Albion’s seed in the South

The Cavalier settlers of tidewater Virginia were noted for their strong sense of rank—much more so than the Puritans, Quakers or Apppalachian borderers.   That is a heritage that continues today.

Rank in the old army sense of “rank has its privileges”.   Rank in the sense of expecting men to take off their hats and women to curtsey in your presence.   Rank based not just on wealth and power, but on hereditary privilege.

This was idea behind the 17th and 18th century English class system, based on the idea of the “great chain of being.”  God was at the top, then the King who ruled by divine right, then the different ranks of aristocrats, yeomen and tenants.

David Hackett Fischer wrote in Albion’s Seed that the early Virginia settlers, of all the North American colonists, were the strongest royalists and the most committed to aristocratic privilege.

The Quakers at the other extreme were persecuted because they refused to recognize  rank.   They refused to call people “mister” or “your excellency” or anything but “friend.”

The Appalachian borderers talked to each other as if they were equals, but they respected wealth and power men who were strong enough to acquire it and hold on to it.

The Puritans abbreviated the English order of rank.   They didn’t have hereditary aristocrats, and they didn’t allow any members of their communities to sink into absolute poverty.  But the “meaner sort” were expected to take off their hats and show deference to the “better sort.”

But the Virginia Cavaliers, whose families warred with the Puritans back in Britain, imported the English rank system in all its glory.    Fischer said the Virginians believed in what he called “hegemonic freedom.”   The idea is that you are free to the extent that you have power over other people and nobody has power over you.

A small group of inter-related families owned most of the land and controlled the government.   They imported indentured servants, who worked as virtually slaves, usually but not always for limited periods of time.   Some of them, when their indentures expired, managed to acquire small farms.  Most wound up as tenants or employees of the elite.

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Sir William Berkeley, the governor of Virginia, did not encourage upward mobility.  He is famous for his remark that he thanked God that there were no printing presses nor public schools in Virginia, and hoped there never would be.

The Virginia elite perfected the hegemonic system by importing black slaves as a new bottom layer of their hierarchy of power.  That meant all white people could exercise hegemony.

They did not enslave black people because they were racists.   They became racists because they had enslaved black people.

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Eventually the wealthy Virginia planters switched from being royalists to being revolutionists.   This was not a fundamental change.   At the end of the American Revolution, they continued to exercise hegemony over their tenants, servants and slaves, but no longer did a king exercise hegemony over them..

David Hackett Fischer wrote that eventually the feudal hierarchy faded away, and then the racism.    What was left was the noble part of the idea of hegemony—the idea that in order to rule others, you must learn to rule yourself.

The Virginia culture at its best, he said, was shown in the lives of such men as George Washington, Robert E. Lee and George Catlett Marshall.

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I’d go beyond that.   I think the Southern culture today, at its best, reflects the best values of the Virginia Cavalier elite—courtesy, hospitality, gusto for life, humor, respect for physical courage, patriotism and loyalty to family and kin.

Paul Theroux, who wrote a travel book called Deep South, said he was impressed by the friendliness, courtesy and hospitality of almost everyone he met, black or white, rich or poor.   Southern hospitality is still a real thing, he wrote, at least in the rural areas; he enjoyed himself, made friends and returned frequently to the same places.

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But the bad aspects of Sir William Berkeley’s Virginia also live on, or have been reinvented.   We’ve seen a rebirth of the idea that we should look to rich people for political leadership and economic advancement.  We’ve seen a rebirth of a model of society based on a narrow distribution of wealth, neglect of public education and public services and a restricted voting franchise.

The expression, “No poor man ever gave me a job,” would have been well understood in 17th century Virginia.   There has even been a rebirth of the idea of being bound to your job.

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This philosophy isn’t unique to the South or, for that matter, to the USA, and maybe it doesn’t come down to us from the tidewater Virginia culture.

At this point I guess I need to say that I’m not down on Southern white people.   I don’t believe that white Southerners or, for that matter, white people in general have a monopoly on racial prejudice.  Southerners are not all alike, and the South is not all one place.   I don’t consider myself better than anyone else by virtue of what demographic category I fall into.

But we in the USA have experimented with Sir William Berkeley’s political philosophy, and should learn from it.   Before the Civil War, the white people of the South were poorer than the white people of the North because land, wealth and power were monopolized by a few.  We should learn from this history.


Book Review: Albion’s Seed by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex.

Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

Lost Cause: Seeing America Through the Losing Candidates’ Map by Lena Groeger for ProPublica.


Map sources: Outside the Beltway; CDR Salamander; NPR; New York Times; USDA.

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