NOTHING could be more misleading than to think of Virginians as “Citizens of the World.” In common with American leaders since their day, they preferred to start from their own problems. Their point of departure was their location in time and space.
If George Washington seems colorless to us today it is partly because our latter-day democratic prejudices have blinded us to the colors of his Virginia. It is hard to bring ourselves to believe that the great Virginia fathers of the Republic were nourished in the soil of aristocracy, slavery, and an established church. Modern American democracy, we are told, must have had its roots in some 18th-century “democracy”; so we have looked for its seeds in the New England Town Meeting (supposed to be a microcosm of democracy) rather than in the Virginia tobacco aristocracy. But the ways of history are obscure and even self-contradictory. May not the proudly independent spirit of the Virginia planting aristocrats have been rooted in their vast plantations, in their sense of aristocratic responsibility? May not the value they placed on their individual liberties have been increased by the sharp contrast with the slavery they saw about them? May not their aristocratic habit of mind—their “habit of command” and their belief that they could make judgments on behalf of their community—have helped make them leaders of an American Revolution? Perhaps revolutions are always led by people who build, in Justice Holmes’ phrase, “upon an aristocratic assumption that you know what is good for them better than they—which no doubt you do.” Perhaps a reliable toleration has its roots in the quiet catholicity of a not-too-passionate established church, rather than in the explicit liberalism of rationalists and anti-religionists.
The Virginians had indeed inoculated themselves against all strong viruses; they, least of all people, sought to grasp the truths—whether of religion, of government, or of society—suddenly and as a whole. Their empirical, and even their reforming, spirit was grown in the tobacco-soil of Virginia, and not in the corrosive absolutes which poured out of Europe in their century. Traditionalism—their loyalty to the working ways of ancient England—rooted them in time; localism—their loyalty to the habits of their parish and county and to their friends and neighbors—rooted them in space. The strength of both these sentiments (and, to be precise, we should call them sentiments rather than philosophies) accounts for much of what they made of Virginia, and of what Virginia in the critical early years of the Republic gave to America. The strength of their traditionalism was before long to be expressed in the American Revolution in defense of the rights of Englishmen. The strength of their localism was expressed in the autonomy of the parish and in the federal spirit, in the Constitution and in the devotion to States’ rights. The fact that their tradition was loosely stated—their model was the life of the English country gentleman—made their tie to tradition no less real. There was no part of life which an ideal so vague and so real did not touch. Their narrower, more legal traditionalism was also to have its day: in the Revolution, when they would be required to state in precise legal language how their rights as Englishmen had been violated. But the traditionalism of Virginia in the Golden Age was lived out with a quiet and pervasive intensity. Their very strength as transplanters came from their willingness to transform as they transplanted, to flavor the distant past with the local present.
Their localism has been given far too little attention and too little credit. In these days, when States’ rights are out of fashion, we are too often told that a man’s preoccupation with the habits of the place where he lives can only drag the national progress. We are fortunate that 18th-century Virginians thought differently. Their concern with the special requirements of their own particular place on earth not only flavored their political life and expectations; it gave all their thinking the aroma of the specific and kept all their social ideals within finite bounds. It was the seed of Federalism, without which the nation could not have lived and liberal institutions could not have flourished. When Jefferson listed for his tombstone the three achievements for which he wished to be remembered, only one, the Declaration of Independence, reached beyond the bounds of Virginia; the other two—the Virginia statute for religious freedom and the University of Virginia—were strictly local.
If we run the gamut of Virginia life in the 18th century we see one fact after another which tied the leader of the community to his particular place, even more intimately than in contemporary England. The riveravenues and the difficulties of land communication tended to keep commercial life close to the plantation houses, on their private wharves. The same was true of the cultural life: the centers of literary culture, including the best libraries, remained scattered over the colony in widely-separated mansion houses. Children of the substantial planters did not go to school in a metropolitan center but in a local “old-field” school house, or else studied with a private tutor under the family roof.
Although Williamsburg remained the political center, it never became a metropolis; and the lack of cities left the parish meeting-houses, the county court-houses and the rural residences as the natural foci of social gatherings and community interest. From the days of the author of Virginia’s Cure (1662), who complained that their “scattering Habitations” were the root of a dangerous independence and a deviation from rigid Anglicanism, we read pleas “that the only way of remedy for Virginia’s disease … must be by procuring Towns to be built, and inhabited in their several Counties.” Again and again well-meaning cosmopolites sought to lift Virginia to a respectably English level of literary culture and religious orthodoxy by forcing the building of towns. This pressure created the so-called “Cohabitation” Controversy between those who hoped for an urban Virginia as enlightened and cultivated as Mother England and those who were satisfied that Virginia should become enlightened and cultivated in her own way. The Cohabitation Act of 1680 sought to conjure up towns by act of the legislature, but that Act and its successors (including even the Act of October 1705, which exempted town-dwellers from three-fourths of their taxes) succeeded in producing towns only on paper. The local spirit and the pressures of geography and tobacco-culture, reénforced by such institutions as the county court and the vestry, were simply too strong. Why, planters sensibly asked, should they found towns to drain commerce from their wharves and power from their local courts and churches?
Not the least significant consequence of this thriving localism was a wholesome identification of self-interest with political activity. A man who entered politics in Virginia was doing so not only because he had large property and family interests to be protected, but because he was personally involved in every aspect of life in a particular place and he therefore wished to be a voice for that place. When Jefferson wrote to his nephew, young Peter Carr, in August 1785, he advised that personal ambition should be a prudent admixture of self-interest and public concern. “Every day you lose, will retard a day your entrance on that public stage whereon you may begin to be useful to yourself…. When your mind shall be well improved with science, nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests, also with the purest integrity, the most chaste honour.” In those years, and for long after, when Jefferson said “my country” he meant Virginia. This identification of the public man with the interests of his particular place led Virginians to find the counsels of politics not in the peremptory commands of absolutes but in a balancing of local interests. Localism, like traditionalism, was an enemy of political dogma.
Their success in developing an institutional frame of mind—the suppleness of spirit for which they were to be preeminent—would have been impossible without certain providential coincidences. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, men of common sense could imagine transplanting many features of English country life to Virginia. Yet conditions were not so similar that a transfer of English ways was easy and mechanical. If Virginia had been less like England, the 18th-century attempt to reconstruct these English institutions in the New World might have been absurd and romantic. If Virginia had been more like England, emulation of things English might have become mere mimicry and living English institutions might have become American fossils. No intelligent Virginian could hope to reenact the drama of English life word-for-word, yet none could fail to feel that the Virginia drama would be in the same tradition, with similar actors, similar dialogue, and a similar moral.
The caricature of the English colonial administrator, dining formally in his dinner-jacket in his straw-hut in the jungle, is precisely the incongruity which Virginia country gentlemen managed to avoid. Many of the settlers of Jamaica and Barbados in the 18th century also hoped to build their little Englands, but the exotic flora and fauna, the enervating tropical climate, and myriad other differences put anything resembling English life outside the bounds of a sane imagination. Before long those who could not tolerate an alien way of life returned to temperate England. They left the Caribbean islands to resident-managers and to the few expatriate English plantation owners who preferred a frankly exotic way of life with its special privileges of luxuriance, indolence, despotism, and irresponsibility. In contrast to all this, the climate and landscape permitted Virginians to live in reasonable facsimiles of English country houses and to transplant English institutions. Yet they avoided the temptation of making imitation a dogma or building by a blueprint of English life.
Tobacco was the leading institution of Virginia; willingness to be ruled by it was both the strength and the weakness of the Virginians. While embracing the landscape, they were sometimes seduced by it. The promoters of Georgia were obstinately determined that the exotic silkworm must grow in their colony, but the leading men of Virginia, finding that tobacco grew well on their land, allowed it to dominate their life.
The supreme irony in the story of Virginia was the last act in the colonial drama. That act occurred in the Revolution itself, in the framing of the Federal Constitution and in the rule of the Virginia Dynasty (Washington-Jefferson-Madison-Monroe) within the Federal government. The leaders of that age were the last flower of the aristocracy of mid-18th century Virginia, not the first flower of a national spirit. The Revolution which the Virginia aristocracy did so much to make and “win” was in fact the suicide of the Virginia aristocracy. The turmoil of the War, the destruction wrought in Virginia by British troops, the disestablishment of the Church, the disruption of commerce, and the decline of tobacco-culture all spelled the decline of the aristocracy and its institutions.
The Federal Constitution was a national road on which there was no return. The leadership of Virginians in Federal life continued only so long as the national government was an aristocratic camaraderie like that of Virginia. When the United States ceased to be a greater Virginia, Virginians ceased to govern the United States. The virtues of 18th-century Virginia, when writ large, would seem to be vices. Localism would become sectionalism; the special interests of where a man lived would come to seem petty and disruptive.