Crop Masters

Daniel Aaron

  • Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of the Revolution by T.H. Breen
    Princeton, 216 pp, $9.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 691 04729 4

Some thirty years ago, as he ploughed through hundreds of pamphlets on the Anglo-American conflict published in the colonies before 1776, Bernard Bailyn was struck by the excitement with which their authors spoke about what were for him ‘the common-places of liberal thought of their time’. How to explain their apparently inexhaustible appetite for the ideas and rhetoric of late 17th and 18th-century British political oppositionists? The mélange of dissident opinion now subsumed under the rubric of ‘radical Country ideology’ stigmatised the Walpole Government as a corrupt power-grabbing conspiracy against popular liberties. This pessimistic Country vision of a commercial England’s political and moral decline between 1675 and 1725 evoked small concern in the general population, but it provided American revolutionists with a schema.

The pervasive influence of Country publicists like Thomas Gordon, John Trenchard, Bolingbroke and Benjamin Hoadly on colonial pamphleteers is now taken for granted. American historians have tested Bailyn’s thesis by extending and particularising it. This is what T.H. Breen has done in Tobacco Culture. The impact of Country ideas in the colonies, he argues, varied according to region and time and, above all, the ‘non-political experiences’ of the colonists, whose religion, work habits, family affairs, social values and the like had a lot to do with their perception of political realities. Cultivating tobacco was one of these experiences, and he proposes to show how it ‘contributed to the spread of Country ideas’.

His stylish essay at once describes and analyses the ‘tobacco mentality’ of the Tidewater Virginia planter élite in the 18th century and the tobacco culture that literally and metaphorically shaped it. Tobacco touched virtually every aspect of Virginia life. It determined patterns of settlement and land use. It served as legal tender, influenced religious affiliation and coloured the social attitudes, psychology and world view of the planter class. By the 1750s tobacco had come ‘to represent not only a particular agrarian work experience, but also the people themselves, a collectivity of producers’, great and small, bound together by common aspiration.

Never so grand or so rich as the absentee sugar lords of the West Indies, the big planters early developed an organic relation to their staple. Its quality and price became measures of character and a gauge for public esteem. The designation ‘crop master’ was an honour every planter ardently sought, for it testified to his expertness in supervising every phase of the complicated and unremitting month-to-month process of tobacco production (admirably described in one of Breen’s best chapters) from seeding, cultivating, suckering and curing to pressing or ‘prizing’ the leaves into hogsheads. Accidents of weather, negligence or faulty judgment at any stage of production might destroy or damage the planter’s crop. It took nerve and courage and immense self-confidence (Breen likens it to virtu) to become ‘a lord of the soil’ – that is to say, to get a good price and, equally important, to be respected for the quality of his leaf. Good management signified ‘private virtue’: to criticise a planter’s tobacco was almost tantamount to impugning his morality.

But if, as Breen puts it, the planters ‘competed not only for pounds and pence but also for honour and reputation’, the distinction turns out to be a fuzzy one indeed, because each reinforced the other. Conspicuous expenditure on imported luxuries – chariots, carriages, clothes, china – advertised a planter’s competence and enhanced his good repute. Yet to maintain a standard of living commensurate with his high station made him increasingly dependent on his British creditors, a state of affairs mortifying to any Virginia gentleman who cherished his autonomy above all things. Understandably, then, fear of debt haunted the planter’s mind, and this fear – the dark motif running through Breen’s spare and tightly-argued narrative – had much to do with the tragi-comic ties between the merchants in Britain and their Tidewater suppliers.

The latter tended to conduct their business transactions at home on a personal basis and with studied tact. They scorned to profit from the financial embarrassments of friends and neighbours or to expose delinquent debtors to public scrutiny. In some cases, they were ready to give credit even to those notorious for their bad habits and the mismanagement of their estates. The gentleman planter, sensitive about his reptutation, expected the money he loaned out, usually without interest, eventually to be repaid by borrowers no less solicitous of their own honour. Drawing upon business records, family papers and diaries, Breen constructs the ‘elaborate culture’ or ‘etiquette’ of debt that enabled a closely-knit society, hampered by an inadequate money supply, to agree upon ‘a culturally-sanctioned system of rules that told planters to whom they should offer credit and in what amounts’. This system, based on trust and mutual aid, was not in accord with the trading practices of their English creditors. The merchants to whom the planters shipped their hogsheads of tobacco on consignment operated by a different code and made their own interpretations of the vocabulary of commerce. Planters learned the hard way how economic realities superseded the claims of ‘friendship’.

Why did shrewd practical agriculturalists and men of affairs believe, or pretend to believe, that their agents would think and act like Virginia gentlemen? According to Breen, the planters’ quixotic notions of world trade left them totally unprepared to cope with the consequences of fluctuating prices and the vagaries of the international market after the 1750s. Nor could they appreciate the dilemma of the tobacco merchants, caught in an intricate credit system in which a safe margin of liquidity meant the difference between survival and bankruptcy. To extend old loans or grant new ones was risky even in prosperous times: to do so during periods of slack trade or panic was to commit financial suicide. So the planters, who normally lived beyond their incomes and in the boom years went on buying sprees, were unceremoniously called upon to pay up – and not in depreciated Virginia paper currency either, but in sterling.

There is something both ludicrous and poignant in the planters’ outraged response to this turn of events. Since the middle of the century, they had felt uneasy and guilty about their mounting arrears, but hadn’t elected to make their debts a public issue. Only after the tobacco merchants seemed prepared to give up private negotiation and to air their complaints in public – the ultimate humiliation – did the planters accuse their treacherous friends of conspiring to seize their property and reduce them to beggary. It was the merchants, they rationalised, who had lured them into debt with assurances of easy credit, urged them to buy more land and slaves, discouraged them from shifting to other crops. The respected Landon Carter spoke for his peers when he lumped all merchants together as a ‘Profession that kicks Conscience out of doors like a fawning puppy’.

With the politicising of the tobacco culture, the language and sentiments of the Country ideology figured more obtrusively in the planters’ private and public utterances. Heretofore they had kept business and politics in separate compartments, quarrelled with the merchants, not the government. Even their accumulated resentments against the former did not change them automatically into revolutionists (Breen attributes their anxieties less to the size of their debts than to a diminishing trust in themselves and their moral soundness), but in time these self-described victims of a London merchant cabal merged their private wrongs with Virginia’s. The ‘Country idioms’ they used more or less unconsciously to express their injured feelings ‘now provided a powerful emotional justification for national independence’.

The breakdown of the tobacco culture followed the collapse of the tobacco economy and the dethronement of the King Staple. Under material and spiritual duress, planters felt compelled to adopt new measures and assume new attitudes (giving lip service to frugality, for example) in order ‘to regain personal honour and independence’. Some hoped to become solvent by moving to fresh lands in the Piedmont. Others, like George Washington, switched from tobacco to wheat, thereby transforming themselves from ‘planters’ to ‘farmers’. ‘New crops generated new symbols,’ as Breen observes, and although wheat, Virginia’s second staple by the 1770s, did not displace tobacco, it evoked images of a yeoman democratic ethos at odds with the hierarchical tobacco mentality. It was Jefferson, Breen concludes, who saw more clearly than most of his contemporaries the links between the royal staple, ruinous economic policies, soil exhaustion and political oppression. He associated tobacco production with ‘infinite wretchedness’, wheat with the blessings of a free society, and he conflated ‘radical Country ideas’ with ‘a new agrarian republicanism’.

Breen faults Bailyn’s interpretation of the appeal of Country ideology in the colonies on several counts. For one (and he cites Gordon Wood in support), he thinks it overstates the colonists’ perception of the disparities between the theory of ‘the balanced constitution – kin, lords, commons’ – developed by orthodox political thinkers in 18th-century England and the way colonial institutions actually worked. For another, it fails to provide ‘psychologically-sophisticated research strategies’ to reveal colonial anxieties and obsessions. His charges may be technically valid, but they are a little ungenerous. After all, Bailyn noted that what made the Revolution ‘so profoundly a transforming event’ was the ‘intimate relationship between Revolutionary thought and the circumstances of life in 18th-century America’. By focusing on a discrete community that flourished for a limited period in a carefully defined area, Tobacco Culture really corroborates Bailyn’s generalisation.

Another historian contemplating Breen’s evidence might come up with a less tidy version of the tobacco mentality, one that paid greater attention to the stages of its emergence, or passed over less perfunctorily the religious implications of the planters’ feelings of guilt. Writing to a British merchant in 1721, Robert Carter of Nomini Hall lamented to his correspondent that both of them were ‘muckworms – that is, in other words, too great lovers of this world’. Were they less attached to it, he added, the ‘thoughts of having a little more white and yellow earth than our neighbours would not puff us up with so much vanity and insolence’. Such sentiments hint at ancestral pieties, at worries about this world and the next which lurked beneath the easygoing Low Church Anglicanism the planters espoused – ‘a theology,’ Breen writes, ‘that did not challenge their rather inflated notions of human capabilities’.

Tobacco Culture is one of those rare books constrained by its concision. The subject calls for a longer and more leisurely and exploratory treatment. Had Breen been less intent on hitching his somewhat tenuous account of the planters’s slow conversion to Country ideology to his fresh and richly-detailed explication of the tobacco mentality, I think his book would be even better. It is a significant contribution to the growing body of innovative studies on the origins of the Revolution and a provocative exercise in cultural anthropology.