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Image The Colonial Mood: Virginia and the Mother Country

From an early date in the seventeenth century, Virginians began to speak affectionately of their new colony as the “Old Dominion” or even the “Ancient Dominion.”1 This curious phrase bespoke an attitude of mind that developed in many colonial environments.

Throughout the New World, colonists far from home formed a strong attachment for what seemed old and even ancient in their culture.

This colonial mood became especially strong in Virginia, where it was reinforced by the values of an English culture that tended to be profoundly conservative in every sense—elitist, hierarchical, and strenuously hostile to social change. The writings of Sir Robert Filmer, the political philosopher whose family was so closely connected with Virginia, expressed these attitudes with exceptional clarity and force. One modern student of his thought observes that Filmer “succeeds in justifying the status quo in every little, almost accidental detail. He tried to prove that the slightest change in anything that went to make up the world as he knew it could be disastrous.”2

Filmer was not alone in these opinions. Almost any Royalist diary or commonplace book revealed the same world view. The Hampshire gentleman Sir John Oglander warned others to “take heed of innovation, of bringing in any new device into our island.” Words such as “innovation,” “novelty” and “modern” were pejorative terms.3

This conservatism was deepened in Virginia by the mood of cultural nostalgia that developed in most new colonies. The Virginians long retained a sense of longing for the land they had left. Their children shared a common feeling of cultural loss that continued for many generations. As late as 1736, more than a century after settlement, William Byrd II wrote to an English correspondent, “Our lives are uniform without any great variety, till the season brings in the ships. Then we tear open the letters they bring us from our friends as eagerly as a greedy heir tears open a rich father’s will.” Byrd’s choice of metaphor was specially revealing. Six generations after settlement, Virginians still perceived the culture of England as a precious inheritance to be protected from change, and passed intact from one generation to the next.4

For a very long time, the Chesapeake colonists thought of themselves as Englishmen apart from England—cultural exiles in a distant land. They often referred to their nation as “the mother country,” in maternal terms which implied a warm, nurturing, affective relationship—a very different idea from the Roman “patria” or the German “fatherland.”

This consciousness of cultural exile created a curious melange of feelings: chief among them, an obsessive sense of colonial inferiority. In 1728, for example, Maryland’s Governor Benedict Leonard Calvert wrote to the Earl of Litchfield, “We are at best but a feeble miniature of England.”5 The New World seemed a forlorn and empty place to these people. Henry Chicheley wrote home from Virginia in 1674, “For news I suppose you expect none from this barren part of the world.”6 As late as 1726, William Byrd wrote in the same deprecatory spirit of Virginia as “this silent country.”7

This attitude did not merely exist among the colony’s small elite. It was also shared by colonists of other ranks—perhaps by indentured servants most of all. One servant ballad sang:

Old England, Old England, I shall never see you more,

If I do it’s ten thousand to twenty;

My bones are quite rotten, my feet are quite sore,

I’m parched with fever, and am at death’s door,

But if ever I live to see seven years more,

Then I’ll bid adieu to Virginia.8

Another side of this aching nostalgia for the “mother country” was a strenuous hostility to “strangers.” In 1738, for example, William Byrd II in 1738 wrote, “I have learnt by long experience to be upon my guard against all strangers not well recommended, so that they can cheat me of nothing but my civilities.”9 This attitude deepened into a positive hatred of “foreigners,” a category which included all people not English. The correspondence of the three William Byrds overflowed with virulent prejudices against

“foreigners.” They detested every nation except England and despised all races except their own. They were intensely anti-Semitic. “As clamorous and unreasoning as any Jew,” was a casual phrase that William Byrd II used without thinking. They also spoke ill of the French, Germans, Dutch, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Puritans, Quakers, and Dissenters of every stripe.

These were the traditional prejudices of English gentlemen. The Duke of Wurtemberg, while traveling in England, observed that “they care little for foreigners, but scoff and laugh at them.” The same attitudes were reinforced in Virginia by the colonial mood of anxiety, nostalgia, and cultural loss.10

Another symptom of the colonial malaise was a deep sense of uneasiness about present conditions and future events. These feelings grew steadily in mid-seventeenth-century Virginia, reaching a flash point in Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), and the bloody repression that followed. The rebel Bacon himself was Governor Berkeley’s kinsman and protégé. Both men came from the same rank and shared similar Royalist ideals. Bacon’s “Declaration of the People” was far from a democratic document; he complained that Virginia was not hierarchical enough, and that its institutions had been corrupted by “vile” men. Both leaders expressed deep fears of external enemies and internal subversion. Bacon’s Rebellion was a conflict that rose from a cultural mood that was widely shared in the colony.11

These emotions deepened the determination of Virginia planters to cling to their inherited folkways, but the cultural results of this effort were not always as they intended. A tenacious conservatism sometimes becomes a powerful engine of change. So it would be in Virginia. In an effort to preserve a cultural hegemony, for example, the gentry of Virginia would develop a novel type of race slavery on a large scale—a radical innovation with profound consequences for the future. As we shall see in a subsequent volume, these new forms of slavery did not create the culture of the tidewater Virginia; that culture created slavery.

In any case, the culture of Virginia gradually took on its distinctive character during the second half of the seventeenth century, from 1640 to 1690. One may observe its emergence in the laws and court records of that period, in the accounts of travelers before 1690, in the correspondence of the Virginians themselves during the late seventeenth century.12 By that date, this region had acquired distinctive habits of speech, special styles of architecture, settled norms of family life, and many other customs which set it apart from other parts of the English-speaking world. But these folkways were not unique. In some respects they were similar to habits and customs throughout the south and west of England. Let us examine this pattern in more detail, beginning with the speech ways of Virginia.

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