American gentry  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The American gentry were members of the American upper classes, particularly early in the settlement of the United States.

The Colonial American use of gentry followed the British usage (i.e., landed gentry) before the independence of the United States. The Southern plantation was commonly evidenced in land holdings by estate owners in Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas. North of Maryland, there were few large compatible rural estates, except in the Dutch domains in the Hudson Valley of New York.

The families of Virginia (see First Families of Virginia) who formed the Virginia gentry class, such as General Robert E. Lee's ancestors, were among the earliest settlers in Virginia. Lee's family of Stratford Hall was considered among the oldest of the Virginia gentry class. Lee's family is one of Virginia's first families, originally arriving in Virginia from England in the early 1600s with the arrival of Richard Lee I, Esq., "the Immigrant" (1618–64), from the county of Shropshire. His mother grew up at Shirley Plantation, one of the most elegant homes in Virginia. His maternal great-great grandfather, Robert "King" Carter of Corotoman, was the wealthiest man in the colonies when he died in 1732.

Thomas Jefferson, the patron of American agrarianism, wrote in his Notes on Virginia (1785), "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if He ever had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." Jefferson who spent much of his childhood at Tuckahoe Plantation was a great-grandson of William Randolph a colonist and land owner who arrived in Virginia from England in the mid 1600s and played an important role in the history and government of the English colony of Virginia.

George Washington, the first president of the United States was also the wealthiest man to ever hold the office until the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He was a commercial farmer much interested in innovations, and happily quit his public duties in 1783 and again in 1797 to manage his plantation at Mount Vernon. Washington lived an upper-class lifestyle—fox hunting was a favorite leisure activity enjoyed by gentry, worldwide. Like most planters in Virginia, Washington imported luxury items and other fine wares from England. He paid for them by exporting his tobacco crop.

Extravagant spending and the unpredictability of the tobacco market meant that many Virginia planters financial resources were unstable. Thomas Jefferson was deeply in debt when he died and his heirs were forced to sell Monticello to cover his debts. In 1809, Henry Lee III went bankrupt and served one year in debtors' prison in Montross, Virginia; his son, Robert E. Lee was two years old at the time. Despondent and nearly broke, William Byrd III of Westover Plantation committed suicide in 1777.

Wood notes that "Few members of the American gentry were able to live idly off the rents of tenants as the English landed aristocracy did." Some landowners, especially in the Dutch areas of upstate New York, leased out their lands to tenants, but generally —"Plain Folk of the Old South"— ordinary farmers owned their cultivated holdings.

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