- A “Topping People”: The Rise and Decline of Virginia’s Old Political Elite, 1680–1790
In A Topping People, Emory G. Evans traces the rise and decline over the long eighteenth century of Virginia’s twenty-one wealthiest and most influential families. Evans and many other historians have long held that the Virginia elite declined due to ever-increasing indebtedness. While Evans [End Page 110] believes that their spendthrift ways contributed to their decline, he also posits other compelling explanations in this marvelous book.
Emblematic of the power and influence of Evans’s twenty-one families was their perpetual representation on Virginia’s Council of State, a body to which they were nominated by the royal governor and appointed by the monarch. Initially, councilors were virtually omnipotent politically. They were immune from prosecution and beneficiaries of several profitable public offices. By the 1690s, however, the British crown eviscerated the prerogatives of local bodies such as the council to centralize imperial administration. Royal directives prohibited dual office holding, eliminated their immunity from criminal prosecution, and scrutinized their work as imperial officials more carefully. To singe the heads of the imperial hydra, councilors cooperated with the House of Burgesses, the popularly elected legislative body in Virginia, to challenge prerogatives reserved to the royal executive. By so doing, however, the elite ceded a measure of their power to the Burgesses, which tended to dilute the elite’s power over time.
Virginia’s westward expansion also played a significant role in the elite’s eighteenth-century decline. With expansion came more public duties, which meant that councilors had less time to devote to their roles as the legislators in the provincial assembly’s upper house. As the House of Burgesses surpassed the council in terms of political influence and potency, the provincial elite sought seats in the Burgesses, where they were free to participate in politics without the time-consuming public obligations that marred their council service. Even as the members of the great families secured House seats, however, their influence continued to diminish as Virginia expanded westward. The creation of new western counties and admission of new men to the Burgesses diluted the tidewater elite’s influence in that body even further to the point where a younger generation of “lesser” men led the Old Dominion into rebellion in 1775.
The evolution of the provincial and Atlantic economies also bedeviled the twenty-one families. Until the mid-eighteenth century, planters usually served as tobacco cultivators as well as merchants. With the notable exception of the Nelson family, however, the elite’s mercantile role in Virginia had been undermined by Scots merchants who undersold them. Thus, the elite either had to sustain their fortunes on tobacco or search for economic alternatives. While the elite turned to new crops such as wheat and hemp and speculated on western land, neither activity replaced adequately the income that they formerly accumulated as merchants. The elite’s declining fortunes exacerbated a problem that had always harassed them: debt. Early [End Page 111] in the eighteenth century, planters such as Robert “King” Carter combined inherited wealth with keen business acumen to build mercantile empires. Their offspring lacked not only the skill, but also the desire to emulate their parents. Indeed, the dominant characteristic that later planters inherited from their forbears was a taste for expensive British manufactured and luxury goods, items that the twenty-one families spent themselves into oblivion to obtain. Thus, financial profligacy as well as the evolving political environment served to undermine the elite’s dominant position in the Old Dominion’s public affairs by the onset of the American Revolution.
Although Evans’s delightful monograph would be appealing to anyone interested generally in colonial Virginia or early American politics, students of West Virginia history would profit from it for two reasons. First, Evans commented extensively on the influence of the West on the erosion of the elite’s status in Virginia politics. Second, the men that Evans describes promulgated the land...