The Fall of Communism in Virginia

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in Liberty

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

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.

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

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.


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of
the Mises Institute. He was
also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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