- The Complete Colonial Gentleman: Cultural Legitimacy in Plantation America
William Byrd and company can now rest easy. Recently depicted as rather pathetic figures in their anxious pursuit of gentility, eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman have found their champion in Michal Rozbicki. Rozbicki aims to show how the pursuit of genteel status by these men served to legitimize them as an elite from the early decades of the century, and actually positioned them to articulate what would become democratic values in the Revolutionary era. In so doing, he takes on current notions (which he attributes to such scholars as Kenneth Lockridge and Jack Greene) that the planters’ obsessive desire to be perceived as English gentleman was not only fruitless but also an aberrant and dysfunctional barrier to the emergence of a more truly American identity.
The book’s five chapters do not offer a broad survey but rather explicate key components of this argument, in rough chronological order. After a first chapter which explores the historiography and theory of cultural legitimacy, Rozbicki then turns to a comparison of the pursuit of gentility among Virginia gentlemen of the early decades of the century with that of Daniel Defoe, as spokesperson for rising “new men” in Britain. A third chapter explores the “syndrome of provincialism” which he contends served to fuel the legitimizing process; in the fourth he argues that Virginia gentlemen succeeded in their pursuit of gentility even though they only adopted selected elements of the British model. The final chapter makes the argument about how the pursuit of gentility prepared [End Page 225] Virginia gentlemen of the Revolutionary era to take the lead that they did in articulating Revolutionary values. Throughout, Rozbicki uses the papers of the leading Virginia gentlemen and a selection of contemporary British texts (Defoe and his critics, courtesy works, travellers’ accounts and other descriptions of the colonies).
There is a great deal of common sense behind Rozbicki’s central contention that the cultural program of the Virginia elite worked for them, and that we should explore how it worked and what it accomplished rather than pass “exceptionalist” judgement on it as somehow unAmerican. He reminds us that historical actors do not exercise a lot of choice in their cultural models, but are in large part “culturally programmed” by history itself. When he points out that “meeting metropolitan criteria of legitimacy was the only culturally viable means of succeeding in their ambitions,”(17) he makes us see that it is anachronistic to question why the planters took this path rather than invent something wholly new. His suggestion that the very success of the genteel project among the planters was what gave them the confidence by the Revolutionary era to assume the mantle of cultural arbiters and claim that they were preserving traditional genteel virtues of liberty and equality from a now corrupt England is also a useful corrective of the current view that gentility and republicanism were at odds.
While a useful counterbalance to the current tendency to see pathology in the strivings of the planters, Rozbicki’s selective approach to the larger issue raises questions as one moves from chapter to chapter. He rightly stresses the importance of the larger transatlantic context at the outset by noting that new classes were striving in Britain as well as in America and that the British model was not static. He proceeds to shed light on the planters’ ambitions by comparing them with Defoe’s similar but not identical and ultimately unsuccessful challenge to the British “landed” model of gentility early in the century. But when discussing the Founders’ rejection of the British aristocracy as cultural arbiters in the Revolutionary era, he fails to acknowledge that a new crop of middling writers were doing the same in Britain. He also needed to acknowledge that in matters of gentility, Americans continued to rely on British models for decades after the Revolution. While his focus is on Virginia, his comparison of the planters’ genteel project with that of the rising commercial classes...