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Accommodating Revolutions

Virginia's Northern Neck in an Era of Transformations, 1760-1810
Albert H. Tillson, Jr.

BUY Cloth · 432 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813928456 · $49.50 · Feb 2010
BUY Ebook · 432 pp. · ISBN 9780813928517 · $49.50 · Feb 2010

Accommodating Revolutions addresses a controversy of long standing among historians of eighteenth-century America and Virginia—the extent to which internal conflict and/or consensus characterized the society of the Revolutionary era. In particular, it emphasizes the complex and often self-defeating actions and decisions of dissidents and other non-elite groups. By focusing on a small but significant region, Tillson elucidates the multiple and interrelated sources of conflict that beset Revolutionary Virginia, but also explains why in the end so little changed.

In the Northern Neck—the six-county portion of Virginia's Tidewater lying between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers—Tillson scrutinizes a wealthy and powerful, but troubled, planter elite, which included such prominent men as George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, Landon Carter, and Robert Carter. Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Northern Neck gentry confronted not only contradictions in cultural ideals and behavioral patterns within their own lives, but also the chronic hostility of their poorer white neighbors, arising from a diverse array of local economic and political issues. These insecurities were further intensified by changes in the system of African American slavery and by the growing role of Scottish merchants and their Virginia agents in the marketing of Chesapeake tobacco. For a time, the upheavals surrounding the War for American Independence and the roughly contemporaneous rise of vibrant, biracial evangelical religious movements threatened to increase popular discontent to the point of overwhelming the gentry's political authority and cultural hegemony. But in the end, the existing order survived essentially intact. In part, this was because the region's leaders found ways to limit and accommodate threatening developments and patterns of change, largely through the use of traditional social and political appeals that had served them well for decades. Yet in part it was also because ordinary Northern Neckers—including many leaders in the movements of wartime and religious dissidence—consciously or unconsciously accommodated themselves to both the patterns of economic change transforming their world and to the traditional ideals of the elite, and thus were unable to articulate or accept an alternative vision for the future of the region.


In Accommodating Revolutions, Al Tillson once again demomnstrates his knack for spinning golden insights out of moth-eaten local records. For the first two centuries, historical accounts of the American revolution in Virginia were about as complex as "Yankee Doodle Dandy," but Tillson captures the state's Founding era in all its symphonic complexity.

Woody Holton, Associate Professor at the University of Richmond, author of Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Marking of the American Revolution in Virginia and Abigail Adams: A Life

This clearly written and deeply researched book portrays eighteenth-century Virginia in all its contradictions. Tillson gives us a Virginia whose ambiguities match the complexity of the Revolution itself and of its heritage in the Old Dominion. Accommodating Revolutions issues its own challenge to those historians who see the American Revolution emerging out of non-elite challenges to Virginia’s gentry.

James Sidbury, University of Texas at Austin, author of Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic

About the Author(s): 

Albert H. Tillson Jr. is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Tampa and the author of Gentry and Common Folk: Political Culture on a Virginia Frontier, 1740-1789.

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