The colonies on the Chesapeake Bay.
OR more than eight years, ‘the people of Vir-
ginia’ had governed themselves; and their government had been conducted with wise moderation.
Tranquillity and a rapid increase of population promosed the extension of its borders; and colonial life was sweetened by the enjoyment of equal franchises.
No trace of established privilege appeared in its code or its government; in its forms and in its legislation, Virginia
was a representative democracy; so jealous of a landed aristocracy, that it insisted on universality of suffrage; so hostile to the influence of commercial wealth, that it would not tolerate the ‘mercenary’ ministers of the law; so considerate for religious freedom, that each parish was left to take care of itself.
Every officer was, directly or indirectly, chosen by the people.
The power of the people naturally grew out of the character of the early settlers, who were, most of them, adventurers, bringing to the New World no wealth but enterprise; no rank but that of manhood: no privileges but those of Englishmen.
The principle of the English
law which grants real estate
to the eldest born, was respected; but generations of Virginians
had hardly as yet succeeded each other; the rule had produced no effect upon society, and, from the
beginning, had been modified in many counties by the
custom of gavelkind.1 Virginia
could not imitate those great legislative reforms of the Long Parliament, because her happier soil was free from the burdens of forest laws and military tenures, courts of wards, and starchambers.
The tendency towards a multiplication of religious sects began already to be perceptible, under the freedom of a popular government.
In its care for a regular succession of representative assemblies, Virginia
exceeded the jealous friends of republican liberty in England
; there triennial parliaments had been established by law; the Virginians, imitating the terms of the bill, claimed the privilege of a biennial election of their legislators.2
In addition to the strength derived from the natural character of the emigrants, from the absence of feudal institutions, from the entire absence of the excessive refinements of legal erudition, and from the constitution, legislation, and elective franchises of the colonists, a new and undefined increase was gained by the universal prevalence of the spirit of personal independence.
An instinctive aversion to too much government was always a trait of southern character, expressed in the solitary manner of settling the country, in the absence of municipal governments, in the indisposition of the scattered inhabitants to engage in commerce, to collect in towns, or to associate in townships under corporate powers.
As a consequence, there was little commercial industry; and, on the soil of Virginia
, there were no vast accumulations of commercial wealth.
The exchanges were made almost entirely—
and it continued so for more than a century—by fac-
tors of foreign merchants.
Thus the influence of wealth, under the modern form of stocks and accumulations of money, was always inconsiderable; and men were so widely scattered—like hermits among the heathen—that far the smallest number were within reach of the direct influence of the established church or of government.
, except in matters that related to foreign commerce, a man's own will went far towards being his law.
Yet the germs of an aristocracy existed; and there was already a tendency towards obtaining for it the sanction of colonial legislation.
was a continuation of English society.
The first colonists were not fugitives from persecution, they came, rather, under the auspices of the nobility, the church, and the mercantile interests of England
; they brought with them an attachment to monarchy; a deep reverence for the Anglican church; a love for England
and English institutions.
Their minds had never been disciplined into an antipathy to feudalism, their creed had never been shaken by the progress of skepticism; no new ideas of natural rights had as yet inclined them to ‘faction.’
The Anglican church was, therefore, without repugnance, sanctioned as the religion of the state; and a religion established by law always favors aristocracy; for it seeks support, not in conviction only, but in vested rights.
The rise of the plebeian sects, which swarmed in England
, was, for the present at least, prevented, and unity of worship, with few exceptions, continued for about a century from the settlement of Jamestown
The aristocracy of Virginia
was, from its origin, exclusively a landed aristocracy; its germ lay in the manner in which rights to the soil had
For every person whom a planter
should, at his own charge, transport into Virginia
, he could claim fifty acres of land; and thus a body of large proprietors had existed from the infancy of the settlement.3
These vast possessions, often an inheritance for the eldest born, awakened the feelings of family pride.
The power of the rising aristocracy was still further increased by the deplorable want of the means of education in Virginia
The great mass of the rising generation could receive little literary culture; the higher degrees of cultivated intelligence in the colony were confined to a small number of favored emigrants Many of the royalists who came over after the death of Charles I., brought to the colony the culture and education that belonged to the English
gentry of that day; and the direction of affairs necessarily fell into their hands.
The instinct of liberty may create popular institutions; they cannot be preserved in their integrity except by the conscious intelligence of the people.
But the distinctions in society were rendered more marked by the character of the plebeian population of Virginia
Many of them had reached the shores of Virginia
as servants; doomed, according to the severe laws of that age, to a temporary bondage.
Some of them, even, were convicts; but it must be remembered, the crimes of which they were convicted were chiefly political.
The number transported to Virginia
for social crimes was never considerable; scarcely enough to sustain the sentiment of pride in its scorn of the laboring population; certainly not enough to affect its character.
Yet the division of society into two classes was strongly marked, in a degree unequalled
in any northern colony, and unmitigated by
public care for education.4
The system of common schools was unknown.
‘Every man,’ said Sir William Berkeley
in 1671, ‘instructs his children according to his ability;’ a method which left the children of the ignorant to hopeless ignorance.
The instinct of aristocracy dreaded the general diffusion of intelligence, and even the enfranchising influence of the preaching of the ministers.
‘The ministers,’ continued Sir William, in the spirit of the aristocracy of the Tudors, ‘should pray oftener and preach less.
But, I thank God, there are no free schools, nor printing; and I hope we shall not have, these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government.
God keep us from both.’
Thus, in addition to the difficulties which the degraded caste of servants encountered in their endeavors to lift themselves into distinction, the power of the government was exerted to depress whole classes of society.
We rightly abhor the envy which delights in debasing excellence; it is a still greater crime against humanity, to combine against the masses in their struggle for intellectual and social advancement.
Still servants were emancipated, when their years of servitude were ended; and the law was designed to secure and to hasten their enfranchisement.
The insurrection, which was plotted by a number of servants in 1663, had its origin in impatience of
servitude and oppression.
A few bondmen, soldiers
, and probably Roundheads, were excited by their own sufferings, and by the nature of life in the wilderness, to indulge once more in vague desires for a purer church and a happier condition.
From the character of the times, their passions were sustained by political fanaticism; but no definite plan of revolution was devised; nor did the conspiracy extend beyond a scheme of indented servants to anticipate the period of their freedom.
The effort was the work of ignorant men, and was easily suppressed.5
The facility of escape compelled humane treatment of white servants.
Towards the negro the laws were less tolerant.
The statute which declares who are slaves, followed the old idea, long prevalent through Christendom, ‘All servants, not being Christians, imported into this
country by shipping, shall be slaves.’
Yet it was added, ‘conversion to the Christian
faith doth not
The early Anglo-Saxon
rule, interpreting every doubtful question in favor of liberty, declared the children of freemen to be free.
was humane towards men of the white race; was severe towards the negro.
Doubts arose, if the offspring of an Englishman by a negro woman should be bond or free; and the rule of the Roman
law prevailed over
The offspring followed the condition of its mother.
Enfranchisement of the colored population was not encouraged; the female slave was not subject to taxation; the emancipated negress was
‘The death of a slave from extremity of correction, was not accounted felony; since it
cannot be presumed’—such is the language of the
statute—‘that prepensed malice, which alone makes murther felony, should induce any man to destroy his own estate.’
The legislature did not understand human passion; no such opinion now prevails.
Finally, it was made lawful for ‘persons, pursuing fugitive
colored slaves, to wound, or even to kill them.’
The master was absolute lord over the negro.
The slave, and the slave's posterity, were bondmen; though afterwards, when the question was raised, the devise of negro children in posse
, the fixture increase of a bondwoman, was void.
As property in Virginia
consisted almost exclusively of land and laborers, the increase of negro slaves was grateful to the pride and to the interests of the large landed proprietors.
After a long series of years, the institution of slavery renewed a landed aristocracy, closely resembling the feudal nobility; the culminating point was the period when slaves were declared to be real estate
, and might
be constituted by the owner adscripts to the soil.6
The aristocracy which was thus confirmed in its influence by the extent of its domains, by its superior intelligence, and by the character of a large part of the laboring class, naturally aspired to the government of the country; from among them the council was selected; many of them were returned as members of the legislature; and in the organization of the militia, they also held commissions.
The entire absence of local municipal governments necessarily led to an extension, unparalleled in the United States
, of the power of the magistrates.
The justices of the peace for each county fixed the amount of county taxes,
assessed and collected them, and superintended their
disbursement; so that military, judicial, legislative, and executive powers were often deposited in the hands of men, who, as owners of large estates, masters of many indented servants, and lords of slaves, already began to exhibit the first indications of an established aristocracy.
Thus, at the period of the restoration, two elements
were contending for the mastery in the political life of Virginia
; on the one hand, there was in the Old Dominion a people; on the other, a rising aristocracy.
The present decision of the contest would depend on the side to which the sovereign of the country would incline.
During the few years of the interruption of monarchy in England
, that sovereign had been the people of Virginia
; and its mild and beneficent legislation, careless of theory, and unconscious of obeying impulses which were controlling the common advancement of humanity, had begun to loosen the cords of religious bigotry, to confirm equality of franchises, to foster colonial industry by freedom of traffic with the world.
The restoration of monarchy changed the course of events, took from the people of Virginia
the power which was not to be recovered for more than a century, and gave to the forming aristocracy a powerful ally in the royal government and its officers.
The early history of Virginia
not only illustrates the humane and ameliorating influences of popular freedom, but also presents a picture of the confusion, discontent, and carnage, which are the natural consequences of selfish legislation and a retrograde movement in the cause of popular liberty.
The emigrant royalists had hitherto not acted as a political party, but took advantage of peace to establish
Their numbers were constantly
increasing; their character and education procured them respect and influence; yet no collisions ensued.
If one assembly had, what Massachusetts
never did, submitted to Richard Cromwell
—if another had elected Berkeley
as governor—the power of the people still preserved its vigor, and controlled legislative action.
But on the tidings of the restoration of Charles ii., the fires of loyalty blazed up, perhaps the more vehemently for their long inactivity.