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Accommodating Revolutions

Accommodating Revolutions: Virginia's Northern Neck in an Era of Transformations, 1760-1810

Albert H. Tillson
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 432
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    Accommodating Revolutions
    Book Description:

    Accommodating Revolutionsaddresses a controversy of long standing among historians of eighteenth-century America and Virginia-the extent to which internal conflict and/or consensus characterized the society of the Revolutionary era. In particular, it emphasizes the complex and often self-defeating actions and decisions of dissidents and other non-elite groups. By focusing on a small but significant region, Tillson elucidates the multiple and interrelated sources of conflict that beset Revolutionary Virginia, but also explains why in the end so little changed.

    In the Northern Neck-the six-county portion of Virginia's Tidewater lying between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers-Tillson scrutinizes a wealthy and powerful, but troubled, planter elite, which included such prominent men as George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, Landon Carter, and Robert Carter. Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Northern Neck gentry confronted not only contradictions in cultural ideals and behavioral patterns within their own lives, but also the chronic hostility of their poorer white neighbors, arising from a diverse array of local economic and political issues. These insecurities were further intensified by changes in the system of African American slavery and by the growing role of Scottish merchants and their Virginia agents in the marketing of Chesapeake tobacco. For a time, the upheavals surrounding the War for American Independence and the roughly contemporaneous rise of vibrant, biracial evangelical religious movements threatened to increase popular discontent to the point of overwhelming the gentry's political authority and cultural hegemony. But in the end, the existing order survived essentially intact. In part, this was because the region's leaders found ways to limit and accommodate threatening developments and patterns of change, largely through the use of traditional social and political appeals that had served them well for decades. Yet in part it was also because ordinary Northern Neckers-including many leaders in the movements of wartime and religious dissidence-consciously or unconsciously accommodated themselves to both the patterns of economic change transforming their world and to the traditional ideals of the elite, and thus were unable to articulate or accept an alternative vision for the future of the region.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2851-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-1)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. 2-2)
    (pp. 3-12)

    Like most virginians born in the mid-twentieth century, I began life surrounded by the past. Forus, the most obvious past centered on the Civil War. Certainly this was true in Richmond: according to the novelist Tom Robbins, the state capital was “not really a city at all but the world’s largest Confederate museum.”¹ Hollywood Cemetery and the statues along Monument Avenue had been the subjects of veneration, controversy, and humor for generations. Even in the Washington suburbs where I grew up, that Confederate past was unavoidable, if muted: the first school I attended was Stonewall Jackson Elementary, and Arlington County...

    (pp. 13-53)

    Despite the power they exerted over their society throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Northern Neck’s leading men were clearly uneasy about their way of life. Wealth, prestige, and authority on the peninsula were concentrated in the hands of a small number of people. Not merely material possessions, office holding, and family connections, but also the display of accepted standards of personal refinement could provide entry into that gentry class. Yet membership was often insecure. Moreover, the patterns of their social and economic lives forced these men into conflict with their own idealized conception of themselves as...

    (pp. 54-100)

    Beyond their immediate households, the Northern Neck gentry experienced a wide array of frictions with the remainder of the white population throughout most of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Despite their firm control of the formal operations of local government, even here the region’s leaders often met with hostility rather than deference from their humbler neighbors. More importantly, private quarrels with small freeholders over such matt ers as land rights, timber usage, and wandering livestock regularly engaged their att ention. Other difficulties arose with plantation overseers and tenants, as well as with a large population of skilled and unskilled...

    (pp. 101-152)

    If the class frictions among whites described in the previous chapter were essentially constant for most of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the evolving institution of African American slavery on the Northern Neck fostered growing amounts of conflict and anxiety among slaveholders, slaves, and non-slave-owning whites in the age of the Revolution. The institution had always rested upon a foundation of exploitation and brutality, and the enslaved resisted in a myriad of ways that reflected not only their African backgrounds but also their Virginia experience. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, slaves lived within an increasingly diverse and complex economy...

    (pp. 153-179)

    If the growth and diversification of the slave economy was increasing the levels of conflict and anxiety on the Northern Neck in the Revolutionary era, so was another patt ern of transformation, the growing power of Scottish tobacco firms whose agents—or “factors”—operated throughout the Chesapeake in growing numbers during the decades after mid-century. By purchasing tobacco directly from producers in Virginia rather than selling it on consignment in Britain, and by offering a wide array of consumer goods on credit, these merchants pulled many non-elite members of Northern Neck society more fully into the Atlantic market economy. Clearly...

    (pp. 180-226)

    The american revolution and the preceding imperial crises challenged the gentry’s control of the Northern Neck far more than the developments of earlier years. During the pre-war controversies over new British regulatory measures, patriot leaders had to confront indifference and misgivings among the populace as well as the possibility that the ideologies they espoused to mobilize popular support could be turned against them. These problems continued into the early years of the war. As the war progressed, material deprivations, and especially the growing demands for military service, generated more-serious unrest, culminating in the draft riots of 1780 in Northumberland and...

    (pp. 227-262)

    Like the wartime draft resisters, the evangelical Protestant groups of the Revolutionary era actually embraced much of the social order they seemed to challenge. Their rapid growth in the 1770s and 1780s provoked more anxiety and hostility among the gentry than any other development save the American Revolution. In part this was because the evangelicals strenuously repudiated many ideals that underlay the planter elite’s power and prestige. Probably more alarming to the gentry were the numbers and the diversity of humble white and black Northern Neckers who supported these groups and the decidedly unhierarchical communities they appeared to be creating...

    (pp. 263-282)

    In the quarter century that followed the War for American Independence, the Northern Neck gentry defeated or neutralized the threats still posed to their power by the consequences of the Revolution, the growth of evangelical religion, and the region’s continued involvement with the external market economy. The egalitarian implications of both the Revolution and the Great Awakening challenged the enslavement of African Americans, and some whites—most notably Robert Carter—expressed their misgivings about the institution. Yet most criticism of slavery was limited in scope and met with substantial opposition from other Northern Neck residents. The Revolutionary ideal of popular...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 283-394)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 395-418)
  15. Index
    (pp. 419-423)