As a separate and distinct class, strengthened by intermarriage, strong in social position and economic power, arbiters of Southern fashions and etiquette, exclusive and much sought after, for centuries these families endured. As late as 1937 a keen observer could write: " . . . it is still worth while to identify this class group . . . . Although it has lost its actual grip on the social machine to a very great extent, it has maintained the momentum of its social prestige and assimilation into it is still a great value to the South." 71Next Page
The War Between the States was a great shock to the planter class. Before the war the social life was led by people living in country estates, but since the war "all that is best is to be found in the city." 72 The truth is, of course, that the aristocratic families moved in great numbers to the cities and there carried on their leadership, in general, with a new economic base. (This will appear evident from a reading of the biographical material concerning prominent Virginians in Appendix III.) Bruce summarizes the movement of prominent families from country to city in these words: 73
If we go to some Southern county, which, in the times of slavery, was the seat of an intelligent, refined, and cultivated gentry, we shall discover that the only society possessing any distinction is centered in the courthouse town; and this society is generally made up of the families of professional men whose names are among the most ancient and honorable in the history of the States . . . . In the last quarter of a century, many fortunes have been made by representatives of the old rural gentry.
There are those who would argue that, although it might have been difficult for persons of lowly origin to crash into the highest social set of exclusive families, nevertheless these persons frequently made their names in other fields, after the pattern of Alfred E. Smith. In his Virginia Plutarch, Bruce set about to give the life stories of all the eminent Virginians, from John Smith to Walter reed. The present researcher sought out the social class backgrounds of all the prominent persons listed. The biographies included those of Captain John Smith, Princess Pocahontas, Sir Thomas dale, Sir George Yeardly, Sir William Berkeley, Nathaniel Bacon, Sir Francis Nicholson, Alexander Spotwood, William Byrd, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, George Rogers Clark, General David Morgan, John Sevier, Captain Meriwether Lewis, James Madison, John Marshall, James Monroe, John Randolph, General Sam Houston, John Tyler, General Winfield Scott, Edgar Allen Poe, Commodore Matthew Fontaire Maury, Robert E. Lee, General Thomas J. Jackson, General Stuart, Woodrow Wilson, and Walter Reed.
From the date given, 74 which were extensive, it was found that only one man, General Morgan, was of proletarian background. Furthermore, the most effective Virginians, with the exception of Wilson, were cradled in the highest classes. A goodly number appear to have been reared in middle class homes. Many, of course, played stellar roles and were not absorbed in a social class equivalent to that of their fame. This was particularly true of General Morgan.
Conclusion. This chapter has given the reader a picture of the classes in the colonies, especially in Virginia. It has indicated that this is a land of opportunity principally for those with a good base from which to spring. No significant social class circulation was discerned. There was little in the story of colonial life to indicate that a general social class percolation was taking place.
In Appendix III data are given which indicate, on the basis of family biographies of present day Virginians and their ancestors, that the later social class trends in that state have not been greatly different from those of earlier times. Overwhelming social class continuity was found.
71. John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (New Have, 1937) pp. 79 - 80.
72. Bruce, op. cit. (49), p. 421.
73. Ibid., pp. 433 - 434.
74. Philip Alexander Bruce, The Virginia Plutarch, vol. I (Chapel Hill, 1929) pp. 12, 28, 43, 58, 71, 89, 102, 118, 135 - 136, 155, 195 ff., 212 ff., 269, 288, 306; vol. II, pp. 38, 58, 76, 88, 116, 151, 171, 188 ff., 206 ff., 224 ff., 268 ff., 287, and 310 ff.