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Two Virginians

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

Alexander Spotswood, Governor of Colonial Virginia, 1710-1722. By Leonidas Dodson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. $3.00. Life of John Taylor. By Henry H. Simms. Richmond: The William Byrd Press. $3.50.

A lexander spotswood and John Taylor of Caroline are names calculated to stir the imagination of the historically-minded Virginian. They did not, however, unleash the imagination of two recent biographers, Leonidas Dodson and Henry H. Simms. There would seem to be just two excuses for writing history: either it should be significant or it should be interesting. It is too much to expect that it should be both. Biography, as a department of history, might well be subjected to the same criteria. Yet the significant contribution of the individual to the stream of history is often hard to assess, and hence many biographers depend for their appeal upon the purely personal interest involved. Mr. Dodson’s selection of Spots-wood for biographical treatment from the long line of Virginia’s colonial governors was due in all probability to the impression that his was an interesting personality rather than to the belief that his administration was of marked significance. The fact that most of his policies ended in failure and that his biographer denies him any preeminent place among those who were connected with early attempts at westward expansion, would seem to bear out this view. The value of the study lies in the light it throws upon governmental conditions in Virginia in the early eighteenth century. Through the struggles over problems of taxation and the tobacco traffic, over land questions, Indian wars, and ecclesiastical policy, we can trace the efforts of an exponent of efficiency in his attempt to bring order out of confusion. We can see the colonials, including Council, Burgesses, and freeholders, setting themselves against well-considered plans because they feared the prerogative more than they feared inefficiency. In all this there can be found the basis of that political solidarity among the different orders of Virginia society which was to make her so powerful during the struggle for independence.

Of the thirteen chapters of Mr. Dodson’s “Alexander Spotswood,” eleven deal exclusively with the twelve years of Spotswood’s administration as lieutenant-governor of Virginia. The topical arrangement makes the work repetitious in places, and the large space devoted to governmental minutiae prevents an otherwise well-written book from being readable. The author fails to impart life to the Knight of the Golden Horseshoe; and the doughty Councilors remain but a list of shadowy names. The study is a scholarly chronicle of the administration of Governor Spotswood rather than a biography. It has a rich bibliography and covers fully a very limited stretch of the long road through the colonial regime in Virginia.

Mr. Simms’ “Life of John Taylor” lacks some of the merits and some of the faults of Mr. Dodson’s book. It more nearly covers the life of the subject, although the personal side is only slightly developed. One is able to follow the processes of Taylor’s political thinking, but his portrait lacks vitality and its outlines are blurred. The weight of dead fact is not quite so heavy as in the life of Spotswood, but there is considerable “padding.” This takes the form of quoting at length the political speeches not only of Taylor but of his opponents. This tendency would seem to be due to the fact that pertinent material available to the author was none too abundant. Careless editing has resulted in minor defects, such as the statement on page 7 that “He gave instructions in languages also”; the allusion on page 10 to the “power-house in Williamsburg,” and to General “Spottswood” on page 14.

Although Taylor was a Senator from Virginia and actively interested in politics practically all his life, his fame rests primarily upon his little treatise on agriculture, the “Arator.” He was a voluminous writer on political subjects also, but the spirit of the planter runs through the whole of his philosophy. To him, property in the soil was “real” and deserved the protection of the state, but banks and paper money were created by the state and were thus artificial property. Through such creations and through tariff duties the state transferred property from one group of citizens to another, and this was to be opposed. Taylor therefore fought the centralizing tendencies of Federalist policies. Not only was he a state rights man; he was a democrat, favoring liberal suffrage and stressing the freedom of the individual. Yet he did not believe that the average citizen, being primarily concerned with his immediate interest, was appreciably influenced by abstract principles. This tendency of the Virginia aristocrat to be a democrat has been so puzzling that it has never been explained. Perhaps the controversy in which Taylor indulged with John Adams, the defender of aristocratic principles, throws some light on the problem. In Virginia, Taylor really lived the life of an aristocrat — a generous, hospitable, paternalistic planter. In New England, where in 1779 Barbe-Marbois discovered to his astonishment that the governor of Massachusetts acted as his own doorkeeper and the governor of Connecticut blew his nose with his fingers, John Adams could not have separated himself from the masses even had he wished to do so. It probably did not occur to Taylor that democracy would actually result in the rule of the masses, and Adams was looking for some escape from a democracy which was to him but too real. In each case it was the wistful illusion that the remotest field is the greenest.

John Taylor has been less regarded than many lesser men, and Mr. Simms has done much to place him in that galaxy of great Virginians where he belongs.


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