“He forfeited all claim to the hospitality of Tuckahoe”: The Limits of Hospitality in Revolutionary Virginia

Tuckahoe Plantation
Tuckahoe Plantation

In the fall of 1777, Thomas Anburey was an officer in the British army that John Burgoyne surrendered after the battles of Saratoga.  As part of the “Convention Army,” Anburey found himself in Virginia, near Charlottesville, where he and his fellow officers were allowed to find their own accommodations among the various planters in the area.  Anburey took advantage of his several years as a prisoner of war to record his experience with the people and places he encountered.  His resulting Travels Through the Interior Part of America have proven an invaluable resource, an exceptional glimpse into life in wartime Virginia, a society that, at least among what they called the “better sorts,” had managed to retain its legendary reputation for hospitality and politeness, in spite of the insidious impact of the daily brutality of slavery and the democratizing effects of the War for Independence, both of which make appearances in Anburey’s record.

The nature of social relations in the 18th century was complex across the British world, of course, and perhaps growing quite tenuous on the American side of the Atlantic, as this brief passage suggests.  To “unpack” it, as academics like to say, reveals many layers of supposition and perception, and some rather fruitful lines of discussion regarding their connection to gender and culture.  Perhaps none, though, is more interesting and nuanced than the clear avoidance of any frank acknowledgment of the obvious, which has all sort of implications for how people related to each other and to the circumstances in which they found themselves, male or female, free or enslaved, prisoner or not.  On that day at Tuckahoe in the winter of 1779, in the company of Thomas Mann Randolph (1741-1793) and his daughters, a social line was crossed and the limits of Virginia hospitality reached.  The reaction of the young lady alone to the officer’s “warmth” and “violence” is worth a discussion–but perhaps in keeping with that time and place, it would be better not to mention it?

I cannot but in justice say, that in all the gentlemens’ houses I have visited, they never started, or would suffer any conversation on politics; sometimes, when alone with the ladies, they would indulge and rally us a little, at our being prisoners, but all with great good humour; the only unpleasant circumstance of the kind that I recollect was at Tuckahoe, where an officer suffered his vexation to overcome that gratitude he was bound to shew for the hospitality he met with.  Colonel Randolph every year made a present of two hogsheads of tobacco to his daughter as a venture, to purchase dresses and ornaments, and the ships had always been so unfortunate as to be captured. As several officers were sitting with the ladies, the conversation ran upon politics, when Miss Randolph innocently asked, “How we came to be taken prisoners?” The officer with some warmth replied, “Just as your tobacco was, by a superior force.” I need not tell you the distress and confusion of the young lady, as well as of the officer himself, who immediately became conscious of what he had said, and for his ill-timed violence, he forfeited all claim to the hospitality of Tuckahoe.

[Anburey’s Travels, Richmond, Feb. 18th, 1779]

(Attempted) Murder Most Foul on All Hallow’s Eve in Colonial Virginia

Detail from the 1751 map drawn by Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry showing Chatsworth's location.
Detail from the 1751 map drawn by Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry showing Chatsworth’s location.

While 18th-century Virginians, with their healthy Latitudinarian distrust for anything that even hinted at the supernatural or superstition (fine for French and German fanatics, in their view, but not for the reasonable English), that did not mean that passion and violence did not enter their lives.  And so it was that on this date, All Hallow’s Eve in 1775, that Archibald Cary wrote to Thomas Jefferson, then in Philadelphia, about “very disagreable” news from the neighborhood along the upper James River, near Richmond.  The main characters were Peyton Randolph, the youngest son of William and Anne Carter Harrison Randolph of Wilton, and Lewis Burwell, who had just married Peyton’s sister, Lucy.  We don’t know precisely the nature of the argument, or what lie told by Peyton spurred Lewis into action (“to give the lie” was to charge another with a falsehood, something highly impolite under any circumstances).  We do know that they were rather different people.  Peyton was a native Virginian who sided with the patriots, while Lewis, although born in Virginia, had grown up in England, educated at Eton, Oxford (Balliol), and the Inner Temple of London, and remained a known loyalist for the rest of his life.  Cary’s main concern in telling Jefferson was that “the Speaker and his Lady,” the elder Peyton Randolph and his wife Elizabeth (the young Peyton’s aunt), who cared deeply for their extended family, not be alarmed by the news. It is interesting that even a Halloween stabbing, it not proving mortal (because the ladies stepped between them), could be swept under the Randolph family rug in Revolutionary Virginia.  Who needs Downtown Abbey with stories like this?

Peyton Randolph of Wilton, c. 1773 (Virginia Historical Society)
Peyton Randolph of Wilton, c. 1773 (Virginia Historical Society)

“As to News the Papers will Give you all Things except a very disagreable one in this Neighbourhood, a dispute arose at Dinner at Chatsworth between Payton Randolph and his brother Lewis Burwell, who gave the other the Lye, on which Payton struck him, Burwell snatched a knife and struck him in the side, but fortunately a Rib prevented it’s proving Mortal, he was prevented by the Lady’s from making a second stroke.  You’l judge what Poor Mrs. Randolph must suffer on this Unhappy Affair, but she is become Familiar with Misfortune.  Payton is well and no notice is taken of the affair as I can see by Either[.] they Dined at my House the day after I got Home.  If the Speaker and his Lady have not been acquainted with this matter say nothing of it to them.”

For the full text of the letter, visit http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0129.