Swallow Barn. Frank Meriwether’s plantation home on the southern bank of the James River in Virginia’s coastal tidewater region. Meriwether’s home combines the rustic and the elegant, embodying the hospitality, industry, and self-restraint of its owners through the previous century. The house has ample space without being pretentious. Family and friends visiting the house enjoy riding, fishing, eating, conversation, and song, all influenced by surrounding nature. The house’s inhabitants are favorably shaped by a type of environmental determinism similar to that described in the French writer Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Frank Meriwether explains that country life prevents people from being hollow-hearted and insincere like people in the city. His wife, Lucretia, exhibits a pattern of industry necessitated by the demands of supervising a large household. The couple’s daughters, Lucy and Victorine, make their way to womanhood in happy and guarded ignorance, avoiding ambition, vanity, and overstimulation.
In addition to leading to virtue and self-restraint, the country life also leads to the formation of the distinctive character of the Virginia cavalier. As the patriarch of Swallow Barn, Frank Meriwether exemplifies the “cavalier” tradition of plantation owner as regent of his estate. By that tradition, a cavalier benignly rules over a hierarchy that descends from family to associates—such as a parson or overseer—to the slaves at the bottom. Meriwether explains that even though slavery is not an ideal institution,...
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