ALTHOUGH VIRGINIA was governed by an aristocracy, its capital was not a city—a circumstance as decisive for Virginia’s bookish culture as for her political institutions. In 1776 she was the most populous of the colonies, containing nearly twice as many people as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, or North Carolina, and one-fifth of all the inhabitants of the colonies. Yet while other colonies possessed metropolises (Philadelphia counted 40,000 and even Charleston had 12,000), the legal capital of Virginia, Williamsburg, had a year-round population of only 1500. Even though it was the seat of government, the home of the College of William & Mary, and a small center of literary life in the colony, Williamsburg remained for most of the year a sleepy village. Twice annually—at the so-called “Publick Times,” when the General Court met or the Assembly convened—Williamsburg came quickly but briefly to life, and its population doubled. But like the fair towns of European medieval times, it remained a seasonal meeting-place.
During the colonial period, therefore, books that found their way into the libraries of Virginia plantations had not come through bookshops in nearby cities. Except for those which the settlers had brought on first coming, or on rare later trips to England, books were for the most part acquired from London on special orders. Each planter had to decide for himself—or more commonly let his London agent decide for him—what books should be sent. In 1722, Franklin later recalled in his Autobiography, there was “not a good bookseller’s shop in any of the colonies southward of Boston.” For the middle colonies this was something of an exaggeration, characteristically designed to magnify Franklin’s own pioneering in libraries and bookshops. Yet his statement was true of Virginia, and would remain so for many years. There was probably not a bookstore in Williamsburg before 1736. Nearly a century later, Jefferson still complained to John Taylor (May 28, 1816) of “the difficulties of getting new works in our situation [Monticello], inland and without a single bookstore.” But the lack of a prospering book trade showed the style of Virginia life rather than the absence of a demand for books.
The contents of their private libraries show that in books, as in other imports, Virginia gentlemen followed their English exemplars. By English canons they were permitted to be literate but dared not be bookish: pedantry and the squint of the specialist were to be avoided like the plague. They had to know enough of all things to act well and to satisfy their private questions, but, as Sir Thomas Peyton warned, “not to confound learned men and their books and friends with words newborn.” In the training of a gentleman the emphasis was thoroughly practical. He was judged less by the furnishings of his mind, than by the furniture of his house, less by his intellect and learning, than by the charity and graciousness of his conduct.
There was little in the English model to inspire the Virginia emulator to become a man of letters or a collector of books. Near the bottom of the social scale there was little if any reading in 17th-century Virginia; most Virginians probably could not read. If we ask, not how many were literate, but how many were so illiterate they could not sign their names, we can find a rough answer. Philip Alexander Bruce, the social historian of colonial Virginia, examined 17th-century county records to see how many of the names were signed by a mark rather than by a proper signature. In 18,000 instances he examined, nearly half of the male white Virginians (including a few judges) were so illiterate they could not sign their names. Three-quarters of the white women were unable to sign their names. Even these figures probably exaggerate the literacy of Virginians, for we know that people who can sign their names sometimes can neither read nor write.
At the top of the social scale, a few planter-aristocrats, even in the 17th century, owned large libraries, but undue significance has been attached to such rare phenomena as the library of William Byrd, which by 1744 contained more than 3600 titles. Byrd was a prodigy: his collection, the largest in Virginia, elsewhere was rivaled only by Cotton Mather’s and James Logan’s. Other “first gentlemen of Virginia”—William Fitzhugh, the Lees, the Carters, and the Wormeleys—possessed considerable collections, but at no time were the leading men of colonial Virginia particularly bookish or widely-read. A study of about a hundred private libraries shows that these were, on the average, smaller than is commonly supposed; nearly half contained fewer than twenty-five titles. Before 1700 a library in Virginia containing more than one hundred volumes was a rarity; even in the 18th century it was not unusual in inventories of the estates of leading Virginians to find but a dozen books. More typical than the library of, say, Jefferson was Washington’s handful of treatises for useful purposes or the estate of John Chilton, which, though valued at £1700, contained only “two small old Bibles and eighteen other books, mostly old.”
The striking common characteristic of these collections is their practicality. The larger libraries contained a generous sprinkling of works in religion and general literature, including the ever-present Bible and Book of Common Prayer, but even such “religious” books were usually practical and devotional—like Bailey’s Practice of Piety or The Whole Duty of Man—rather than theological or speculative. Their diversity, from orthodox Puritanism at one end to Deism at the other, attests the catholicity and tolerance of their owners.
In the 17th century, lawbooks often made up the biggest single group: not only in the large libraries of people like Robert Carter (whose library contained three hundred titles, of which one hundred were on law), but even in the small libraries. Col. Southey Littleton, a leading planter of Accomac County, on his death in 1680 left seventeen books, of which four were on law; Capt. Christopher Cocke of Princess Anne County in 1716 left a library of twenty-four titles, nine on law. The proportion of lawbooks seems to have increased during the 18th century; not alone among lawyers, but also among physicians, clergymen, and especially among the large planters. In this new country, where all fortunes rested on land and where legal claims were often disputed, lawyers were in short supply. As county justices, burgesses, and vestrymen, the leading Virginians faced all the legal problems of judge, legislator, and executive. They could not perform their simplest public duties without some knowledge of the English legal tradition which was the very cement of their community. It provided the institutions of Virginia and the framework for a new nation.
Especially in the smaller libraries, or in the collections of two dozen titles or less which ought not to be dignified as “libraries,” one often found medical texts to help the planter or his wife treat the plantation sick. Their numerous handbooks on agriculture, building, horses, hunting, or fishing were not for the hobbyist; they were essential tools. Even the guide to horsemanship or gardening enabled the Virginian to etch in more minute detail his reproduction of English country life.
To Virginians, advice on how to lead the life of a Christian gentleman must have seemed hardly less practical than instructions on how to treat smallpox. Even the “classics” seem to have been valued less as ornaments of educated gentlemen than as handbooks for knowledge of men, of history, of nature, and of affairs. Plutarch, Aristotle, and Pliny were primarily sources of scientific information or political wisdom. The classical works increased into the 18th century but never appeared in large numbers. Virginians relied on translations. “They have few Scholars,” the Rev. John Clayton wrote back to England from Jamestown in 1684, “so that every one studys to be halfe Physitian, halfe Lawyer, and with a naturale accutenesse would amuse thee for want of books they read men the more.”
English visitors found it hard to believe that a prosperous ruling class would rather learn directly from experience than from books. Perhaps here was a new type of culture, where even gentlemen who could afford otherwise might choose to read men rather than books; and when they read their books, they might prefer to read them with a purpose. “Nevertheless,” the Rev. Hugh Jones observed in 1724, “thro’ their quick Apprehension, they have a Sufficiency of Knowledge, and Fluency of Tongue, tho’ their Learning for the most Part be but superficial. They are more inclinable to read Men by Business and Conversation, than to dive into Books, and are for the most Part only desirous of learning what is absolutely necessary, in the shortest and best Method.” Their outdoor life, their lack of leisure, the full-time demands of plantation management, and the loneliness of their remote mansions made conversation infinitely preferable to reading. George Washington was reputed to have stationed one of his slaves at a nearby crossroad to invite any casual passerby to enliven the dinner table with news of the outside world. More than one traveler wondered whether the proverbial “Southern hospitality” did not express loneliness as much as generosity.
The leading planters of Virginia, like the New England clergy, controlled the bookish culture of their part of the country. The roles of clergy and laity, however, were reversed, for many Anglican clergymen in Virginia (some were in fact chaplains to leading planters) relied on the libraries of the planter-aristocrats they served. Where else could the rector of Christ Church parish look for reading-matter if not to the books Robert Carter had collected at Corotoman? The manifold “religious” activities of a planter thus made him the supplier (and incidentally the censor) of books for the clergy of his parish. The lack of circulating libraries made him the librarian also for his poorer neighbors and parishioners. The Rev. Thomas Bray, Commissary of the Church of England for Maryland after 1696, thought the lack of books a menace to the competence and independence of the Southern clergy; and, partly to remedy this, The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge was founded. Bray set up libraries in Maryland, New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas—but not in Virginia.
These conditions increased the influence of the planters’ taste over that of the community at large. Their remoteness seems not to have led them to develop independence and variety in their literary tastes. Instead a surprising uniformity prevailed. The more remote the planters were, the more eager they were to cling to old English ways.
For Virginians books were in the main merely tools, the stock-in-trade of a plantation headquarters. And so they appear in the occasional orders planters sent their London agents. On August 27, 1768, William Nelson instructed the firm of John Norton & Sons:
I have already by this Conveyance sent you a Bill of Loading for 6 hhds of my Crop of Tobo. & I am now to answer your Letter of the 23rd of May, I am obliged for your Endeavours to procure me some good red Herrings; but either they do not cure them so well as they did formerly; or, what is more probable, my Taste is alter’d; so you need not send any more; for I really don’t like them; I shall however expect My Garden Seeds, Cheese, &ca. as soon as a new Crop comes in, with the Books I wrote for; & you will be pleased to add the following; vizt, Blackstone’s Commentary upon the English laws; also one plain Hat 6/—1 Laced Do. & 8 pr of strong Shoes & Pumps for a Boy of eight years old & the same Quantity of Hats & Shoes for two other Boys of 13 & 15 years old.
The practicality of Virginians had a different character from that of New Englanders. Virginians were unwilling, even if they had been geographically able, to accept cultural leadership from a New England capital. At the same time the taste of the planters was neither strong nor pungent enough to dominate that of other colonies. A large variety of patterns was already producing the anti-literary and diffused character of American intellectual life. If the Virginia mind was less crabbed and less perverse than that of Puritan New England, it was equally hard-headed, legalistic, and unpoetic. Among Virginians there was no place for a literary class, a Grub Street, or a polite salon. They were not a cultivated élite; they were men of affairs trying to transplant and invigorate institutions.