of the Revolution. At mid-decade, the campaign by Arthur Campbell and other leaders to include southwestern Virginia in...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT John Stuart’s History of the Greenbrier Valley
    (pp. 138-158)

    By the end of the revolutionary era, many upper valley leaders recognized that the rise of republican political values had fundamentally altered their lives. For John Stuart of Greenbrier County, the shift from a deferential to a republican culture provided the underlying structure for a narrative of his county’s history. In effect, Stuart’s awareness of this transformation shaped his explanation of the world in which he lived.¹ The techniques of structuralism make possible an analysis of this aspect of Stuart’s text. This chapter will first summarize Stuart’s narrative, then briefly discuss the principles of structuralism, and finally present a structuralist...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 159-162)

    This study of the eighteenth-century upper valley reaches two conclusions. First, although the members of the region’s colonial elite recreated much of the political culture of eastern Virginia, they failed to fully impose their deferential values on the rest of the population. Second, despite the continued power and prestige of the gentry, the ideology and material circumstances of the revolutionary era combined to create a strikingly more republican political ethos by 1789. The developments of the colonial period cast light on events elsewhere in Virginia and the southern backcountry. Similarly, the experience of upper valley inhabitants in the revolutionary and...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 163-222)
  16. Index
    (pp. 223-228)