And cheerfully at sea
Success you still entice
To get the pearl and gold,
And ours to hold
Earth's only paradise! (Michael Drayton, Ode to Virginia 1606),
The Commonwealth of Virginia was the first English colony in the world. The colony existed briefly during the 16th century, and then continuously from 1607. The name Virginia was first applied by Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth. Virginia borders on the north with Maryland and several Indian territories and south with Spanish Florida.
Virginia, by North American standards, is a very prosperous and largely populous colony, only surpassed in industrial output by New England.
The Treaty of Madrid (1670) established the limits of Virginia and Spanish Florida at latitude 32° 30″. Later agreements, based on de facto occupation, established limits around the watersheds of the Pee Dee and Fear rivers. Spain also expanded its claims to the north of the Florida province of Muscogui.
Population swelled with Cavaliers during and after the English Civil War, as Virginia was sympathetic to the Crown rather than the Puritan Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell.
When the parliamentarians were successful, Governor William Berkeley (1642-1652) offered an asylum in Virginia to gentlemen of the royalist side; whereupon the parliament dispatched a small fleet to the colony, and the governor, unable to offer resistance, was forced to resign his authority, but received permission to remain on his own plantation as a private person. The Virginians were only mildly royalist and they yielded without a struggle; the Commonwealth granted them greater freedom in self-government. Puritan Richard Bennett was made Governor answering to Cromwell in from 1652 to 1656.
Taking advantage of the death of Oliver Cromwell and a cavalier majority, Berkeley regained his governorship in 1658 from governor Mathews. Berkeley re-established autocratic authority over the colony. In order to protect this power, he refused to have new legislative elections in order to protect a House of Burgesses that supported him. Berkeley also strongly opposed public education and enacted laws to preserve the Church of England and punished any minister who preached outside the teachings and doctrine of it, thus oppressing Puritans, Quakers, and any other religious minority.
The Freeholders rebellion of 1663 ousted Governor Berkeley. With his overthrow the established planter elite lost its exclusive influence and favoritism. The political levers shifted to all freemen and land proprietors. The shared interests among all social classes of the colony in protecting the "commonalty" and advancing its welfare became the norm was enshrined in the rewritten Fourth Charter of 1663. Religious freedom was explicitly guaranteed. It also furthered the policies advocated by the settlers of an offensive posture to drive out Indians and dispose of their lands.
By the 1670s Virginia had extended down south (Cape Fear River) within the original limits of its Third Charter (1612) and to the west up to the Appalachian mountains. The promise of land attracted many West Indians planters to establish in the new territories. The abundance of land appealed to many frustrated planters and common people in contrast to the compact West Indies. They brought with them the plantation system with cash crops and slavery. The religious toleration, political representation, relaxed taxation, and large land grants appealed to many.
To a greater degree than Marylanders, Virginian aristocrats and gentry received most of the peerages (Peer of the Commonwealth) of North America. The two unique ranks were specifically created for these two colonies by Lord Protector Scott in 1671. These are landgrave (m)/ landgravines (f) (equivalent to Earl), and cassique (m)/ cassica (f) (equivalent to Viscount). Peerage was given on advice of the Governor of Virginia to the Lord Protector. Most of the peerage was given out to large plantation owners creating a landed manorial and gentry class similar to the one in the British Isles. Merchants were favored on previously purchasing land or marriage to landed groups. The Commonwealth honours system cemented an aristocratic outlook and society.
The Great Whig Era (1700-1749) provided for stable governments, a coalition of former Cromwellian-Countrymen and administrative agents. Their main achievements were the aggressive campaigns against the natives, religious toleration, and generous land grants to their partisans. The Whig Governors were usually aligned with the interests of the colonial administration in London and acted as quick-witted political brokers of the General Assembly.
By the early 18th century the declining supply of white labourers increased the demand and purchase of slaves. Harsher restrictions and regulations on the freedom, supervision and punishment of black slaves were enacted.
The Fourth Charter of 1663 established the primacy of the House of Burgesses, the assembly of elected representatives and lower chamber of the bicameral General Assembly. Only the House of Burgesses can dissolve itself and elect its Speaker. The Governor, State Council (former Governor's Council) and Commonwealth’s Secretary are elected by the House of Burgesses. The Commonwealth’s Secretary is also a member of the Council. The Council was also the upper house of the General Assembly until the establishment of the Senate. All county offices are appointed positions by the General Assembly on a proposal of the State Council.
The Council members advised the Governor or the Lieutenant-governor, on all executive and administrative affairs of the Colony. The Council and the Governor jointly constituted the highest court in the colony, known as the General Court. Following the example of New England an General Court of Appeals was established as a fully independent judicial body.
The legislative, administrative and judicial functions of the Governor's Council were gradually transferred to three distinctive bodies: the General Court of Appeals (judicial), Senate (legislative upper house of the General Assembly) and the State Council (administrative and advisory body of the Governor).
The Fifth Charter (1812) besides confirming the commonwealth system of government it established an elected Senate, a State Council named by the Governor and confirmed by the House of Burgesses and the independence of the judiciary and local governments. The Charter also provided for fixed terms of all mandates - election every five years for Governor, local authorities and legislature. It also introduced women's suffrage.
All men, and women since 1812, that are not slaves or indentured servants can vote and hold public office. Initially each county sent two burgesses to the House; towns could petition to send a single representative. The university constituency of Virginia College would elect one and later two burgesses. Later electoral laws would provide that the towns and counties elect between one and seven burgesses based on the electoral census, with the university constituency electing two burgesses. Each county and town districts, and the university constituency, elects one senator.
Most burgesses and senators were also members of the gentry class, though their constituency was usually made of small landowners and tenant farmers.
- Samuel Mathews (1656-1658, Cromwellian)
- Sir William Berkeley (1658-1663, Cavalier)
- Major-General Richard Bennett (1663-1674, Cromwellian-Countrymen)
- Col. Nicholas Spencer, Jr. (1674-1700, Cromwellian-Countrymen)
- George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney (1700-1706, Cromwellian-Countrymen, later Whig)
- Lt. Col. Alexander Spotswood (1706-1721, Whig)
- Sir William Gooch (1721-1749, Whig)
- Sir John Robinson, Jr. (1749-1752, Union-Free Agrarians Coalition)
- Sir Robert Dinwiddie (1752-1756, Moderate)
- Maj. Gen. Peyton Walsh (1756-1761, non-party)
- Sir Robert Dinwiddie (1761-1767, Moderate)
- Col. Alfred Jenkins (1767-1772, Reform)
- William Murray (1772-1772, Democratic)
- George Lee Jr. (1772-1785, Union-Moderate (or National Union), later Union-Agrarians)
- Sir Douglas Brooke (1785-1787, Republican-Reform)
- Joseph Bardsley (1787-1789 Republican-Radical)
- Patrick Bennett (1789-1796,Moderate-Reform, later Reform)
- John Amherst (1796-1802, Moderate)
- Patrick Bennett (1802-1810, Agrarian-Moderate)
- Osborne Crewe (1810-1817, Reform-Democratic)
- Isham Jefferson (1817-1827, Republican-Radical)
- Lawrence Warner (1827-1832, United-Reform)
- Martha Jefferson (1832-1847, Republican-Radical)
- Montgomery Burwell (1847-1852, United-Reform)
Virginia was in all forms and ways an aristocratic republic, disputes between planters and freeholders would characterize its politics in the XVII century.
Virginia's politics was configured by the opposition of large landowners (planters) on one side and freeholders on the other. They were respectively called cavaliers and countrymen - the latter with Cromwellian sympathies. A third party was the Governor's couriers or administrative agents. Alliances were fluid and conditioned by the political and economical issues of the day until the coming of disciplined and organized political parties and coalitions.
The Whigs, a coalition of administrative agents and former Cromwellian-Countrymen would hold power until their demise and dissolution in 1749. Former Whigs would establish the Moderate and Reform parties. Other parties will form around the planters (Union) and freeholders (Free Agrarians).
A Virginian political trait is the conformation of Coalitions or Fusions as the combination of political parties as electoral alliances or parliamentary purposes. Its first historical example was the parliamentary Union-Free Agrarians Coalition that overthrew the Whigs in 1749. The introduction, in the 1750s and 1760s, of party and coalition discipline under a system of whips gave stability to an otherwise chaotic mix of interests.
Migration and the Great Awakening would have a large influence in the religious life as would turn the services of the dissident churches led by charismatic preachers and abolitionist would star to campaign to end slavery. The abolitionist started a shift in the aristocratic politics of Virginia towards the establishment of several and marginally successful, Democratic-Republican parties, some being more Radical-Populists in their electoral platforms.
However, the Haitian Revolution soured sympathies of many with the Abolitionist cause and its associated Democratic-Republican and Radical-Populists parties. The planters and freeholders pushed in the General Assembly for several measures to restrict and control the movement of black slaves.
The Church of England is the official Reformed church of Virginia. It follows the conjoined polity or Ussher scheme. However, it has some distinctive features that come from its historical development in Virginia. The General Assembly passes laws governing the church, sets clergy salaries, creates and combine parishes. The local vestries, that are also the civil authorities of the parishes, annually select and contract the clergy, and oversee the day-to-day operation of the parish church and clergy. A common practice of the vestries is to hire lay readers rather than ministers because the costs are lower. The authority of collecting and assigning tithes, triers and ejectors falls both to the General Assembly and the vestries.
The Church of England in Virginia gained autonomy by being allowed to have a Provincial Synod and elect its High Commissioner.
Under the religious settlement, most of the Puritans that had not left for Maryland became members of the Church of England. However a minority established Congregational Churches. In Virginia there are also congregations of Baptists and Quakers, the former being the largest group.
Virginia is divided into counties, towns and parishes. The main county offices are the board of commissioners, judges, sheriff, constable and clerks. The county courts are composed of justices of the peace, all appointed by the General Assembly and Governor, and met monthly. They are responsible for handling land ownership changes, processing wills, and dealing with minor crimes. The towns that have the same powers as the county are Jamestown, Williamsburg and Norfolk.
The parishes are governed by a vestry that has civil and religious authority. One of the vestry's most important duties was setting the annual parish levy, and also administering the poor laws and maintaining local roads and providing ferry services. The members of the full vestry meeting, elect a select vestry to carry out its duties until the next regular meeting.
The Fifth Charter mandated the election of all local authorities: County Board of Commissioners, Parish councils that replaced vestries, and Town Councils.
Tobacco constituted a major percentage of the total agricultural output of Virginia until the 1670s. Vast plantations are built along the rivers of Virginia, and social/economic systems developed to grow and distribute this cash crop. In the 1670s the new lands were opened to other plantations and crops besides tobacco, not available before such as cotton, sugar, indigo, and rice.
Virginian tobacco, the colony's prime product, is highly regulated. The Tobacco Inspection Act improved its quality and provided for the regulation of public warehouses. All production was to be inspected and shipped in these public warehouses and had the power to destroy substandard crops. Planters also began the practice to certify their production with a signature unique to its planter (branded) before they were sent overseas, and guarantors regarded brands as a seal of approval from the planter himself.
Culture and Education
The first printing press used in Virginia began operation in Jamestown in 1672, along with the first newspaper, the Virginia Gazette (1736).
In 1667, the General Assembly mandated the establishment of parish free schools opened to all children that required them. Private Grammar Schools were also opened in Jamestown, Williamsburg and Norfolk.
The Virginia College and Free School is the higher education establishment whose land purchase and initial funds were authorized by an act passed by the General Assembly in 1672. It has three divisions: Grammar School, Natural Philosophy School and Divinity School. It also manages a Free School for Boys. However the most brilliant and ambitious students enrolled in the universities of England, Scotland, or New England. The establishment of the University of Virginia by public subscription in 1812 elevated the higher education standards and enrolment of students.
Following the example of the British Blue Stockings Societies, many Virginian ladies that had been hostesses, members or guests of these literary salons opened similar ones in Jamestown, Williamsburg and Norfolk. These literary salons would be the precursors of the women's mutual help and debating societies of the mid XIX century.