The exact extent to which former indentured servants were honored by high positions in the early years is debated by the greatest authorities in this field. Bruce quotes Dr. William G. Stanard as saying that "between 1607 and 1650, only two names [of Assemblymen] can be found who had ever been technically in the list of indentured servants." 31 Wertenbaker searched through the lists and found few scattered ex-servants, sometimes none, usually one or two, once four at one session. Of these four one was a Townsend, "a gentleman by birth." (Many of the indentured servants were educated men, and some of highly cultured families, as has been previously shown.) Wertenbaker estimates and gives figures slightly higher than those of Bruce, but the difference is not significant. 32Next Page
The important point is that these opportunities soon closed for persons of lowly birth. Furthermore, in percentages of the total number of social inferiors those who rose in the early decades were exceedingly small. "At the end of half a century no less than 56,250 persons would have emerged from servitude to become free citizens." And not all of these had been born to poverty and ignorance.
One discovers that "it is apparent, then, that in the first half century of its existence Virginia was the land of opportunity." 33 But to admit even this, one is put in the position of attributing great importance to the rise in local importance of a relatively insignificant number of former servants, some of whom were born into good families. However, fifty years at the very beginning is not a very long time for one of the wealthy colonies to remain true, even in a definitely limited way, to the American Dream.
It is said that if a man applied himself diligently to his task, he could plant and harvest with his own hands a sizeable crop of tobacco, on the free land available during the first decades of the life of the colony, at a fair margin of profit, but for the high cost of all articles imported. The farmers complained, even before the passage of the navigation acts, that "this year the Merchants have bought our tobacco with their commodities at less than a penny the pounde." 34 Furthermore, just as some of these independent farmers were getting on their feet, as will be seen, their feet were knocked from under them, and mechanisms set to work against a repetition of these very opportunities in agriculture, so far as the servants and poor free men yet to come were concerned.
Finally, none of the great Virginian families descended from servants. The nearest any of them came to lower class affiliation at the time of emigration was to have sprung from members of some of the English gilds. Admittedly, but not connoting lowly or proletarian origin, the Byrds descended from "a London goldsmith." 35 Oswald Cary was the son of an English merchant, Philip Ludwell of a mercer, and Thomas Fitzhugh, as if to strain at a gnat to show some low class background among the FFV's, "was thought to have been the grandson of a malster." 36
Many of the first families migrated to America after 1650, as a part of the royalist exodus at the time of Cromwell. They were, as will be shown, to bring high-class standards and habits with them. Furthermore, in view of the fact that most of the leading commercial classes coming to America were either directly or remotely related to the gentry and to the nobility, through one line or another, it is useless to try to determine exactly the extent to which they were technically aristocratic. Wertenbaker and Bruce have both attempted to answer the question of the social rank of the leading families of Virginia at the time of their arrival. One author leans toward the "commoner" interpretation, the other toward the "blue-blood" theory. Bruce has pointed out, as will be shown, that the prominent families in Virginia had, almost uniformly, respectable and honorable backgrounds.
31. Philip Alexander Bruce, The Social Life of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (Lynchburg, second edition, 1927) p. 100.
32. Wertenbaker, op. cit. (5), p. 33.
33. Wertenbaker, op. cit (28), p. 71.
34. Ibid., p. 72.
35. Wertenbaker, op. cit. (24), p. 19.
36. Ibid., p. 20.