The Great Pyramid of Virginia or the Racial Pyramid of Inequality

America during the 1700s was a land full of opportunities and adversities. A setting where one can experience both freedom and slavery. It was a place filled with irony, while on the path to becoming the one of the mightiest nations in the world. One area where this dissonance was most prevalent was in the state of Virginia. Where a hierarchical pyramid of different social classes coexisted and triumphed over the inferior. Michael McDonnell analyzes the controversial compromises and topics that were discussed during eighteenth-century Virginia in this scholarly article. McDonnell emphasizes how amidst the Revolutionary war being fought against Britain, there was another war being fought on the America’s hometurf. A Class War. A political and social battle between various classes of a hierarchical pyramid, where those in the upper divisions did not want to play the same roles as those below them.

To help better demonstrate on what kinds of unfair compromises were proposed, McDonnell utilized a variety of primary sources from the time period to show us. By starting off with the conflict on recruiting more men for the Continental army, new recruits were not only offered a small amount of land, but also an enslaved Virginian as well. This shows how ironic it was that soldiers who were fighting for their liberty are rewarded with slaves. But as McDonnell put it, the topic of race and slavery was just another subject to conceal a more profound debate. The debate on class and labor. Legislators hoped by giving the lower class whites an incentive such as a free slave and land, that they would join the army. This turned out to not work as well as many lower classmen resented the elites for not giving up more shares of land and slaves as the wealthy did not want to join the army themselves.

In this instance, McDonnell cites how support to middle-class demands for redistributive taxes, whether in slaves or property to pay higher bounties to lower-class soldiers would bring on a revolution in the state. This was something that McDonnell expresses was the ‘wish of a majority of the assembly ”. The majority of the votes coming from the wealthy elites in favor of the compromise, while the lower class whites were against it.

When describing Virginia in the late 1700s, it’s common for it to be viewed as just a slave society divided between white planters and black slaves. But the truth was that Virginia was much more of a complicated place. Michael McDonnell uses thesis’s and main points from other scholars to support this argument. For instance, on the topic of Virginia’s complicity, McDonnell describes on how Edmund Morgan’s analysis of seventeenth-century Virginia gave historians one of the most powerful and explicit class-based analyses of the colonial society. Morgan made a solid argument on how racial unity shrouded over class divisions in Virginia, and how it was responsible to the idea of a shared commitment to racial slavery. McDonnell praises Edmund Morgan on how his thesis has helped promoted in clearing the powerful image that Virginia was solely a slave society, but at the same time criticizes him on obscuring more about the state than revealing. The obscurities included economic inequalities and social class differences that remained hidden under the shadow of slavery.

As the animosity for the ruling elites of Virginia grew, the wealthy political leaders were forced to calm things down. In order to bring back a brief period of tranquility, they decided to rally the all white citizens of different social classes under one common ground. Slavery. With the ongoing threat of many slaves wanting to join the British side with Governor Dunmore, many patriot and political leaders in Virginia wanted to send an assertive message to enslaved Virginians contemplating insurrection. Many white citizens agreed to this as Slaves were on the very bottom of the social pyramid and insurrection against their “superiors” was unacceptable. The plan was to create and hope that a semipermanent military force combined with a modernized militia and an elite group of minutemen would offer both an internal as well as external line of defense. As McDonnell describes in the article, this scheme did not work. Mobilization for war ended up exposing pre existing tensions and division differences among white Virginians. There were exemptions from the militia offered that many poor Virginians resented. An example would be the exemption of overseers which the poor believed shielded the wealthy slave owners from military service at the expense of the poor non slavers.

Class differences were at the forefront of many complaints, and the lower class petitioners did not hesitate to make these explicit. The petitioners stated that joining the military was “extremely hard & no ways equitable or Just that we should be obliged to leave our Families in such a Situation that if ever we shou’d return again Woud find our Wives & Children dispers’d up & down the Country. Whereas the ‘Overseers are aliving in ease & Affluence”. McDonnell shows why the petitioners were upset, because they were risking leaving their families and keeping them fed, while upper class citizens like overseers and plantation owners were living at ease. To make matters worse, enlistments were hampered by the elites own admission resulting in the upper classes being assigned to positions as appointed officers. This type of social inequality is what was the cause of tension between each class.

Even until this day, the United States Of America has issues with its social classes, where those in the bottom tiers strive to rise, while those at the top reap the benefits. But unlike the present, Michael McDonnell shows us that social hierarchy eighteenth century Virginia relied on two utmost important things. Land and Slaves. Both were property that directed what type of life you will live. Many scholars such as Noah Webster had a few things to say about this, and it was that “Wherever we cast our eyes, we see this truth, that property is the basis of power”. Property which included slavery as well. All in all, Virginia was a place filled with social injustice and inequality. Those in the high classes try to undermine those below them. As the fight for freedom from Britain continues on the outside, the fight for social freedom goes on in the inside.

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