Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Genteel Balls and Republican Parades: Gender and Early Southern Civic Rituals, 1677-1826

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Genteel Balls and Republican Parades: Gender and Early Southern Civic Rituals, 1677-1826

Article excerpt

IN 1783 the inhabitants of Richmond held a public ball to celebrate the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended America's war with Britain and recognized the United States as a sovereign nation. Unlike the public balls of the colonial era, which had included only royal officials and members of the provincial elite, this ball was attended by a cross-section of the town's white population. Attempting to adapt the genteel ritual of the public ball to the more egalitarian values of the revolutionary era, the event's organizers determined the order of dancers by lot, not by social status. When the participants drew their lots, the daughter of a shoemaker won the honor of the first dance. Although the wife and daughters of Virginia's governor resented their loss of precedence, a European visitor reported that among the other guests "the unanimous opinion was that the lot should be as valid against any claims of rank."'

In Richmond and elsewhere in the southern states, new civic rituals soon overshadowed such attempts to adapt colonial traditions to republican political values. The transition from monarchy to republic transformed southern civic pageantry, as postrevolutionary republicans invented new rituals to replace those of the imperial past, to redefine the relationship between government and the people, and to instill in citizens a new sense of American national identity. Before the Revolution, genteel balls celebrating royal births, accessions, and battlefield victories were the most important southern civic rituals. After the Revolution, the Fourth of July parade, with its attendant speeches, dinners, and toasts, increasingly became the region's dominant form of civic celebration. Genteel balls and republican parades, like theater, were rich tableaux of class, race, and gender relations, as well as promoters and interpreters of changing civic values.2 This essay, focusing on white women's participation in the civic rituals of Virginia and the Carolinas, examines the role of gender in southern civic pageantry from the aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion through the first half century of the republican era. It argues that genteel civic balls, which sought to glorify monarchy, gentility, and the authority of the colonial gentry, explicitly afforded elite women public influence, if not political power. The Revolution abolished monarchy, undermined the authority of the gentry, and enhanced the political consciousness of many American women.3 Yet postrevolutionary civic rituals, which promoted a masculine and militarized ideal of citizenship, relegated women of all classes to the fringes of public life. In so doing, republican parades obscured the ambiguous legacy of the Revolution for white women who, though portrayed as passive and apolitical, publicly asserted a distinctively feminine construction of patriotism in times of crisis.

In both the colonial and republican eras, elite men orchestrated civic rituals, which they in turn adapted to changing political values. The earliest southern civic celebrations, such as Jamestown's commemoration of the king's birthday in May 1677, shortly after Bacon's Rebellion, thus featured a procession of crown officials and English soldiers and a ceremony in which the colony's Indian leaders formally capitulated to the authority of the English monarch. These civic rituals enhanced the legitimacy of the colonial regime and instilled in the colony's white inhabitants a militarism appropriate to frontier life. By 1702, however, when Virginians gathered in Williamsburg to celebrate the accession of Queen Anne, the elected members of the House of Burgesses, along with the faculty, students, and alumni of the College of William and Mary, joined the soldiers and royal officials in ceremonial procession. This expanded procession, like the fledgling college itself, symbolized the wealth and authority of an increasingly self-conscious Virginia gentry, an indigenous ruling elite who solidified their authority in the seventeenth century's closing decades. …

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