BLTC Press Titles

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The Characters of Theophrastus


Vanity Fair

William Thackery

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian

Theory of Colours

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A short history of the English colonies in America

by Henry Cabot Lodge


Virginia has altered as little probably as any State in the Union; but in this country of rapid changes, and after a century of hurried progress and unexampled development, closing with a civil war which utterly wrecked the social system of the South, it may be safely said that nothing now remains of the ancient Dominion of the year 1765. The great physical features of the country are of course the same. There are still the rich soil, the genial climate, the noble rivers, the safe and capacious harbors, which greeted the eyes of John Smith and his companions. The face of the country, moreover, is but little changed since the middle of the last century. More territory has been cleared and utilized, but great tracts of wild land still remain untouched. Where a hundred years ago there were a few scattered villages, there are now some respectable towns; but no great cities, in obedience to the laws of modern civilization, have sprung up upon Virginian soil. Yet the whole fabric of society has been radically altered. Even in 1822, long before the far-reaching changes effected by the extinction of slavery, John Randolph of Roanoke could say with truth: "Traces of the same manners could be found some years subsequent to the adoption of the Federal Constitution—say to the end of the century. At this time not a vestige remains. We are a new people."

To draw an accurate picture of the vanished society lamented by Randolph, it is first necessary to ascertain the numbers of the people. Accurate government statisties had then no existence, and we are forced to rely upon the estimates of individuals. The figures generally accepted, therefore, are at best ouly approximately true. For the year 1650 a contemporary tract gives fifteen thousand whites and three hundred negroes as the population of Virginia. It is worth while to pause a moment here in order to get a general notion of Virginia in the middle of the seventeenth century, for we are thus enabled to see the germs of the subsequent development. From the scanty material which the time affords, a rough sketch can be made of the first colony planted by Englishmen in America fifty years after its foundation. The race had then finally taken root in its new home, and the lines of social and political development were already marked out. The results seem at first sight small, but they represent stability of existence, the first great prize wrung from the wilderness. From the tract just referred to, other statisties than those of population may be gathered. Imported cattle, as well as horses, swine, goats, and fowls, had thriven in Virginia. The flocks and herds, sure signs of permanency and well-being, had increased and multiplied, and become a source of wealth to their owners. Agriculture had taken a firm hold, and was the main support of the people. Tobacco, the source of Virginian wealth, was then as always the great staple; but the more familiar products of English soil were not lacking. Wheat and corn were raised in sufficient quantities to supply the plantations. Hops were successfully cultivated, and good beer brewed, to the satisfaction, doubtless, of the colonists, who had not left their tastes and habits behind them. Vines were indigenous, and grapes plentiful, while imported fruit-trees took so kindly to the new soil that fine orchards had already become a part of every plantation. Trade had grown up with the other colonies and the West India Islands, as well as with the mother country. Small vessels for the coasting trade and for fishing had been built, and pitch, potashes, furs, and lumber were exported in considerable quantities. Other industries showed but feeble signs of life. . Efforts had been made to establish iron-works and introduce silk culture, but with little success.

Colonel Norwood, a Royalist refugee, who was wrecked on the American coast, left a journal recounting his adventures, and among other incidents his first reception by a Virginia farmer. From his brief account it may be gathered that the circumstances of this planter, although rough and simple, were not uncomfortable. The table to which the shipwrecked traveller was weleomed seems to have been plentifully supplied with the fine game of the country and the wholesome products of the plantation. The host was dressed in coarse, strong homespun, and would seem to have been contented. This was probably the condition of most of the planters at that period. They had comfortable houses of wood or brick in the midst of large estates, which yielded all crops in profusion. They lived in comparative solitude, scattered along the banks of rivers and isolated in the great forests, holding little intercourse with each other or with the outside world. Almost the only highways were the great natural watercourses; and the annual ship from England, laden with goods to pay for tobacco, was the great event in their lives. Except for the little village of Jamestown, there was nothing even resembling a town. Alone on the edge of the ocean, it seemed as if the wilderness behind must, by the sheer force of its vast desolation, drive the colonists into the sea. Strange stories were current of marvellous and abnormal races of men beyond the mountains, which were supposed to be washed on the other side by the waves of the Indian Ocean.1 Nothing but the sturdy and unimaginative nature of the Anglo-Saxon race could have enabled the Virginians to support their solitary life in the seventeenth century.

Their political instincts were as keen as in the mother country, whose customs and laws they had brought with them. Except for the brief period of the Protectorate, the suffrage was carefully limited, and class distinctions were always maintained. The Established Church was supreme, and dissent met with harsh and intolerant treatment. The planters exercised their political faculties as sharply in the little Assembly at Jamestown as did their English cousins in London. Slavery was as yet trifling in its influence; but the convicts and indented servants formed a servile class, and helped forward the aristocratic system which had been founded. The professions of law

1 Discoveries of John Ledcrer, 1671.

and medicine hardly Lad an existence, and merchants, as such, were unknown. There were only two classes—landlords and servants. Neither arts nor letters flourished. Every man taught his children according to his ability, and the Royalist Governor Berkeley thanked God that there were no free schools.1 The Virginians were Royalist in their sympathies, and firm supporters of Church and State. In the rude outlines of the seventeenth century can be seen all the great forces which attained a vigorous life and full development in the eighteenth. The hard life, the isolation, the great estates, and the servile class, added to the inborn conservatism of the race, were moulding an aristocratic system as distinct and powerful as that which had been left behind.

In 1671 the population, according to Berkeley,' had risen to forty thousand souls, two thousand of whom were negroes. This was probably a large estimate; but the troubles toward the end of the century and dangers from the Indians checked the growth of the colony, which does not seem to have numbered much more than forty thousand inhabitants in 1700. The period of quiet which then ensued, and the vigorous Indian policy of Spotswood, gave repose, while the general tranquillity of all the British dominions after the accession of the House of Brunswick contributed to the same result. In the first fifty years of the eighteenth century the white population increased from less than sixty to more than two hundred and fifty thousand, and the handful of negro slaves had grown to such a point that it more than equalled the whites in numbers, and raised the total population to over half a million.'

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