Restrictions on Colonial Commerce

During Cromwell's "reign" liberty prospers in Virginia despite the Navigation Act

Americanist History, George Bancroft’s: History of the United States

Chapter 9: RESTRICTIONS ON COLONIAL COMMERCE


ASCENDING the throne on the twenty-seventh of March, 1625, in his twenty-fifth year, Charles I inherited the principles and was governed by the favorite of his father. The rejoicings in consequence of his recent nuptials with a Bourbon princess, and preparations for a parliament, left him little leisure for American affairs. In his eager pursuit of a revenue for the crown, his first Virginia measure was a proclamation, issued within a fortnight of his accession; it confirmed to Virginia and the Somer isles the exclusive Supply of the British market with tobacco. After a few days a new proclamation appeared, in which he announced his fixed resolution of becoming, through his agents; the sole factor of the planters. When, early in 1626, Wyatt retired, the reappointment of Sir George Yeardley was in itself a guarantee that, as “the former interests of Virginia were to be kept inviolate,” so the representative government would be maintained; for by Yeardley it had been introduced. In his commission, in which William Clayborne, described as “a person of quality and trust,” is named as secretary, the monarch expressed his desire to encourage and perfect the plantation; “the same means that were formerly thought fit for the maintenance of the colony” were continued; and the power of the governor and council was limited, as in the commission of Wyatt, by a reference to the usages of the last five years. The words were interpreted as favoring the wishes of the colonists; and King Charles, intent only on a revenue, confirmed the existence of a popular assembly. Virginia rose rapidly in public esteem; in 1627 a thousand emigrants arrived; and there was an increasing demand for the products of its soil.

In November of that year the career of Yeardley was closed by death. Posterity retains a grateful recollection of the man who first convened a representative assembly in the western hemisphere; the colonists, in a letter to the privy council, pronounced a eulogy on his virtues. The day after his burial, and in the absence of John Harvey who was named in Yeardley’s commission as his eventual successor, Francis West was elected governor; for the council was authorized to elect the governor, “from time to time, as often as the case should require.”

In the preceding August the king, by a letter of instructions to the governor and council, offered to contract for the whole crop of tobacco, desiring, at the same time, that an assembly might be convened to consider his proposal. In March, 1628, the assembly, in its reply, which was signed by the governor, by five members of the council, and by thirty-one burgesses, acquiesced in the royal monopoly, but protested against its being farmed out to individuals. The Virginians, happier than the people of England, enjoyed a faithful representative government; and, through resident planters who composed the council, they repeatedly made choice of their own governor. When West designed to embark for Europe, his place was supplied by the election of John Pott, the best surgeon and physician in the colony.

No sooner had the news of the death of Yeardley reached England than the king issued a commission to Harvey as governor. The instrument, while it renewed the limitations which had previously been set to the executive authority, permitted the governor to supply all vacancies occurring in the council in Virginia, subject to approval.

In 1629, after the appointment of Harvey and before his return to America, Lord Baltimore visited Virginia. Its government pursued him as a Romanist, and would not suffer him to plant within its jurisdiction. On the other hand, the people of New Plymouth were invited to abandon their cold and sterile abode for the milder regions on Delaware bay—a plain indication that Puritans were not as yet molested.

Late in the year Harvey arrived in Virginia. He met his first assembly of burgesses in 1630, a week before Easter. As his first appearance in America had been with no friendly designs, so now he was the support of those who desired large grants of land and separate jurisdictions; and he preferred the interests of his partisans and patrons, especially Lord Baltimore, to the welfare of the colony. Moreover, he held a warrant to receive for himself all fines arising from any sentence of its courts of justice. In his proceedings he was rough and passionate, pronouncing hasty judgments and quarrelling with the council; yet, while arbitrary power was rapidly advancing in England, the Virginians uninterruptedly enjoyed independent legislation; through the agency of their representatives, they levied and appropriated taxes, secured the free industry of their citizens, guarded the forts with their own soldiers at their own charge, and gave publicity to their statutes. When the defects and inconveniences of infant legislation were remedied by a revised code, which was published with the approbation of the governor and council, the privileges which the assembly had ever claimed were confirmed. Indeed, they had not been questioned. The governor had advised that he should have, for the time being, a negative voice on all acts of legislation; and the government, in its reply, had suggested that the laws made in Virginia should stand only as propositions until the king should ratify them under his great seal; but the limitation was not introduced into his commission. De Vries, who visited Virginia in 1632-33, found reason to praise the advanced condition of the settlement, the abundance of its products, and the liberality of its government.

The community was nevertheless disturbed because fines, now the perquisites of the governor, were rashly imposed, and relentlessly exacted. In 1635, the discontent of Virginia, at the dismemberment of its territory by the patent of Lord Baltimore, was at its height. While Clayborne, who had been superseded as secretary, resisted the jurisdiction of Maryland over Kent island and over trade in the Chesapeake, Harvey courted the favor of Baltimore. The colonists were fired with indignation that their governor, who was hateful to them for his self-will and violence, should betray their territorial interests.

In the latter part of April a multitude of people, among whom was the sheriff of York, assembled in that place at the house of William Barrene, who was the chief speaker at the meeting. Francis Pott read a petition written by his brother, the governor by election whom Harvey had superseded, and subscribed by many from other parts of the country, complaining of a tax imposed by Harvey; of the want of justice in his administration; and of his unadvised and dangerous dealings with the Indians. For this act the governor ordered the sheriff, Francis Pott, and another, to be apprehended, and called the council to assist in suppressing these mutinous gatherings. But, on the twenty-eighth, Matthews, an old planter, and other members of the council, came to his house, armed, and attended by fifty musketeers. John Utie, a councillor, struck him on the shoulder, and said: “I arrest you for treason;” which consisted, as they said, in going about to betray their forts into the hands of their enemies of Maryland. The musketeers were ordered to draw back until there should be use for them, and guards were stationed in all the approaches to the born. The three prisoners were set at liberty. The petition against the governor was produced, and made the pretext for calling for an assembly, by which, as a proclamation announced, complaints against the governor would be heard. Matthews, a man of quick temper, whom Harvey had opposed at the board with exceeding animosity, informed him that the fury against him could not be appeased. He attempted to make terms with the council; but they would yield to none of his conditions, and chose in his place John West, who immediately assumed the government. Harvey finally consented to go to England, and there make answer to their complaints. He professed to fear “that the mutineers intended no less than the subversion of Maryland.”

On the eleventh of December the cause of Sir John Harvey was investigated by the privy council, the king himself presiding. “To send hither the governor,” said Charles, “is an assumption of the regal power; it is necessary to send him back, though to stay but a day; if he can clear himself, he shall remain longer than he otherwise would have done.” The commissioners appointed by the council of Virginia to present their complaints had not arrived. In their absence, Harvey pleaded that there was no particular charge against him. It appeared that he had assumed power to place and displace members of the council, and that under the provocation of ill language he had struck one of them and sequestered another. But he denied that he had unduly favored trade with the Dutch, or that he had countenanced the popish religion in Maryland; and he even denied that mass was publicly said in that province.

A few days later, in accordance with the request of Lord Baltimore, Harvey received a new commission, which limited his powers as before, but reserved the appointments to vacancies in the council to the government in England. In consequence of the unseaworthiness of the king’s ship in which he was to have sailed, he did not reach Virginia until January, 1637, after an absence of more than a year and a half. Without delay, he met the council at the church of Elizabeth City, published the king’s proclamation, pardoning, with a few exceptions, all persons who had given aid in the late practices against him; and summoned an assembly for the following February. During the period of his office the accustomed legislative rights of the colony were not impaired.

In November, 1639, he was superseded by Sir Francis Wyatt, who, in the following January, convened a general assembly. In Virginia, debts had been contracted to be paid in tobacco; and as the article rose in value, in consequence of laws restricting its culture, the legislature did not scruple to enact that “no man need pay more than two thirds of his debt during the stint;” and that all creditors should take “forty pounds for a hundred.” Beyond this, the second administration of Wyatt passed silently away.

After two years, Sir William Berkeley was constituted governor. The members of his council were to take part with him in supplying vacancies in that body. His instructions enjoined him to be careful that God should be served after the form established in the church of England, and not to suffer any innovation in matters of religion. Each congregation was to provide for its own minister. The oaths of supremacy and allegiance were to be tendered to residents, and recusants “to be sent home.” Justice was to be administered according to the laws of England. Besides the quarter courts, inferior courts were to be established for minor suits and offences; and probate of wills was provided for. All men above sixteen years were to bear arms. Trade with the savages without special license was forbidden. To every person who had emigrated since midsummer, 1625, a patent for fifty acres of land was ordered. The general assembly was to meet annually, the governor having a negative voice on its acts. With the consent of the assembly, the residence of the government might be removed to a more healthful place, which should take the old name of Jamestown. One of the instructions imposed by the prerogative most severe and unwarrantable restrictions on the liberty of trade, of which the nature will presently be explained.

It was in February, 1642, that Sir William Berkeley assumed the government. He summoned immediately the colonial legislature. The memory of factions was lost in a general amnesty of ancient griefs. The lapse of years had so far effaced the divisions which grew out of the dissolution of the company that, when George Sandys presented to the commons of England a petition praying for the restoration of the ancient patents, the colonial assembly disavowed the design, and, after a full debate, opposed it by a protest. They asserted the necessity of the freedom of trade, because it “is the blood and life of a commonwealth.” And they defended their preference of self-government through a colonial legislature, by a conclusive argument: “There is more likelyhood that such as are acquainted with the clime and its accidents may upon better grounds prescribe our advantages, than such as shall sit at the helm in England.” The king, who regarded “all corporations as refractory to” monarchy itself, declared, in reply, his purpose not to change a form of government in which they “received so much content and satisfaction.”

The Virginians, aided by Sir William Berkeley, could now deliberately perfect their civil condition. Condemnations to service had been a usual punishment; these were abolished. In the courts of justice, a near approach was made to the laws and customs of England. Religion was provided for, the law about land titles adjusted, an amicable treaty with Maryland matured, and peace with the Indians confirmed. Taxes were assessed, not in proportion to numbers, but to men’s abilities and estates. The spirit of liberty, which moved in the English parliament, belonged equally to the colony; and the rights of property, the freedom of industry, the exercise of civil franchises, seemed to be secured to themselves and their posterity. “A future immunity from taxes and impositions,” except such as should be freely voted for their own wants, “was expected as the fruits of the endeavors of their legislature.” The restraints with which their navigation was threatened were not enforced, and Virginia enjoyed nearly all the liberties which a monarch could concede, and retain his supremacy.

The triumph of the popular party in England did not alter the condition or the affections of the Virginians. The commissioners appointed by parliament in November, 1643, with full authority over the plantations, among whom were Haselrig, Henry Vane, Pym, and Cromwell, promised, indeed, freedom from English taxation; but this immunity was already enjoyed. They gave the colony liberty to choose its own governor; but it had no dislike to Berkeley; and, though there was a party for the parliament, yet the king’s authority, which Charles had ever mildly exercised, was maintained.

The condition of contending factions in England had brought the opportunity of legislation independent of European control; and the act of the assembly, restraining religious liberty, proves the attachment of the representatives of Virginia to the Episcopal church and to royalty. “Here,” the tolerant Whitaker had written, “neither surplice nor subscription is spoken of;” and many Puritan families, perhaps some even of the Puritan clergy, had planted themselves within the jurisdiction of Virginia. The honor of Laud had been vindicated by a judicial sentence, and south of the Potomac the decrees of the court of high commission were allowed to be valid; but there is no trace of persecutions in the earliest history of the colony. The laws were harsh: the administration seems to have been mild. A disposition to non-conformity was soon to show itself even in the council. An invitation, which had been sent to Boston for Puritan ministers, implies a belief that they would have been admitted. But the democratic revolution in England had given an immediate political importance to religious sects: to tolerate Puritanism was to nurse a republican party. It was, therefore, in March, 1643, specially ordered that no minister should preach or teach, publicly or privately, except in conformity to the constitutions of the church of England, and non-conformists were banished. It was in vain that the ministers, invited from Boston by the Puritan settlements in Virginia, carried letters from Winthrop, written to Berkeley and his council by order of the general court of Massachusetts. “The hearts of the people were much inflamed with desire after the ordinances;” but the missionaries were silenced by the government, and ordered to leave the country. Sir William Berkeley was “a courtier, and very malignant toward the way of the churches” in New England.

With the Indians no terms of peace were entertained. Hearing of the dissensions in England, they resolved on one more attempt at a general massacre. On the eighteenth of April, 1644, they began a concerted onset upon the frontier settlements. But hardly had they steeped their hands in blood before they were dismayed by the sense of their own weakness, and, after having killed three hundred persons, they fled to distant woods.

Effective measures were promptly taken by the English, and so little was apprehended, when they were on their guard, that, two months after the massacre, Berkeley embarked for England, leaving Richard Kemp as his substitute. A border warfare continued, yet ten men were sufficient to protect a place of danger.

In 1646, the aged Opechancanough was taken captive, and died of wounds. In October, of that year, Necotowance, his successor, about fifteen months after Berkeley’s return from England, made peace with Virginia, on the conditions of submission and a cession of lands. The original possessors of the soil began to vanish from the neighborhood of English settlements, leaving no enduring memorials but the names of rivers and mountains.

The colonists acquired the management of all their concerns; war was levied, and peace concluded, and territory annexed, in conformity to the acts of their own representatives. Possessed of security and quiet, abundance of land, a free market for their staple, and having England for their guardian against foreign oppression, rather than their ruler, the colonists enjoyed all the prosperity which a virgin soil, equal laws, and general uniformity of condition and industry could bestow. Their cottages were filled with children, the ports with ships and emigrants. At Christmas, 1645 there were trading in Virginia ten ships from London, two from Bristol, twelve Hollanders, and seven from New England. The number of the colonists was already twenty thousand, and they who had sustained no griefs were not tempted to engage in the feuds which rent the mother country. After the execution of Charles, in 1649, though there were not wanting some who favored republicanism, the government recognised his son without dispute. The disasters of the royalists in England strengthened their party in the New World. Men of consideration “among the nobility, gentry, and clergy,” struck “with horror and despair” at the beheading of Charles I, and desiring no reconciliation with unrelenting “rebels,” made their way to the shores of the Chesapeake, where every house was for them a “hostelry,” and every planter a friend. “Virginia was whole for monarchy, and the last country, belonging to England, that submitted to obedience of the commonwealth.”

In June, 1650, the royal exile, from his retreat at Breda, transmitted to Berkeley a new commission, and still controlled the distribution of offices. But the parliament did not long permit its authority to be denied. By a memorable ordinance of October third, it empowered the council of state to reduce the rebellious colonies to obedience, and, at the same time, prohibited foreign ships from trading at any of the ports “in Barbadoes, Antigua, Bermudas, and Virginia.” Maryland, which had taken care to acknowledge the new order of things, was not expressly included in the ordinance.

While preparations were making for the reduction of the loyal colonies, the commercial policy of England underwent a revision, to which the interests of English merchants and ship-builders imparted consistency and durability.

No sooner had Spain and Portugal found their way round the Cape of Good Hope and to America than they claimed a monopoly of the traffic of the wider world, and the Roman religion, dividing it between them, forbade the intrusion of competitors by the pains of excommunication.

In Europe, the freedom of the seas was vindicated against Spain and Portugal by a state hardly yet recognised as independent, and driven by the stern necessity of its dense population to seek resources upon the water. Grotius, its gifted son, who first gave expression to the idea that “free ships make free goods,” defended the liberty of commerce, and appealed to the judgment of all free governments and nations against the maritime restrictions, which humanity denounced as contrary to the principles of social intercourse, which justice derided as infringing the clearest natural right which enterprise rejected as a monstrous usurpation of the ocean and the winds. The relinquishment of navigation in the East Indies was required by Spain as the price at which its independence should be acknowledged, and the rebel republic preferred to defend its separate existence by arms rather than purchase security by circumscribing the courses of its ships. While the inglorious James of England was negotiating about points of theology, while the more unhappy Charles was struggling against the liberties of his subjects, the Dutch, a little confederacy, which had been struck from the side of Spain, a new people, scarcely known as a nation, had, by their superior skill, begun to engross the carrying trade of the world. Their ships were found in the harbors of Virginia, in the West Indian archipelago, in the south of Africa, among the tropical islands of the Indian Ocean, and even in the harbors of China and Japan. Their trading-houses were planted on the Hudson and the coast of Guinea, in Java and Brazil. One or two rocky islets in the West Indies, in part neglected by the Spaniards as unworthy of culture, furnished these daring merchants a convenient shelter for a large contraband traffic with the terra firma. The freedom and the enterprise of Holland acquired maritime power, and skill and wealth, such as the monopoly of Spain could never command.

The causes of the commercial greatness of Holland were forgotten in envy at its success. It ceased to appear as the gallant champion of the freedom of the seas against Spain, and became envied as the successful rival. The English government resolved to protect the English merchant. Cromwell desired to confirm the maritime power of his country; and Saint-John, a Puritan and a republican in theory, though never averse to a limited monarchy, devised the first act of navigation, which, in 1651, the politic Whitelocke introduced and carried through parliament. Henceforward, the commerce between England and her colonies, between England and the rest of the world, was to be conducted in ships solely owned, and principally manned, by Englishmen. Foreigners might bring to England nothing but the products of their respective countries, or those of which their countries were the established staples. The act was levelled against Dutch commerce, and was but a protection of British shipping; it contained no clause relating to a colonial monopoly, or specially injurious to an American colony. Of itself it inflicted no wound on Virginia or New England. In vain did the Dutch expostulate against the act as a breach of commercial amity; the parliament studied the interests of England, and would not repeal laws to please a neighbor.

A naval war followed, which Cromwell desired, and Holland endeavored to avoid. Each people kindled with national enthusiasm; and the annals of recorded time had never known so many great naval actions in such quick succession. This was the war in which Blake and Ayscue and De Ruyter gained their glory; and Tromp fixed a broom to his mast, as if to sweep the English flag from the seas.

Cromwell aspired to make England the commercial emporium of the world. His plans extended to the acquisition of harbors in the Spanish Netherlands; France was obliged to pledge her aid to conquer, and her consent to yield, Dunkirk, Mardyke, and Gravelines; and Dunkirk, in the summer of 1658, was given up to his ambassador by the French king in person. He desired harbors in the North Sea and the Baltic, and an alliance with Protestant Sweden was to secure him Bremen and Elsinore and Dantzic. In the West Indies, he aimed at obtaining Cuba; his commanders captured Jamaica; and the attempt at the reduction of Hispaniola, then the chief possession of Spain among the islands, failed only through the incompetency or want of concert of his agents.

The protection of English shipping, thus established as a part of the British commercial policy, was the successful execution of a scheme which many centuries before had been attempted. In 1641, a new and most oppressive restriction on colonial commerce was inserted in the instructions of Sir William Berkeley. No vessel laden with colonial commodities might sail from the harbors of Virginia for any ports but those of England, that the staple of those commodities might be made in the mother country, and the king be secure of the customs which were his due. All trade with foreign vessels, except in case of necessity, was forbidden. At the moment this instruction was disregarded, but the system was sure to be revived, for it leagued together the English merchant and the English government in the oppression of those who for more than a century remained too feeble to offer effectual resistance.

The ordinance which was adopted in October, 1650, for reducing to obedience the colonies which adhered to the Stuarts, forbade all intercourse with, them, except to those who had a license from parliament or the council of state. It excluded foreigners rigorously, and, in connection with the navigation act of the following year it confirmed the monopoly of colonial commerce. This state of commercial law was modified by the manner in which the authority of the commonwealth was established. The force that was sent to reduce Barbadoes encountered, in 1652, a momentary resistance from the royalist government; but, on its surrender, the people found their liberties secured. One of their number, in a letter to Bradshaw, then president of the council of state, raised the question of coming times, saying: “The great difficulty is, how we shall have a representative with you in your government and our parliament. That two representatives be chosen by this island, to advise and consent to matters that concern this place, may be both just and necessary; for, if laws be imposed upon us without our personal or implied consent, we cannot be accounted better than slaves, which, as all Englishmen abhor to see, so I am confident you detest to have them. This is so clear that I shall not need to enforce it with argument.”

Of the commissioners whom the republican rulers of Great Britain elected to settle the authority of the English commonwealth in the Chesapeake, two of them, Richard Bennett and Clayborne, were taken from among the planters themselves; their instructions constituted them the pacificators and benefactors of their country. Only in case of resistance was war threatened; if Virginia would adhere to the commonwealth, she might be mistress of her own destiny. What opposition needed to be made to a power which seemed voluntarily to propose a virtual independence? No sooner had the Guinea frigate, in March, 1652, anchored in the waters of the Chesapeake, than “all thoughts of resistance were laid aside,” and the colonists yielded by a voluntary deed and a mutual compact. It was agreed, upon the surrender, that the “PEOPLE OF VIRGINIA” should have all the liberties of the free-born people of England, should intrust their business, as formerly, to their own grand assembly, should remain unquestioned for their past loyalty, and should have “as free trade as the people of England.” All this was confirmed by the Long Parliament; but the article which was to restore to Virginia its ancient bounds, and that which covenanted that no taxes, no customs, might be levied, except by their own representatives, no forts erected, no garrisons maintained, but by their own consent, were referred to a committee, and were never definitively acted upon.

Till the restoration, the colony of Virginia practically enjoyed liberties as large as the favored New England, and displayed equal fondness for popular sovereignty. The executive officers became elective; and so evident were the designs of all parties to promote an amicable settlement of the government, that Richard Bennett, himself a commissioner of the parliament, a merchant, and a Roundhead, was, on the recommendation of the other commissioners, unanimously chosen governor. The oath required of the burgesses made it their paramount duty to provide for “the general good and prosperity” of Virginia and its inhabitants. Under Berkeley’s administration, Bennett had been oppressed in Virginia; and now there was not the slightest effort at revenge.

The acts of 1652, which constituted the government, claimed for the assembly the privilege of defining the powers which were to belong to the governor and council, and the public good was declared to require “that the right of electing all officers of this colony should appertain to the burgesses,” as “the representatives of the people.” It had been usual for the governor and council to sit in the assembly; the expediency of the custom was questioned, and a temporary compromise ensued; they retained their former right, but were required to take the oath which was administered to the burgesses. The house of burgesses acted as a convention of the people, distributing power as the public welfare required.

Cromwell never made any appointments for Virginia. When, in 1655, Bennett retired, the assembly elected his successor, and Edward Diggs who had before been chosen of the council, and who “had given a signal testimony of his fidelity to Virginia and to the commonwealth of England,” received the suffrages. Upon the report of a committee concerning the unsettled government of Virginia, the council of State in London nominated to the protector for the office of governor the very same man, as one who would satisfy all parties and interests among the colonist; but no evidence has been found that Cromwell acted upon the advice. The commissioners in the colony were chiefly engaged in settling the affairs and adjusting the boundaries of Maryland.

The right of electing the governor continued to be exercised by the representatives of the people, and, in 1658, Samuel Matthews, son of an old planter, was chosen to the office. But, from too exalted ideas of his station, he, with the council, became involved in an unequal contest with the assembly by which he had been elected. The burgesses had enlarged their power by excluding the governor and council from their sessions, and, having thus reserved to themselves the first free discussion of every law, had voted an adjournment from April till November. The governor and council, by message, declared the dissolution of the assembly. The legality of the dissolution was denied, and, after an oath of secrecy, every burgess was enjoined not to betray his trust by submission. Matthews yielded, reserving a right of appeal to the protector. When the house unanimously voted the governor’s answer unsatisfactory, he revoked the order of dissolution, but still referred the decision of the dispute to Cromwell. The members of the assembly, apprehensive of a limitation of colonial liberty by the reference of a political question to England, determined on the assertion of their independent powers. A committee was appointed, of which John Carter, of Lancaster, was the chief. The governor and council had ordered the dissolution of the assembly; the burgesses now annulled the former election of governor and council. Having thus exercised not merely the right of election, but the more extraordinary right of removal, they re-elected Matthews, “who by us,” they added, “shall be invested with all the just rights and privileges belonging to the governor and captain-general of Virginia.” The governor acknowledged the validity of his ejection by taking the oath which had just been prescribed, and the council was organized anew. The spirit of popular liberty established all its claims.

On the death of Cromwell, the burgesses deliberated in private, and unanimously resolved that Richard Cromwell should be acknowledged. But it was a more interesting question whether the change of protector in England would endanger liberty in Virginia. The letter from the council had left the government to be administered according to former usage. The assembly declared itself satisfied with the language. But, that there might be no reason to question the existing usage, the governor was summoned to come to the house, where, in 1659, he appeared in person, acknowledged the supreme power of electing officers to be by the present laws resident in the assembly, and pledged himself to join in addressing the new protector for special confirmation of all existing privileges. The reason for this proceeding is assigned: “that what is their privilege now may be the privilege of their posterity.”

On the death of Matthews, the Virginians were without a chief magistrate, at the time when the resignation of Richard left England without a government. The burgesses, who were immediately convened, enacted “that the supreme power of the government of this country shall be resident in the assembly; and all writs shall issue in its name, until there shall arrive from England a commission, which the assembly itself shall adjudge to be lawful.” This having been done, Sir William Berkeley was elected governor, and, acknowledging the validity of the acts of the burgesses, whom, it was agreed, he could in no event dissolve, he accepted the office, and recognised without a scruple the authority to which he owed his elevation. “I am,” said he, “but a servant of the assembly.” The dominion, awaiting the settlement of affairs in England, hoped for the restoration of the Stuarts.

Virginia at that day possessed not one considerable town, and her statutes favored the independence of the planter rather than the security of trade. The representatives of colonial landholders voted “the total ejection of mercenary attorneys.” By a special act, emigrants were safe against suits designed to enforce engagements that had been made in Europe, and colonial obligations might be satisfied by a surrender of property. Tobacco was generally used instead of coin. Theft was hardly known, and the spirit of the criminal law was mild. The highest judicial tribunal was the assembly, which was convened once a year, or oftener. Already large landed proprietors were frequent, and plantations of two thousand acres were not unknown.

During the suspension of the royal government in England, Virginia regulated her commerce by independent laws. The ordinance of 1650 was rendered void by the act of capitulation; the navigation act of Cromwell was not designed for her oppression, and was not enforced within her borders. If an occasional confiscation took place, it was done by the authority of the colonial assembly. The war between England and the United Provinces did not wholly interrupt the intercourse of the Dutch with the English colonies, and though, after the treaty of peace, the trade was contraband, the English restrictions were disregarded. A remonstrance, addressed to Cromwell, in 1656, demanded an unlimited liberty, and we may suppose that it was not refused, for, some months before Cromwell’s death, the Virginians “invited the Dutch and all foreigners” to trade with them, on payment of no higher duty than that which was levied on such English vessels as were bound for a foreign port. Proposals of peace and commerce between New Netherland and Virginia were discussed without scruple by the respective colonial governments, and, in 1660, a statute of Virginia extended to every Christian nation, in amity with England, a promise of liberty to trade and equal justice. At the restoration, Virginia enjoyed freedom of commerce.

Virginia was the first state in the world, with separate districts or boroughs, diffused over an extensive surface, where representation was organized on the principle of a suffrage embracing all payers of a tax. In 1655, an attempt was made to limit the right to housekeepers; but the very next year it was decided to be “hard, and unagreeable to reason, that any person shall pay equal taxes, and yet have no votes in elections;” and the electoral franchise was restored to all freemen. Servants, when the time of their bondage was completed, became electors, and might be chosen burgesses.

Religious liberty advanced under the influence of independent domestic legislation. No churches had been erected except in the heart of the colony; and there were so few ministers that a bounty was offered for their importation. In the reign of Charles, conformity had been enforced by measures of disfranchisement and exile; in 1658, under the commonwealth, all things respecting parishes and parishioners were referred to their own ordering; and religious liberty would have been perfect but for an act of intolerance, by which Quakers were banished, and their return proscribed as a felony.

Thus Virginia established the supremacy of the popular branch, freedom of trade, the independence of religious societies, security from foreign taxation, and the elective franchise for every one who paid so much as a poll-tax. Proud of her own sons, she already preferred them for places of authority. Emigrants never again desired to live in England. Prosperity advanced with freedom; dreams of new staples and infinite wealth were indulged; and the population, at the epoch of the restoration, may have been about thirty thousand. Many of the recent comers had been loyalists, good officers in the war, men of education, of property, and of condition. The revolution had not subdued their characters, but the waters of the Atlantic divided them from the strifes of Europe; their industry was employed in making the best advantage of their plantations; and the interests and liberties of the land which they adopted were dearer to them than the monarchical principles which they had espoused in England. Virginia had long been the home of its inhabitants. “Among many other blessings,” said their statute-book, “God Almighty hath vouchsafed increase of children to this colony;” and the huts in the wilderness were as full as the birds’ nests of the woods.

The clear atmosphere, especially of autumn, and the milder winter, delighted the comers from England. Many objects of nature were new and wonderful: the loud and frequent thunder-storms; forests, free from underwood, and replenished with sweet barks and odors; trees in the season clothed in flowers of brilliant colors; birds with gay plumage and varied melodies. Every traveller admired the mocking-bird, which repeated and excelled the notes of its rivals; and the humming-bird, so bright in its hues and so delicate in its form, quick in motion, rebounding from the blossom into which it dips its bill, and as soon returning to renew its many addresses. The rattlesnake, with the terrors of its alarum and the deadliness of its venom; the opossum, celebrated for the care of its offspring; the noisy frog, booming from the shallows like the English bittern; the flying squirrel; the myriads of pigeons, darkening the air with the immensity of their flocks, and breaking with their weight the boughs of trees on which they alighted—became the subjects of the strangest tales. The concurrent relation of Indians seemed to justify the belief that, within ten days’ journey toward the setting of the sun, there was a country where gold might be washed from the sand.

Various were the employments by which the stillness of life was relieved. George Sandys, who for a time was in Virginia as treasurer for the colony, a poet, whose verse was tolerated by Dryden and praised by his friend Drayton and by Izaak Walton, as well as by Richard Baxter, employed hours of night in translating ten books of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” The lover of the garden found the fruits of Europe improved in flavor by the joint influence of climate and soil. The chase furnished a perpetual resource. It was not long before the horse was multiplied; and to improve that noble animal was early an object of pride, soon to be favored by legislation.

The hospitality of the Virginians was proverbial. Land was cheap, and competence followed industry. There was no need of a scramble. The morasses were alive with waterfowl; the creeks abounded with oysters, heaped together in inexhaustible beds; the rivers were crowded with fish; the forests were alive with game; the woods rustled with coveys of quails and wild turkeys; and hogs, swarming like vermin, ran at large in troops. It was “the best poor man’s country in the world.” “If a happy peace be settled in poor England,” it had been said, “then they in Virginia shall be as happy a people as any under Heaven.”


Formatting, font, and spelling modernizations of this version of George Bancroft’s “History of the United States,” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell.The original copyright for George Bancroft’s History of the United States is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired.