Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation

By Edward N. Saveth | Go to book overview

The Virginians

by CARL BRIDENBAUGH

[ "Training the Ruling Class". From Seat of Empire, the Political Role of Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg. ( Williamsburg, Virginia, 1950), pp. 3-17. Reprinted by permission of Colonial Williamsburg.]

From the top layer of the social hierarchy in Virginiathere emerged during the eighteenth century a group of statesmen including such figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, George Wythe, Peyton Randolph, James Madisonand John Marshall, who were among the ablest public men to appear at any time in American history. These men left a permanent imprint upon our national life.

A great deal of fiction along with historic fact has come down to us concerning the origin of these early Virginians. As early as 1896, Philip Bruce's Economic History of Virginia, in the Seventeenth Century, while rejecting the romantic notion of the Cavalier origin of Virginia's upper class, nevertheless maintained that there are many evidences that a large number of immigrants were sprung from English families of substance."1 John Fiske's Old Virginia and Her Neighborsstressed the importance of Cavalier immigration to Virginiabetween1649and1660.2

From the researches of Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, it is apparent that very many of the first families of Virginiain the eighteenth century, perhaps most of them, were descendants from those who but two generations earlier had wrested their huge domains from the savage and the wilderness, accomplishing this feat frequently with very little to sustain them but hardiness, tenacity, and good fortune.3However, apart from the question of the precise origin of the Virginiaaristocracy, there had emerged, by 1750,

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