The Wild, Stoic Youth of Colonial Virginia
VISITORS COMMONLY remarked that Virginians seemed to be exceptionally indulgent toward their children — an observation that was never made in New England in the seventeenth century. The Calvinist doctrine that children were inherently evil rarely appeared in the writings of Anglican parents in Virginia. In consequence, the Puritan custom of will-breaking was not much practiced in the Chesapeake colonies.
But growing up in Virginia was in some way even more difficult than in New England. The culture of the Chesapeake colonies place two different and even contradictory demands upon its young. On the one hand youngsters were compelled to develop strong and autonomous wills. On the other hand, they were expected to yield willingly to the requirements of a hierarchical culture. This psychic tension took a heavy toll…
For boys, this regime of parental permissiveness commonly continued through childhood to adolescence. The German traveler Johann Schoepf observed that ‘a Virginian youth of fifteen years is already such a man as he will be at twice that age. At fifteen, his father gives him a horse and a negro, with which he riots about the country, attends every fox-hunt, horse-race and cockfight, and does nothing else whatsoever; a wife is his next and only concern.’
Boys especially were required to develop strong wills and boisterous emotions. Not to possess them was thought to be unmanly. Philip Fithian was struck by the passionate nature of his young male charges at Nomini Hall: he described the elder son as ‘of a warm, impetuous disposition,’ and the younger son as ‘extremely volatile and unsettled in his temper.’ Foreign travelers repeatedly noticed a clear difference in that respect between children in the northern and southern colonies…
Young gentlemen of Virginia were given ‘freedom of the will’ not as an end in itself, but as a means of achieving virtue — that is, of living in harmony with reason, nature, and fortune. This idea was very far from the restless striving of New England Puritans. It was a stoic ideal which cultivated a calm acceptance of life. It taught that one must fear nothing and accept whatever fate might bring with courage, honesty, dignity and grace. The mastery of this stoic creed was one of the central goals of socialization in Virginia.
This social creed was fundamentally a form of stoicism — not quite the same as that in the ancient world, but directly derived from classic authorities. One of the few books that young George Washington is known to have owned and read was an English summary of Seneca’s dialogues…At Valley Forge, Washington ordered that Addison’s Cato should be performed for all his officers, and he attended the production himself. He quoted Cato in his presidential papers, and in his last years returned again to this work. Washington’s character and conduct embodied Cato’s creed. This was Virginia’s ideal of an autonomous gentleman, with a character that was ‘severely bent against himself.’
The inner stresses were sometimes very great. A gentleman of Virginia was expected to have boisterous feelings and manly passions and a formidable will. But at the same time, he was also expected to achieve a stoic mastery of self. This vital tension became a coiled spring at the core of Virginia’s culture, and a source of its great achievements during the eighteenth century. In the personality of George Washington, Virginia’s system of child-rearing had a spectacular success.
-– Excerpt from Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer
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