Gentleman vs. Cavalier
Contrasting slightly with the Cavalier myth, the Virginia gentleman is a term more closely associated with the Tidewater plantation system that developed in Virginia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is defined by a code of gentility that expressed the ethos of these slaveholding colonial planters. Because the plantation system was first established in seventeenth-century Virginia, the colony served as the incubator for both the Cavalier myth and the concept of the slave-owning gentleman planter. In the Chesapeake tidewater these notions were virtually interchangeable. In choosing to define himself as a nobly descended Cavalier Englishman, the colonial Virginia tobacco planter also defined himself as a gentleman, and he embraced a fully articulated code of conduct and manner of living.
Origins in Colonial Virginia
This code of gentility strongly influenced the social attitudes of the plantation owners of colonial Virginia. Regardless of whether they completely embraced the idea of Cavalier blood inheritance, by the eighteenth century Virginia's planters fully embraced the ideal of the gentleman, and they considered themselves to be the preeminent exemplars of the type in the new English colonies. This polished and cultivated self-image is clearly on display in colonial Virginia writing, from the poems and essays decorating the pages of Williamsburg's Virginia Gazette, to the supercilious descriptions of uncouth backwoods North Carolinians penned by William Byrd, the consummate eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman, in his History of the Dividing Line (written ca. 1728, published 1841).
Writers of courtesy books were rather vague about the source of a gentleman's honor. This quality was variously identified with virtue and with reputation. But though there was disagreement concerning its precise definition, there was substantial agreement with the notion that the primary purpose for a gentleman's following his code was to possess and maintain a reputation for personal honor that commanded the respect of all his peers as well as of all those of lower social order. The colonial Virginia gentleman placed great importance on the preservation of his individual honor. Unlike his nineteenth-century heirs, however, he generally did not approve of dueling as an effective means of defending his reputation.
The Revolution and Antebellum Periods
The Postbellum Period
The Modern Period
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Watson, R. D., Jr. The Virginia Gentleman. (2019, March 8). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/The_Virginia_Gentleman.
- MLA Citation:
Watson, Ritchie D., Jr. "The Virginia Gentleman." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 8 Mar. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 28, 2019 | Last modified: March 8, 2019
Contributed by Ritchie D. Watson Jr., professor emeritus of American literature at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. He is the author of The Cavalier in Virginia Fiction (1985), Yeoman versus Cavalier: The Old Southwest's Fictional Road to Rebellion (1993), and Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War (2008).