Friday, October 5, 2012
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.
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.