Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
A Topping People: The Rise and Decline of Virginia's Old Political Elite, 1680–1790 • By Emory G. Evans • Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009
Reviewed by Albert H. Tillson, Jr., professor of history at the University of Tampa. He is the author of Accommodating Revolutions: Virginia's Northern Neck in an Era of Transformations, 1760–1810 (2010).
This deceptively slender volume reflects several decades of work by the late Emory G. Evans. In four densely written chapters and an epilogue supported by extensive notes, he delineates the rise and the ultimate decline of a group of families who dominated Virginia for most of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Primarily he focuses upon twenty-one families, all but one of whom had two members on the governor's council.
Most of these families were established in Virginia by men from English mercantile backgrounds, who often had prior connections in London and the Chesapeake. In the New World they acquired wealth by combining tobacco planting with cultivation of other crops, milling, the practice of law, the slave trade, and retail trade in a variety of commodities with their poorer neighbors. On the governor’s council, they gained further political and economic advancement, and judicious marriages enabled them to improve their fortunes and social connections.
During the early eighteenth century, the councilors clashed with a series of governors who attempted to enforce royal preferences in regard to land acquisitions, tax collections, and other matters. Ultimately, in the years around 1730, Gov. William Gooch and assembly speaker John Randolph created a more harmonious political environment and inaugurated a period in which power shifted toward the House of Burgesses, where members of the families also held a disproportionate share of power. Despite some initial misgivings about their disruptive potential, most of these men on the council and especially in the assembly supported the measures of resistance to British authority that led to war in 1775 and independence a year later. By then, however, signs of their political and especially their economic decline were evident, and by 1790 "a new elite was taking their place" (p. 3).
Indeed, by midcentury, their fortunes had already begun to deteriorate. Although earlier generations had prospered through a diversity of economic enterprises, their descendants eschewed commerce, in part because Scottish tobacco firms had gained much of the business of smaller planters. Tellingly, the earlier attention to commerce in the education of young men also declined over time. Increased purchases of the consumer goods necessary to demonstrate status, as well as the logic of the consignment system, led planters into greater debt. Many attempted to diversify into land speculation, which Evans describes as "no substitute" for their earlier business activities. The financial panic of 1772 and the economic disruptions of the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary years added to their difficulties. Most fundamentally, Evans attributes the decline to a change from a group of capable, aggressive, and often unethical entrepreneurs in the early generations to a set of men with little interest in business and a strong sense of entitlement to endless streams of credit to support their elevated lifestyles.
The shortcomings of this volume flow largely from its scope. The long chapter on eighteenth-century society adds little to the work of other scholars (acknowledged in the notes), much of it completed during the time Evans worked on this project. This reviewer wishes that Evans had instead provided more detailed explanations of the economic transformations he briefly notes in many of the families, thus extending our knowledge from a few well-known cases to a broader understanding of the elite class. He also wonders how the economic and political circumstances of Evans's relatively small group at the top of Virginia society compared to those of the larger leadership class who dominated so much of life at the county level. None of this detracts, however, from the very real debt that we owe to Emory Evans for this work and for a lifetime of service to the historical profession.