Southern History Series: Review: Planting an Empire

Jean B. Russo and J. Elliot Russo’s Planting an Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America

Jean B. Russo and J. Elliot Russo’s Planting an Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America is the Chesapeake counterpart to Matthew Mulcahy’s Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean which I reviewed here last month

I bought both of these books in 2017 and posted a few excerpts about the emergence of White identity in the Chesapeake and the Virginia model. Unfortunately, my attention gradually drifted from history to activism in 2017 – culminating in the whole Charlottesville mess – and it is only recently that I have returned to Virginia’s history although I have written about the creation of Tidewater’s aristocracy and the conquest of Tsenacommacah. I’ve recently finished reading the book.

The most striking thing about the colonization of the Chesapeake is how different it was from the colonization of New England:

  • The settlers who colonized New England were religiously motivated English Separatists and Puritans. In contrast, the settlers who came to the Chesapeake were motivated by commerce and geopolitics. They came to the Chesapeake to contest the Spanish claim to North America and to get rich. Their initial goal in Virginia was to emulate the Spanish conquest of Mexico. These people weren’t anything like the saints who came to New England.
  • The founding settlers of Virginia were Anglicans. Anglicanism was the established religion in Virginia like it was in England. The colonists paid taxes to support the Anglican Church. The Virginians were mainstream Englishmen from the north of England, the West Country and metropolitan London. The settlers of New England were Dissenters who were alienated by King Charles I.
  • The settlers who came to Virginia migrated as individuals while the settlers who came to New England tended to migrate as families. For the first several decades, men drastically outnumbered women in the Chesapeake and it took much longer for the population to stabilize and gain cohesion. In Congregationalist New England, the reverse was true. Massachusetts started out more cohesive and became less so over time as a commercial economy developed.
  • In New England, the godly created compact settlements and trained a native born clergy while in Virginia the population was dispersed over a much wider area. The climate was far more sickly in Jamestown. There were more Indians to deal with too. Virginia and Maryland came to rely on cash crop agriculture and a labor system based on indentured servitude and later slavery.
  • Unlike Virginia, Maryland was founded as a proprietary colony and served as a refuge for Catholics. It was also one of the first places in the European world to institutionalize religious liberty. This later changed during the Glorious Revolution when Protestants seized power only to change hands again when Maryland was restored to the Calvert family.

In some ways, Virginia and Massachusetts were similar:

  • In both Virginia and Massachusetts, settlers initially attempted to live in peace with the local Indians, but this changed in the aftermath of devastating Indian attacks – in Virginia, the attempted genocides launched against the English in the 1622 Jamestown Massacre and the second surprise attack in 1644 and later in Massachusetts during King Philip’s War.
  • In Virginia and Massachusetts, slavery was legal and blacks came to be seen as racially inferior in the colonial era, although Massachusetts never developed into a Slave Society

Interestingly, Virginia and Maryland were still 90% White in 1700. These two colonies didn’t start out as Slave Societies like Barbados and South Carolina and could have conceivably gone in another direction. This wasn’t due to a lack of willingness on the part of Virginia and Maryland planters to import black slaves so much as it was due to the remoteness of the Chesapeake which was poorly served by slave traders until after the Royal African Company was founded in 1660. The English seized the initiative in the transatlantic slave trade and slaves became much cheaper in the Chesapeake. Previously, only the wealthiest tobacco planters with Caribbean connections had been able to afford black slaves.

By 1700, Virginia and Maryland were beginning to demographically stabilize. The Indians were no longer a threat to the survival of the colonies. A majority of colonists were native born. The gender ratio was leveling out. The mortality rate was falling as the population shifted to higher ground with access to better freshwater. Virginia and Maryland were becoming more settled and civilized and both colonies were dominated by a country gentry class that intermarried and monopolized access political offices and controlled the church vestries. Great Britain was also dominated by the Anglican gentry after the Glorious Revolution who were the role models of the Tidewater aristocracy.

In the Virginia backcountry, the Germans and Scots-Irish were beginning their journey down through the Great Valley of Virginia to colonize Greater Appalachia where they ran into English settlers expanding out of the Piedmont. This migration brought Lutherans and Presbyterians into Virginia in significant numbers. The Great Awakening also brought about the expansion of the Baptists in the colony. In terms of exports, the economies of Virginia and Maryland diversified and became less reliant on tobacco as large parts of both states, particularly in Maryland, were turned over to the cultivation of grain like in the Middle Colonies (Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey).

As you have probably noticed, I get tired of narratives that trace the origins of America back to the Founding Fathers. In Virginia, the Founding Fathers of the United States were the third or fourth generation of native born Virginians. They inherited a thriving society that was built by their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. These generations had built Virginia and Maryland into what those colonies had become by 1776 on a foundation of slavery, white supremacy and settler-colonialism.

“Liberty” was meaningful in Slave Societies because most people were not free. “Equality” was meaningful because most people didn’t have rights. Virginia’s gentry saw itself as the equals of the British gentry and this sensitivity and feeling of being insulted as a class along with the threat to slavery goes a long way towards explaining why the Chesapeake revolted in the American Revolution. Virginia planters developed a republican ideology of moral virtue and economic independence based on their negative experiences with their British creditors.

The Russos make clear in Planting an Empire that “from the time of initial Chesapeake settlement English migrants regarded Africans as different and inferior to themselves.” They also had no inhibitions about conquering the Indians and reducing them to servitude. It is worth remembering that the founding of Virginia coincided with the founding of the plantation of Ulster in Ireland. The English who are among the most xenophobic of all Europeans didn’t even consider the Irish papists to be their equals at the time so imagine what they must have thought about pagan Africans and Indians.

In colonial Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s theories about natural rights were still in the distant future. The real founders of the Chesapeake didn’t yet have the luxury of entertaining such abstract notions. They were too busy creating a civilization in the Mid-Atlantic for their posterity.

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Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent