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Article Index

I. Southern Isolation and Hospitality

In the earlier part of the seventeenth century the social life of the colonists, at least in New England, was what would now be considered monotonous and dull. Aside from marriages, funerals, and church-going there was little to attract the Puritans from their steady routine of farming and trading. In New York the Dutch were apparently contented with their daily eating, drinking, smoking, and walking along the Battery or out the country road, the Bowery.

In Virginia life, as far as social activities were concerned, was at first dull enough, although even in the early days of Jamestown there was some display at the Governor's mansion, while the sessions of court and assemblies brought planters and their families to town for some brief period of balls, banquets, and dancing.

As the seventeenth century progressed, however, visiting, dinner parties, dances, and hunts in the South became more and more gay, and the balls in the plantation mansions became events of no little splendor. Wealth, gained through tobacco, increased rapidly in this section, and the best that England and France could offer was not too expensive for the luxurious homes of not only Virginia but Maryland and South Carolina. The higher Dutch families of New York also began to show considerable vigor socially; Philadelphia forgot the staid dignity of its founder; and even New England, especially Boston, began to use accumulated wealth in ways of levity that would have shocked the Puritan fathers.

In the eighteenth-century South we find accounts of a carefree, pleasure-loving, joyous mode of life that read almost like stories of some fairy world. The traditions of the people, among whom was an element of Cavalier blood, the genial climate, the use of slave labor, the great demand for tobacco, all united to develop a social life much more unbounded and hospitable than that found in the northern colonies. But this constant raising of tobacco soon exhausted the soil; and the planters, instead of attempting to enrich their lands, found it more profitable constantly to advance into the forest wilderness to the west, where the process of gaining wealth at the expense of the soil might be repeated. This was well for American civilization, but not immediately beneficial to the intellectual growth of the people. The mansions were naturally far apart; towns were few in number; schools were almost impossible; and successful newspapers were for many years simply out of the question. Washington's estate at Mt. Vernon contained over four thousand acres; many other farms were far larger; each planter lived in comparative isolation. Those peculiar advantages arising from living near a city were totally absent. As late as 1740 Eliza Pinckney wrote a friend in England: "We are 17 miles by land and 6 by water from Charles Town."

Thus, each large owner had a tendency to become a petty feudal lord, controlling large numbers of slaves and unlimited resources of soil and labor within an arbitrary grasp. As there were numerous navigable streams, many of the planters possessed private wharfs where tobacco could be loaded for shipment and goods from abroad delivered within a short distance of the mansion. Such an economic scheme made trading centers almost unnecessary and tended to keep the population scattered. "In striking contrast to New England was the absence of towns, due mainly to two reasons--first, the wealth of the water courses, which enabled every planter of means to ship his products from his own wharf, and, secondly, the culture of tobacco, which scattered the people in a continual search for new and richer lands. This rural life, while it hindered co-operation, promoted a spirit of independence among the whites of all classes which counter-acted the aristocratic form of government."[153]

Channing, writing of conditions in 1800, the close of this period, says: "The great Virginia plantations were practically self-sustaining, so far as the actual necessaries of life were concerned; the slaves had to be clothed and fed whether tobacco and wheat could be sold or not, but they produced, with the exception of the raw material for making their garments, practically all that was essential to their well being. The money which the Virginia planters received for their staple products was used to purchase articles of luxury--wine for the men, articles of apparel for the women, furnishings for the house, and things of that kind, and to pay the interest on the load of indebtedness which the Virginia aristocracy owed at home and broad."[154]

Again, the same historian says: "The plenty of everything made hospitality universal, and the wealth of the country was greatly promoted by the opening of the forests. Indeed, so contented were the people with their new homes (1652) that ... 'seldom (if ever) any that hath continued in Virginia any time will or do desire to live in England, but post back with what expedition they can, although many are landed men in England, and have good estates there, and divers ways of preferments propounded to them, to entice and perswade their continuants.'"[155]

Now, this comparative isolation of the plantation life made visiting and neighborliness doubly grateful and, hospitality and the spirit of kindness became almost proverbial in Virginia. As far back as 1656 John Hammond of Virginia and Maryland noted this fact with no little pride in his _Leah and Rachel_; for, said he, "If any fall sick and cannot compasse to follow his crope, which if not followed, will soon be lost, the adjoyning neighbors will either voluntarily or upon a request joyn together, and work in it by spels, untill the honour recovers, and that gratis, so that no man by sicknesse lose any part of his years worke.... Let any travell, it is without charge, and at every house is entertainment as in a hostelry, and with it hearty welcome are strangers entertained.... In a word, Virginia wants not good victuals, wants not good dispositions, and as God hath freely bestowed it, they as freely impart with it, yet are there as well bad natures as good."

This spirit of brotherhood and hospitality, was, of course, very necessary in the first days of colonization, and the sudden increase of wealth prevented its becoming irksome in later days. Naturally, too, the poorer classes copied after the aristocracy, and thus the custom became universal along the Southern coast. As mentioned above, there was a Cavalier strain throughout the section. As Robert Beverly observed in his _History of Virginia_, written in 1705: "In the time of the rebellion in England several good cavalier families went thither with their effects, to escape the tyranny of the usurper, or acknowledgement of his title." Such people had long been accustomed to rather lavish expenditures and entertainment, and, as Beverly testifies, they did not greatly change their mode of life after reaching America:

     "For their recreation, the plantations, orchards and gardens constantly afford them fragrant and delightful walks. In their woods and fields, they have an unknown variety of vegetables, and other varieties of Nature to discover. They have hunting, fishing and fowling, with which they entertain themselves an hundred ways. There is the most good nature and hospitality practised in the world, both towards friends and strangers; but the worst of it is, this generosity is attended now and then with a little too much intemperance."

     "The inhabitants are very courteous to travelers, who need no other recommendation but the being human creatures. A stranger has no more to do, but to enquire upon the road, where any gentleman or good housekeeper lives, and there he may depend upon being received with hospitality. This good nature is so general among their people, that the gentry, when they go abroad, order their principal servant to entertain all visitors, with everything the plantation affords. And the poor planters, who have but one bed, will very often sit up, or lie upon a form or couch all night, to make room for a weary traveler, to repose himself after his journey...."

Many other statements, not only by Americans, but by cultured foreigners might be presented to show the charm of colonial life in Virginia. The Marquis de Chastellux, one of the French Revolutionary generals, a man who had mingled in the best society of Europe, was fascinated with the evidence of luxury, culture and, feminine refinement of the Old Dominion, and declared that Virginia women might become excellent musicians if the fox-hounds would stop baying for a little while each day. He met several ladies who sang well and "played on the harpsichord"; he was delighted at the number of excellent French and English authors he found in the libraries; and, above all, he was surprised at the natural dignity of many of the older men and women, and at the evidences of domestic felicity found in the great homes.