The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790 by Rhys Isaac: Book Review

The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790 by Rhys Isaac is not a new book, by any stretch of the imagination, having first been published in 1982. However, I only first heard of it recently when it was mentioned by a conference speaker as “must” reading to understand the history of Virginia.

This book received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in history. Mr. Isaac, who passed away in 2010, seems to be an unlikely candidate to specialize in American History for his career path, as he was born in South Africa and became a resident of Australia.

The decades leading up to and following the American Revolution brought pivotal changes to the Virginian way of life. The planter elite class led both the local religious and political lives, which essentially meant they controlled Virginian social life.

Isaac’s book, a scholarly work, divides the half century of years into three parts, Traditional Ways of Life, Movements and Events and, finally, Afterview. Parts I and II each contain 6 chapters, all of which are subdivided into topics and issues:

1. Prospects of Virginia: Overviews of the Landscape
2. Shapes in the Landscape: The Arrangement of Social Space
3. figures in the Landscape: People and Environment
4. Church and Home: Celebrations of Life’s Meanings
5. Occasions: court Days, Race meetings, Militia Musters, and Elections
6. Textures of Community: Mobility, Learning, Gentility and Authority

7. The Parson, the Squire – and the Upstart Dissenter
8. Popular Upsurge: The Challenge of the Baptists
9. Whither Virginia? Specters of Bishop and Sectary
10. “Transactions in the Steeple of Bruton”: a Tableau of Cultural Provincialism
11. Political Enthusiasm and Continuing Revivalism
12. Revolutionary Settlement: Religion and the Forms of Community

Afterview is a single concluding chapter, Changed Lives – Changed Landscapes.

Isaac ends with A Discourse on the Method: Action, Structure, and Meaning, followed by 60 pages of bibliographic notes.

After a difficult start in the 1600s, founding the new colony, Virginia seemed to be on the path to prosperity with a defined social/political order. from 1740 onward, there were subtle and not-so-subtle changes in happening in Virginia.

These changes are the focus of Rhys Isaac’s detailed study.What I found most interesting about the author’s style is the way he shifted views of daily life from the gentry to the common folk to the slaves.

This book is most definitely not a quick skim-through. However, for anyone who has deep Virginian roots or a keen interest in colonial Virginia history, this volume is must reading.

In 2018, I recommended David Hackett Fischer‘s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Pairing Fischer’s section about the populating of Virginia with Isaac’s book will provide a deep foundation of knowledge about the first English occupants of the American South.


2 thoughts on “The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790 by Rhys Isaac: Book Review”

  1. Having read Albion’s Seed after you recommended it, I will look up this VA book. Thanks for including the table of contents. My husband’s McClure ancestors settled in VA during the 1740s and I’m quite interested in learning more about the colony at that time.

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