Friday, October 5, 2012

The Virginians

Boorstin's chapter on Colonial Virginia in his first volume of The Americans is quite fascinating, especially in describing the decades that led up to the Revolutionary War.  Virginia had created a gentry class, with voting restrictions much like those in England, out of what had been a relatively unbridled democracy of the 17th century, where there had been virtually no restrictions.  One of the interesting aspects is that a landed gentry man could have multiple votes by owning land in more than one district.  This, Boorstin said, is why Washington and other Virginians had such far flung landholdings, as it increased their voting power.

The "experiment" in democracy of the 17th century hadn't ended in failure, but rather morphed into the institution that came to be recognized as distinctly Virginian, with its House of Burgesses seizing more power over the colony.  He didn't call it an oligarchy, but that's what it came to resemble, with a gentry class that called all the shots. This gentry considered it a public duty to take part in government with threat of fine or imprisonment for not doing so, and would even have sheriffs haul in wayward members.  Jefferson had been politely threatened with such action when he had politely asked to be relieved of his duties in the legislature, after having served as governor.  He wanted to devote more time to Monticello.  Boorstin noted that this sense of public duty was unique to the colonies.

Here is a piece from PBS, in which Boorstin was interviewed on his book, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson.  And, an interesting obituary from The Guardian, March 2004, on his conservative nature.  Makes me think of Goliard from the old NYTimes forums.

1 comment:

  1. Boorstin certainly has a very high opinion of colonial Virginia in the 18th century. He does point out many short coming, like preachers serving from year to year so that parishes didn't have to provide them land. The vestry paid them in tobacco instead, and depending on which parish you ended up preaching this could be good or bad depending on the quality of tobacco, as a preacher would have to sell it to make ends meet. The going rate was apparently 16,000 pounds per year. It is anecdotes like this which is why enjoy Boorstin.