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Wanted: An Adequate History of Virginia

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia. Vol. I (June 11, 1680-June 22, 1699); Vol. II (August 9,1699-April 27, 1705); Vol. Ill (May 1, 1705-Oct. 23, 1721). Vol. I was published in 1925; Vol. II, in 1927; and Vol. Ill, in 1928. Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia. Vol. I, The Letters of Patrick Henry (July 1, 1776-Junc 1, 1779); Vol. II, The Letters of Thomas Jefferson (June 1, 1779-June 3, 1781). Vol. I was published in 1926; Vol. II, in 1928. H. R. Mcllwaine, General Editor. Richmond, Virginia: The Virginia State Library. $5.00 a volume.

In the first volume of his “History of Virginia,” Jefferson’s contemporary, John Burk, that “ardent, sanguine and bold genius” who died a duelist’s death, saw fit to assert: “The materials for a correct history are diminishing every day; the war [of the Revolution] has already made a melancholy chasm in our public records.” In confirmation, Dr. Henry Read McIlwaine tells us, in one of the State Library publications, now under notice, that all of Governor Patrick Henry’s letter-books, and one of Governor Jefferson’s, are missing from the Archives. Probably they were carried off by the British, who, in the Arnold and Tarleton raids, were not only bent on securing negroes, horses, and family silver, but were snatching up evidence that might justify the King in hanging rebels—or, as the humorously secretive old Tory, Nicholas Cresswell, called them, in his lately, reprinted “Journal,” “slebers.” We suspect, too, that other wars made other documentary chasms, especially the War of 1861-1865; and, in the more recent past, there has been at work a greater despoiler than war-most reprehensible irresponsibility and neglect on the part of a few Virginia courthouse custodians, who, undervaluing ancient records, have permitted the archives to be ransacked. A Philadelphia genealogist, visiting one of these courthouses some years ago, was shocked to see Patrick Henry letters and others of like importance thrown away, to “make room” in the official cubby-holes for latter-day papers of no historical value whatever.

But, really, the loss in Burk’s day, or since, is trifling when compared with the gain. In co-ordinating, collating, revising, and indexing the mass of raw material now at Richmond, Dr. McIIwaine has executed a task of dusty drudgery which only a patient documentary expert in our colonial and Revolutionary history, could have accomplished. In publishing these volumes, which hereafter will be found in the libraries of the various states, cities, historical societies, and universities, the State Librarv Board has done history a good turn. History and Virginia have been sisters a long, long time. According to E. Keble Chatterton, in his “Captain John Smith,” that worthy himself once wrote: “History is the memory of time, the life of the dead, and the happiness of the living.”

Much of the worth of source-books like these depends upon their inclusiveness and textual accuracy. Dr. McIIwaine has covered the ground, with due diligence and appreciation of values. Nor has he failed to illumine the dark corners with his footnote flashlight. He has used adequate discretion, too, being avoidful of asserting personal views and of that which might provoke controversies. Indeed, we could have wished that, in printing the Patrick Henry letter of February 20, 1778, addressed to General Washington at Valley Forge, Dr. Mcllwaine had explained its significance. With Henry’s own letter went, as an enclosure, an anonymous one to Henry, dated Yorktown, January 12, 1778, intended to draw him into the Conway Cabal, which involved Gates, Reed, Mifflin, and Dr. Benjamin Rush, and which proposed to displace Washington in favor of Gates. Rush wrote it. Henry’s exposure helped to puncture the Conway plot—and save America 1

The Jefferson volume constitutes an important supplement to the available collections of his writings. Whatever may be said of other statesmen and jurists of the American constructive period, Jefferson grows, year by, year. Dr. Mcllwaine has retained one of the great man’s peculiarities. Jefferson had a way of beginning his sentences with small letters. It is true he used the capital when an “I” was required, being in that respect different from General Andrew Jaekson’s staunch Pennsylvania supporter, General John Armstrong, who figures in our patriotic history. General Armstrong once wrote a resolution for the Pennsylvania Legislature commending General Jackson. A Philadelphia member criticized Armstrong’s letter forwarding the resolution. “Sir,” said he, to Armstrong, “it is the usage to write the pronoun ‘I’ with a capital letter.” “Sir,” thundered Armstrong, “when I write to General Jackson, I demean myself! Yes, sir! I use as small an ‘i’ as I can make, but if I were writing to a nobody like you I’d use an ‘I’ big enough to knock you down with!”

Numerous are the passages in which Dr. Mcllwaine must have been obliged to scan every line with a magnifying glass. The text is notably archaic in Vol. I of the Executive Journals; but less so in the others, where the printing was modernized. Some of the difficulties encountered are due to errors made by colonial copying clerks; others to that bad habit of abbreviation characteristic of the goose-quill age. But the editor’s hardest work must have been to preserve the sense—the full meaning—of entangled sentences and puzzling passages. This Dr. Mcllwaine has done with the utmost fidelity. As a result, we have here a succession of clear statements quite ready for use. Only those who have mastered manuscript entanglements quite understand the difficulties involved. Cutting the Gordian knot is disallowed your true student; he must untie if it take a whole day, or a week, or a month; and though well aware that a similar knot awaits him on the next sheet.

In going over these new volumes, and those previously issued by the State Library—not to mention such publications by the Library of Congress as “The Records of the Virginia Company of London”—one is impressed with the desirability of a new history of Virginia that shall be more inclusive, more consecutive and more complete than any now obtainable. It is true that something like this might be said of all the other States in the Union. Where, for instance, is there an outstanding history of Pennsylvania? But we are on the subject of Virginia at this moment; and we shall stick to our theme. We are, of course, loth to venture on this ground lest our contention be taken as a complaint rather than as a plea. We are bespeaking a sound and continuously readable history of Virginia that shall be a composite of the best scholarship past and present. Readability is a prime requisite. One has to be a student to gather up the numerous period-histories and, through them, obtain for himself a grasp of the whole Virginia story. To be a student of the sort requires more time than most of us have at our disposal. What most of us want is a straightaway narrative based on the soundest obtainable data and written with such skill as to impress itself lastingly upon us. A person may be very good at history, yet no historian—very useful to writers, yet no writer himself. An historian, justly noted for accuracy, may be deadly dull, yet never suspect it. The historian, we submit, must see himself as others see him, must read himself as others read him—not an easy thing to do. Too many are so intent upon telling what must be told as to forget that they are also writing to be read.

No one need conclude that we mean to disparage our Virginia historians. We couldn’t do that—wouldn’t for the world. We know very well that they deserve high honor. Robert Beverley, in his “History of Virginia” (London, 1705), told truths that had the elemental merit of displacing lies. William Stith (“History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia,” Williamsburg, 1747) was an accomplished scholar and admirable historian—”Stith, the accurate.” We have already referred to John Burk, whose three volumes (1804-6) were supplemented (1816) in a fourth by Skelton Jones and Louis Hue Giradin. Two pleasing writers, Robert R. Howison (1848) and Charles Campbell (1859) did important work, but more local and

less interesting to the nation at large than the memorable volume of John Fiske—”Old Virginia and Her Neighbors” (1897). Prior to Faske’s achievement, students like Edward Duffield Neill—”Virginia Vetusta” (time of James I) (1885), and “Virginia Carolum” (under Charles I and Charles II) (1886)—had dug deep dnto the Commonwealth’s foundations. Others wrote from the records, notably Alexander Brown—”The Genesis of the United States” (1890); “The First Republic in America” (1898); and “English Politics in Early Virginia History” (1901). A later book is Thomas J. Wertenbaker’s “Virginia under the Stuarts” (1914). Philip Alexander Bruce’s “Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century,” in two volumes (1896), amounted to an achievement.

At tins point, let us invite attention to the prolonged activities of a group of scholarly historians, genealogists, research men, and editors who have sent out from Williamsburg and Richmond, a great number of books, monographs, pamphlets, and periodicals. One of the first periodicals was entitled “Collection of the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society,” and was edited by Jonathan P. Cushing, President of Hampden-Sidney College. A single volume was issued, 1833. Better luck attended William Maxwell, who put out six volumes of the “Virginia Historical Register” (1848-53). Vol. I of the “Virginia Historical Reporter” covered 1854-56; Vol. II, Part 1, was also issued, in 1860. Southern Historical Society Papers fill many volumes— thirty-five up to 1907; with a new series beginning in 1914 and continuing up to the present time. In 1893 appeared the “William and Mary Quarterly Historical Magazine,” edited until 1921 by Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, lifelong specialist in Virginia history, biography, and genealogy, who is now issuing “Tyler’s Quarterly.” The second series of the “William and Mary Quarterly” is under the joint editorship of President J, A. C. Chandler and Librarian E. G. Swem. In 1894 also, the Virginia Historical Society began the publication of the “Virginia Magazine,” edited by Dr. William G. Stanard; and now thirty-six volumes of that magazine are to be had in the libraries.

As for the biographies and collected writings of distinguished Virginians, how are we to tell of them—do more than hint of them? There are long shelves of them. There is a Washington bibliography that is already formidable, and constantly, growing. So with Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Marshall. The Revolutionary Lees and later Lees fill considerable space. Naturally the studies of the Richmond historical school have given rise to many books—Virginia, indeed, has a literature of her own—and to a notable array of magazine articles. Some of the more recent of these hundreds of articles indicate in their very titles numerous things the historian would be obliged to take account of. “Spell of Old Virginia,” “Flower de Hundred,” “Virginia an Aristocratic Oligarchy,” “Democracy vs. Aristocracy,” “Virginia a Gentle Dominion,” “Virginia and the West,” “What Our United States Owes to Virginia.” Attention may well be directed, also, to a three-volume “History of Virginia” jointly and ably worked out by Dr. P. A. Bruce, Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, and Professor Morton. Its great value goes without the saying. Yet a still more comprehensive history of Virginia than any of those now existing might be written by an expert, or several consulting experts; though a work of the kind would necessitate great care, great labor, and, unfortunately, great expense. If done on the scale of the eight-volume “Narrative and Critical History of America,” edited by Justin Winsor, 1889, it could be made to cover compactly and adequately Virginia’s very varied story during its first three hundred years. It could best be made non-encyclopedic and effective if one fit man could take up the whole mass in his mind, establish there the origin, order, sequence, significance, and relative value of events, and, having fused them, direct the perfected product into the flowing current of his history.

Yes, but the one fit man? Where could he be found?And how would he live while at his long-continued labors? It is not easy, nowadays, to whistle up a Macaulay. We are pitching upon Macaulay, offhand, as an example of a writer who compels one to read him. We would have a newer Macaulay who takes note of economic causes—a fairand-square Macaulay not carried away by his desire for antithesis. It is not possible to feed a genius on a diet of index-cards. Moreover, it hardly seems to be in keeping with the spirit of the age for one man to devote one long life to the history of one State. On the other hand, all these historians and historical students we have named have been preparing the way for our suppositious Macaulay, or Gardiner, or Green. They have been, or stand ready to be, his skilled helpers. “Time was,” writes William B. Shaw, “when the historian was virtually compelled to collect his own library. Now the treasures of the Library of Congress, the great university collections, the Boston Public, the New York Public and the special libraries in Boston, New York, Chicago, and a dozen other places are open to any reputable author.” He might have mentioned the Virginia State Library. He might have added the Library of the Virginia Historical Society, as well as the Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where he could find not only a rich Virginia collection, including the “Calendar of State Papers,” “Dinwiddie Papers,” “Virginia County Records,” and the like, but numerous source-tracers that might save him from making many trips to London. He would find at the Society’s hospitable home, 1300 Locust St., Philadelphia, an astonishing array of beautifully indexed volumes containing Reports of the American Historical Manuscripts Commission, and he would have at hand one source of material not to be found elsewhere on this side of the sea —a unique set of 93 volumes, all pen-work, all copied from the British Board of Trade Journals, and covering the period between 1675 and 1782. At the Philosophical Society, Independence Square, Philadelphia, one finds the manuscript history of William Byrd, and other Virginia treasures.

Nevertheless, to London our would-be Virginia historian would have to go. That he would have to spend a long time in the British Public Record Office is quite apparent to anyone who examines a newly-published volume, edited by Cecil Headlam, entitled “Calendar of State Papers, Colonial series, America and West Indies, Preserved by the Public Record Office, 1714-15.” In this one book there are three index-pages filled with references to Virginia. The British State Paper Office was set up in the Seventeenth Century; but, in 1853, was turned over to the Master of Rolls, and its documents removed to the centralized Public Record Office, Chancery Lane. Several seines of Domestic, Foreign and Colonial Papers—from 1547 to 1775—have been calendared. As for the Colonial Records in the America and West India series, they begin in 1574. Bermuda, with its close Seventeenth Century relation to Virginia, is included.1

In this vast repository of manuscripts one might make real discoveries. Yet, while making them, one’s beard would not only, grow but grow white, unless he should employ a hundred sub-searchers and sub-historians to help him reconstruct the Virginia of Elizabeth, the Stuarts, and the Powhatan confederacy. That done, there would be other Virginias to put into the tale—Old Dominion, Mother of Presidents, great scene of civil strife, and finally the modern State.

One thing we rather regret: The present generation will hardly live to see what it has deserved to see. It has dearly loved “Old Ferginny.” It has constantly exercised a species of piety in gathering together and verifying the contents of every chapter, the burden of every paragraph, the truth of every line, of the volume we are adumbrating; but the old students are fast passing; and must commit the unwritten book to those who follow.

1. “The Calendars of Slate Papers . . . are not all of the desirable standard, cither in scope or accuracy; and the original documents which they summarize have still their secrets to reveal. The records of the Admiralty Court have as yet been scarcely used, for of them there exist neither summaries nor even indexes; yet they teem with illustrative detail . . . and in some instances they provide facts that modify accepted views,”—”Sir John Hawkins,” by James A. Williamson, Oxford, 1927.


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