The Advantage of Rank and Status: Thomas Price, a Loyalist Parson of Revolutionary Virginia

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In 1952 George MacLaren Brydon, a historian of colonial Virginia's established Church of England, placed Thomas Price, rector of Petsworth parish, among five clergymen "who may perhaps be classified as mental casualties of the Revolution. " They had supported the American cause for years, he wrote, before losing heart because of American weaknesses and British successes.(1)

One--Thomas Feilde, the incumbent of Kingston parish who, contrary to Brydon's assessment, had been a steadfast tory throughout the war--took refuge behind British lines in New York in 1778 where he died a few years later. The other four--Price, William Harrison, William Andrews, and John Bruce--joined the invading army of Lord Cornwallis in 1781 and became prisoners of the Americans after the British debacle at Yorktown that fall. Though Virginia authorities ordered them to be tried for high treason, none were ever brought to the bar. "There seem to have been extenuating circumstances in the case of Thomas Price," Brydon reasoned, because he immediately resumed his clerical duties in Petsworth parish.(2) As this sketch of Price's life and career demonstrates, the unrecognized mitigating factors derived from Price's rank and status in society. The members of his large and extended family and the constituents of his class stood by their relative and compeer, excused his indiscretion, and restored him to his professional and social position after his lapse into loyalism.

Scholars have long disagreed about the social position of Virginia's Anglican clergymen. Rhys Isaac believed that rectors were drawn from inferior social levels and continued to occupy a low social status as clergymen. Arthur P. Middleton, however, asserted that the ministers "habitually move[d] in the social circles of the upper class," frequently "married into the most prominent families," and were "remarkably well-to-do."(3) Isaac and Middleton did not closely analyze the social origins of the clergy, however. Elementary logic suggests that clergymen came from varying social backgrounds and, depending not only on their roots but also upon such things as their merit and fortune, settled into different levels on the social scale as rectors. It is also reasonable to assume that the clergy's relative standing in society varied over the long colonial period. Though most individual ministers remain "shrouded in neglect," as Joan Gundersen wrote in 1989, the few biographical studies that have been done bear out these contentions.(4)

In colonial Virginia, as T. H. Breen has noted, each county had a few gentry families who "dominated civil, ecclesiastical, and military affairs" and whose "cultural style as well as their financial position set them apart."(5) Through intermarriage over the years, these families formed a complex English-type "web of kin and connections."(6) For example, the early inhabitants of Middlesex, Price's native county, exhibited "a tangled skein of relationships," according to the county's annalists, "approaching Cervantes's `medley of kindred, that ... would puzzle a convocation of casuists to resolve.'"(7) In the following decades these patterns of kith and kin grew even more complex in Middlesex and other counties, especially in the Tidewater and Northern Neck.

Familial interests and obligations, moreover, were of primary importance. Kinsmen, friends, and peers often rallied around a threatened associate. John Randolph, scholar, lawyer, legislator, and one of the few colonists to be knighted, warned potential immigrants to Virginia not to insult or injure any person of note in the colony, because "either by blood or marriage, we are almost all related, or so connected in our interests, that whoever ... presumes to offend any one of us will infallibly find an enemy of the whole.(8) Aristocrats and gentry of the colony generally supported each other when misfortune or adversity befell one of their number, especially if the casualty were a relative. …