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Democracy and the Founding Fathers

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

Struggles for Democracy: The Old South. By William E. Dodd. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.75. The Colonial Period of American History. Volume III: The Settlements. By Charles M. Andrews. New Haven: Yale University Press, $4.00,

Superficially it would seem that the history of the American colonies should be comparatively free from the controversial questions which so beset the historian and perplex the reader in our later history. Life was relatively simple in the new lands, and communication with the outside world was so difficult as to make it necessary for each community to work out its own salvation. This tended to produce local self-sufficiency, and it should have prevented the development of many of those conflicts of interest which intensive competition on a wide scale is liable to promote. Yet the student of our colonial history finds every foot of his way hedged by questions of a controversial nature, and his solution of them will depend in many cases largely upon his personal predilection. Early Virginia historians established the doctrine that Sir Edwin Sandys, with idealistic motives, started a “noble experiment” in the Old Dominion, making her the first of the self-governing colonies. Then the defeat of Charles I sent to her shores aristocratic Cavaliers who established within her borders the rule of “gentlemen.” These, after numerous disputes concerning their colonial rights, fought for and won their independence because they believed in self-government.

Then along came skeptics who proved to their own satisfaction, and to the satisfaction of many non-Virginians, that the Old Dominion fought for independence in order to avoid paying the debts which she owed to British merchants; that not many Cavaliers came to colonial Virginia, and that, even if they came, Cavaliers were not much more likely to be gentlemen than were their close-cropped opponents. And finally, the idealistic motives of Sir Edwin Sandys have been attacked and the importance of the House of Burgesses as the first representative body in the Anglo-American colonies has been questioned. Sandys was a pretty sharp politician, said these critics; his administration of the London Company was not above reproach, and the House of Burgesses was established merely as a matter of convenience. It began to look as though Virginia had lost her case; but two recent books have put the question in a much better light. First came Matthew Page Andrews’ “Virginia, the Old Dominion,” and now William E. Dodd offers his “Struggles for Democracy,” the first volume in his history of the Old South.

As to the dissolution of the Virginia Company, it has been shown that the organization was in unsound financial condition, owing partly to the faulty management of Sandys; and on this ground historians have advanced the argument that James I brought about its fall for the good of the colony. They have minimized the fact that the King had a deep-seated grudge against Sandys on account of the liberalism which he had displayed in Parliament and in his administration of the Company. In other words, the struggle between the King and the Company involved only practical questions of administration; it was not a battle between liberal ideas and autocracy. The title of Dr. Dodd’s book indicates that he takes a radically different view of the matter. He makes sufficiently clear the fact that the King did dislike the liberal policy of the Company, and he shows that its dissolution was a triumph for autocracy that was soon felt in the infant colony of Virginia.

But the Company had established liberal government in America, and the Stuart kings were never able to kill the seed which had been planted. In fact, the Southern colonies, no less than New England, furnished a refuge for people who sought freedom, and three thousand miles of ocean helped them to maintain it in considerable degree. Though the Anglican Church was established and though royal and proprietary governors had great power, Dr. Dodd holds that throughout the seventeenth century the colonists, from Maryland to the Carolinas, set themselves to maintain religious toleration, manhood suffrage, and local self-government, and that their efforts were largely successful.

It is a significant fact that the population of Virginia increased from five thousand to fourteen thousand between 1640 and 1652, and from fourteen to forty thousand between the latter year and 1666. Thus it is clear that the persecuted Puritans went largely to New England during the period prior to the outbreak of the Cromwellian revolution, and that numerous supporters of the Royal cause migrated to Virginia when the armies of the King were defeated. Yet many of the forty thousand must have made their way to the New World after the Restoration in 1660, and it is to be presumed that they were non-conformists who found the Clarendon Code too hard for their consciences. Dr. Dodd puts new emphasis upon the part played in seventeenth-century Virginia by this non-conformist element, and more particularly upon the work of the liberal leaders, William Claiborne, Richard Bennett, Samuel Matthews, and John West. These men were not Puritans in the New England sense of the word. They were political and religious liberals, and they kept alive in Virginia the work for freedom that had been started by the London Company and by such governors as Wyatt and Yeardley.

The proprietors of Maryland and the Carolinas found it even more difficult than did the King to enforce their will upon the settlers—largely non-conformists—whom they had coaxed or permitted to occupy their princely domains. It must be admitted that the freedom demanded by these colonists was largely freedom to refuse payment of quitrents and tariffs and to violate navigation laws, but this was only a part of the story. Political and religious liberty was equally important to them, and but for the foundation which they laid the Revolution would hardly have been possible. It is a mistake to look upon that contest as a result merely of the conditions following the French and Indian War. The struggle for freedom began in America, as it began in England, under the first of the Stuart kings. In England it resulted in the supremacy of Parliament; but the supremacy of Parliament was never conceded in America, and the War for Independence was the result.

Dr. Dodd has for many years steeped himself in study of the Old South, and the appearance of the first volume of his contemplated history is an event in the historical world. It is a ripe and bracing account of the Southern colonies during the seventeenth century. He correlates American with European events, and he gives the most satisfactory account we have yet had of Parliamentary and diplomatic situations as they affected the development of Britain’s first overseas empire. No biologist could be more ardent about the crude beginnings in protoplasm than Dr. Dodd has been about the crude beginnings of our democracy. He shows that the men who early crossed the seas to the New World changed not only their skies but their minds as well; that the seeds of democracy were planted on the Virginian shore in 1607.

Another of our senior scholars, Professor CM. Andrews, is engaged in summing up his life’s work in the publication of “The Colonial Period of American History,” the third volume of which has recently appeared. This volume completes the period of settlement, embracing the years from the Restoration of 1660 to the end of the seventeenth century.

Professor Andrews believes that the spirit that prompted colonization during the Restoration period differed from that which was at work during the earlier part of the century. Religious and nationalistic interests had prompted the colonization of New England and Virginia. But by 1660 Puritanism had lost much of its pristine zeal, and leading English Puritans, debarred from the seats of the mighty in governmental affairs, were devoting their attention to trade and other gainful pursuits. Their efforts, typical of the period, were not inspired by nationalism nor yet by humanitarianism, but were primarily individualistic and materialistic. The King was again on the throne and royalism was in the ascendant, but the exchequer was lean and colonies were now recognized as a source of revenue. Committees for the control of plantation affairs were organized; navigation acts were passed; and the Royal African Company was created in order to enable British magnates to make fortunes out of human bondage, thus fastening the institution of slavery upon America. But in spite of all these centralizing tendencies, every continental colony established during the reigns of Charles II and James II was a proprietorship in which the royal prerogative was largely surrendered. Thus forces of centralization and decentralization were set to work against each other, and much of the political history of the colonies developed from this condition.

Though Puritans as such no longer played a leading part in the business of colonization, some of the proprietors, notably William Penn and the Earl of Shaftesbury, were religious liberals by conviction, and others adopted a liberal policy for reasons of expediency. One of the contradictions of the period is that while the Clarendon Code—named for one of the Carolina proprietors—made life uncomfortable for dissenters in England, the royal favorites who received grants in America pursued a policy of religious toleration. No more effective method could have been devised to promote the peopling of the New World. Even Virginia, where Governor Berkeley undertook to enforce the Code, received many immigrants of liberal inclinations, and their part in Bacon’s Rebellion, as related by Dr. Dodd, has been mentioned. Yet one interesting phase of Berkeley’s policy is not referred to by either of these authors. The Virginia governor was also a Carolina proprietor, and being the only one of the group resident in America, he was at first put in charge of Carolina affairs. His intolerant policy in Virginia drove many dissenters across the border, whither they were attracted by the proprietary policy of toleration. By thus increasing the population in the region of Albemarle Sound, the wily governor promoted the extension of Carolina’s northern boundary from the parallel of thirty-six degrees to that of thirty-six degrees, thirty minutes, thereby decreasing his official jurisdiction but augmenting his landed interests, and establishing a boundary which was to become famous in American history.

While Dr. Dodd is interested primarily in tracing the beginnings of American institutions, Professor Andrews treats the problem of colonization from a distinctly imperial point of view. He maintains the same high level of scholarly thoroughness and detachment which characterized his first two volumes, and he does even-handed justice to the policy of the usually unpopular Stuarts. He manifests by no means the same enthusiasm for the beginnings of democracy as does Dr. Dodd, but his ideas on the subject are indicated by certain remarks. In writing of Penn he states, “Aristocratic by instinct, he was certain to be influenced by the power he exercised”; and in regard to the Pennsylvania assembly, which, under the charter of 1701, was elected by the freemen, he states that “no democratic principle was at any time involved.” Now, if universal or manhood suffrage is an essential feature of democracy, then Dr. Dodd must be wrong in thinking that there was much evidence of it during the colonial period. And if an aristocrat may not be as liberal as a commoner, the reviewer must have read his history and his newspapers awry. To our American colonials, democracy did not mean social equality and it did not mean equal suffrage. It meant the “rights of Englishmen” for all freemen—equality before the law. Despite the great metic-ulousness of his work, Professor Andrews seems to have overlooked this fact, which Dr. Dodd, with a broader view, makes the central thesis of his book.


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