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Image Virginia Power Ways: The Politics of Court and Vestry Government

In the year 1685 a French Protestant nobleman named Durand de Dauphiné was forced to flee his native Languedoc on account of his religion. In his flight he had many adventures—a hair’s-breadth escape from the dragoons of King Louis XIV, an intimacy with a beautiful Italian widow, a chase by Turkish pirates, a terrific storm in the English Channel, a desperate illness in London, starvation on a transatlantic voyage, and shipwreck on the coast of Virginia where he landed with his belt drawn in sixteen inches and his “clothes all covered in pitch and tar.” To his surprise this ragged French aristocrat was welcomed by the first gentlemen of Virginia, who instantly accepted him as one of themselves. Durand de Dauphiné wrote a book about his experiences among Virginia’s ruling elite in the late seventeenth century, a few years after Governor Berkeley had left office.

“The gentlemen called cavaliers,” Durand wrote, “are greatly esteemed and respected, and are very courteous and honorable. They hold most of the offices in the country.” Durand was invited to dine with the governor and councilors, and to sit with the Assembly which like his hosts he called the Parliament of Virginia. “I saw there fine-looking men, sitting in judgment booted and with belted sword,” he reported.1

This oligarchy of “gentlemen called cavaliers,” who bestrode Virginia booted and spurred, was no novelist’s dream. It actually existed, and played a role of high importance in the political history of the colony.

The distinctive polity which Durand observed in Virginia had developed during the governorship of Sir William Berkeley. By and large it was not imposed upon an unwilling population by imperial authorities, but created within the colony by Virginia gentlemen from materials which had been familiar to them at home. The result was a political culture that proved to be remarkably stable for more than a century, from its emergence in the mid-seventeenth century to the American War of Independence.

In this Virginia polity, the leading local institutions were the parish and county. Both were dominated by self-perpetuating oligarchies of country gentlemen—the parish through its vestry, and the county through its court. They were more complex in their structure than the town meeting system of new England, but less active in the life of the community. Levels of per capita public spending in Virginia tended to be less than half that of Massachusetts.2

The vestry system was established by law in 1643, shortly after Governor Berkeley arrived in Virginia. A law passed in that year required every parish to have a vestry. By 1665 or earlier, these vestries had become closed oligarchies, and control was securely in the hands of a small group of “the most selected and sufficient men.” Their responsibilities extended far beyond the affairs of the parish church itself, to include the administration of the poor law, and much other secular business. By 1670, there were approximately forty parishes in the colony. Each vestry looked after a population of about two or three hundred families.3

The vestry was a familiar institution in southern England. But it was not very old as English institutions went—not nearly as old as the town or folkmoot. The word vestry itself came from the Norman French vestiarie, which was introduced to England after the Conquest. The vestry was an imposition from above; the town was an emanation from below. By the seventeenth century, these two institutions tended to blur into one another in some parts of England. But they were distinctly different in their origins, and they were put to very different uses in Massachusetts and Virginia.

Another unit of local government in Virginia was the county. Its principal officers were the county justices, the county sheriff and the county surveyor, who were nominally appointed from above rather than elected from below. In practice they were controlled by the county gentry, who regarded these offices as a species of property which they passed on to one another. William Fitzhugh in 1685 proposed that High Sheriff’S should be appointed “in fee or for life.” He explained that “for the sheriff’s place to be granted in fee, has been anciently practicable in

England, and in one county is still retained in the family of Cliffords.” Fitzhugh’s suggestion was not adopted, but local offices often became a form of property in fact if not in law.4

On court days a large part of the county came together in a great gathering which captured both the spirit and substance of Virginia politics. Outside the courthouse, the county standard flew proudly from its flagstaff, and the royal arms of England were emblazoned above the door. The courthouse in Middlesex County actually had two doors which symbolized the structure power in that society—a narrow door at one end of the building for the gentry, and a broad double door at the other for ordinary folk. Inside, on a raised platform at one end of the chamber sat the gentlemen-justices, their hats upon their heads, and booted and spurred just as Durand observed them. To one side sat the jury, “grave and substantial freeholders” who were mostly chosen from the yeomanry of the county. Before them stood a mixed audience who listened raptly to the proceedings. Outside on the dusty road, and peering in through the windows was a motley crowd of hawkers, horse traders, traveling merchants, servants, slaves, women and children—the teeming political underclass of Virginia.5

Any expression of disorder in the courtroom, or of disrespect for the court itself, was punished instantly, sometimes with savage severity. Deference was routinely demanded and received. It was repaid in the coin of “condescension,” a special form of courtesy that was reserved for inferiors throughout the English-speaking world.

These county oligarchies were not sovereign bodies. Above them sat the Assembly, Council and Royal Governor. The status of these institutions was in dispute until the American War of Independence. The Assembly was understood by Imperial officials as the colonial equivalent of a municipal council in England. They called it the House of Burgesses, a name which brought to mind the Burgesses of Bristol and other British towns. But Virginians had a different idea of their Assembly. In 1687, William Fitzhugh called it “our Parliament here,” a representative body which knew no sovereign except the King himself.6

Whatever their parliamentary standing, the Assembly represented not the people at large, but the county oligarchies who really ran Virginia. Most of its members had served for many years in public office, rising slowly through the vestries and courts of their counties.7

At the pinnacle of this system was the royal governor. For thirty-five years this office was held by Sir William Berkeley. Until the disaster of Bacon’s Rebellion at the end of his tenure, he was very popular—“the darling of the people,” one Virginian described him. Berkeley was removed from office by the English Puritans, and forcibly retired to the privacy of his plantation at Green Spring. But after the fall of the Protectorate, the Virginians themselves “unanimously chose him their governor again.”8

Young Governor Berkeley was an outspoken royalist, a high Anglican and a staunch prerogative man who demanded of the colonists the same unquestioning loyalty that he gave to the King above him. In his prime he was also a leader of exceptional intellect and ability. From the start he was so popular that the Virginia assembly, “with an eye to the honor of the place,” levied an extra tax of two shillings on every tithable specially for his support, payable in country produce. The people of Virginia made an act of homage of this obligation. They arrived at Green Spring bearing tribute of “corn, wheat, malt, beef, pork, peas, capons, calves, goats, kids, turkeys, geese, butter and cheese” until the governor’s estate looked like a fairground.9

Berkeley dominated the colony through the Assembly, which sat for many years without an election in what was described as the governor’s “long Parliament.” He despised popularity, and once acidly observed that “never any community of people had good done to them, but against their wills.”10 But a large part of Governor Berkeley’s power derived from his standing with the county oligarchies that ran Virginia. William Byrd later wrote to a friend, “Our government … is so happily constituted that a governor must first outwit us before he can oppress us. And if he ever squeezes money out of us he must first take care to deserve it.”11

Popular elections were a part of this system, just as they had been in England. From time to time, the “freeholders” were invited to choose their county burgesses in elections that resembled those in the south and west of England. The electors voted for men rather than measures, picking the most congenial gentleman-candidate from several who “stood” for election.

In the elections of 1755 about 40 percent of tithables voted in most tidewater counties. The pattern of participation differed from New England town meetings. Average levels of turnout tended to be higher on the average in Virginia than in Massachusetts, but without the sudden surges of participation that occurred in New England town meetings when controversial questions were introduced.

Many free whites, and all servants and slaves, were disfranchised by property qualifications. These restrictions tended to increase rather than to diminish before 1776. Through more than a century, the trend in Virginia did not move toward an enlargement of democracy. Before 1776, the only elections in Virginia were those for Burgesses, which occurred at very infrequent intervals. These occasional events were great social happenings which attracted the planter elite and many taxable males, but were not democratic in any meaningful sense.12

This system of government developed in Virginia by a process of prescription. As early as the year 1679 it was spoken of as “the constitution of the country,” in the traditional British sense of unwritten customs and established institutions, rather than the future American sense of fundamental written law. This “constitution” was radically different from the polity of Massachusetts. But the gentlemen oligarchs of Virginia thought of it as the ordinary and natural way in which English-speaking people ordered their political affairs.13

William Fitzhugh wrote in 1684, “The laws we have made amongst us here since our first settlement, are merely made for our own particular Constitution, when the laws of England were thought inconvenient in that particular, and rather disadvantageous & burdensome … Our continual usage and practice since the first settlement, hath been according to the laws and customs of England.”14 Any other idea of “laws and customs” was not merely uncongenial to Virginia gentlemen. It was literally inconceivable.

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