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Was There an American Common Man?

Was There an American Common Man?: The Case in Colonial Virginia

by Kevin P. Kelly

Was there an American—or even a Virginia—common man? The answer is obvious: yes! But nothing is ever that simple. As I have pondered such a seemingly straightforward question, the fact that the answer seemed so obvious troubled me. I am not sure I have completely resolved the problem that puzzled me, but I think I have pinpointed its source.

Eighteenth-century contemporaries certainly seemed to believe that there were people living in colonial Virginia—and England for that matter—who could be considered common. Drawing upon those eighteenth-century observations and from the work of historians, it is possible to give shape to what I will call the traditional view of the common folk of eighteenth-century Virginia. First, everyone agreed on what the common man was not; he was not a gentleman.

It will be useful to review what characterized a gentleman in the eighteenth century because it sharply reveals what was thought to set the better sort apart from the rest of society, and it will remind us that these traits were presumably possessed only by an extremely small minority of Virginia’s population.

A gentleman was expected to be educated, not just beyond basic literacy but to receive a “liberal” education grounded in Greek and Latin classics. And the knowledge gained was to be used in both private and public conversations. From tutors to classes at the College of William and Mary to studies in England, the sons of the Virginia gentry were exposed to the best in eighteenth-century formal schooling.

A gentleman was of good family background. Certainly one’s immediate forefathers should be of a gentle status. Ideally, one was born into the elite. No wonder family Bibles, noting births, deaths, and even full genealogies, were regularly kept and updated by Virginia’s best families.

A gentleman was to be wealthy enough to bear the cost of living the genteel life without visible strain. One can almost sense the pathos running through the advertisements William Byrd III placed announcing the lotteries he was forced to hold to pay off his debts. Indebtedness not only threatened financial independence, it mocked a planter’s claim to be a member of the gentry. In Byrd’s case, suicide may have been preferable.


Family

A gentleman was expected to command. It was both his right and his duty. This expectation motivated Robert Munford’s Squire Worthy in the play The Candidates to stand again for election when it seemed likely that the wrong men might win.

But most important, a gentleman was to be free from the necessity to work, especially if that work involved physical or manual labor. In theory, this freedom was the keystone of the gentle life. John Randolph, testifying in support of his nephew John Randolph Grymes’s loyalist claim, implied as much when he wrote “that at the Commencement of the Revolution, he… lived Affluently as a private gentleman without following any Trade or Profession.”1 The ideal, however, was rarely ever fully realized by even the wealthiest of Virginia’s planters. A quick reading of Councillor Robert Carter’s accounts reveals he was an active, hands-on manager of his widespread enterprises, from storing iron bars from his Maryland mine in his kitchen to arranging the reshipment of tons of ship biscuits.

The acceptance of work—if it was not truly drudgery—as not inappropriate for a Virginia gentleman might be called the American “fudge factor,” for without it colonial Virginia would have had few true gentlemen. Indeed, as it was, the great planters, the First Families of Virginia, the genteel professionals (physicians, attorneys, and the clergy), and the import/export merchants were a pale reflection of the eighteenth-century English country gentry. Nevertheless, the boundary between the better sort and everyone else in Virginia’s eighteenth-century society was understood by those on both sides of the line.

If the gentry clearly stood above the line, not everyone below it, according to the traditional viewpoint, would be labeled the “common folk.” As one reads the comments about the “lesser sort,” it is clear that those who figure most in these observations were thought active partners in the successful working of a hierarchical social order. They had a role to play, and they did so willingly. Furthermore, they were capable of granting deference to their social betters because they were not completely helpless in the face of the power exercised by the gentry. In this they were thought to share with their betters a claim of “independency.” The eighteenth-century Virginia commoner is familiar to us as Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman, to which can be added his urban counterpart, the shopkeeper and the artisan. In other words, eighteenth century observers—and many historians follow their lead—elevated the “middling sort” to the position of “common man.”


Farmer

This middling sort, of course, expected to work by necessity. But, unlike the work of the gentry which diminished them, the work of the middling sort was valuable and rewarding—a positive good—because, as Jefferson implies, it was honest work upon the land that added value to society. They were the part of the population that, as Gregory King noted at the end of the seventeenth century in the case of England, increased rather than decreased the national income.

The middling sort encompassed a broad range of people with essentially similar experiences. In Virginia by the middle of the eighteenth century, they were literate, if not literary. They could reckon accounts, understand the contents of deeds they signed, and many even owned a small parcel of books. The middling sort were politically active. It was from their ranks that the “foot soldiers” of the political institutions—petit and grand jurors, constables, etc.—were drawn. They held political opinions as well. Although belittled by colonial playwright Robert Munford, their concerns naturally focused on issues close to home, such as the placement of highways, ferries, and courthouses and, as the middling sort do even today, on taxes. Furthermore, by 1770, to the dismay of Munford, the middling sort expected their political leaders to take those concerns seriously. Most of the middling ranks at the very least earned a “decent sufficiency” by their labor. Yet increasing numbers of them were being bitten by the bug of consumerism and their material possessions began to include such genteel items as teaware and specialized furnishings.

But the key feature that linked the middling sort together was their actual (or potential) control of some means of production. In late eighteenth-century Virginia that meant first land, then labor. Land was widely available in colonial Virginia, so much so that it quickly became a commodity to be bought and sold. Even the most cursory reading of any county’s deed books demonstrates that the middling planters were fully engaged in the land market as early as the mid-seventeenth century. Even the rising price of land in the older settled areas of Virginia after 1750 did not close off trading in land. The urban artisan, of course, was not so economically dependent on owning land. Access to tools and the skills to use them might prove good enough to gain entrance into the middle ranks. Yet ownership of a lot and shop ensured one’s place there. It was from these propertyowning Williamsburg and Yorktown artisans that York County justices of the peace chose individuals to join with rural freeholders in political offices that confirmed their middling status.

As historians have examined the colonial social order, they have singled out for special comment its fluid character and attributed that fact to special, if not unique, American conditions. As a truly hierarchical society—even in Virginia where the gentry gained a solid foothold of respectability—America lacked the upper levels of aristocracy that characterized England. American society, in Gordon Wood’s words, was truncated. Furthermore, the barrier between the better and the middle sort was low and not a major obstacle to movement across it. This mobility was helped along because the way to wealth in the profoundly agriculturally based colonial economy was essentially the same for large, middling, and small planters. As many historians have long noted, it was in colonial America, where so many had access to land, that the underpinnings of privilege, upon which a hierarchical society rested, were severely undermined.2

Although I have oversimplified the case, I believe this to be the usual view of the American common man that seems so obvious an answer to the question “Was there an American common man?” Yet this definition seems almost too pat—too smug—to be really convincing. I suspect I knew this to be so because it fails a crucial test. If the question were rephrased to ask, “What was the most common—typical, representative—experience in colonial America, and which colonial Americans experienced it?” then the answer would not be the middling sort, who in colonial Virginia were in the minority. No, I suggest the title of the common folk of colonial America and most certainly of colonial Virginia could just as appropriately be accorded to the men and women who were poor whites and slaves.

Of course the poor were not completely ignored by eighteenth-century commentators who usually heaped more scorn than praise upon them. The poor had none of the socially redeeming features that the elite occasionally acknowledged the middling sort possessed. The poor were thought vulgar and crude, and because they made no positive contribution to civil society, most eighteenth-century commentators simply dismissed them.

Many historians, too, have not taken the poor seriously. There is nothing sinister about this. The poor are extremely hard to track. They existed virtually beyond historical note in the eighteenth century. Yet evidence of their existence does surface now and again. For example, consider the 20 percent single tithable households listed on the James City County sheriff’s 1768 tax roles, many of whom were noted as insolvent. Or consider the poor children who were bound out by the York County court because their parents could not adequately care for them. They are often overlooked because it is also probably true that in colonial Virginia the white poor did not comprise a sizable portion of the population. But that, I believe, is because the true extent of poverty in colonial Virginia is hidden behind the veil of race. For, if you add in slaves who were surely not rich, the poor, white and black, especially in the Tidewater counties, do constitute the majority.

If we can discount race and legal status for a moment, it is clear that poor whites and slaves experienced a good deal in common. They were the true manual laborers of the eighteenth century; further, it was labor that was forced. Slaves worked under the threat of punishment, and whites for survival. While in theory the poor white, unlike the slave, controlled his own labor, in fact it gained him little. And to the degree he was forced to seek employment from others, his circumstances differed little from that of the slave.

Both the slave and the poor white were politically powerless and thus always politically and legally at risk. If poor whites ever shared in the franchise—and election polls reveal that they rarely did—it was at the sufferance of the local elite who could equally withdraw the privilege. Slaves were caught in the strange twists of colonial Virginia law. For example, as property, slaves could not own property, yet in an inversion of eighteenth-century understanding of torts, property—slaves—could be punished, even executed, for stealing property.

Slaves and poor whites both lived on the margin. Their housing provided only minimal comfort. These houses were almost always cramped, drafty, and damp. While neither slave nor poor white faced starvation in the eighteenth century, their diets were little more than adequate to maintain a basic level of health and well-being. And despite the presence of exotic items in their possession—second-rate export Chinese porcelain in the case of some slaves, or tea cups and wine glasses in the case of some poor whites—it is hard to imagine this group of Virginians as heavy contributors to the galloping consumerism said to be sweeping across colonial Virginia and America.

It may well be that these poor Virginians did not share the cultural values that informed the behavior of the better and middling sort. Reverend Woodmason’s biased and exaggerated description of the poor Carolina backwoodsman hints at the fact that the poor did have a different understanding of morality, sex, marriage, and family than the genteel. African Americans and poorer Anglo-Virginians may have thought they inhabited an environment much more meaning-filled and alive, where dreams and portents still had power to affect human behavior, than the nature envisioned and articulated by the well-to-do student of the Enlightenment.

Finally, we cannot discount race and the legal status of slaves. Although racism may have bolstered the poor white’s self-esteem, it undercut the value of manual labor, the one truly valuable thing he or she possessed. And slavery institutionalized poverty and insured its existence regardless of any economic changes that could or would mitigate conditions.

If I am correct, then the characteristics of Virginia’s eighteenth-century common manpoor, marginal, and exploited—differ significantly from those put forth by the traditional view of the colonial common man. And, of course, I am correct! But I was also correct earlier, because both groups did exist in the eighteenth century. The middling sort with their access to land were reshaping the nature of the hierarchical society, while at the same time, the poor were becoming a permanent part of that same new society. This then brings me back to the problem that troubled me at the very start, and that is, why do we ask such a question? Why do we care to categorize some groups of colonial Virginians as the “common folk”? And what kind of answer are we willing to accept when we pose it?

I think we seek categories—because as historians we seek to understand more than just the descriptive characteristics of the middling sort, the poor, and the slaves. We use categories such as the “common man” because we believe it will enhance our analysis of the past and provide us with a more powerfully plotted story about early America. And depending on where we set the template to encompass our chosen “common sort,” we will end up with very different stories.

The use of the traditional view that equates the common people with the middling sort fits the prevailing American myth well. This myth is essentially a sociopolitical one that sees the course of American history as the retreat of hierarchy and privilege in the face of advancing equality and democracy. The focus on the colonial middling ranks with their access to property, their desire to share in the good life embodied in the gentry’s material goods, and their eager embrace of the goal of earning money, make them the worthy forefathers of middle-class America in the nineteenth century. This continuity between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is also important because it suggests there is something distinctively American about this whole development. Unlike Europeans, this story goes, Americans, energized by middle-class values, are not limited in their vision of the possible. They are truly a people of plenty, a people of progress.

Needless to say, acceptance of the idea that the commoners of early America were really poor whites and slaves promotes a very different American myth. In the first place, because these common folk were politically disenfranchised, this new myth exposes the limited nature of the political and ideological radicalism that is usually thought to characterize American history. While at first glance this idea that the typical Virginian, both white and black, was impoverished stresses the continuity between the old world and the new, it is also a very American story because it integrates the slaves’ experience into the historical mainstream. It demonstrates just how unique to America this racially mixed laboring class was. Further this new myth shifts the focus away from the triumph of the middle class and back onto the emergence of the “working class.” By positing that slaves laboring in a commercial agricultural system differ little from wage-earning factory workers, this version of the American story pushes the roots of American labor exploitation back into the eighteenth century. Further it acknowledges the persistence of great social and economic inequalities in American history.

I do not at this time propose to state which of these myths contains a greater measure of truth—although I do have an idea—rather I will let each of you decide. I will, however, conclude with a caution and an invitation. If you set out to answer such a loaded question as “Was there an American common man?” you cannot hope to avoid an ideological answer. Since you cannot escape the fact, embrace it.

Endnotes

1Claim of John Randolph Grymes, 1 November 1783, A.O./13/30, folder G, Public Record Office.

2For example, see Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York, 1992); Stuart M. Blamin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900 (Cambridge, Eng., 1989); and Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985).