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The Fall of Communism in Virginia

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02/23/2012Murray N. Rothbard

In fact, the Virginia colony was not doing very well in drawing off England's surplus poor. Besides transporting vagrants and criminals to Virginia, the London Company and the City of London agreed to transport poor children from London to Virginia. However, the poorest refused the proffered boon and the company moved to obtain warrants to force the children to migrate. It seemed, indeed, that the Virginia colony, failing also to return profits to the company investors, was becoming a failure on every count.

The survival of the Virginia colony hung, in fact, for years by a hair-breadth. The colonists were not accustomed to the labor required of a pioneer, and malaria decimated the settlers. Of the 104 colonists who reached Virginia in May 1607, only 30 were still alive by that fall, and a similar death rate prevailed among new arrivals for many years. As late as 1616, only 350 colonists remained of a grand total of over 1,600 immigrants.

One major reason for the survival of this distressed colony was the changes that the company agreed to make in its social structure. The bulk of the colonists had been under "indenture" contracts, and were in servitude to the company for seven years in exchange for passage money and maintenance during the period, and sometimes for the prospect of a little land at the end of their term of service. The contract was called an indenture because it was originally written in duplicate on a large sheet — the two halves separated by a jagged line called an "indent." While it is true that the original contract was generally voluntary, it is also true that a free society does not enforce even temporary voluntary slave contracts, since it must allow for a person to be able to change his mind, and for the inalienability of a person's control over his will and his body. While a man's property is alienable and may be transferred from one person to another, a person's will is not; the creditor in a free society may enforce the collection of payment for money he may have advanced (in this case, passage and maintenance money), but he may not continue to enforce slave labor, however temporary it may be. Furthermore, many of the indentures were compulsory and not voluntary — for example, those involving political prisoners, imprisoned debtors, and kidnapped children of the English lower classes. The children were kidnapped by professional "spirits" or "crimps" and sold to the colonists.

In the concrete conditions of the colony, slavery, as always, robbed the individual of his incentive to work and save, and thereby endangered the survival of the settlement. The new charter granted in 1609 by the Crown to the company (now called the Virginia Company) added to the incentives of the individual colonists by providing that every settler above the age of ten be given one share of stock in the company. At the end of seven years, each person was promised a grant of 100 acres of land, and a share of assets of the company in proportion to the shares of stock held. The new charter also granted the company more independence, and more responsibility to its stockholders, by providing that all vacancies in the governing Royal Council be filled by the company, which would thus eventually assume control. The charter of 1609 also stored up trouble for the future by adding wildly to the grant of land to the Virginia Company. The original charter had sensibly confined the grant to the coastal area (to 100 miles inland) — the extent of English sovereignty on the continent. But the 1609 charter grandiosely extended the Virginia Company "from sea to sea," that is, westward to the Pacific. Furthermore, its wording was so vague as to make it unclear whether the extension was westward or northwestward — not an academic point, but a prolific source of conflict later on. The charter of 1612 added the island of Bermuda to the vast Virginia domain, but this was soon farmed out to a subsidiary corporation.

The incentives provided by the charter of 1609, however, were still only future promises. The colony was still being run on "communist" principles — each person contributed the fruit of his labor according to his ability to a common storehouse run by the company, and from this common store each received produce according to his need. And this was a communism not voluntarily contracted by the colonists themselves, but imposed upon them by their master, the Virginia Company, the receiver of the arbitrary land grant for the territory.

The result of this communism was what we might expect: each individual gained only a negligible amount of goods from his own exertions — since the fruit of all these went into the common store — and hence had little incentive to work, or to exercise initiative or ingenuity under the difficult conditions in Virginia. And this lack of incentive was doubly reinforced by the fact that the colonist was assured, regardless of how much or how well he worked, of an equal share of goods from the common store. Under such conditions, with the motor of incentive gone from each individual, even the menace of death and starvation for the group as a whole — and even a veritable reign of terror by the governors — could not provide the necessary spur for each particular man.

The communism was only an aspect of the harshness of the laws and the government suffered by the colony. Absolute power of life and death over the colonists was often held by one or two councillors of the company. Thus, Captain John Smith, the only surviving Royal Council member in the winter of 1609, read his absolute powers to the colonists once a week. "There are no more Councils to protect or curb my endeavors," he thundered, and every violator of his decrees could "assuredly expect his due punishment." Sir Thomas Gates, appointed governor of Virginia in 1609, was instructed by the company to "proceed by martial law … as of most dispatch and tenor and fittest for this government [of Virginia]." Accordingly, Gates established a code of military discipline over the colony in May 1610. The code ordered strict religious observance, among other things. Some 20 "crimes" were punishable by death, including such practices as trading with Indians without a license, killing cattle and poultry without a license, escape from the colony, and persistent refusal to attend church. One of the most heinous acts was apparently running away from this virtual prison to the supposedly savage Indian natives; captured runaway colonists were executed by hanging, shooting, burning, or being broken on the wheel. It is no wonder that Gates's instructions took the precaution of providing him with a bodyguard to protect him from the wrath of his subjects; for, as the succeeding governor wrote in the following year, the colony was "full of mutiny and treasonable inhabitants."

The directors of the Virginia Company decided, unfortunately, that the cure for the grave ailments of the colony was not less but even more discipline. Accordingly, they sent Sir Thomas Dale to be governor and ruler of the colony. Dale increased the severity of the laws in June 1611. Dale's Laws — "the Laws Divine, Moral and Martial" — became justly notorious: They provided, for example, that every man and woman in the colony be forced to attend divine service (Anglican) twice a day or be severely punished. For the first absence, the culprit was to go without food; for the second, to be publicly whipped; and for the third, to be forced to work in the galleys for six months. This was not all. Every person was compelled to satisfy the Anglican minister of his religious soundness, and to place himself under the minister's instructions; neglect of this duty was punished by public whipping each day of the neglect. No other offense was more criminal than any criticism of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England: torture and death were the lot of any who persisted in open criticism. This stringent repression reflected the growing movement in England, of Puritans and other Dissenters, to reform, or to win acceptance alongside, the established Church of England. Dale's Laws also provided

That no man speak impiously … against the holy and blessed Trinity … or against the known Articles of the Christian faith, upon pain of death.…

That no man shall use any traitorous words against His Majesty's person, or royal authority, upon pain of death.…

No man … shall dare to detract, slander, calumniate or utter unseemly speeches, either against Council or against Committees, Assistants … etc. First offense to be whipped three times; second offense to be sent to galleys; third offense — death.

Offenses such as obtaining food from the Indians, stealing food, and attempting to return to England were punishable by death and torture. Lesser offenses were punished by whipping or by slavery in irons for a number of years. Governor Dale's major constructive act was to begin slightly the process of dissolution of communism in the Virginia colony; to stimulate individual self-interest, he granted three acres of land, and the fruits thereof, to each of the old settlers.

Dale's successor, Captain Samuel Argall, a relative of Sir Thomas Smith, arrived in 1617, and found such increased laxity during the interim administration of Captain George Yeardley that he did not hesitate to reimpose Dale's Laws. Argall ordered every person to go to church Sundays and holidays or suffer torture and "be a slave the week following." He also imposed forced labor more severely.

Fortunately, for the success of the Virginia colony, the Virginia Company came into the hands of the Puritans in London. Sir Thomas Smith was ousted in 1619 and his post as treasurer of the company was assumed by Sir Edwin Sandys, a Puritan leader in the House of Commons who had prepared the draft of the amended charter of 1609. Sandys, one of the great leaders of the liberal dissent in Parliament, had helped to draw up the remonstrance against the conduct of James I in relation to the king's first Parliament. Sir Edwin had urged that all prisoners have benefit of counsel; had advocated freedom of trade and opposed monopolies and feudalism; had favored religious toleration; and generally had espoused the grievances of the people against the Crown. For Virginia, Sandys wanted to abandon the single company plantation and to encourage private plantations, the ready acquisition of land, and speedy settlement.

The relatively liberal Puritans removed and attempted to arrest Argall, and sent Sir George Yeardley to Virginia as governor. Yeardley at once proceeded to reform the despotic laws of the colony. He substituted a much milder code in November 1618 (called by the colonists "The Great Charter"): everyone was still forced to attend Church of England services, but only twice each Sunday, and the penalty for absence was now reduced to the relatively innocuous three shillings for each offense. Yeardley also increased to 50 acres the allotment of land to each settler, thereby speeding the dissolution of communism, and also beginning the process of transferring land from the company to the individual settler who had occupied and worked it. Furthermore, land that had been promised to the settlers after a seven-year term was now allotted to them immediately.

The colonists themselves testified to the splendid effects of the Yeardley reforms, in a declaration of 1624. The reforms

gave such encouragement to every person here that all of them followed their particular labors with singular alacrity and industry, so that … within the space of three years, our country flourished with many new erected Plantations.… The plenty of these times likewise was such that all men generally were sufficiently furnished with corn, and many also had plenty of cattle, swine, poultry, and other good provisions to nourish them.

In his Great Charter, Yeardley also brought to the colonists the first representative institution in America. The governor established a General Assembly, which consisted of six councillors appointed by the company, and burgesses elected by the freemen of the colony. Two burgesses were to be elected from each of 11 "plantations": 4 "general plantations," denoting subsettlements that had been made in Virginia; and 7 private or "particular" plantations, also known as "hundreds." The 4 general plantations, or subsettlements, each governed locally by its key town or "city," were the City of Henrico, Charles City, James City (the capital), and the Borough of Kecoughtan, soon renamed Elizabeth City. The Assembly was to meet at least annually, make laws, and serve as the highest court of justice. The governor, however, had veto power over the Assembly, and the company's edicts continued to be binding on the colony.

The first Assembly met at Jamestown on July 30, 1619, and it was this Assembly that ratified the repeal of Dale's Laws and substituted the milder set. The introduction of representation thus went hand in hand with the new policy of liberalizing the laws; it was part and parcel of the relaxation of the previous company tyranny.


Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.