Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




During the political squabbles in Virginia that alienated royal governors, burgesses, councilors, and freeholders from one another between 1680 and 1740, middling planters displayed a tendency to ignore the wisdom of their social and economic betters and swayed the colony toward a new political style. When it suited their aspirations, governors, councilors, and burgesses plunged into the business of wooing the freeholders and thus encouraged the electoral ascendancy of the colony's middling men, but at other times they viewed the changes in Virginia's political etiquette suspiciously and objected to what they interpreted as a dangerous trend toward too much popular participation in politics. Politically embattled gentlemen feared any decline in the deference they and their fathers had come to expect from their constituents, and they looked for ways to consolidate, legitimize, and sometimes regain their claims to deference and thus power.;In the seventeenth century the fiat of wealth was accepted as sufficient proof of political legitimacy, but in the context of the profound reordering of social relationships that accompanied the rise of black slavery in the Chesapeake, material things emerged as an important, even essential, prop to any claim to political or social leadership. Virginians and their English cousins had always used material things as a device by which they could measure, compare, and classify each other and gain some sense of whether another household's links to their own were fragile and unconnected or knit with the knot of collateral concern. Material possessions had long served as an essential measure of a man's political "worthiness," but in the 1720s the gentry feared that the traditional instruments of prestige--generous holdings in land, labor, and livestock--had lost much of their clout and that the distinctions between rich and poor had grown too thin. In the absence of any persuasive distinctions between the social origins of the colony's emerging native-born elite and the "middling sorts," and as blacks emerged by about 1720 as the colony's permanent poor, the gentry sought new ways to distinguish inferiors from superiors. New material possessions filled that need, and new distinctions in dress, housing, diet, and burial customs began to re-clarify the boundaries between the colony's humbler residents and its nascent elite. The effect of the distinctions between the new, elite culture and the older, traditional culture shared by everyone else was the legitimization of the gentry's claim to exercise political power over their fellows and the preservation of their social and political hegemony.



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