Worst of the Old World and the New

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

This description makes Colonial Virginia sound like the worst of the Old World and the New:

In Virginia, as in the other colonies, there were some yeomen, but this class can never flourish where slavery exists, and there was an idle, dissipated, indebted, and impoverished population, descended in a great degree from younger sons of planters, who looked with contempt on manual labour, and who were quite ready to throw themselves into any military enterprise. 

A traveller from Europe, after passing through the greater part of the colonies, noticed that in Virginia, for the first time, he saw evidence of real poverty among the whites.

The upper classes were keen huntsmen; among all classes there was much gambling and an intense passion for horse-racing, and even in districts where there were no public conveyances and no tolerable inns, great crowds from distances of thirty or forty miles were easily collected by a cockfight.

Among the lower class of whites there was a great brutality of manners, and they were especially noted for their habit of ‘gouging’ out each other’s eyes in boxing matches and quarrels.

‘Indians and negroes,’ a traveller observed, ‘ they scarcely consider as of the human species.’ Acts of violence, and even murder, of which they were the victims, were never or scarcely ever punished, and no negro was suffered to give evidence in a court of law except at the trial of a slave for a capital offence. Virginia, however, was a great breeding country for negroes, and chiefly, perhaps, for this reason they are said to have been treated there with somewhat less habitual cruelty than in the West Indies.

Burke has very truly said that slave-owners are often of all men the most jealous of their freedom, for they regard it not only as an enjoyment but as a kind of rank; and it may be added that slavery, when it does not coexist with a thoroughly enervating climate, is exceedingly favourable to the military qualities, for by the stigma which it attaches to labour, it diverts men from most peaceful and industrial pursuits. Both of these truths were exemplified in Virginia, which produced a very large proportion of the most prominent advocates of independence, while it was early noted for the efficiency of its militia.

Virginia always claimed to be the leading as well as the oldest colony in America, and though its people were much more dissipated and extravagant than those of the Northern colonies, the natural advantages of the province were so great, and the tobacco crop raised by the negroes was so valuable, that in the ten years preceding 1770 the average value of the exports from Virginia and Maryland exceeded by considerably more than, a third the united exports of the New England colonies, New York and Pennsylvania.

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