"Politics and Social Structure in Virginia"
Bernard Bailyn, 1959
Bailyn argues that seventeenth-century Virginia, like her sister colonies, was characterized by a "veritable anarchy" due to the "profound disorganization of European society in its American settling" (90). He offers repeated challenges to colonial authority and inconsistently maintained seats of power as evidence of this disorder.
Bailyn identifies three distinct shifts within the ruling elite of seventeenth-century Virginia. Immigrant gentry were the leaders for only the first generation of Virginia's history; once they left, members of an emerging planter class inherited their power. This second wave of leaders was comprised of "the toughest and most fortunate of the surviving planters whose eminence by the end of the thirties had very little to do with the transplantation of social status" (94). They only grudgingly performed their civic duties and did not retain power more than a generation. It was the immigrants of the 1660s that would leave their mark on Virginia. Those ambitious younger sons of landed English families eventually became the founders of some of the First Families of Virginia. Within a short time, they had emerged as the leading class in social and political authority. Bailyn argues that Bacon's Rebellion was a challenge on all levels to this third wave of authority: it was a means by which common settlers protested the "recently acquired superiority of the leading county families" as well as "local leaders" to challenge the "prerogatives recently acquired by the provincial elite" (105). The Rebellion was, in part, a reaction against the newly emerged social and political structure.
Bailyn shows how the division of land affected social structure. Unlike England, Virginia did not usually practice primogeniture. Instead of bequeathing the family estate to the eldest son, land and money was commonly divided among all the children, thus younger sons in these families were not denied their fortune. With such a dispersal of property, the family could continue to grow in wealth and power. Marriage among members of these leading families - the leadership of Virginia appears to be one vast kinship network - ensured that their power would remain concentrated within that group, although it would be dispersed among a greater number of people.
In seventeenth-century Virginia, there existed a connection between social and political identity. Over the century, the colony went through changes in leadership and social structure; by the century's end, Bailyn argues, social and political authority were separately held powers. Political instability resulted from the presence of governors appointed from England; they held political but not social power. Bailyn blames this separation of power for the bitter power struggles that played out in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries.