Life as a Planter

As mentioned previously, some planters were more hands-on than others in their management of their plantations. This was particularly the case in the Chesapeake, where the quality of a man’s tobacco was intimately tied to his status among fellow planters and even his masculinity. Virginia’s leading planters prided themselves on the quality of their crops and often personally supervised the various stages of planting, cutting, and curing. Rice planters probably felt many of the same pressures.

Still, planters had more free time than anyone else in colonial America, and their lives reflected a level of luxury that was extraordinarily rare. The great planters in America did not have centuries of tradition supporting their claims to dominance, as did the English aristocracy. Rather, they had in the span of a few generations shoved their way to the top of colonial society. They found ways to express their power and social status, from building imposing frame houses and brick estates to educating their children in England and importing English luxuries, including carriages, clothing, and fine housewares.

Diaries like that of William Byrd II, one of Virginia’s wealthiest men, give students of colonial history an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of planters. Byrd’s secret diary reveals his passion for the finer things. Alongside entries detailing the intricacies of Virginia politics in which Byrd was a major player and the minutiae of running a large plantation, there appear references to wine and spirits, rich food, music, and sex. As the eighteenth century progressed, in fact, the concept of refinement became increasingly important, and planters strove not only to outclass their social inferiors but also to adopt sophisticated English styles ever more faithfully and rapidly. The widespread drinking of tea is just one example. Planters also engaged in a variety of leisure activities. The most popular in Virginia and South Carolina were cardplaying, horseracing, and cockfighting. Activities like these sometimes crossed class lines, though planters made the contests more exciting and aristocratic by wagering exorbitant sums.

In the Southern colonial legislatures, the wealthiest planters ran the show. They expected to be put into office by their social inferiors, and more often than not, they were. Southern planters viewed themselves as an aristocracy and believed that just as their families, smallholding neighbors, and slaves owed them deference and obedience, they had certain paternalistic obligations to those groups as well. The trend of returning the same small group of men to the legislature time and again continued through the era of the American Revolution.

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