The following post is part of a series on the self-made man in American history.
The easier, if relatively rare, form of upward mobility in colonial Virginia was not so much self-making as self-remaking, in which an individual with cash resources could invest them in ways that resulted in material gains. The archetype of this model was William Berkeley (pronounced “Barklee”), who dominated the Virginia politics for 35 years following his arrival in 1642. Berkeley came from a rich and powerful family with strong ties to the ruling Stuart dynasty and received an excellent Oxford education. The principal obstacle he faced in making his mark on the world was one of birth order: he was the fourth of five sons in a family of seven children. Because the English followed the ancient practice of primogeniture, in which a family fortune was sustained over generations by concentrating and passing it where possible through eldest sons, younger siblings were forced to rely on alternative means such as the military, the clergy, or a favorable marriage to maintain elite status. The route the ambitious William Berkeley took was that of a courtier, winning a post in the Privy Chamber of King Charles II. He attracted some attention to himself by as a playwright; his well-received play, The Lost Lady (ca. 1637) was performed at court. Berkeley used his position to cadge some financial perquisites, among them royal monopoly on the snow and ice trade. He also served as an officer in the royal army as England headed into Civil War in the 1640s.
Yet such experiences proved disillusioning in their fragility (he lost the ice concession) as well as in the unimpressive view it gave him of a politically inept King destined for the gallows. Approaching his mid-thirties with his professional prospects narrowing, Berkeley angled for, and got, a diplomatic post in Turkey. But at the last minute abandoned it when he learned of, and gained, appointment as the royal governor of Virginia. His future and that of the colony were about to change substantially.
The collective portrait of Berkeley is not an especially attractive one: even his admirers portray him as a vain elitist who did not suffer fools gladly. But for most of two terms of governor that extended for all but eight of the 35 years he lived there, his political skills were considerable. Though Virginia was founded before New England, it remained on shaky footing until about 1650, after which it stabilized en route to becoming the largest of all the American colonies. Berkeley’s formula involved encouraging second-tier aristocrats to emigrate there, where they would enjoy substantial autonomy and control over local affairs and form the core of what became the legendary First Families of Virginia (FFVs). But he also managed power struggles within the oligarchic governor’s council with calibrated appeals to the elected House of Burgesses, in which smaller landholders were allowed to vote.
Over time, Berkeley’s Virginia became increasingly stratified by class no less than race. But for most his tenure this was not an unmanageable problem. “He claimed kinship with them in one important respect,” Berkeley’s sole modern biographer noted of his relationship with the yeomanry. “For him, as for them, Virginia promised something better than he had left behind in England.” [1138/p57] So it was that Berkeley laid down an important social template that would govern American politics for centuries, in which yeoman and planter were part of a seamless spectrum rather than inhabiting different—and opposing—sides of a class divide.
In the 1670s, however, this straddle became increasingly difficult, even impossible, to manage. As poorer land-hungry settlers pushed beyond the rich soil of the Virginia tidewater toward the less fertile and accessible piedmont on the northern and western periphery of the colony, they increasingly bumped up against the Indian frontier, aggravating diplomatic relations. Berkeley has sometimes been portrayed as relatively enlightened (or, at any rate, shrewd) in trying to maintain a friendly perimeter with tribes such as the Pamunkey and Susquehannocks, but he was increasingly perceived as indifferent, even hostile, toward taking the necessary measures to protect his own subjects.
This created an opening. It was exploited by Nathaniel Bacon, a rich rogue who arrived in Virginia in 1674, when he was in his late twenties. Bacon had already left behind a trail of personal dissipation and financial chicanery when his father staked him a fresh start in Jamestown (young Bacon also had family connections to Berkeley’s wife). Though Berkeley looked upon him with favor and gave him a seat on the governor’s council, it didn’t take long before Bacon proceeded to exploit frontier tensions by allying himself with hard-liners. When Berkeley rebuked him for meddling in colonial affairs outside his authority, Bacon doubled down in his claims to represent the aggrieved yeomen, precipitating the broad-based conflict that turned into a civil war.
The 1676 upheaval known as Bacon’s Rebellion was a topsy-turvy struggle marked by sudden reversals and widespread destruction before Bacon suddenly died at its height. But the eruption alarmed and annoyed the English government, which mobilized an (unnecessary) armada to put it down. As a result, Berkeley was recalled to London, soon after which he too died. In its aftermath, the rulers of Virginia—as well as those of Maryland, Carolina, and the later colony of Georgis—gradually implemented a racist legal structure in which the expulsion of Indians and the creation of an increasingly black slave class reduced frictions among whites, who were to enjoy a rough sense of social (if not economic or political) equality. This story, of race and class tensions contained by a ruling elite that set them in hydraulic opposition to each other, was first crystallized by Edmund Morgan in his 1975 book American Slavery, American Freedom, and has remained the master narrative ever since.
Next: A self-made colonial immigrant farmer's dream (and nightmare)