America's aristocracy produced its clearest
examples in the antebellum lowland South, especially Virginia. In the Commonwealth of
Virginia, the richest Virginians had a strong belief in what David Hackett Fischer in
Albion's Seed calls "Hegemonic Liberty." This condition was the freedom to rule
and not to be overruled by others. Its opposite was slavery, a degradation into which
true-born Britons descended when they lost their power to rule. Fischer cites the
classical poet, James Thomson (1700-1748) who wrote in a stanza depicting this ethos:
Thomson's poetry captured the major components of hegemonic liberty, the right to rule, the guarantee of this right by the charter of the land, the idea that those who gave up this right became slaves, and the idea that this had been given first to Britons at heaven's command.
During this time period, many aristocratic whites felt that they had the natural born
right to enslave others. They called this a right of laisser asservir or freedom to
Despite the aristocratic overlay of the city, almost half the white male inhabitants of voting age were workers. About three fifths of these were skilled workers. The rest were unskilled. Almost half of the skilled white workers were foreigners and 82% of the unskilled white workers were foreigners. By 1860 the majority of the city's working men were slaves. Slaves composed at least a fifth of the skilled labor force. Free blacks composed another 13% of the skilled labor force. Three quarters of the free black males over 15 were artisans. They dominated certain trades such as carpentry (25%), tailors (nearly 40%) and millwrights (75%). Some free black artisans even owned slaves, in addition to real estate. Their chilldren went to schools established for them; sometimes slave children mingled with them and learned to read and write.
Despite this progress most of the city's wealth remained in the hands of the city's planter-merchant elite. Interestingly, middle class merchants sometimes married mulattas who had greater education than poor white women as well as family connections to the wealthy planter class. In fact, extreme poverty and ignorance characterized many white households. Many of these households were Irish, refugees from British rule and the potato famine. In the early 1850s, the worst off economically among them, according to Drago, were women so unskilled that they could not even earn wages by sewing or repairing garments. In contrast, many of the free black women, who were mostly mullatas, earned their living making or cleaning clothes.
The life of the free blacks was often difficult. They constituted about a sixth of the city's black population. Some lived in abject poverty. More than half were skilled. Skilled or not, they had to compete not only with free whites but with slaves as well. Indeed, they often worked alongside slaves. Planters depended on the skilled blacks to work on their plantations in the summer heat when white artisans would refuse to work. As a result, the planters opposed efforts to remove skilled black freemen from the state.
Despite the competition which was most intense in the cooler months, many black
artisans accumulated modest wealth during the antebellum period. By 1860, they were paying
over twelve thousand dollars in taxes for horses, goods, commissions, real estate, and
other property. Accumulation of wealth was a slow process over four or five generations
and involved much intermarrying among the lighter skinned blacks. Indeed there was tension
between dark and light skinned blacks. The darker skinned blacks felt that the lighter
skinned blacks imitated the planters to whom they were related and in fact the planters
did use carefully chosen marriages to preserve and concentrate wealth.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Drago, Edmund L. Initiative, Paternalism & Race Relations. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1990.