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Reviewed by:
  • Creole Gentlemen: The Maryland Elite, 1691–1776
  • S. Max Edelson
Creole Gentlemen: The Maryland Elite, 1691–1776. By Trevor Burnard ( New York: Routledge, 2002. ix plus 278 pp. $23.95).

This lucid, superbly argued study of "the lives of moderately well off gentleman at the edges of the Atlantic plantation world" reconstructs the social and material contexts that anchored the identities and framed the behaviors of Maryland's elite (p. vii). Culling 461 individuals from a sample of more than 6,400 estate inventories, Burnard certified membership in Maryland's elite for those who died with more than {}650. He leaves no documentary stone unturned in scrutinizing these privileged 461. By the close of the colonial period they became more planters than merchants, more native born than immigrant, and more content to enjoy the accomplishments of their fathers than to expand their command over land and slaves or risk inherited capital on volatile commercial ventures. As this elite stabilized in the early eighteenth century, its members tended to look to one another as they married, lent and borrowed money, and presided [End Page 823] over Maryland society as governing officials. Elite society formed a loose circle of affinity in which "shared common values" of class position drew like to like but from which few white aspirants were rigorously excluded. In their wills, they eschewed the "conscious empire building" of some of their counterparts in Virginia and instead spread their wealth among sons and daughters, following a "family policy" whose goal was to "broaden rather than deepen their lineage" (p. 163). Maintaining the next generation's access to productive property allowed its members to sustain material lives that were genteel but rarely lavish. Burnard thus puts these 461 exemplar elites in circulation with their society and finds them to be relentlessly local in their sensibilities and interested primarily in perpetuating their comfortable status.

This portrait of continuity and provincialism, whose key points Burnard establishes through exhaustive statistical work, supports incisive critiques of prevailing claims about class, sensibility, and behavior in the colonial Chesapeake. Historians have taken Jefferson's declaration that Chesapeake planters "'were a species of capital annexed to certain mercantile houses in London'" at face value. But Jefferson, in both his extravagance and the extent of his indebtedness, was extraordinary. Only one in five elite Marylanders contracted debts during their lifetimes that forced the selling of land or slaves. About the same proportion owed money to British creditors, preferring to extend credit to fellow elites as an important sideline to planting and become debtors to those they knew and trusted. Planters' obsession with the "destructive moral impact of debt" on the eve of the American Revolution was therefore less a matter of translating widespread experience with economic dependence into a political grievance that it was an ideological position from the outset, one that targeted London merchants as symbols of metropolitan privilege compared to the neglected interests of American colonists (pp. 61-2).

Burnard challenges another staple of the historiography by claiming that the high mortality rates of the seventeenth century did not improve during the eighteenth. Far from imperiling the elite's ability to sustain family fortunes and status, the ongoing early deaths of patriarchs resolved a tension within elite society, allowing for the generational turnover of modest amounts of heritable wealth without much conflict between fathers and children. The interpretive weight that historians have placed on an easing demographic crisis in the Chesapeake that does not appear to have taken place leads Burnard to a trenchant point about interpreting the pace of social change. Suspicious of historians who amplify scant evidence to show sweeping challenges to and reassertions of patriarchal rule, Burnard finds that "family life remained essentially the same through the colonial period" (p. 128).

Making a case for stasis over change does not slight attempts to give meaning to social practice, but rather places new emphasis on one particular moment of social construction: the point at which members of Maryland's nascent elite (and, by extension, elites in each of the colonies with the exception of fractious New York) ceased to compete actively for authority and cemented their status through reproduction. The changes that distinguished...


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pp. 823-825
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