Planting a staple crop such as rice or tobacco on a large scale and living a comfortable, stylish life necessitated going into debt. In both the Chesapeake and South Carolina, planters borrowed in order to bring more acreage under the plow, finance the purchase of slaves, and import increasingly fine things from Europe.
Yet even as planters tried to emulate English styles in the middle of the eighteenth century, they grew aware of their differences from England. In fact, some of the wealthiest members of colonial society were ardent patriots during the imperial crises of the 1760s and 1770s. The reasons for this Revolutionary fervor lie in the mentality of the great planters in the decades before the Revolutionary War.
It would not be accurate to argue that planter debt or the rituals surrounding the production of tobacco and rice brought about the War for Independence. One could assert, however, that the rising debts of the planters in combination with the mentality of men whose identity was so tightly wrapped up in their agricultural production made them particularly susceptible to the tenets of country thought sometimes referred to as republicanism or radical opposition. Country thought refers to a group of ideas floating around in eighteenth-century England, many of which stressed personal liberty and autonomy, emphasized civic virtue, and attacked unbalanced government or military government as inherently corrupt.
From this perspective, the debt incurred to sustain profitable agriculture was also a threat to a planter’s liberty and manhood. T. H. Breen has argued that it was precisely because of the culture of planting tobacco that the planters of Virginia’s tidewater were early converts to the cause of independence; these same men, including Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, formulated an American brand of country thought with its roots deep in tobacco agriculture.
In the years after the War for Independence, planters continued to wield power, but some of the democratic impulses of the Revolution also seeped into colonial legislatures. In South Carolina, for instance, a number of artisans and mechanics the muscle of Charles Town’s Revolutionary movement were elected to public office. Overall, the early state governments of the South and, to some extent the national government, were dominated by the planting class. Matthew Jennings See also: Landlords; Plantations. Bibliography Billings, Warren M., John E. Selby, and Thad W. Tate. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains, NY: KTO, 1986. Breen, T. H. Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 16241713. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972. Russo, Jean B., and J. Elliot Russo. Planting an Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Weir, Robert M. Colonial South Carolina: A History. Millwood, NY: KTO, 1983.