Gentlemen and Freeholders: Electoral Politics in Colonial Virginia

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Gentlemen and Freeholders: Electoral Politics in Colonial Virginia. By JOHN GILMAN KOLP. Early America: History, Context, Culture. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. xii, 249 pp. $46.00.

CHARLES S. SYDNOR's Gentlemen Freeholders: Political Practices in Washington's Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1952) is one of the most delightful books ever written about Virginia. It is also one of the most subtly influential in its persuasive portrayal of the late colonial political scene. Sydnor argued that a generally stable and deferential system, even though not democratic, made great republican statesmen. Gentlemen freeholders-not the rabble or the masses-filtered the best men out of their communities for service in the House of Burgesses. Sydnor's interpretation easily withstood its only serious challenge, Robert E. Brown and B. Katherine Brown's Virginia, 1705-1786: Democracy or Aristocracy? (East Lansing, Mich., 1964), which suggested that a more democratic ethos and practices were at work than Sydnor had allowed.

Right from its title, John Gilman Kolp's Gentlemen and Freeholders takes on Sydnor. Kolp finds more variety in the conduct of both candidates and electors than Sydnor described but still less of democracy than the Browns believed. Playing down the importance of deference (gentlemen and freeholders) and playing up the importance of local conditions in the evolution of colonial Virginia's political culture, Kolp also finds distinctive political traditions in each of the counties. Kolp works from a more solid base of data than any of his predecessors, the surviving poll lists that record who voted for whom in elections for the House of Burgesses. Tracing patterns that can be discerned in those lists, Kolp has literally rewritten the book on colonial politics. Although his work is rooted in statistical analysis, it is written in good old English and takes excellent advantage of traditional sources to explain what the numbers mean and to go well beyond both Sydnor and the Browns. To illuminate his theses, Kolp presents case studies of four counties (Accomack, Lancaster, Fairfax, and Halifax), which highlight differences based on how old a county was, how local conditions gave life to political issues, and how the leading political personalities in each affected the local course of events. …