Analysis – American Revolutionaries in the Making

American Revolutionaries in the Making: Political Practices in Washington’s Virginia (Charles S. Sydnor, University of North Carolina Press, 1952).

1.   Thesis: Despite the somewhat questionable atmosphere of voting and politics, Virginia’s environment fostered and promoted the most qualified persons to the top of the political sphere and did so brilliantly, providing the fire and conditions needed to temper them for their future roles in developing the national government.  Further, men like Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Marshall learned to temper their ideals with the realities of the current system, working within it to make substantial changes over time.

2.   Structure of supporting argument: Sydnor examines the political machinery that existed in seventeenth century Virginia, including examination of the local voting process, election process to the House of Burgess, powers and influence of local offices, influence of access to wealth and property and the overall linear progression from local to state/national service.

3.  Evidence in support of that argument:

  • The best of the best were involved in government: There existed “long before the American Revolution what Alexander Hamilton wanted to bring into existence in the nation: the firm attachment to government of the rich, the well-born, and the able” (p. 14)
  • Products of the environment: “Good fortune in family environment and traditions, superior educational advantages, familiarity with the energizing political philosophy of the Enlightenment, responsibilities of plantation management, and the thought-provoking experience of living in a revolutionary period were among circumstances that made (them) into persons who were fit for high political responsibility.” (p.  19) The planter class was good at management and administration. (p. 15) Sydnor equates this to the potential for success in public affairs (p. 16)
  • Ahead of their time, despite problems: “But its imperfections, such as the exclusion of propertyless men from the polls and the requirement that voting be oral, were common elsewhere in that day…Virginia was ahead of Massachusetts and most other parts of America…” (p. 42)
  • Strong voter power kept candidates’ interests focused: “the sum total of this consciousness of power among the voters was a strong and significant aspect of the democratic spirit in eighteenth-century Virginia.” (p. 59)
  • Aristocracy and Democracy combined: “It was the interplay of these two forces, aristocratic and democratic, that produced the political leadership of revolutionary Virginia.”  (p. 73)

4.  Is it convincing?  No.  Are there criticisms? Absolutely! Sydnor paints a very rosy picture of Virginia politics.  Noticeably, Sydnor includes language such as “those few who are now called the great generation of Virginians.” [p. 20] Evidence above further reveals his bias and favoritism.  Yet, for all of his praise, he counters his core argument in so many ways.  The following problems with Virginia voting and government stand out: 1) oral voting [pgs. 29, 30 and 69], 2) the ability to vote in every county where one held land [pgs. 35, 41, and 63], 3) the limitation of voting rights to white free-holding religious males over the age of 21 [pgs. 37-41], 4) the broad powers of the sheriff over voting, votes, records and rules locally [pgs. 23, 25, 30 and 69],  5) the extremely low amount of voting (only approximately 5% of the electorate) [pgs. 37-38],  6) pervasive political pandering [pgs.44, 47, 48 and 50], 7) the influence of ‘treats and liquor’ [pgs. 54-58, 70],  8) limited access by those without land, wealth or aristocratic birth and [pgs. 61, 63 and 74], and 9) the overarching and corrupt powers of the Justice of the Peace. [Ch. 5] Pressuring voters, restricting access to polling stations, loose rules of polling procedures, limited access to office due to land and status and getting those few that did vote drunk enough to sway their vote are in no way noble examples of political greatness!  Yet even Sydnor continues to defend the Virginia political environment to the extreme, claiming that it yielded better results than that of South Carolina.  “Of the two, South Carolina, with its secret ballot, its more generous suffrage provisions, and its avoidance of self-perpetuating, gentry-controlled county courts was the more democratic; yet South Carolina became the more ardent defender of slavery, the advocate of nullification and secession, and, in the eyes of many, a great threat to the American democratic experiment.” [p. 111]

Posted in History - Pre-Civil War South.