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Canadian Review ofAmerican Studies/Revue canadienne d'etudes americaines Volume 29, Number 3, 1999,pp. 61-90 61 Public Culture and Economic Liberalism in Post-Revolutionary Northern Virginia, 1780-1820 A. Glenn Crothers July 4, 1802 found the residents of northern Virginia and Alexandria in a celebratory mood. In an oration given on that day, A.W. Grayson, scion of the Grayson family of Prince William County and a member of the Alexandria Debating Society, articulated in effusive rhetoric the confidence and enthusiasm of the region's inhabitants. Grayson began by reviewing the cause of the American Revolution, the battles of the war, and the political consequences of independence-the creation of a "republican government" situated happily between the extremes of "overbearing aristocracy" and "licentious jacobinism." More revealing, however, was his focus on the social and economic consequences of the Revolution. Grayson argued that independence had enabled the United States to establish a "commercial intimacy " with "the different nations of Europe." The result was "a rapid progress" of American trade; American merchants now "unfurled . . . their canvas" sails on "the shores of distant nations." Manufacturing, too, had "been rapidly increasing" since the Revolution. And agriculture no longer "languished" as it had before independence, but now the "honest husbandman" enjoyed a well-deserved "domestic felicity." Underlying all these successes was the 62 Canadian Review ofAmerican Studies Revue canadienne d'etudes americaines "enterprizing [sic] spirit of our citizens." "The people of this country," Grayson noted, "are daily opening" the nation's "latent sources of wealth." As a result , Americans could "look forward to the day when America will hold a primary not secondary rank among the nations of the earth." In short, the Revolution had spurred economic development in America (and Virginia), because it enabled all (white male) citizens to pursue their economic selfinterest . Here was the message of economic liberalism expressed in its most fundamental terms, and in a way which all politically active residents of the region could understand.1 Grayson's oration was commonplace in the early republic. His address, secular in subject matter and theatrical in delivery, was part of a larger pattern of cultural change in the years after the Revolution. The revolutionary struggle turned political questions into matters of public concern, moving political debate from the legislature into the street. After the war the anniversaries of important revolutionary events-and in particularJuly the 4thcame to be celebrated with memorial speeches. These orations and the patriotic holidays they commemorated were important opportunities to forge a new sense of nationhood and shared community. In short, throughout the United States secular oratory which aimed to be both informative and entertaining became a routine part of public life, particularly at political celebrations .2 However, in describing the cultural life of the early republic, histonans have tended to overlook the southern states, arguing that the patriarchal and hierarchical social structure of the slave South inhibited the development of a vibrant public culture like that which appeared in the North. Grayson's speech reveals that northern Virginia, at least, followed the national cultural pattern.3 Equally striking is what Grayson excluded from his oration. He made no reference to the peculiar nature of northern Virginia or the South, apparently attaching little importance to the differences between the sections. Most notably, he made no mention of slavery. Northern Virginia 's slave population-which represented approximately 20 percent of the total population in 1800-set it apart from the northern states-even the grain-growing middle states to which contemporaries most often likened the region. Though a number of residents-including most famously George Washington-voiced objections to the institution, and a notable few such as Robert Carter even freed their slaves, census data reveal that slavery re- A. Glenn Crothers I 63 mained an integral part of northern Virginia's economy even after the region 's farmers switched to wheat in the 1780s.4 In short, Grayson-and many more speakers and writers like him-helped to forge and disseminate to the public a hybrid form of economic liberalism which celebrated economic development within the social structure of the slave South. To transmit this distinctive form of economic liberalism to ordinary farmers, the cultural...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 61-90
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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