Mastery & Material Culture in Colonial Virginia
AdvisorStrang, Cameron B
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Virginia in the early eighteenth-century was undergoing extensive change. Wealth had recently boomed in the colony due to rising tobacco prices and increased land holdings, slavery was becoming firmly entrenched, and the gentry class continued to cement their place at the top of Virginia society. Men like William Byrd II, Robert ‘King’ Carter, and Landon Carter experienced the wealth and access to goods similar to their counterparts in the later eighteenth century, but, given the more fluid social relations of the 1700s, felt the need to communicate their identities and authority far more emphatically and frequently. Challenges to planters’ authority and influence—such as when they failed to obtain political appointments or when enslaved individuals were disobedient—constantly threatened their sense of elite masculinity. In response, wealthy planters performed their elite male identities via a form of absolute authority that historians often term mastery. This mastery encompassed their control (or attempts at control) over themselves, their wives and other women, their children, dependents in the community, and enslaved populations. Material objects were essential to asserting this authority. Luxury items communicated their owner’s status, rationality, and wealth, while the utilitarian objects of plantation life functioned as material embodiments of the planter’s absolute authority. Focusing on the overlapping domains of self-mastery and mastery over enslaved populations, this project argues that in eighteenth-century Virginia, elite male planters communicated, pursued, and solidified their mastery through the utilitarian and luxury material objects of their daily lives.