Republicanism in colonial Virginia

THE Virginians soon felt the deep significance of the injunction: "Put not your trust in princes." When Matthews died (1660), whom Cromwell had appointed Governor of Virginia, the people elected Berkeley. He refused to serve, excepting under royal appointment; and he went to England to congratulate Charles on his accession to the throne, when he was graciously received by the sovereign. The king spoke very kindly of the Virginians, because of their loyalty, and praised them as the "best of his distant children." These manifestations of love were the velvet coverings of the iron hand which soon afterwards signed those decrees of a pliant Parliament which deeply oppressed the Virginians by restrictions upon their commerce, their political franchises and their religious liberty.

Charles gave Berkeley a new commission, and he returned to Virginia prepared to execute his master's will in full. At an election of members for a new House of Burgesses, the candidates of the cavaliers and land-owners were chosen, and Berkeley had as pliant an assembly of royalists as his king possessed in the Parliament. Navigation laws, oppressive to the commerce of the colony, were passed, and Berkeley executed them. Marriage laws, the freedom of elections and almost every other franchise possessed by the people were modified, abridged or abolished. The Church of England was made supreme, and persecution with its fiery broom attempted to sweep Baptists, Friends and other Puritans out of Virginia. When Owen, the bold Quaker preacher, stood with his head covered with his hat before the court at whose bar he had been summoned, and said meekly but firmly, "Tender consciences obey the laws of God however they suffer," the angry reply of the court, in the spirit of the age, was: "There is no toleration for wicked consciences." Berkeley enforced the laws; and Friends and Puritans sought peace and a refuge in the wilds of upper North Carolina, where they formed settlements.

Less tolerant and just than when he was younger and weaker, Berkeley, in the later years of his administration, drifted, in thought and action, with the cavaliers, who hated everything that marked the character of the Puritans. They despised the popular education and consequent elevation of the "common people" of New England; and Berkeley wrote, some years after the restoration of monarchy, "I thank God there are no free schools nor printing in Virginia, and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years. For learning has brought heresy and disobedience and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government; God keep us from both!"

Stimulated by oppression, republicanism grew vigorously in Virginia. The men of toil, and righteous ones of the aristocracy, soon formed a powerful republican party. Their strength was increased by the rank injustice of the king, who seems not to have had a clear perception of right and wrong. He gave to profligate favorites large tracts of land in Virginia, some of them under cultivation; and in 1673, he actually gave to Lord Culpepper, a cunning and covetous member of the Commission for Trade and Plantations, and the Earl of Arlington, a heartless spendthrift, "all the dominion of land and water, called Virginia," for the term of thirty-one years.

This act excited the alarm of the more thoughtful men of the aristocratic assembly, and a committee was appointed to carry a remonstrance to the king. Its mission was unfruitful. The republicans were inflamed with just indignation, and rebellious murmurs were heard everywhere. The toiling people were made to regard the aristocracy as their natural enemies. The latter had the power to promote the welfare of the people at large, but omitted to do so. Everything of a public character was neglected. There were no roads or bridges in Virginia. In boats and along bridle-paths the people were compelled to travel, and to ford or swim the streams. There were no schools. Every planter was compelled to be his own mechanic. Most of the houses of the toilers were mean log-huts with unglazed windows. Villages nowhere existed, for the inhabitants were scattered over a wide domain. Even the capital of the colony consisted only of a church, state-house and eighteen dwellings at the time we are considering, and the Assembly had, until lately, met in the hall of an alehouse.

Meanwhile, the large land-owners were living in luxury in fine mansions in sight of some beautiful rivers. They were surrounded by slaves or indentured servants, and were engaged in a sort of patriarchal life. At the same time Governor Berkeley was clamoring for an increase of salary, while in his stables and his fields he had seventy horses; and large flocks of sheep whitened the broad acres of the Green Spring plantation. The "common people" saw clearly that the tendency of circumstances in Virginia was toward a rich landed aristocracy and an impoverished peasantry, and they longed for a pretext and an opportunity to assert their natural rights.

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