The Birth of Virginia’s Aristocracy

In the Acknowledgements to his book, The Birth of Virginia’s Aristocracy, James C. Thompson II thanks Warren Billings for “helping me to appreciate the difference between an academic history of Virginia’s “governing class” and a philosopher’s commentary on societal development in Virginia.” (vi) Unfortunately this book, which promises so much and delivers so little falls into the later category. That is, if you consider Fox News or the Chamber of Commerce talking points to be philosophy. Essentially we get a borrowed Wikipedia-style history of early Virginia history with the addition of Thompson’s simplistic and anachronistic “philosophical” commentary.

In an early and typical example Thompson describes how the virtuous forces of Edwin Sandys’ profit-generating market capitalism save the early commonwealth from the evils of colonial communists.

“Under Sandy’s leadership, the Virginia Company’s Jamestown colony transformed from a floundering commune into a thriving marketplace. Sandys orchestrated this transformation by harnessing the industry of individuals in pursuit of private profit. That is, he promoted the common good by giving individuals means to pursue their own interests.” (5)

It continues in this vein for the entire 126 pages. While this story sounds all too familiar, it is not well supported by his sources or documentation and he leaves us wondering at what point his reading ends and his reading into begins.

It is not quite history but it does play well in a state that has given us ardent jingoistic politicians like Eric Cantor and Ken Cuccinelli. It is sadly ironic that if you want to read a recent, insightful, fact-based history of Virginia you have to look to Massachusetts historians. Susan Dunn’s Dominion of Memories and the Virginia section of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed are two of the more interesting. Too bad that Virginians have strayed from the example of Douglas Southall Freeman who could write eloquently and sympathetically about an idea without it affecting, let alone overwhelming, his judgment and scholarship.

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~ by severalfourmany on January 4, 2011.

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