The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1999-04-27
  • Publisher: Univ of North Carolina Pr

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In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Rhys Isaac describes and analyzes the dramatic confrontations--primarily religious and political--that transformed Virginia in the second half of the eighteenth century. Making use of the observational techniques of the cultural anthropologist, Isaac vividly recreates and painstakingly dissects a society in the turmoil of profound inner change.

Author Biography

Rhys Isaac currently holds the James Pinckney Harrison Chair of History at the College of William and Mary.

Table of Contents

The Setting and the Action
Preface to the New Paperback Edition
Introductionp. 5
Traditional Ways of Life
Prospects of Virginia: Overviews of the Landscapep. 11
Shapes in the Landscape: The Arrangement of Social Spacep. 18
Figures in the Landscape: People and Environmentp. 43
Church and Home: Celebrations of Life's Meaningsp. 58
Occasions: Court Days, Race Meetings, Militia Musters, and Electionsp. 88
Textures of Community: Mobility, Learning, Gentility, and Authorityp. 115
Movements and Events
The Parson, the Squire - and the Upstart Dissenterp. 143
Popular Upsurge: The Challenge of the Baptistsp. 161
Whither Virginia? Specters of Bishop and Sectaryp. 181
"Transactions in the Steeple of Bruton": A Tableau of Cultural Provincialismp. 209
Political Enthusiasm and Continuing Revivalismp. 243
Revolutionary Settlement: Religion and the Forms of Communityp. 273
Changed Lives - Changed Landscapesp. 299
A Discourse on the Method: Action, Structure, and Meaningp. 323
Acknowledgmentsp. 359
Notesp. 361
About the Illustrationsp. 415
Indexp. 423
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter One


Overviews of the Landscape

                                     Water and trees--trees and water. These are the features that now dominate the impressions of a traveler in Tidewater Virginia. In some parts the woods are so dense that one can see but a few yards into them. Elsewhere they thin out, and standing water marks the edge of a swamp. The lay of the land is better revealed in those places where the road crosses or runs alongside one of the great rivers. There, oaks and pines stand thick along the banks, almost down to the high-water mark. From the air the terrain is even more fully revealed, and the eye can take in a total pattern of dense green or black forest, lighter-colored swamps, and the silver arms and fingers of the sea that reach far into the land spread out below. Moving to the west, in the region between the rocky falls and the heaving lines of the Blue Ridge, the land is a series of rolling hills, and the river inlets become fast-flowing streams. Journeying through this Piedmont region, one still finds dense woods, but as the roads top the crests, the eye enjoys views of lovely valleys and is carried across sweeps of pasture or cornfields.

    The twentieth-century traveler sees these distinctive Chesapeake terrains and automatically assimilates them into that romantic set of landscape images that we all carry around with us. We are conventionally appalled by urban sprawl, charmed by unspoiled countryside, and enraptured by untamed wilderness. If the traveler is also a historian or an antiquity-minded tourist, he or she will be led to reflect--especially by the view from the air--upon the ways in which the forested, river-dissected terrain worked to shape the emergent Anglo- and Afro-Virginian society. Such travelers will also be moved by the landmarks of the past--an ancient family seat, an old church or meetinghouse, a courthouse village, a tavern where Lafayette is declared to have bivouacked his little army, or just a succession of magically evocative names. These are deeply satisfying journeys. Yet in order to recover the realities of a remote past and to appreciate its ethos, we have to transcend our romantic views of the terrain and strive to recover something of the sense of it that its possessors had, each in their own generation. For the purposes of this study, it is the meanings that the eighteenth-century inhabitants attached to their environment that are to be sought out.

    The perceptions a people has of its world are not usually formed or expressed by statistics, yet such information is invaluable to observers seeking to understand the conditions that shape experiences. In 1700 the colony of Virginia had a total population of about 60,000, distributed on the shores of the Chesapeake and the three "necks," or peninsulas, between the great rivers that open off the bay itself (see figure IV). The Indians being almost gone, the population was sharply divided between the 85-90 percent who were free or servant Anglo-Virginians and the 10-15 percent who were Afro-Virginian slaves. The total population was growing at a rate of more than 20 percent each decade; it would reach 90,000 by 1720 and 230,000 by 1750. The white contribution to expansion came largely from a surplus of births over deaths. The blacks were increasing naturally also, but at a slower rate, so that their rising proportion in relation to the whole--more than 40 percent by 1750--derived in large part from the continued importation of slaves from Africa at a rate of approximately 1,000 per annum. The population growth was matched by an extension of settlement from the Tidewater into the Piedmont west of the Fall Line, where layers of hard rock create rapids that impede further navigation of ocean-going ships. The society expanded by replicating its basic units in the new areas. Scattered fields and households continued to be included within a network of parish and county lines. Parishes and counties were smaller and more densely settled in the Tidewater, larger and sparser in the west. In 1726 there were fifty-five parishes, ranging in size from ten miles square to thirty or more miles in length by ten in width. The twenty-eight counties varied in dimension but were mostly of a size to contain two parishes. Population density was from twenty to thirty per square mile, reducing as one looked farther to the west. By 1750 there would be seventy-one parishes and forty-five counties. Settlement had already advanced as far as the Blue Ridge, while immigrants from Pennsylvania were moving into the valley beyond.

    So much for a demographic mapmaker's view of Virginia. Landscape, however, is not merely measured physical terrain--it is that terrain interpreted by the eye, or one might say, experienced in life. A concept of social or experiential landscape provides the perspective used here to sketch a view of the society and way of life that had taken shape on the shores of the Chesapeake by the second quarter of the eighteenth century.

    The development of a moderately secure "Virginia" identity and the emergence of an easy acceptance of the colony's distinctive landscape can be traced in the contrast between the essays of two gentlemen--essays that were published twenty years apart during the first quarter of the eighteenth century. In 1705 a book entitled The History and Present State of Virginia appeared in London. Its author was Robert Beverley, a first-generation native of the colony. For him, as for most of his predecessors in the nascent literary tradition of Virginia, the most striking aspect of the region was its natural endowment: "The Country is in a very happy Situation, between the extreams of Heat and Cold.... Certainly it must be a happy Climate, since it is very near of the same Latitude with the Land of Promise. Besides, As Judaea was full of Rivers ... So is Virginia . Had that fertility of Soil? So has Virginia , equal to any land in the known World." Phrases like "the extream fruitfulness of that Country" recur in Beverley's descriptions. He praised Virginia as a region where "the clearness and brightness of the Sky, add new vigour," and where the inhabitants "enjoy all the benefits of a warm Sun, and by their shady Groves, are protected from its Inconvenience.... Their Eyes are ravished with the Beauties of naked Nature. Their Ears are Serenaded with the perpetual murmur of Brooks.... Their Taste is regaled with the most delicious Fruits.... And then their smell is refreshed with an eternal fragrancy of Flowers."

    Beverley's perception of the bounteousness of nature in Virginia was conditioned by a deep-seated identification with two visionary landscape images that pervade his descriptive commentaries. One of these was drawn from Scripture, reinforced by Classical preoccupations with an arcadian Golden Age located in a timeless past. The other was based on an idealized picture of the English countryside that he longed to see replicated in Virginia but found to be in marked contrast with reality.

    Beverley evoked the past and timeless landscape in a set of recurrent allusions: "Almost all the Year round, the Levels and Vales are beautified with Flowers of one Kind or other, which make their Woods as fragrant as a Garden ." "A Garden is no where sooner made than there, either for Fruits, or Flowers." Even the chapter " Of the Recreations, and Pastimes used in Virginia " begins with the observation that "for their Recreation, the Plantations, Orchards, and Gardens constantly afford 'em fragrant and delightful Walks." Beverley constantly interpreted the landscape by analogy to Eden, using human archetypes to give primary meaning to the scene. The dominant image of the Indians in the book is of a "harmless people" who have lived "happy ... in their simple State of Nature, and in their enjoyment of Plenty, without the Curse of Labour ." Food gathering for them was "diversion," and "the bare planting of a little Corn, and Melons ... took up only a few Days in the Summer." Furthermore, he stressed, "they claim no property in Lands, [which] ... are in Common to a whole Nation. Every one Hunts and Fishes. ... Their labour in tending Corn, Pompions, Melons, &c. is not so great, that they need quarrel for room" (see figure I).

    By 1705, however, the Indians were already a vanishing people in Virginia. Only their sorry remnants could be listed in Beverley's book. The future of the land clearly lay with the invaders, whose occupation of the New World garden Beverley narrated dispassionately. He presented the triumph of his countrymen neither as an atrocity story nor as an epic of conquest. The author condemned not the violence of the intrusion but the failure of the settlers to take advantage of the "Liberality of Nature" to create an apotheosis of the English landscape in their new home. Because of the arrival of the Europeans, "the Indians," Beverley sadly recorded, "have lost their Felicity, as well as their Innocence." The English had "taken away great part of their Country." They had "introduc'd Drunkenness and Luxury amongst them," which had "multiply'd their Wants, and put them upon desiring a thousand things, they never dreamt of before." Nevertheless, what was "unpardonable" in Robert Beverley's eyes was the "Laziness" of the invaders, which kept them from engaging in handicrafts and the industrious cultivation of wholesome crops. Closely associated with this moral failure was the way "Ambition" had led many a settler to dream of being "Lord of a vast, tho' unimprov'd Territory"--an aspiration fostered by "the Advantage of the many Rivers, which afforded a commodious Road for Shipping at every Man's Door." The consequence, Beverley noted, was to make "the Country fall into such an unhappy Settlement ... that to this Day they have not any one Place of Cohabitation among them, that may reasonably bear the Name of a Town." The total neglect of crafts was so general that in a land "over-run with Wood," where flax, wool, furs, and leather could be plentifully produced, "they have all their Wooden Ware from England ," as well as their clothing, hats, and shoes. For Robert Beverley "Virginia" had yet to acquire definitive shape. A garden, in which every sense is charmed, was an appropriate habitation for "natural" men, but for the English, "improvements" were requisite.

    In 1724 the Reverend Mr. Hugh Jones, with the customary modest disclaimers of that age, offered another literary Virginia landscape, entitled simply The Present State of Virginia . Jones was not native born but had come out from England to minister in a parish. His book is pervaded by the recognition that a distinctive way of life, with its own "temper ... and manners," had come into being. He understood that it was necessary for English law, the English church, and immigrants from England, such as himself, to adapt to the different circumstances.

    What Mr. Jones found and described was a colony . Having gotten some theological and geographical preliminaries out of the way, he briskly sketched the mechanics of the maritime tobacco trade that governed the disposition of elements in the landscape and largely dominated the outlook of the gentry elite. "The Country of Virginia" is revealed to be "about a thousand leagues [3,000 miles]" clear sailing from England, and to be oriented to the anchorages all along the tide-washed shores of the four principal rivers, "for the conveniency of which most houses are built near some landing-place; so that any thing may be delivered to a gentleman there from London, Bristol, etc. with less trouble and cost, than to one living five miles in the country in England." Jones deftly indicated the personal bonds of association that were part of the consignment system with the added note that the recipient would "pay no freight for goods from London," but that he was "in gratitude engaged to freight tobacco upon the [same] ship" for its return voyage. The pattern of settlement that followed from this way of securing a living was portrayed without the condemnation that had recurred in Beverley's descriptions:

Thus neither the interest nor inclinations of the Virginians induce them to cohabit in towns; so that they are not forward in ... the making of particular places, every plantation affording the owner the provision of a little market; wherefore they most commonly build upon some convenient ... neck of land in their own plantation, though towns are laid out and established [by law] in each county.... The whole country is a perfect forest, except where the woods are cleared for plantations.

Jones also registered approval for the ordered hierarchy that now showed clearly in the arrangement of settlements: "The gentlemen's seats are of late built for the most part of good brick ... commodious, and capacious; ... the common planters live in pretty timber houses ...; with timber also are built houses for the overseers.... The Negros live in small cottages called quarters, in about six in a gang, under the direction of an overseer."

    Hugh Jones had found a community that had a patterned existence of its own, although as a colony it was dependent for its prosperity on the export of a staple to the parent society and on returns received in manufactured articles. Material reliance entailed also cultural and psychological dependence. With goods came tastes, standards, and a whole set of assumptions about the proper ways of ordering life.

    The main features of the thriving colonialism that Jones discovered may be reduced to two: easy access from the sea along natural waterways that ran deep into the country itself; and the disposition of the leading inhabitants to exploit the situation by settling strategically "near some landing place," Jones saw clearly how maritime trade stimulated and sustained the clearing of fields for cultivation of the staple and the construction of networks of roads, bridges, and ferries for the tobacco to be hauled to the warehouses and stores near the rivers, where it could be exchanged for English goods. (The great gentlemen's tobacco would usually be sent directly to England, and the returns consigned the same way.) Jones was further impressed by signs of civility in the courthouses set up in each county, where affairs were regulated and disputes settled according to forms only slightly modified from English law. The dignity and decorum evident in the seat of government at Williamsburg was a further reassurance of the colony's progress. The replication in the Virginia General Assembly of the outlines of the English Parliament suggested a due deference to the authority of Westminster. Finally, the delimitation of parishes, the building of handsome brick churches, and the maintenance of a beneficed clergy, all at public expense, set a seal of loyalty on this "happy retreat of true Britons and true churchmen." Although he found the virtual absence of towns and the endless woods unfamiliar, Jones recognized in churches and courthouses, mansions and provincial government buildings, clear evidences of the civilized "improvements" that Beverley a short time before had found lacking.

Copyright © 1999 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

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