The First Gentlemen of Virginia:

Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial Ruling Class

by Louis B. Wright





OF all the great Virginia planters who flourished in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Robert Beverley the younger was the least compatible with his colleagues and departed further from the conventional pattern of a Cavalier gentleman. Amidst a group of Tories, he chose to be a Whig. Among planters who sought to reproduce the manners and style of English country squires, he was first a Virginian and then an Englishman; or, as he himself once remarked--apropos of his prose style--"I am an Indian, and don't pretend to be exact in my language." 1 In other things besides language Beverley liked to think of himself as a forthright "Indian." Taking a sardonic pleasure in mocking the smugness of his fellow planters, at times he must have been a thorn in their flesh. With an almost avaricious appetite for fees from the public treasury, he nevertheless was sincerely a patriot, vigorously defending Virginia against the calumny of others, sometimes with more fervor than wisdom. Though he once described himself as "yeoman" 2 --probably out of sheer perversity--he was descended from a genteel family; his father was one of the wealthiest men in the colony; and he himself

accumulated a great estate, with Beverley Park in King and Queen County as the heart and center of his barony. Though Beverley was deliberately an individualist--like many another American--he did not depart entirely from the conventions of gentility; and, though his politics kept him on the peripheral outskirts of power, he was distinctly a member of the governing group. But--what is of greatest interest to posterity-- he was the first native son to make a distinguished contribution to literature.


The individualism of Robert Beverley the younger was a natural inheritance from a father whose own divergence from the normal pattern of his kind made him a storm center in Virginia politics.


Major Robert Beverley the elder, who arrived in Virginia about 1663, quickly took his place among the leading planters, accumulated property, held public office, and was politically active from the day he stepped on the shores of the colony until his death in 1687. 3 In that time he had incurred the enmity of many members of his own class,

gathered about him some loyal adherents among the lesser planters, helped suppress the Bacon rebels, led a riotous party himself, and was committed to prison. All in all, Major Beverley's career was exciting and turbulent, and his namesake must have been "conditioned" in his childhood to habits of outspoken independence and forthright action.


Major Beverley was descended from a family of the small gentry of Yorkshire. On his arrival he had sufficient capital to enable him to acquire a comfortable seat in Middlesex County, and he continued to add to his landed possessions until at his death he held more than fifty thousand acres of land, chiefly in frontier counties. 4 His personal property, valued at approximately £5,000, included expensive furniture, a quantity of silver plate marked with the family crest, and

forty-two slaves. 5 In twenty-four years he had become one of the richest planters of his time. To share this property he left a family of nine children by two wives. Robert was the second son by his first wife.


Before Bacon's rebellion in 1676, Major Beverley had already become an influential citizen. He had been elected clerk of the House of Burgesses in 1670 and had served as a justice of the peace in Middlesex County. When danger from the Bacon rebels threatened, he was made a member of the Council and proved one of Governor Berkeley's most loyal supporters, leading a troop into the field and capturing some of the most active of Bacon's followers. Indeed, he seems to have been overly zealous. The royal commissioners sent to investigate the rebellion quoted Beverley as saying that "he had not

plundered enough, so that the rebellion ended too soon for his purpose"; and the commissioners added that he had "been the evil instrument that fomented the ill humors between the two governors there on the place, and was a great occasion for their clashing and difference." 7 This last was an allusion to Beverley's continued adherence to the cause of Governor Berkeley after Herbert Jeffreys had been sent to replace him.


Thenceforth, Beverley was the leader of a "people's party" or a Whig group in Virginia politics. Distrustful of the governors who succeeded Berkeley, he was constantly opposing their policies. When Governor Jeffreys and the royal commissioners demanded the Journals of the House of Burgesses in 1677, Beverley as secretary saucily refused, saying he would not comply without the consent of their masters (meaning the House of Burgesses)--a reply that caused the Governor to complain of his impudence. 8 After the commissioners had seized the books by force, the House of Burgesses, prompted by Beverley, passed a resolution of remonstrance which aroused the anger of King Charles himself. The upshot was that the Privy Council ordered the removal of Beverley and Edward Hill from the Council because of their "evil fame."


Meanwhile the House of Burgesses, in which Beverley had a strong following, loyally supported him. He was re-elected clerk of the House on June 8, 1680, and was regarded as a leader against the oppression of the clique adhering to the various royal governors. Governor Culpeper, with unusual perception of the trend of public opinion, persuaded the English government to reinstate both Beverley and Hill.


But Major Beverley's troubles had only begun. When tobacco prices fell to a disastrous level in the spring of 1682, a movement to curtail production by refusing to plant tobacco for one year gained considerable headway. This movement was favored by many small planters and was led in part by Major Beverley. Because the assembly called by Deputy Governor Chicheley failed to give government authority for the cessation of tobacco culture, a group of planters took the matter into their own hands and set out to cut down tobacco plants wherever they found them. For his part in that foray, Major Beverley was arrested and imprisoned on board a ship, accused of "being the prime actor" in the plant cutting. 9 On being transferred to the custody of the sheriff of York, Beverley escaped and returned to his own home in Middlesex, where he was retaken but again escaped, only to be brought back once more into custody. One gets the impression that his arrest was something of a farce, though Fitzhugh's habeas-corpus plea failed to gain his client's release. Later, other charges of a frivolous nature--namely, that he had broken open letters

directed to the secretary of the colony--were preferred against him. After considerable persecution, he was finally driven, on May 3, 1684, to plead on bended knee for the forgiveness of the Council--surely a bitter pill for the proud and irascible old clerk of the House of Burgesses. A year before, Major Beverley, being called before the General Court, had prepared a written defense that he intended to read to the Court but was prevented; this statement, preserved in Hening Statutes, 10 gives a clue to his character. He calls to mind his dutiful service to the King: "How my heart hath been filled from my youth up with loyalty to my king and duty to his ministers"; how

"from the year 1668 to the year 1676, I served his Majesty in military and civil offices of trust, with fidelity and approbation"; how in the year 1676 particularly, a time of "more than ordinary trials of loyalty," he performed signal services for the King. Now, Beverley points out, he stands accused of unspecified misdemeanors, and he pleads his innocence of the vague charges that he had been "disloyal, tumultuous, or disobedient." That the Governor and Council refused him a hearing suggests that the logic of justice was with Beverley.


The doughty if indiscreet old planter had dared to oppose the policies of his class, and for that crime he was punished as a "trouble-maker." Undoubtedly Beverley's hostility to the governing clique, interpreted by the aristocratic group as a betrayal of his class, was the source of most of his woe. Apparently he took a sardonic pleasure in his own rebelliousness, and we know that his tactless utterances were not conducive to increasing his popularity with the great gentry of the

colony. Especially when drink had overcome him, Beverley was likely to talk too much; as a contemporary observed, it was expected that "some idle words should fall from him in his cups, which when so taken he is not compos mentis." 11


Many of the qualities of the father were repeated in the son, and Robert the historian lived out his life not altogether in harmony with his brethren in the colony.


The younger Robert Beverley was born about 1673, at his father's plantation house in Middlesex County. His mother was the daughter of a merchant of Hull and the widow of George Keeble, one of the pioneer settlers in Middlesex. 12 Of his childhood we know next to nothing. In his youth he was sent to school in England, but what school he attended is unknown. In 1694 his father's executors paid to two London merchants, Micajah Perry and Thomas Lane, the sum of £40 "for entertaining and accomodating Major Beverley's sons, Harry, John, and Robert Beverley." 13 Perry and Lane most likely had the responsibility of placing the boys in a proper school, since Virginia planters sometimes left such details to the discretion of trusted mercantile correspondents in England. It has been supposed that Robert attended Beverly Grammar School in Yorkshire, because some of his descendants were educated there.


After the youth's return to Virginia, when he was about nineteen years old, he set out to learn the ways of Virginia law by becoming a volunteer scrivener in the office of the colonial secretary of state, then Christopher Robinson, who had been his father's friend. In 1693 Ralph Wormeley succeeded Robinson and may also have helped to guide the young novice. But Beverley needed little advice to make him worldlywise, and he was not long content to remain a volunteer

scrivener. On April 24, 1695, the Journals of the House of Burgesses record that "The petition of Robert Beverley for an allowance for his public services as clerk attending the Secretary's office was read and referred to the consideration of the Committee for Public Claims." 14 How often were Beverley's claims for compensation to echo in the meetings of committees of the House of Burgesses during the years to

come! At the outset of his career, this petition is symbolical of his lifelong anxiety over fees. Significantly, perhaps, Beverley became secretary of the Committee for Public Claims on March 8, 1693. And presently we find him serving as clerk of the General Court, clerk of the Council, and clerk of the General Assembly. 15


Beverley had inherited from his father a plantation in Gloucester County; a little later his landed wealth was increased by six thousand acres when his younger half-brothers, John and Thomas, died, leaving him an estate, in the frontier region of King and Queen County, named by their father Beverley Park. 16 But since Beverley found it convenient to live near the seat of government, in 1694 he bought a lot in Jamestown and settled his residence there. His landed property

in King and Queen County gave him a claim, however, on the post of clerk of the county, which he obtained through the favor of Mr. Secretary of State Wormeley in 1699. In the same year he was elected to the House of Burgesses from Jamestown, but, because the capital was too poor to pay its representative the allowance usually granted members from the counties, Beverley complained and demanded his fee-- whereupon Jamestown decided to do without representation by Beverley, or anyone else, in the session of 1703-5.


Meanwhile, in 1697, by making a brilliant marriage with Ursula Byrd, sixteen-year-old daughter of the first William Byrd, Beverley proved that the political opposition aroused by his father had not impaired his own social position. His bride had received the advantages of an English education. At the age of four, Ursula, with her sister Susan and a maid, had been sent to England, where apparently she remained

until after the Treaty of Ryswick, in 1697, had made ocean travel safe again. 17 Immediately on her return she married Beverley; and in less than a year she died at the birth of her son William, who lived to become the owner of a great estate called Blandfield and a member of the Council--an office to which his father aspired but never attained. Robert Beverley never remarried.


The increase of his estate became one of the main concerns of the young politician of Jamestown. To his already extensive holdings, he added lands and houses in Elizabeth City. But so curious is the working of fate that the acquisition of this property not only caused his political downfall but was indirectly responsible for his writing the history of Virginia.


Having become involved in litigation over the title to the Elizabeth City estate, the new owner went to England in June, 1703, to prosecute an appeal to the Privy Council. There he remained for eighteen months and lost the suit. More unfortunate still, he meddled in politics at home by writing letters making satirical attacks on Governor Francis Nicholson and Robert Quarry, the surveyor-general of customs. If the letters are indiscreet and biting in their sarcasm, they nevertheless show that Beverley was inspired by a patriotic desire to arouse the House of Burgesses over what he sincerely believed to be the dangerous machinations of Nicholson and Quarry against the liberties of Virginians.


What had stirred the patriotic fervor of the young colonial were the reports he heard in London of Nicholson's and Quarry's contemptuous remarks about the Council, the House of Burgesses, and Virginia gentlemen generally. Furthermore, he had reason to believe that the Governor and the Surveyor of Customs were plotting to gain dictatorial powers over the colony and to impose their wills by means of a standing army.


He also disliked their efforts to raise money and men in Virginia to defend New York against the French and Indians. In an open letter, copies of which he sent to several Virginia leaders, 18 Beverley mentioned a dozen or more of the principal planters--including Robert Carter, Philip Ludwell, William Byrd, and himself--who had, been abused and slandered in reports sent back to England by the two officials. Virginians had been represented as "obstinate people of Commonwealth principles," who "must be corrected and lowered in time"; the Council, as "vain, cowardly, disloyal to her Majesty, and perjured, not regarding their oaths"; the House of Burgesses, as "a pack of rude, unthinking, willful, obstinate people, without any regard to her Majesty or her interest, and it's laid as a crime to them that they think themselves entitled to the liberties of Englishmen." 19 And he adds, "but what I take to be the most dangerous, and comes nearest to the loss of our lives and liberties, as well as estates, is the many inventions and unsuspecting arguments that are constantly used in all letters and memorials to obtain a standing force [army], and a title of

captain general over all the plantations on the [American] continent." Beverley concludes with the pious wish that "my country would but lay their head and heart to consider and would but believe what is really true of the designs against them." Nicholson he calls "our Duke" and describes as proud, domineering, and dictatorial; Quarry is compared with his predecessor "old [Edward] Randolph," and called "ten times worse; nay the devil himself, were he in his room, could not do us more mischief." The Council heard this outpouring of sarcastic if patriotic invective, and appeared not altogether incredulous; when it met on September 24, 1704, Nicholson asked their advice concerning so impudent an utterance, "Whereupon the Council declare that it is their opinion that it will not affect the peace of the country." But Nicholson was furious and caused his ideas about Beverley to be inscribed in the official journals as follows:


As to Mr. Beverley's letter and narrative, they are part false, part

scandalous, and part malicious, but I could not expect otherwise

from a man of his universal ill character; but I suppose his pride,

ambition, vanity, unsettledness in all his conditions and his poverty might make him hope to make a sedition in the country. The advice I give him is to get himself close-shaved and make friends with the governors of her Majesty's hospital of Bethlem to get a place there; and there he may meet with real chains instead of imaginary ones that I was preparing for her Majesty's loyal and dutiful subjects of Virginia.


The Governor forthwith discharged the offending Beverley from his lucrative office of clerk of King and Queen County.


The House of Burgesses, however, listened sympathetically to the charges against Nicholson and Quarry. Since Quarry was no favorite anyway, the House was induced by Beverley's letters to send an address to the crown complaining against him. Quickly came back a vindication of Quarry and a rebuke to the House for preferring "groundless" charges, tending only to "fomenting divisions amongst our subjects." 20 Beverley's chances for political advancement having been ruined by this fiasco, he returned to Virginia and shook from his feet the dust of both Jamestown and the new capital at Williamsburg.


For the rest of his days, he lived the life of a somewhat Spartan

gentleman at Beverley Park. During the session of 1706 he sat

in the House of Burgesses for King and Queen County, but

henceforth he was content to watch the intrigues of Virginia politics with satirical aloofness.


Had Beverley not gone to England to prosecute his case, most likely he would not have written The History and Present State of Virginia, published first in London, in 1705. And had he not written this earliest enduring work by a native Virginian, his fame would have been no greater than many another litigious planter's. Though Beverley's journey was politically disastrous and economically ruinous, he achieved thereby a permanent place among significant American authors.


The reasons for his writing the history are set forth in the preface to the second edition, of 1722. "In the year 1703, my affairs calling me to England," Beverley remarks, "I was soon after my arrival complimented by my bookseller with an intimation that there was prepared for printing a general account of all her Majesty's plantations in America." The bookseller desired him to "overlook it before it was put to the press," and Beverley agreed to criticize the part on Virginia. Soon afterward the bookseller brought "about six sheets of paper

written, which contained the account of Virginia and Carolina.

This it seems was to have answered [for] a part of Mr. Oldmixon's

British Empire in America." So inaccurate was the account that, after trying to correct it, Beverley gave up and offered to write a new history himself; but he refused to allow the publisher to "mingle it with Oldmixon's other account of the plantations," because of the inaccuracies in the Englishman's work. When John Oldmixon The British Empire in America finally appeared, in 1708, with a section on Virginia, its treatment of that colony was so unsatisfactory that Beverley, in the preface to the 1722 edition of his own work, printed

four pages of corrections, with page references to Oldmixon.


From early manhood Beverley had taken an interest in the history of Virginia. "My first business in the world being among the public records of my country," he says in the 1722 preface, "the active thoughts of my youth put me upon taking notes of the general administration of the government, but with no other design than the gratification of my own inquisitive mind." This inquisitive mind had also led him to make many observations of Indian life and of the natural history of his country. Furthermore, he had read widely in the literature of travel and history and had compared Virginia with the

descriptions of the great world, ancient and modern. With such a preparation, Beverley was ready in 1703 to begin a descriptive narrative of Virginia, which he quickly completed and published.


The History and Present State of Virginia attracted considerable attention in England and created some excitement at home. Interest in France was so great that, two years after publication in England, a French translation was printed at Orleans and sold in Paris; there followed a pirated edition of this French version, published the same year, 1707, at Amsterdam, and a second pirated edition, published in 1712, also at Amsterdam. 21 Perhaps the curiosity of French Huguenots about the new Promised Land accounts for the demand for three editions in French.


Beverley's history was read with more wrath than favor by some of his Virginia colleagues. The caustic irony, evident in his letters about Nicholson and Quarry, makes his book eminently readable today, but its perusal must have been an unpleasing experience to members of the ruling clique, as well as to certain of the more complacent planters, since the writer was unsparing in his criticism of the shortcomings of his contemporaries. For his "freedom to represent the mismanagement

of several gentlemen," the author remarks in the preface of 1705, he should not be blamed, because "it is their fault that acted such irregularities, and not mine that report them to the world. If men will please to be unjust, run counter to the royal instructions, oppress the people, and offer violence to all the laws of a country, they ought to be known and abhorred by mankind."


If personal animosities prompted part of Beverley's acid comments upon Virginia's rulers, he also was moved by a genuine love of his country and a zeal for justice. Robert Beverley was intensely Virginian. No longer did he feel that his primary allegiance was to England. In him appears a definite and vocal patriotism for his native country. The phrase "my country," often repeated in his writings, is indicative of his attitude. Beverley's concern over justice for Virginia is evident in the dedication of the first edition of his history to Robert Harley, then Speaker of the House of Commons. He praises Harley

for the friendly and wise interest he has taken in the colonies.


"While some people," the writer points out, "upon very mistaken principles of policy are for loading those countries with heavy impositions and oppressing them with rapacious and arbitrary governors, you, sir, who are a better judge of their importance, are for milder methods, and for extending the blessings of justice and property to all the English dominions." Harley's attitude, Beverley thinks, is "directed by unbiased reason and the real advantage of England." Virginia, he insists, asks no other treatment than to be governed by such a policy as is "due to a loyal people whose lives are devoted to the benefit of their mother country." Beverley never forgets that he is a subject of the English sovereign, but he is eternally

conscious that he is also a free citizen of Virginia.


The lack of any accurate description of his country, or any intelligent account of its institutions, has induced him to try to give a faithful picture of Virginia, Beverley remarks in the preface of 1705. Previous descriptions have not been true, "or so much as well invented." Therefore, he has mentioned nothing that he cannot "make good by very authentic testimony." Although he is passionately devoted to the interest of Virginia, he does not believe that a patriot should hide his country's faults. Hence, he has "shown the small improvements that the English have made since they have been in possession, and

pointed at several great advantages which they might secure to

themselves by a due spirit of industry and management."


The history is divided into four parts; the first gives a running narrative of the settlement of the colony up to the writer's own time; the second is a description of the natural history of the region; the third is an account of the Indians; and the fourth is a discussion of the form of government, with some description of the laws and public offices. It was in this last portion that Beverley gave most offense to his contemporaries. Although the historical narrative is too sketchy to be of great value, the natural-history portions and the descriptions of the Indians are exceedingly valuable, as are the comments on the manners and customs of the day. And Beverley's history, besides being a mine of information for the social historian, is also an entertaining and amusing book, written with verve, clarity, and a shrewd sense of humor. The author never betrays the naïveté of a provincial; throughout the book he shows the urbanity of a widely read and experienced citizen of the world--surely a rare quality in an American writer of the early eighteenth century.


But, since Virginia politicians relished criticism, even from one of their own kind, as little as other folk, Beverley's history did not win him many friends among the ruling set; hence, when he returned from England, he settled down at Beverley Park on what was then the frontier and prepared to make the most of his plantation, without benefit of political sinecures.


While other planters were sedulously trying to duplicate the manners and customs of English country gentlemen, the proprietor of Beverley Park chose to be a gentleman with a difference. If his brother-in-law, William Byrd of Westover, was eager to make his establishment a replica of an English lord's estate, Beverley was content to dwell in austere simplicity, pursuing his own life with an individualistic disregard for trends and fashions. When even small planters were able

to afford imported furniture from London, he furnished his house with wooden stools of plantation manufacture. 22 Having criticized his countrymen for being such "abominable ill-husbands, that though their country be over-run with wood, yet they have all their wooden-ware from England," 23 Beverley doubtless felt that he ought to set an example by making his own furniture.


Though he had only one son to inherit his wealth, for the rest of his life Robert Beverley labored to increase his estate by land speculations and by the thrifty operation of his plantations. To those who crossed him in his business dealings, he was not above meanness and harshness. In fact, from some of his contemporaries he earned the reputation of being overbearing. 24 Yet he does not appear to have been disliked as a neighbor. Indeed, he was capable of convivial gaiety and was a gracious host.


When that able administrator, Alexander Spotswood, became lieutenant-governor in 1710, under the nominal governorship of the Earl of Orkney, Beverley's political fortunes improved slightly. He won the favor of the new executive sufficiently to receive two or three minor appointments: he was made one of the tobacco agents under the act of 1714 for the inspection of tobacco; later he was a member of a committee for licensing attorneys; and in 1718 he was appointed

presiding officer of the King and Queen County court. 25 Since Spotswood was vastly concerned with the development of the frontier, he doubtless recognized in Beverley a vigorous personality who could further his interests in the opening of the new country to the west.


Beverley was one of the gentlemen participating in the famous expedition, led by Spotswood, across the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley, in August, 1716--an expedition as convivial as it was spectacular in its accomplishment. On the way to the mountains, the Governor's party had stopped for the night at Beverley Park, where they had made merry with wine of Beverley's own vintage. 26 The next morning their host joined them for the rest of their joyous adventure.


To the journal of John Fontaine, a Frenchman who accompanied the Spotswood expedition, we are indebted for details of the journey, and from the same source comes information about Beverley's life on his plantation, for Fontaine had visited Beverley Park nearly a year before and had written down his impressions.


One of Beverley's enthusiasms during his later years was the belief that Virginia could be made an important wine-producing country. He planted vineyards that were his greatest pride, and made large quantities of wine. Though his neighbors were so doubtful of his success that they took one hundred guineas on a ten-to-one wager with Beverley that he could not produce seven hundred gallons of wine in seven years' time, the planter himself was confident, when Fontaine visited him, that he would win the stake of a thousand guineas after the next vintage. 27 Because Beverley followed Spanish methods of wine making rather than French, Fontaine was skeptical of his judgment, but he "drank very heartily of the wine," even though he did not relish the taste as much as he could wish.


That Beverley conscientiously set out to demonstrate to his less thrifty contemporaries that a Virginia gentleman could and should make his own land supply his wants is suggested by a passage in Fontaine's journal, dated November 14, 1715: "This man lives well; but though rich, he has nothing in or about his house but what is necessary. He hath good beds in his house, but no curtains; and instead of cane chairs, he hath stools made of wood. He lives upon the product of his land."


Yet Beverley was not penurious and was invariably hospitable.

Fontaine was graciously entertained and not permitted to depart until the rainy weather had ended. On November 16 the rain let up sufficiently for host and guest to divert themselves with hunting, followed by more potations from the vineyard. But, the next day being Sunday, "About ten of the clock, we mounted our horses, Mr. Beverley with us, and we went about seven miles to his parish church, where we had a good sermon from a Frenchman named Mr. De Latané, who is a minister of this parish. After service, we returned to

Mr. Beverley's house and finished the day there." Though Beverley was pleased to flout some of the conventions of his fellow planters, he observed the proprieties of religious worship expected of a country gentleman.


The traditional hospitality of Virginians, which Fontaine enjoyed, received Beverley's praise in his history. "If there happen to be a churl that either out of covetousness or ill-nature won't comply with this generous custom," the writer remarks, "he has a mark of infamy set upon him, and is abhorred by all. But I must confess (and am heartily sorry for the occasion) that this good neighborhood has of late been

much depraved by the present governor, who practices the detestable politics of governing by parties, by which feuds and heart-burnings have been kindled in the minds of the people, and friendship, hospitality, and good neighborhood have been extremely discouraged." 28


Although Beverley's enthusiasm for the produce of his own vines may seem to indicate a partiality for the wine cup, he was not given to excess in drinking, or in anything else. In fact, he was an advocate of temperance in all things. To intemperance he attributes the report of Virginia's sickliness-- a charge often made by sailors who "imprudently fall to drinking cold water, or perhaps new cider," or who eat too much and "so fall into fluxes, fevers, and the belly-ache, and then to spare their own indiscretion, they in their tarpaulin language cry 'God damn the country.'" 29 Moderation is the way to

health, Beverley believes, and, "by the most impartial observation I can make, if people will be persuaded to be temperate, and take due care of themselves, I believe it [ Virginia] is as healthy a country as any under Heaven."


Fontaine's journal, with its allusions to hunting, suggests some of the pleasures followed by the owner of Beverley Park. If hunting had not yet developed the conventions of a society sport, it undoubtedly furnished a pleasant diversion for many a planter. Though Beverley refers to himself as only a "small sportsman," 30 he shot ducks and turkeys, hunted deer and bear, and--what must have been rare sport--rode "full speed after wolves in the woods." 31 Fishing was one of his favorite amusements, and he delighted in all types of the sport. "I have set in the shade at the heads of the rivers angling," he boasts,

"and spent as much time in taking the fish off the hook as in waiting for their taking it." 32 We know that Beverley did not confine his fishing to rod and line, for he makes an allusion elsewhere to a strange fish he caught one day while "hauling a seine upon the salts." 33 So much satisfaction did Beverley derive from these outdoor enjoyments that he remarks some- what enviously of the Indians, that "by their pleasure alone, they supplied all their necessities." 34


Beverley found delight in the observation of nature. The world about him was not something to be conquered and subdued, but rather something to be investigated, appreciated, and enjoyed. We should remember that his estate was already a settled plantation when he occupied it, and that he was spared the necessity of rough pioneering. To the development of the natural beauties of his place he could give his attention. Detailed descriptions of the grounds at Beverley Park are lacking, but we can be certain that the owner was proud of his

gardens and trees. Almost lyrical is his praise of Virginia gardens and the "merry birds" that make up a "rural consort," especially the mockingbirds "who love society so well that whenever they see mankind, they will perch upon a twig very near them, and sing the sweetest wild airs in the world," or fly along ahead of a traveler and "by their music make a man forget the fatigues of his journey." 35 "Have you pleasure in a garden?"Beverley asks, and answers by describing the perfection of Virginia gardens, which any man must love. "All things thrive in it most surprisingly. You can't walk by a bed of flowers but besides the entertainment of their beauty, your eyes will be saluted with the charming colors of the humming bird which revels among the flowers, and licks off the dew and honey from their tender leaves on which it only feeds. Its size is not half so large as an English wren, and its color is a glorious shining mixture of scarlet, green, and gold. Colonel Byrd, in his garden, which is the finest in that

country, has a summer house set round with the Indian honeysuckle, which all the summer is continually full of sweet flowers in which these birds delight exceedingly. Upon these flowers I have seen ten or a dozen of these beautiful creatures to-

gether, which sported about me so familiarly that with their little wings they often fanned my face." 36


These words were not a mere conventional tribute to natural beauty, but an expression of genuine love of nature. Beverley's own garden must have been one of his delights. When he is describing the sarsaparilla vine with its bright red berries, he

thinks it suitable for "divers ornamental uses." His zest for experiment, as exemplified in his vine-growing, no doubt led him to adapt native plants to his garden.


There was more than a little of scientific speculation in Beverley's observations of nature, though he was conscious of his lack of scientific training. His treatment of the natural history of Virginia was briefer than the author wished, because of his "want of skill in the works of nature." But he voices a hope that his book "will be sufficient to give a handle to a more complete undertaking." 37


Beverley's curiosity about the natural world was immense, and he anticipated Thoreau in the patience with which he studied the habits of birds and beasts. His willingness to experiment led him on one occasion to eat a rattlesnake, "which

was dainty food," he assures us. 38 The cunning of animals fascinated him. Beavers, for example, struck him as peculiarly shrewd creatures. They live, the author reports, "in a regular form of government, something like monarchy," and have such a "deal of policy" that they can defeat "all the subtlety and stratagems of the hunter." 39


During Beverley's last years, he busied himself with the pleasures of his own little realm and with the revision of his history. Although he was still not an old man--for he was only forty-nine when he died--experience had mellowed him, and he set about purging his work of statements likely to offend. To that end he deleted most of the pungent comment on his contemporaries and "set down the succession of the governors with the more general incidents of their government, without reflection upon the private conduct of any person." 40 If the second edition, published in the year of his death, 1722, was less readable in consequence, it shows a commendable sense of fair play. He was unwilling to hand on to posterity remarks that he realized were partly a result of his own prejudice. For, in the first edition of his book, Beverley had not spared the subjects of his dislikes, particularly the recent governors. Governor Francis Nicholson was described as a hateful tyrant, ready to hang Virginia citizens, "with Magna Charta about their necks," if they protested on the ground of their natural rights. 41 The founding of Williamsburg was merely a wild project of this governor. 42 But one wonders whether the fact that Beverley owned real estate in the old capital of Jamestown might not have affected his views on Williamsburg. Thomas, Lord Culpeper, was pictured as chiefly intent upon suppressing the liberties of Virginians--even their freedom of appeal to the throne. 43 Francis, Lord Howard of Effingham, was held up as an example of greed. 44 And Sir Edmund Andros was blamed for complicating the procedure of Virginia law by insisting too meticulously upon English precedents. 45 Only old Governor Berkeley, his father's friend, was praised wholeheartedly. 46 All of the personal malice that had found its way into the

book was toned down in the 1722 edition.


Another project that occupied Beverley's later life was a compilation of the laws of Virginia--a task completed shortly before his death. The work was brought out in London, in 1722, by the same booksellers who published the new version of the history. 47 The little book, which bore the title of An Abridgment of the Public Laws of Virginia, was dedicated to Alexander Spotswood in words that praised him in the highest terms for protecting the laws and liberties of the country, suppressing the pirate Teach, reviving the College of William and Mary, encouraging teachers to instruct the Indians in religion and letters, and extending the frontier settlements.

Finally, the author concludes with the assertion that Spotswood's administration is an honor to Great Britain and the "greatest happiness that ever befell Virginia, raising it from need and indigence to a flourishing plenty and prosperity, with an increase of virtue and good manners." Spotswood had recognized Beverley's merits and had won him for a friend. The compilation of laws is a workmanlike manual that must have been useful to every justice of the peace and planter. The only other work known to have been composed by Beverley is a small manuscript note, on a map drawn by one Lamhatty, a Creek Indian, describing a journey from Virginia to the Gulf. 48 This note is an illustration of Beverley's long-continued interest in the Indians.


Beverley died on April 21, 1722, and was buried in the family graveyard at Beverley Park. Though we know he left a will, it and the inventory of his property have long since disappeared, with other records of King and Queen County, but such legal records as have survived show that he passed on to his son William one of the greatest estates of the early eighteenth century. 49 The accumulation of wealth had taken much of Beverley's energy, but something stronger than avarice prompted him. It was his love of his land--the sentiment of a man who had roots deep in the soil. When John Fontaine wanted a tract of three thousand acres of Beverley's Rappahannock land, he refused to sell but offered a lease for nine hundred and ninety-nine years. 50 Apparently he wanted to feel that this good Virginia soil would remain in his and his heirs' possession.


Because the inventory of Beverley's property is lost, we do not know the extent of his library, or the range of his literary interests, but his own style has a polish that could have come only from familiar acquaintance with good books. Allusions in the history clearly show that he had read widely in works of travel, geography, and history, both of classical and modern writers. Conditions in Virginia suggest to him similar situations in other parts of the world. The eating habits of the Indians, for example, remind him of the strange foods sold in the markets of Fess, and of the diet of the Arabians, Lybians,


Parthians, and Ethiopians. A broth made "of the head and umbles of a deer" seems "to resemble the jus nigrum of the Spartans." 51 Constantly he is drawing parallels from his reading. Of classical authors on natural history, he cites Pliny and Aelian. Concerning the New World, he quotes from Samuel Purchas, Alexander Whittaker, Captain John Smith, Thomas Hariot, Father Louis Hennepin, Peter Martyr, Sir Josiah Child, and the voyages of Theodor de Bry. These were works well known to English readers; but Beverley also consulted out-of- the-way books, and quotes such men as Pierre Belon, who in the mid-sixteenth century composed treatises on natural history; Adam Olearius, German author of many seventeenthcentury travel narratives; Joannes de Laet, who wrote and compiled works of geographical and historical interest; and Ferdinand Verbiest, who in 1695 published a narration of the voyage of the Emperor of China into eastern Tartary. Sir Francis Bacon is cited two or three times as an authority on natural history, and Sir Walter Raleigh History of the World is mentioned with admiration. When Beverley is heaping invective on Governor Nicholson, he finds a parallel in Machiavelli's principle of "divide and rule." 52 In short, Beverley's own book shows an acquaintance with many authors, though never

does he sound pedantic or drag in allusions by the hair. He writes with the ease of a man who had digested his learning.


Beverley's intellectual curiosity extended beyond the authority of books. The scientific attitude demonstrated in his first- hand observations of nature was even more clearly shown in his zeal to present an accurate picture of Indian life. His history's section on the Virginia Indians is not only one of the most valuable portions of the book, but also gives a further revelation of the intellectual qualities of the author. In order to gain first-hand knowledge of the habits and customs of these people, he visited their villages and won their friendship. Having experienced difficulty in learning about their religious beliefs, he welcomed an opportunity to spend an evening plying an intelligent Indian with hard cider until his tongue was loosened sufficiently to talk about his gods and devils. 53 Far from conventional in his attitudes generally, Beverley once more proved his original point of view in dis- cussing the relations of the English with the Indians. Unlike the usual Englishman, who believed the Indians were devils incarnate, Virginia's first historian commended them for their virtues. Intermarriage between the settlers and the Indians he thought desirable, and he stoutly defended Indian women against charges of customary unchastity before marriage. "Indeed," he comments, "I believe this story to be an aspersion cast on those innocent creatures by reason of the freedom they take in conversation, which uncharitable Christians interpret  as criminal upon no other ground than the guilt of their own consciences." 54


So far convinced was Beverley of the good qualities of the Indians that he doubted whether the white settlers had brought any great improvement to the land. The Indians lived an idyllic life and enjoyed the natural produce of the country "without the curse of industry, their diversion alone and not their labor supplying their necessities." The change that had come since the country was settled by white men awoke no enthusiasm in the author's breast. "And indeed all that the English have done since their going thither has been only to make some of these native pleasures more scarce by an inordinate and unseasonable use of them, hardly making improvements equivalent to that damage." 55


Though Beverley was critical and unconventional in his personal views, he was not intolerant. In fact, he was vigorously opposed to religious persecution of any sort and proclaimed the value of religious freedom. To his country's credit, Beverley asserts, "Christians of all nations have equal free- dom there, and upon their arrival become ipso facto entitled to all the liberties and privileges of the country, provided they take the oaths of obedience to the crown and government." 56 Colonel William Byrd, brother-in-law of the writer, receives praise for his generosity to distressed Huguenot refugees. 57 If Beverley was a protagonist of religious toleration, that does not mean that he had no definite religious views himself or was free from prejudice. He clearly disliked priestcraft, as he demonstrates in a passage comparing the cunning of Indian and Romish priests. 58 As an Anglican himself, he probably took a sly pleasure in pointing out that "those counties where the Presbyterian meetings are, produce very mean tobacco." 59


One quality in Beverley, evident throughout his history--a quality obvious all his life--was his devotion to Virginia. Although he could criticize his contemporaries with sardonic irony, he never doubted the goodness of this land. He was a Virginian and proud of it. When others found fault with the colony, he defended her vigorously. When the charge was made that Virginians mistreated their servants, Beverley hotly denied the libel and cited benign laws that had been enacted to protect the lives and rights of servants. 60 Reproaches heaped on the colony had come from "unfit and unequal judges," travelers from England who knew little of the real genius of the country--a complaint that Americans were to make for the next two hundred years. Even the laziness of Virginians, a fault that Beverley himself had criticized, comes from the"exceeding plenty of good things with which nature has blest them; for where God Almighty is so merciful as to work for people, they never work for themselves." 61


In Robert Beverley Virginia had a native son whose originality and iconoclastic views sometimes irritated his contemporaries; but in this vigorous writer the colony had a voice that proclaimed her dawning intellectual and political maturity. Robert Beverley and his brother-in-law, William Byrd of Westover, were the most vigorous writers that Virginia produced in the pre-Revolutionary period.



61  Ibid., p. 60 . 

56  Ibid., Bk. IV, pp. 44-45 ; see also Bk. I, p. 59. 

57  Ibid., Bk. IV, pp. 46-47 . 

58  Ibid., Bk. III, p. 44 ; see also p. 33. 

59  Ibid., Bk. IV, p. 27 . 

60  Ibid., pp. 36-39 . 

53  Ibid., Bk. III, p. 32 . 

54  Ibid., p. 9 . 

55  Ibid., Bk. II, p. 40 . 

51  The History and Present State of Virginia ( 1705), Bk. III, p. 14, See also

Bk. II, p. 27. 

52  Ibid., Bk. I, p. 99 . 

48  See Ibid., PP. 343-44 . 

49  Ibid., P. 341 . 

50  Maury, Memoirs of a Huguenot Family, p. 267. 

43  Ibid., p. 81 ; see also Bk. IV, pp. 4-5. 

44  Ibid., Bk. 1, p. 89 . 

45  Ibid., p. 95 . 

46  Ibid., p. 50 . 

47  The full title of the compilation is An Abridgement Of The Public Laws of

Virginia, In Force and Use, June 10. 1720. To which is added, for the Ease of

the justices and Military Officers, &c. Precedents of all Matters to be issued by

them, peculiar to those Laws; and varying from the Precedents in England.

London: Printed for F. Fayram and J. Clarke at the Royal-Exchange; and T.

Bickerton in Paternoster Row. 1772. For a discussion, see The Virginia Magazine

of History and Biography, XXXVI, 344. 

38  Ibid., Bk. IV, p. 65 . 

39  Ibid., pp. 74-75 . 

40  Ed. of 1722, preface. 

41  Ed. of 1705, Bk. I, p. 100; see also pp. 98-99. 

42  Ibid., Bk. I, p. 79 . 

35  Ibid., Bk. IV, pp. 61-62 . 

36  Ibid., p. 62 . 

37  Ibid., preface . 

30  Ibid., Bk. II, p. 37 . 

31  Ibid., Bk. IV, p. 73 . 

32  Ibid., p. 74 . 

33  Ibid., Bk. II, p. 32 . 

34  Ibid., Bk. I, p. 4 . 

28  The History and Present State of Virginia ( 1705), Bk. IV, pp. 76-77. 

29  Ibid., Bk. IV, p. 61 . 

27  Ann Maury, Memoirs of a Huguenot Family ( New York, 1872), pp. 264-67.

For other side lights on Beverley's interest in wine making, see The History and

Present State of Virginia ( 1705), Bk. II, pp. 19, 21; Bk. IV, p. 46. 

24  The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, XXXVI, 342. 

25  Ibid., p. 339 . 

26  See Ibid., p. 340 , for proof that it was Robert, not his brother Harry, who

accompanied Spotswood. See also "The Ultra Montane Expedition," William and

Mary College Quarterly, 1st Ser., VII ( 1898-99), 30-37. 

22  Bruce, Social Life, p. 121. 

23  The History and Present State of Virginia ( 1705), Bk. IV, p. 58. 

21  The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, XXXVI, 342-43.  

20  Calendar of State Papers, America and West Indies, 1706-08, pp. 22, 28. 

19  Italics are mine. 

18  Two letters, the first directed to Major David Gmyn, inclosing a second called

by Beverley a "Narrative," are reprinted in the Executive Journals of the Council

of Colonial Virginia, II, 391-95. 

15  Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia ( Richmond, 1925-30),

I, 285, 350, 353. 

16  The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, XXXVI, 335-36. 

17  Ibid., XXXV (1927), 243-44 . 

12  The Dictionary of American Biography contains a brief sketch of Robert Beverley, Jr., written by Fairfax Harrison. His account in The Virginia Magazine

of History and Biography, XXXVI, 333-44, is more detailed. 

13  Ibid., II, 413 . 

14  Journals of the House of Burgesses, 1695-1702, p. 10. 

10  William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large, Being a Collection of All the

Laws of Virginia, III ( Philadelphia, 1823), 557-60. 

11  The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, II, 410. 

9  Ibid., II, 409 . 

6  The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, III, 169-70. 

7  Ibid., II, 406-7 . 

8  Ibid., XXIII (1915), 152 . 

3  The best account of the elder Beverley is that by W. G. Stanard, "Major

Robert Beverley and His Descendants," The Virginia Magazine of History and

Biography, II ( 1894-95), 405-13; III (1895-96), 47-52, 169-76, 261-71, 383-92. See also [ Fairfax Harrison] "Robert Beverley, the Historian of Virginia,"ibid., XXXVI ( 1928), 333-44. 

4  Ibid., II, 412 . 

5  P. A. Bruce, Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century ( New

York, 1907), II, 88, 251, 254. 

1  Preface to the 1705 ed. of The History and Present State of Virginia. 

2  Philip Alexander Bruce, Social Life of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century

(2d ed., Lynchburg, Va., 1927), p. 121. 


The First Gentlemen of Virginia:

Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial Ruling Class,

Book by Louis B. Wright

University Press of Virginia, 1970