Virginia From English and American Points of View

THERE are two great peoples who have a share in the history of Virginia prior to the establishment of the United States : they are the United States and England. It has been customary and entirely logical to begin the writing and the reading of United States history with the discovery by Columbus, since the first footfall of the European upon these shores still has its faint echoes in our national life ; but the unbroken succession of events which finds a moving terminus in our present is also a continuation of history, and it only needs for one to have the historic consciousness of England to read in our colonial period the development of English thought and institutions.

This is, of course, patent enough as soon as one has said it ; yet in the detailed extension of the historic consciousness it would be exceedingly difficult for an Englishman to write of American colonial life in the same manner as would an American. There are now, and there will always remain, two modes of treating early Virginia, the English, and the American, and the distinction between the two modes will be likely to grow more marked rather than fainter. When Dr. Palfrey, in his History of New England, gave much space to the contemporary history of England, and pointed out the interaction of the two countries, the English critics were very scornful, and regarded the claims which he presented of a New England influence upon the Commonwealth as a piece of provincial vanity. Mr. Wingate Thornton, in his valuable tract, The Historical Relation of New England to the English Commonwealth, gave even more specific illustrations of this relation, and it is to be noted that, with the increasing importance of the United States in current history, there is a growing disposition on the part of European, especially of English, students to revise their judgments of our early history, and to find in the foundations of our political life a subject for respectful consideration.

This increased interest is due also to the great attention which is given now to institutional and constitutional history. The English school of Maine, Stubbs, and Freeman may be expected to find a most attractive field in American history, since here there have been developed, under simpler conditions, ideas which rise slowly out of the more complex society of England. When one considers how important were the two great periods of Elizabeth and Cromwell in the evolution of English law and liberty, and remembers that the foundations of America were laid and built upon then, he can readily see how the English student will constantly be attracted to the study of American institutions.

May it not be said with equal truth that, while our students, influenced not only by the prevailing modes of thought in historical investigation, but by the political instinct which is born of American life, will work at the same problems, they may be expected to take more note of the personal and popular influences which have been at work ? At any rate, we have an interesting contrast presented in two recent works on Virginia, one by an Englishman, and one by an American. Mr. Doyle’s book 1 is a portion only of a projected work, and it does not include the entire history of Virginia. He has set himself the task, as he says, “ to describe and explain the process by which a few scattered colonies along the Atlantic seaboard grew into that vast confederate republic, the United States of America.” “ I have preferred,” he says, " to regard the history of the United States as the transplantation of English ideas and institutions to a distant soil, and the adaptation of them to new wants and altered modes of life.” The present volume carries the account of Virginia down to the close of the seventeenth century, and the headings of his chapters, The Virginia Company, Virginia under Royal Government, Virginia under the Commonwealth, Virginia after the Restoration, indicate clearly enough his view of the colony from across the water.

The other book is by an American, or, as we suspect he would prefer to be called, a Virginian. Mr. Trescot, in a suggestive oration delivered before the South Carolina Historical Society in 1859, said : “ If an American be asked abroad, Of what country are you ? his first impulse is to answer, I am a New Yorker, a Virginian, a Massachusetts man, or a Carolinian, as the fact may be. Whatever his pride in his nationality, his home instincts and affections are bounded by state lines.” There are a great many more who would demur to this statement now than there were in 1859, but now, as then, those who would accept it would be found chiefly at the South. It is not that the States’ rights doctrine is more distinctly an exponent of Southern political thought, but the whole texture of social life at the South has hitherto tended to emphasize state lines as distinct from national lines, and it would be difficult to find a more interesting illustration of it than appears unconsciously in Mr. Cooke’s monograph on Virginia.2

Mr. Cooke is well known as an author of novels the scenes of which are laid in Virginia, and his literary reputation has been built upon the fidelity which he has shown to Virginian life. lie comes before the public, therefore, with a special claim to attention in this new book, and it is easy to see that he has written out of a love as well as a knowledge of his subject. Everywhere there are touches impossible to any one not native to the soil, and the human interest which pervades the work gives it a character entirely distinct from the institutional side, which is developed in Mr. Doyle’s work. Mr. Doyle writes as a man who finds in Virginia an example of the working of certain laws of government and trade: Mr. Cooke as one who is upon an ancestral estate, and profoundly interested in the lives of his ancestors.

As a slight illustration of the advantage which falls to a man who is writing of his own home, one may take the paragraph which Mr. Cooke gives to the first settlement in Virginia. He has been describing the approach of the expedition to the shores, and of the cautious advance of the ships. “ Before them,” he continues, “ was the great expanse of Chesapeake Bay, the ‘ Mother of Waters ’ as the Indian name signified, and in the distance the broad mouth of a great river, the Powhatan. As the ships approached the western shore of the bay the storm had spent its force, and they called the place Point Comfort. A little further, — at the present Hampton, — they landed and were hospitably received by a tribe of Indians. The ships then sailed on up the river, which was new-named James River, and parties landed here and there, looking for a good site for the colony. A very bad one was finally selected, — a low peninsula half buried in the tide at high water. Here the adventurers landed on May 13, 1607, and gave the place the name of Jamestown, in honor of the king. Nothing remains of this famous settlement but the ruins of a church tower covered with ivy, and some old tombstones. The tower is crumbling year by year, and the roots of trees have cracked the slabs, making great rifts across the names of the old Armigers and Honourables. The place is desolate, with its washing waves and flitting sea-fowl, but possesses a singular attraction. It is one of the few localities which recall the first years of American history ; but it will not recall them much longer. Every distinctive feature of the spot is slowly disappearing. The river encroaches year by year, and the ground occupied by the original huts is already submerged.”

It is by this familiar acquaintance with localities, a familiarity which reading cannot give, that a historian is able to give warmth to his narrative, and bring the scenes near to the eye. Mr. Cooke has availed himself of this knowledge of the country in the most natural manner; and since Virginia, especially in its formative period, was a country of neighborhoods, a writer who recognizes the fact is able to reproduce in his pages some of the most interesting features of the life which he is recording. From time to time Mr. Cooke takes surveys of the State which are rather picturesque than philosophical in their character, and if he resorts to some of the phrases of the romancer, there is an ingenuous air about them which well befits a state so remote in its life from modern organization.

The vitality, however, in his work lies in the application of imagination to historical writing. The process of generations in Virginia, which issued in the splendid figures of Washington and his associates, may be disclosed in the successive careers of the persons who came to the front, and Mr. Cooke has cared for these persons as persons, and not as types. It is this intimate acquaintance with the men and women of Virginia which enables him to produce a chronicle, just as his familiarity with the ground which they trod enables him to call up the circumstance of life. His treatment of Bacon’s rebellion is a case in point. He has availed himself of the same material which was open to Mr. Doyle, but he was more interested in the figure of Bacon as the hero of the rebellion, and his interest leads him into a more vivid portraiture of the man.

At the same time he is able, by this personal appropriation of the characters of his history, to reach some admirable and just generalizations. All that he says, for example, of Virginia in its attitude toward the Stuarts and the Commonwealth is excellent. He is not bound by the formal legislative record ; he understands the men who enacted the legislation, and reaches thus a higher and clearer truth. “ The Virginians,” he says, “ were simply English people living in America, who were resolved to have their rights. They were Cavaliers, if the word meant Royalists, and adherents of the Church of England. They would defend king and church — the one from his enemies, and the other from dissent and popery ; but they meant to defend themselves too, — to take up arms against either king or Commonwealth, if that was necessary to protect their rights. It is essential to keep this fact in view, if the reader wishes to understand the history of the people at this period and in all periods. Jealousy of right went before all. The dusty records, often so obscure and complicated with small events, clearly demonstrate that the Virginians were ready to make war on the monarchy and Parliament alike if they were oppressed.”

In making the comparison between Mr. Cooke’s book and Mr. Doyle’s we have wished to intimate the different lights in which they are written rather than to give special criticism. We find Mr. Doyle’s book a painstaking, conscientious work, which moves along cautiously, as if the writer were working out his problem page by page, but the conclusions reached are those of a fairminded man. Its accuracy is not beyond question, as where, for example, he confounds Bacon’s wife and Lawrence’s, but its examination of the colonial relation which Virginia sustained to England is always fresh, and often acute.

Both books are welcome, because they invite to a study of the early conditions of American life. Few studies deserve heartier encouragement, for none are so likely to aid in practical politics ; and politics, after all, is the common education of the people. The habit of historical study is the habit of inquiry into causes, and the worst thing that can happen to a free people is to be governed in its policy simply by considerations of immediate expediency,— and history is always offering an answer to the questions of the day, — an answer which rests upon cause and effect.

  1. English Colonies in America : Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas. By J. A. DOYLE. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1882.
  2. Virginia : A History of the People. By JOHN ESTEN COOKE [American Commonwealths]. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1883.