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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Royalist Governor in Virginia

By Robert Beverly (1673–1716)

[Born in Virginia. Died there, 1716. From The History and Present State of Virginia. 1705.]

IN November, 1698, Francis Nicholson, Esq., was removed from Maryland, to be Governor of Virginia. But he went not then with that smoothness on his brow he had carried with him, when he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor. He talked then no more of improving of manufactures, towns, and trade. Neither was he pleased to make the acts of assembly the rule of his judgments, as formerly, but his own all-sufficient will and pleasure. Instead of encouraging the manufactures, he sent over inhuman memorials against them, which were so opposite to all reason, that they refuted themselves. In one of these, he remonstrates, “That the tobacco of that country often bears so low a price, that it will not yield clothes to the people that make it;” and yet presently after, in the same memorial, he recommends it to the parliament “to pass an act, forbidding the plantations to make their own clothing;” which, in other words, is desiring a charitable law that the planters shall go naked. In a late memorial concerted between him and his creature, Col. Quarrey, ’tis most humbly proposed, “That all the English colonies on the continent of North America be reduced under one government and under one Viceroy; and that a standing army be there kept on foot, to subdue the Queen’s enemies;” which, in plain English, is imploring her majesty to put the plantations under martial law, and in the consequence, to give the Viceroy a fair opportunity of shaking off his dependence upon England.

He began his government with a pompous show of zeal for the Church; though his practice was not of a piece with his pious pretensions. It must be confessed that he has bestowed some liberalities upon the clergy, but always upon condition, that they should proclaim his charity, either by signing addresses dictated by himself, in his own commendation, or at least by writing letters of it to the bishops in England. And he would ever be so careful to hinder these representations from miscarrying, that he constantly took copies of them, and sent them with his own letters.

He likewise gave himself airs of encouraging the college, but he used this pretext for so many by-ends, that at last the promoters of that good work grew weary of the mockery. They perceived his view was to gain himself a character, and if he could but raise that, the college might sink. And in truth he has been so far from advancing it, that now after the six years of his government, the scholars are fewer than at his arrival.

Soon after his accession to the government, he caused the assembly, and courts of judicature, to be removed from Jamestown, where there were good accommodations for people, to Middle Plantation, where there were none. There he flattered himself with the fond imagination of being the founder of a new city. He marked out the streets in many places, so as that they might represent the figures of a W, in memory of his late Majesty King William, after whose name the town was called Williamsburg. There he procured a stately fabric to be erected, which he placed opposite to the college, and graced it with the magnificent name of the “Capitol.”

This imaginary city is yet advanced no further than only to have a few public houses, and a store-house, more than were built upon the place before. And by the frequency of public meetings, and the misfortune of his residence, the students are interrupted in their study, and make less advances than formerly.

To defray the charge of building the Capitol, he suggested the pernicious duty of fifteen shillings for each Christian servant imported, except English, and twenty shillings for each negro. I call this a pernicious duty, because ’tis a great hindrance to the increase of that young colony, as well as a very unequal tax upon their labor.

It has been the constant maxim of this gentleman to set the people at variance as much as possible among themselves. Whether this proceed from his great fondness to the Machiavelian principle, divide et impera, or from his exceeding good nature, I will not pretend to determine. But it is very certain that, by his management, he has divided the most friendly and most united people in the world into very unhappy factions. And, what is still worse, he has been heard to declare publicly to the populace, “That the gentlemen imposed upon them, and that the servants had been all kidnapped, and had a lawful action against their masters.”

And that these things may make the more effectual impression, he takes care to vilify the gentlemen of the council in public places, by the grossest and most injurious language. He is frequently pleased to send vexatious commands, to summon people in her Majesty’s name, to attend him at some general meeting, and when they come, all the business perhaps he has with them, is to affront them before all the company.

In the General Court, of which he is chief judge, he has often behaved himself in that boisterous manner, that neither the rest of the judges on the bench, nor the lawyers at the bar, could use their just freedom. There ’tis usual with him to fall into excessive passion, and utter the most abusive language against those that presume to oppose his arbitrary proceedings. If the Attorney-General be so scrupulous as to excuse himself from executing his illegal commands, he runs a great risk of being ill used. For in the year 1700, Mr. Fowler, who was then the King’s attorney, declining some hard piece of service, as being against law, his Excellency in a fury took him by the collar, and swore that he knew of no law they had, and that his commands should be obeyed without hesitation or reserve. He often commits gentlemen to jail, without the least shadow of complaint against them, and that without bail or mainprise, to the great oppression of the Queen’s loyal subjects. Some of those have taken the liberty to tell him that such proceedings were illegal, and not to be justified in any country that had the happiness to be governed by the laws of England. To whom he has been heard to reply, “That they had no right at all to the liberties of English subjects, and that he would hang up those that should presume to oppose him, with Magna Charta about their necks.”

He often mentions the absolute government of Fez and Morocco with great pleasure, and extols the inhuman cruelties of that prince toward his subjects. And particularly one day at a meeting of the governors of the college, upon some opposition they made against one of his violent proceedings, he vouchsafed to tell them, “That they were dogs that he knew how to govern the Moors, and would beat them into better manners.”

Neither does this gentleman treat the assemblies with more gentleness than particular people; for he has said very publicly, “That he knew how to govern the country without assemblies; and if they should deny him any thing, after he had obtained a standing army, he would bring them to reason, with halters about their necks.”

But no wonder that he deals so freely with the people there, since neither Her Majesty’s instructions, nor the laws of that country can restrain him. Thus he takes upon him to transact matters of the greatest moment, without advice of the Council; as for example, he has appointed several officers, without their advice, which he ought not to do. Sometimes he has brought his orders in his hand into the Council, and signed them at the board, without so much as acquainting the Council what they were, though at the same time they ought not to pass without their advice; and after he had done this, he ordered the clerk to enter them into the minutes, as if they had been acted by the consent of the Council.

If any of the council happen to argue, or vote any thing contrary to this gentleman’s inclinations, he instantly flies out into the most outrageous passions, and treats them with terms very unbecoming his station. By this means he takes away all freedom of debate, and makes the Council of no other use than to palliate his arbitrary practices. Sometimes, when he finds he cannot carry matters as he desires, he makes no scruple of entering them in the council-books by his own authority; he likewise causes many things to be razed out, and others put in, by his own absolute will and pleasure. Nay, sometimes, too, he has caused an abstract of the journals to be sent to England, instead of the journals themselves; by which artifice he leaves out, or puts in, just as much as he thinks fit.

He is very sensible how unwarrantable and unjust these proceedings are, and therefore has been always jealous, lest some of the many that have been injured, should send over their complaints to England. This has put him upon a practice most destructive to all trade and correspondence, which is, the intercepting and breaking open of letters. His method was to give directions to some of his creatures dwelling near the mouths of the rivers, to send on board the several ships, that happened to arrive, and in the Governor’s name demand the letters. Thus he used to get them, and open as many as he thought fit, after which sometimes he would cause them to be sent where they were directed, and sometimes keep them. By this management many people have not only suffered the loss of their letters, and of their accounts, invoices, etc., but likewise have missed great advantages, for want of timely advice, occasioned by the stopping of their letters.

Another effect of his jealousy was to set spies upon such people as he suspected. These were to give him an account of all the words and actions of those which were most likely to complain. Nay, his Excellency has condescended to act the low part of an eves-dropper himself, and to stand under a window to listen for secrets, that would certainly displease him. This practice has made every man afraid of his neighbor, and destroyed the mutual confidence of the dearest friends.

But the most extraordinary method of learning secrets, that ever was used in an English government, was a kind of inquisition, which this gentleman has been pleased to erect frequently in that country. He would call courts at unusual times, to inquire into the life and conversation of those persons that had the misfortune to be out of his favor; though there was not the least public accusation against them. To these courts he summoned all the neighbors of the party he intended to expose, especially those that he knew were most intimate with him. Upon their appearance, he administered an oath to them, to answer truly to all such interrogatories as he should propose. Then he would ask them endless questions, concerning the particular discourse and behavior of the party, in order to find out something that might be the ground of an accusation.

In the second year of this gentleman’s government, there happened an adventure very fortunate for him, which gave him much credit with those who relied on his own account of the matter; and that was the taking of a pirate within the Capes of that country.

It fell out that several merchant ships were got ready, and fallen down to Lynhaven Bay, near the mouth of James River, in order for sailing. A pirate being informed of this, and hearing that there was no man-of-war there, except a sixth rate, ventured within the Capes, and took several of the merchant ships; but a small vessel happened to come down the bay, and, seeing an engagement between the pirate and a merchantman, made a shift to get into the mouth of James River, where the Shoram, a fifth rate man-of-war, was newly arrived. The sixth rate, commanded by Capt. John Aldred, was then on the Carine in Elizabeth River, in order for her return to England.

The Governor happened to be at that time at Kiquotan, sealing up his letters, and Captain Passenger, commander of the Shoram, went ashore to pay his respects to him. In the meanwhile news was brought that a pirate was got within the Capes; upon which the captain was in haste to go aboard his ship: but the Governor would have stayed him, promising to go along with him. The captain soon after asked his excuse, and went off, leaving him another boat, if he pleased to follow. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon, when the news was brought; but ’twas within night, before his Excellency went aboard, staying all that while ashore, upon some weighty pretences. However, at last he followed, and by break of day the man-of-war was fairly out between the Capes and the pirate; where, after ten hours’ sharp engagement, the pirate was obliged to strike and surrender upon the terms of being left to the King’s mercy.

Now it happened that three men of this pirate’s gang were not on board their own ship at the time of the surrender, and so were not included in the articles of capitulation, but were tried in that country. In summing up the charge against them (the Governor being present), the Attorney-General extolled his Excellency’s mighty courage and conduct, as if the honor of taking the pirate had been due to him. Upon this, Capt. Passenger took the freedom to interrupt Mr. Attorney in open court, and said that he was commander of the Shoram; that the pirates were his prisoners; and that nobody had pretended to command in that engagement but himself. He further desired that the Governor would do him the justice to confess whether he had given the least word of command all that day, or directed any one thing during the whole fight. Upon this, his Excellency tamely acknowledged that what the captain said was true, and so fairly yielded him all the honor of that exploit.