Vital Signs

The Virginia Cavalier

"We are Cavaliers," novelist William Caruthers boasted, "that generous, fox-hunting, winedrinking, dueling and reckless race of men which gives so distinct a character to Virginians wherever they may be found."

If we look closely at the Cavalier, will we find the quintessential Virginian? "Cavalier" was originally an English term signifying political affiliation, not social status. The migration to colonial Virginia was largely a middle- and even lower-class affair; most of the early landholders were small farmers. The relatively few settlers of wealth gave manners a warmer tone and emphasized the ideal of country life. "They gave Virginians their passion for handsome houses and fast horses, and brought to public life something more than it had before of the English notion that offices should be held for the benefit of the gentry." Time embroidered the truth and made the rough places smooth; more and more Virginians became Cavaliers. It is simple enough to explain why. They wanted to be Cavaliers.

To sanctify the Cavalier legend in literature became a primary task for Virginia writers—and it was by no means easy. Rich in social virtues, the rural aristocracy was poor in intellectual cross-stimulation; to write was to go it alone. The most articulate members of society entered law, politics, or the ministry. In these three fields of endeavor, there developed an intellectual rigidity...

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