Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

ers, pleading the cause of learning and religion, “Damn your souls l grow tobaccol” he uttered a precept which the mass of the planters seem to have laid to heart. For fifty years there were no schools, and down to the Revolution even the apologies bearing that honored name were few, and the college was small and struggling. In some of the great families, the eldest sons would be sent to England and to the great universities: they would make the grand tour, play a part in the fashionable society of London, and come back to their plantations fine gentlemen and scholars. Such was Colonel Byrd, in the early part of the eighteenth century, a friend of the Earl of Orrery, and the author of certain amusing memoirs. Such at a later day was Arthur Lee, doctor and diplomat, student and politician. But most of these young gentlemen thus sent abroad to improve their minds and manners led a life not materially different from that of our charming friend, Harry Warrington, after his arrival in England. The sons who stayed at home sometimes gathered a little learning from the clergyman of the parish, or received a fair education at the College of William and Mary, but very many did not have even so much as this. There was not in truth much use for learning in managing a plantation or raising horses, and men get along surprisingly well without that which they do not need, especially if the acquisition demands labor. The Virginian planter thought little and read less, and there were no learned professions to hold out golden prizes and stimulate the love of knowledge. The women fared even worse, for they could not go to Europe or to William and Mary's, so that after exhausting the teaching capacity of the parson they settled down to a round of household duties and to the cares of a multitude of slaves, working much harder and more steadily than their lords and masters ever thought of doing. The only general form of intellectual exertion was that of governing. The planters managed local affairs through the vestries, and ruled Virginia in the House of Burgesses. To this work they paid strict attention, and, after the fashion of their race, did it very well and very efficiently. They were an extremely competent body whenever they made up their minds to do anything; but they liked the life and habits of Squire Western, and saw no reason for adopting any others until it was necessary. There were, of course, vast differences in the condition of the planters. Some counted their acres by thousands and their slaves by hundreds, while others scrambled along as best they might with one plantation and a few score of negroes. Some dwelt in very handsome houses, picturesque and beautiful, like Gunston Hall or Stratford, or in vast, tasteless, and extravagant piles like Rosewell. Others were contented with very modest houses, consisting of one story with a gabled roof, and flanked by two massive chimneys. In some houses there was a brave show of handsome plate and china, fine furniture, and London-made car. riages, rich silks and satins, and brocaded dresses. In others there were earthenware and pewter, home. spun and woollen, and little use for horses except in the plough or under the saddle. But there were certain qualities common to all the Virginia planters. The luxury was imperfect. The splendor was sometimes barbaric. There were holes in the brocades, and the fresh air of heaven would often blow through a broken window upon the glittering silver and the costly china. It was an easy-going aristocracy, unfinished, and frequently slovenly in its appointments, after the fashion of the warmer climates and the regions of slavery. Everything was plentiful except ready money. In this rich and poor were alike. They were all ahead of their income, and it seems as if, from one cause or another, from extravagance or improvidence, from horses or the gaming-table, every Virginian family went through bankruptcy about once in a generation. When Harry Warrington arrived in England, all his relations at Castlewood regarded the handsome young fellow as a prince, with his acres and his slaves. It was a natural and pleasing delusion, born of the possession of land and serfs, to which the Virginians themselves gave ready credence. They forgot that the land was so plentiful that it was of little value; that slaves were the most wasteful form of labor; and that a failure of the tobacco crop, pledged before it was gathered, meant ruin, although they had been reminded more than once of this last impressive fact. They knew that they had plenty to eat and drink, and a herd of people to wait upon them and cultivate their land, as well as obliging London merchants always ready to furnish every luxury in return for the mortgage of a crop or an estate. So they gave themselves little anxiety as to the future and lived in the present, very much to their own satisfaction. To the communities of trade and commerce, to the mercantile and industrial spirit of to-day, such an existence and such modes of life appear distressingly lax and unprogressive. The sages of the bank parlors and the counting-rooms would shake their heads at such spendthrifts as these, refuse to discount their paper, and confidently predict that by no possibility could they come to good. They had their defects, no doubt, these planters and farmers of Virginia. The life they led was strongly developed on the animal side, and was perhaps neither stimulating nor elevating. The living was the reverse of plain, and the thinking was neither extremely high nor notably laborious. Yet in this very particular there is something rather restful and pleasant to the eye wearied by the sight of incessant movement, and to the ear deafened by the continual shout that nothing is good that does not change, and that all change must be good. We should probably find great discomforts and many unpleasant limitations in the life and habits of a hundred years ago on any part of the globe, and yet at a time when it seems as if rapidity and movement were the last words and the ultimate ideals of civilization, it is rather agreeable to turn to such a community as the eighteenth-century planters of Virginia. They lived contentedly on the acres of their fathers, and except at rare and stated intervals they had no other interests than those furnished by their ancestral domain. At the courthouse or the vestry, or at Williamsburg, they met their neighbors and talked very keenly about the politics of Europe, or the affairs of the colony. They were little troubled about religion, but they worshipped after the fashion of their fathers, and had a serious fidelity to church and king. They wrangled with their governors over appropriations, but they lived on good terms with those eminent persons, and attended state balls at what they called the palace, and danced and made merry with much stateliness and grace. Their every-day life ran on in the quiet of their plantations as calmly as one of their own rivers. The English trader would come and go; the infrequent stranger would be received and welcomed; Christmas would be kept in hearty English fashion; young men from a neighboring estate would ride over through the darkening woods to court, or dance, or play the fiddle, like Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson; and these simple events were all that made a ripple on the placid stream. Much time was given to sports, rough, hearty, manly sports, with a spice of danger, and these, with an occasional adventurous

« ZurückWeiter »