Second Families of Virginia: Professional Power-Brokers in a Revolutionary Age, 1700-1790
Between 1700 and 1790, a diverse assortment of merchants, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, and various other specialists forged a prominent position in Virginia that was integral to the colony's planter-elites. These professionals complicated Virginia's social hierarchy and affected numerous decisions planters made on personal business ventures, urban development, military conflicts, and political policies. Consequently, as Virginia planters struggled to maintain a sense of socioeconomic dominance, political influence, and familial solidarity, this upper-middling, professional contingent forced planters to compromise their seemingly exclusive modes of behavior. Accounting for the perspectives of professionals and planters, this study addresses how and why this occurred, as well as what it indicated about the deceptively open and fluid nature of a colonial society that many historians continue to view as overwhelmingly hierarchical and static.
Prior to 1700, the colony's great planters monopolized most of the tasks that professionals eventually controlled. Additionally, planters created and perpetuated a culture of exclusivity in Virginia which, despite its aristocratic demeanor, was largely based on false hereditary entitlements and genteel posturing. However, by 1750, many Virginia professionals were challenging such pretensions and becoming successful in the same ways that planters had in the previous century, just with different occupations. In addition to being as well-educated as Virginia's planters, professionals became crucial to planters' business dealings, married into planter families, and even earned enough income to make tobacco planting a secondary pursuit.
Such developments propelled Virginia's professionals to higher status; and by the American Revolution, planters were increasingly welcoming professionals into their ranks and preparing some of their sons to pursue full-time occupations outside of plantation management. By doing this, planters kept pace with changing socioeconomic conditions, avoided a catastrophic loss of political power, and salvaged their cultural respectability as plantation-masters. Moreover, as many professionals parlayed their accomplishments and wealth into the purchase of land, slaves, and/or fine homes, the planter-professional relationship was mutually beneficial. Professionals who successfully defied the exclusionist antics of planter-elites became the next major beneficiaries of Virginia'srelatively open society. Yet, Virginia planters still retained the old vestiges of their power and culture well into the nineteenth century.