The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday Meditation
"This was not a pious culture, nor an especially law-abiding one,
but it was convivial."

William Hogarth: The Rake's Progress -- At The Gambling House
(via Art of the Print)

Excerpt from Alan Pell Crawford's "Twilight At Monticello--The Final Years
of Thomas Jefferson (Random House, $27.00, or, 10 $2 bills with Jefferson on the front and the Trumbull's "Signing of the Declaration of Independence" on the back; a $5 with Lincoln, and two ones with Washington, plus tax. Not bad company.)
Here, Crawford sets the context for Jefferson's 18th century Virginia upbringing and the rather wild and woolly behaviors of his social class.

Most Virginians, black and white, lived in cabins or shacks, but here and there, on the hills overlooking the Rivanna, stood crude manor houses that their builders often called mansions, surrounded by unpainted wooden outbuildings, stables and slave quarters. These plantations were, for the most part, self-contained, self-supporting communities and the closest approximation of towns or cities for miles around.
Travel between these plantations and to the towns back east--sixty miles east to Richmond, say, or a hundred forty to Williamsburg--could be perilous. The dirt roads and carriage trails that connected the plantations were often impassable. Finished goods, like crops, moved mostly by boat. So, quite often, did the settlers. Whether they went by boat or made their way along the crude roads, people traveling to visit neighbors frequently found themselves facing clouds of black smoke from farmers' fires.
Because Virginians lived at such distances from each other, they took every opportunity to socialize. They endured considerable hardships to attend barbecues, fish fries and horse races, and at all of these events drunkenness was commonplace. The society into which Thomas Jefferson was born aspired to gentility but rarely achieved it. Taverns predated houses of worship, which, although established by the Church of England, were attended but grudgingly by the colonials they had been built to serve.
Under English common law, which prevailed through the colonial period, Virginians could be fined for missing church once, flogged for a second infraction, and put to death for a third. Until Thomas Jefferson, as a member of the Virginia legislature, recommended revisions to the penal code, free-thinkers could find their children taken away. During Jefferon's childhood such laws, though rarely, if ever, enforced, remained on the books.
This was not a pious culture, nor an especially law-abiding one, but it was convivial. As soon as work was done, when holidays rolled around, or there was business to attend to at the courthouse, the leading men of the county--entertained themselves in raucous fashion, playing cards, dice, and billiards, often for high stakes. Violence often followed, "it not being the fashion of the day," Jeff Randolph's words, "for men to restrain their tempers."
In 1748, five years after Jefferson's birth, fighting had gotten so vicious that Virginia's colonial legislature passed a general statute against maiming, making it a felony to cut out another person's tongue, put out his eye, or bite his nose or lip; thirty years later, just before the Revolution, the lawmakers added a prohibition against "gouging, plucking or putting out an eye, biting, kicking or stomping upon" a fellow subject of the British crown."

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At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

[H]ouses of worship ... were attended but grudgingly by the colonials they had been built to serve.

This is sort of the received notion, but it's rather harsh and unflattering, and I don't think entirely accurate. There was a good book a few years ago, John K. Nelson's A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690-1776, that thouroughly challenged this assumption of "grudging" churchmanship. Certainly there is no argumant for universally devout piety, but Nelson presents a picture of a more complex and integrated church life than was previously imagined.

Not that I don't like a good depiction of savagery from a passionate historian. I heard all about panty raids at LSU from Steve "PK TWA" C______ as well ;)

Alright then, off to bake my "twelfth cake" for Epiphany, just like my distant cuz Captain Beale in 1770.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger HEK said...


Greetings and welcome to my wee end of the Interwebs. And great appreciation for your interest and aggregating some of the Blue Raccoon's maunderings on your site.

I'm not familiar with Nelson's study; but my guess is that worship, or rather, attention to worship, varied from parish to parish in 18th century Virginia.

But I think the idea here is that the idea that all of the Virginia's Revolutionary-era leadership class were led by the light of the Divine is something that doesn't quite jibe with our backwoods version of the Enlightenment.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fair enough. I guess I'm guilty of (no!) Virginian retrospective aggrandizement. Not that TJ was immune. "There is not a crowned head in Europe whose talents or merits would entitle him to be elected a vestryman by the people of any parish in America." (Jefferson, of course, had already served his term on the vestry at that point. I wonder what he'd have said this past May. I thought the queen looked quite stately at his Capitol.)

Thank you for the welcome. I was most pleased to discover your blog, as I've enjoyed your columns for some time as a displaced Richmonder.

Please excuse the misspellings in the above comment as the failures of a man attempting to supervise a nap-avoidant toddler. Go Skyhawks!

At 9:03 PM, Blogger HEK said...


Well said! Hah! "Virginian retrospective aggrandizement. Not that TJ was immune."

The queen did look quite stately on the steps of his capitol--which weren't installed, actually, in his lifetime! Upon his return from France and he saw the building he conceived but didn't supervise the construction of said words to the effect of, well, it's a good as it can be given the circumstances, and it won't be corrected anytime soon.

The Queen joked with Governor Kaine as she assayed the flight of white steps, saying, "Shall I climb these in heels?" The Governor for a moment wondered what would have to be done, then she smiled and chuckled. Ah, Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl.

Good luck with the nap-intolerant toddler and the Epiphany baking. Thanks for the shout out to Byrd High School, and Captain Beale...he's not the grandfather or so of the guy of whom it is claimed buried a massive treasure outside Bedford, Va.?

At 10:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Kaine but he seemed in over his head with HM. Well, anyone would be, I suppose. Of course she indulged even the Buffoon in Chief with the utmost graciousness.

The Beale referred to in Landon Carter's diaries is Capt. William Beale, one of Thomas Beale III's sons. (Carter's third wife was Capt. Beale's sister, Elizabeth.) The Beales are old-school; the first Thomas was an early supporter of Bacon, though he didn't go all the way into Rebellion.

As for the Beale Ciphers -- no idea! I've always wondered, of course. I was fully prepared to dismiss the whole thing as a hoax, but there is a somewhat intriguing (and very low-tech) web page [bealesolved DOT tripod DOTcom] detailing a supposed discovery of the plundered vault. What I really want to know, of course, is whether the Beales of Grey Gardens are descendants. "You can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape!"

On another note, thanks so much for your latest post. I have been ... beyond confused by the Wilder/school board business, indeed by his whole term. RichMag doesn't go into enough detail to keep an ex-pat up to speed, and even my mother, who was here for Christmas, couldn't explain it all. What a mess.


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