Friday, November 16, 2012

The Ascension of Virginia

In our continuing historical diversion . . .

After becoming a royal colony, Virginia continued to struggle. Immigrants continued to arrive, but mortality rates approaching 50% retarded population growth. Moreover, the colony still had the appearance of “impermanence.” Most of the more ambitious settlers had no intentions of staying. They continued to hope for the acquisition of quick riches—through tobacco cultivation instead of conquest or trade—to enable them to return to England and live the life of a “country gentlemen.” Most either failed or died trying. Few attained the level of success that enabled a return to England. A small indigenous leadership emerged, but they contributed little to the development of traditional English social life or institutions.

That began to change finally during the decade of the 1640s.

First, a Civil War broke out in England that divided the army between supporters of Parliament and supporters of King Charles I. The Puritan dominated forces that gave Parliament the victory attempted to erect a republic in place of the traditional English monarchy. In addition, they enforced their own version of Presbyterian religious uniformity on the English people. Thousands of English immigrants unhappy with the new regime left for Virginia, boosting the population from 8,000 in 1640 to over 40,000 in 1675. Most immigrants consisted of tenant farmers and day laborers from England's rural areas seeking to improve their lot. Perhaps 75% came as indentured servants whose contracts required seven years of labor on behalf of whoever paid their passage to Virginia by purchasing the contract after their arrival. In contrast, a number of these immigrants were the so-called “distressed cavaliers,” fairly well-off supporters of the old monarchy. The scions of many eighteenth-century notable Virginia families arrived in Virginia during this time, including those of the Lee, Culpepper, Chinchely, Custis, Page, Harrison, Randolph, Washington, and Madison families.

Second, Sir William Berkeley received appointment as the governor of Virginia. Berkeley was staunchly loyal to the Stuart dynasty that appointed him. After the English Civil War, Berkeley refused to recognized the authority of the new Puritan leadership back in England. Only the threat of invasion forced Berkeley to submit to England's new rulers. And more than any other governor before him, Berkeley allied himself with the interests of Virginia's emerging elite.

After the restoration in 1660, Berkeley continued to recruit immigrants from among England's genteel families. He published a pamphlet in 1663 that touted the opportunities that awaited the adventurous in Virginia:

A small sum of money will enable a younger brother to erect a flourishing family in a new world; and add more strength, wealth, and honor to his native country. . . .”

This appeal to “a younger brother” was directed at the younger sons excluded from inheritance by laws of primogeniture and entail. Many of these “younger sons” saw settlement in Virginia as an opportunity to establish their financial and personal independence. These newcomers and their descendants through personal connections, good fortune, and individual talent reached levels of prosperity unmatched by earlier generations of immigrants. They began constructing the red brick Georgian style homes across the counties of the Tidewater area. They became as self-conscious elite that intermarried amongst themselves across counties. In an era when political power rested upon social status, they eventually came to dominate the House of Burgesses and the governor's Council. These families emerged as the political and social elite of Virginia's eighteenth-century “golden age.”

 Sir William Berkeley

                    Westover Plantation

                                   Gunston Hall

                                  Stratford Hall

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