Social Status. The role of social status must be considered in the development of the colonial political structure. It is important to remember that the earlier English and other European settlers did not conceive of government apart from a hierarchical social construct. Any semblance of egalitarianism was virtually foreign to most early provincials. “Social leadership and political leadership” were, in the minds of Englishmen, “so closely related” to the degree that “experience if not theory justified an identification between state and society.” To most they were indistinguishable. This hierarchical relationship did not die easily in the American provinces.
Virginia as a Model. The settlers into Jamestown demonstrated this relationship of social status and political authority. The earliest leaders were of high social, economic, and educational standing. Within a generation, however, these leaders either departed or died not having left descendants to take their place. By the 1630s more rugged and self-made elite families arose who took the reins of governmental authority. But as with their more genteel predecessors they too failed to pass on their created hierarchy to descendants. In the latter half of the seventeenth century a third aristocracy began to arise in Virginia. Around 1650 sons of influential merchants and government officials (especially those connected in some way with Virginia) began to settle in the colony. Usually they came because their families had long held property or company stock interests within the colony. These sons bore well-known Virginia names such as Burwell, Byrd, Digges, Fitzhugh, Mason, Carter, Culpeper, and Berkeley. Within ten years of their relocation these sons generally dominated Virginia’s county-level politics.
1660s. The Restoration in England had major ramifications in the way Virginia’s political framework would develop. The Restoration government, desiring greater oversight of Virginia’s economic and political life, began, through the governor, an elaborate system of patronage for positions on the council. Select members of this new elite were chosen for service. William Berkeley, the governor during this time, called his group the Green Spring faction, named after his plantation. Prior to this time the Virginia assembly had been aligned with the council to the degree that the two were, for all practical purposes, a unified house. With part of the ruling families within the governor’s circle of central authority and the other part remaining at the local county level, a division between the assembly and council emerged. County leaders began to take seats in the House of Burgesses in order to share a degree of the central authority through local representation. This new hierarchical control of the council and the House of Burgesses caused significant problems. The main concern was not that those inhabiting the two houses were too elite but that they were not elite enough. “This social and political structure was too new, too lacking in the sanctions of time and custom, its leaders too close to humbler origins and as yet too undistinguished in style of life, to be accepted without a struggle.” Within this whole system were several levels of discontent. The most famous, Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), intensified the degree to which all segments involved themselves in government protest.
Bacon’s Rebellion. Nathaniel Bacon, though a latecomer as opposed to the earlier “elite sons” who had taken their place among Berkeley’s Green Spring circle, became a member of Berkeley’s select council shortly after his arrival in Virginia. Bacon, well-educated and having strong kinship connections (cousin to Lady Berkeley and council member Nathaniel Bacon Sr.) within the colony, distanced himself from his colleagues on the council for their entrenched but, in his view, undeserved status which had been rewarded with prime landholdings.
Causes. The rebellion has most commonly been seen as starting from Bacon’s dislike for Berkeley’s protection of Indian land rights. Although this was a key to the first stages of the conflict, it was not the whole story. Bacon, along with other latecomers, took great offense to Berkeley’s land policy because it favored the earlier members of the inner circle. Bacon wrote, “Let us trace these men in Authority and Favour to whose hands the dispensation of the Countries [sic] wealth has been commited [sic].... let us observe the sudden Rise of their Estates [compared] with the Quality in which they first entered the Country.” They were lacking in the proper education, Bacon continued, especially in light of their positions of authority. They were “unworthy Favourites and juggling Parasites whose tottering Fortunes have bin repaired and supported at the Publique chardg.” The lack of contentment expressed by Bacon and others was duplicated by common settlers who perceived county-level elites as also possessing privileges that exceeded their actual social status. Thus, from this level of discontent came much of Bacon’s following which empowered the eventual upheaval and destruction that transpired.
Impact. The end result of the rebellion, however, rather than culminating in a popular, more democratic structure, had the opposite effect. Since the disputes had largely been over who were the “real elites” deserving of authority, that same mentality of social status continued to inform future political selections for both the council and the assembly. This is evidenced by the entrenchment of an eighteenth-century Virginia aristocracy that existed in both houses up to the Revolution. The fact that the Virginia aristocracy did not practice primogeniture (estates passed to the oldest son) or entail made the potential for broad authority within few elite families greater. With any number of a family’s sons inheritors of great wealth, that family’s social and political status could strengthen significantly. The 1750s, for example, saw seven same-generation members of the Lee family in Virginia’s assembly. Social status, therefore, controlled political authority not in spite of popular consent but because of it.
Bernard Bailyn, “Politics and Social Structure in Virginia,” in Stanley N. Katz, ed., Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development, second edition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), pp. 119-143.