Sunday, February 27, 2011


Most of this material comes from David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed.

Well, I’m beginning to understand why a lot history got left out when I took US history. Twice. High school and university. :-P.

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Dr. Samuel Johnson. Died 1784.

“I am an aristocrat, I love liberty; I hate equality.” John Randolph of Roanoke Virginia

These quotes help to capture the paradox of the love of liberty expressed by the gentry of Virginia. The gentry, who controlled between to seventy five percent of the land and other productive assets including a growing population of African American slaves, had an exceptionally strong sense of their English liberties. While many Englishman turned out reams of prose and poetry celebrating their heritage of English liberty going back to Magna Charta those visions often contradicted each other. New England’s ordered liberty that emphasized a liberty that often subordinated individual liberty to the community and the church was much different from the hierarchical vision of liberty that grew up in colonial Virginia and the broad lands of the Chesapeake.

Hegemony and hierarchy, the uprights that held the rungs of Virginia’s social ladder. Hegemony was a condition of dominion over others and a dominion over themselves. When a traveler named Andrew Barnaby spoke of the colonial Virginian’s he observed “the public and political character of the Virginians corresponds with their private one: they are haughty and jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint, and scarcely bear the thought of being controlled by any superior power.”

In Fischer’s opinion that was the key of Virginia colony’s definition of liberty; the power to rule. To rule over others, not to be ruled by them. The opposite of the power to rule was slavery. You didn’t have to actually be a slave, just have lost your power to rule over others.

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,
Arose from out of the Azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves. James Thomson

There’s almost innocent arrogance in this verse. Britain, protected by its namesake stormy Channel, has the right to rule; Heaven has spoken. Simply by being the sons of southern England’s landed gentry, Virginia’s gentry assumed the right to rule over others.

In Virginia’s hierarchical paradise, your status was determined by the liberties you possessed. The big land owners on the top rung of the ladder had the most liberty. They controlled most of the land and had enough power to negotiate favorable tax rates and limitations on the power of the colonial government from sympathetic governors. Granted the colonial government, at least in the first generations, didn’t have a lot of responsibilities. The patriarchal head of the new world manor regarded his dependents, those with less liberty as his responsibility. This protection could extend to immediate family, wards, house servants, visitors, farm workers and slaves.

Next came the thirty percent or so of the population that were small farmers and tradesmen. They were expected to bend the knee to the gentry and the established church, but they could give orders to the landless laborers they employed.

The laborers seem to have had at least one liberty. They could quit and look for a job somewhere else. But in a colony with large separated land holdings and few towns that may not have counted for a lot.

At the bottom of the ladder were the slaves. They had no liberties that the law was obliged to recognize. Anything they were granted was dependent on their masters. The masters had the liberty. They had none. Fischer uses a term, laisser asservir. It literally means the “right to enslave.” He doesn’t explore where the basis of the belief of the planters that they had the right to enslave others. It may go back to the whole concept of “Britannia Rules the Waves.” We have the right to do this simply because we’re British and it’s mandated by Heaven. I feel another headache coming on.

The ideal of hegemony was not only public, but personal. The ideal colonial member of Virginia’s elite was a master not only of others but of himself. To be truly free, you must rule your thoughts and actions; not be ruled by them. And while they believed in minimal intervention by the colonial government they also believed that part of their personal liberty was the duty to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of their station. Well, that’s one saving grace I suppose.

I’d love to go back to the 1780’s and invite the likes of Jefferson, Adams and Washington to a little get together.

Whew. On to the Quakers and the Backcountry.

Cross posted in Walking With Hope.


Lisa :-] said...

Though their ideas of liberty sound very strange to us, we have to remember that the fact that anyone besides royalty had any kind of rights at all was a revolutionary idea at the time the Magna Carta was signed. Four hundred years seems a long time to have existed under the provisions of THAT document, but I guess England was too pre-occupied building an empire to spend too much time advancing the cause of human rights...

JACKIE said...

That phrase, the right to enslave, has been bugging me all evening. It may be the arrogant attitude I've ever heard.

I have a short book by a Catholic socialogist called The Respectable Murderers. He examines African slavery and the holocaust, among other events. His thesis is that if you really want to plumb the depths you have to have the support of the respectable members of a society. The really terrifying thing is; I believe he was right. I'm not sure if I need a drink or a shower. Probably both.