Southern History Series: The Humanist Origins of the Commonwealth of Virginia

The Trump speech at the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Virginia House of Burgesses in Jamestown is a narrative that has little to do with the founding of Virginia.

What really motivated these people? Obviously, it wasn’t liberalism because at the time when Jamestown was founded in 1607 its earliest stirrings were still several generations in the future. The Jamestown settlers didn’t act very liberal by seizing control of the peninsula between the York and James Rivers from the Powhatan Indians and expelling them from Tsenacommacah.

The following excerpt comes from Alexander B. Haskell’s book For God, King, and People: Forging Commonwealth Bonds in Renaissance Virginia:

“Driven by their humanism to pin the sovereign rulers and virtuous commonwealths of scholastic philosophy firmly to the earth and inspired by the Reformation to locate those worldly truths deep in sacred time and squarely within a broader providential order, early colonizers defended English colonization in the most fundamental terms possible. Like Ralegh, their impulse was not just to assert the lawfulness of colonization but rather to root that activity in a God-centered cosmos where law was always, albeit with the degree of latitude necessary to allow for human error, the equivalent of divine ordination. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, these men transformed what had originally been an aspect of human history and society that impressed itself little on contemporary imagination into a basic feature of civil and holy life. As late as the 1630s, writers were still not confident that their readers even knew the word “colony,” a term only recently imported from the original Latin into the vernacular, so they still sometimes felt the need to define it. Yet, at the same time, these authors boldly projected the planting of colonies into a sanctified past and a righteous present that lent that enterprise an almost inviolable aura of naturalness.”

Liberalism doesn’t exist yet at this time.

The motivation of the colonizers and the settlers of early Virginia was a mixture of patriotism, Protestantism, profit and Renaissance humanism.

“In other words, Christian humanists tied the colonizing venture to the world in the very act of similarly grounding sovereignty and commonwealth. Indeed, the three concepts acquired substance in tandem, becoming so intertwined that separating one from the others could seem well nigh impossible. Nowhere was this mutual dependence for meaning more explicit than in the way sovereignty, commonwealth, and plantation were folded into what quickly proved the era’s most compelling and enduring formulation for grasping how colonies fit within God’s plan. This theory, which underlay much of Ralegh’s History, treated colonization as the mechanism by which God peopled humans in their essential duty to establish dominion over the earth. By planting new commonwealths and churches, thereby enabling their sovereign rulers to extend their awesome, divinely granted power over still-fallen communities and the earth’s remaining unexploited bounty, colonizers fulfilled a calling that God first set in motion in the Garden of Eden and amid the tribes of ancient Palestine. For Raleigh, this archetypal understanding of colonization as commonwealth formation was so fundamental that it was the presupposition that quietly dictated his entire narrative of human history from Creation forward. A more succinct articulation of the same logic appeared in Captain John Smith’s definition of planting in his pamphlet Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New-England, or, Any Where; or, The Path-way to Experience to Erect a Plantation (1631). As Smith wrote:

“Adam and Eve did first begin this innocent worke to plant the earth to remaine to posterity, but not without labour, trouble, and industry: Noah and his family began againe the second plantation, and their seed as it still increased, hath still planted new Countries, and one Country [after] another, and so the world to that estate it is; but not without much hazard, travell, mortalities, discontents, and many disasters.”

In this sacred history, the planting of colonies was begun by Adam and Eve and continued by Noah and his family after the Flood and now with the English in Virginia:

“Like Ralegh, Smith’s impulse was to identify planting as a calling that stretched across the world and across time, linking the planter in the most direct way to God’s overarching plan for restoring the world to its original wholeness before the Fall. Much the same logic informed Sir Francis Bacon’s opening lines in “Of Plantations” (1625). “Plantations are amongst Ancient, Primitive and Heroicall Workes,” he explained. “When the World was young, it began more Children; But now it is old, it begets fewer: For I many justly account new Plantations, to be the Children of former Kingdomes.” For the anonymous author of The Planter’s Plea (1630), colonization was likewise a primordial activity that originated in the very same divine ordination that brought kings and commonwealths into being: “Colonies (as other conditions and states in humane society) have their warrant from God’s direction and command; who as soone as men were, set them their taske, to replenish the earth, and to subdue it.”

This emphasis on the ancient and godly enterprise of planting colonies – equally concerned with substantiating sovereignty and commonwealth as justifying the act of colonization – worked in two directions at once. On the one hand, it strove to redefine English kingship as well as the English commonwealth in profoundly new terms, as connoting a hitherto unrecognized set of obligations to rule over and people a portion of the world not only seemingly larger than Christendom itself but separated from it by a vast and rolling ocean. This was a more daunting case to make than has sometimes been acknowledged, for it involved not only challenging preconceptions and arguments that discouraged such an enlarged view for English duties in the world but also bending the reluctant wills of monarchs and subjects toward an enterprise that was otherwise slow to win their full approval. On the other hand, the same arguments also functioned to frame colonization as an undertaking that sought nothing less than to forge new commonwealths – or, as they were also initially called, kingdoms – on the other side of the Atlantic. Rather than merely settling a distant territory, colonization involved bringing into being the states that humanists now perceived as the key constituent elements of an a world returning to God. This undertaking, in turn, invited much the same energetic considerations of what a lawful commonwealth entailed and how it came into being that already swirled through this late Renaissance and Reformation era as one of its principal preoccupations. Both of these aspects of the discourse surrounded the Virginia venture.”

By colonizing Virginia, the English were extending the power of their sovereign monarch and returning the world to God in line with his command to replenish the earth:

“Like his Protestant bedfellows, Dee held to the humanist convictions that only a soaring, God-like sovereign monarch could, in combination with a similarly robust and virtuous commonwealth, effectively do God’s bidding. …

Such casuistry did more than simply allege the queen’s American title in relation to other European sovereigns; it presumed to locate her empire in a broader, God-centered cosmos. It suggested that Elizabeth’s sovereignty on the other side of the Atlantic was divinely ordained, tying her rule in providentially meaningful ways to America as well as Asia, as securely to an Arthurian past as to an eschatological future – indeed, that she neglected at the risk of abusing her sovereign office. …

Of course the name of a commonwealth was holy, because it appeared in the Bible. It appeared most significantly in the apostle Paul’s second epistle to the Ephesians, where membership in the mystical body of Christ is described as transforming gentiles from their original fallen condition as the “children of wrath” who walk in the rebellious ways of the world, into godly persons who, “quickened” by the blood and love of Christ, possess the renewed capacity to walk true to their lawful vocations. Some of the key verses, taken from the King James Bible (1611), appear below:

“12. That at that time yee were without Christ, being aliens from the common wealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.

13. But now in Christ Jesus, ye who sometimes were far off, are made nigh by the blood of Christ …

19. Now therefore yee are no more strangers and forreiners; but fellow citizens with the Saints, and of the household of God.

20. And are built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chiefe corner stone.”

In addition to founding Virginia, King James I gave us the King James Bible.

This is a fascinating subject and we will return to it in the future. I bought this book when I was in Jamestown and Williamsburg in April.

About Hunter Wallace 9323 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent

2 Comments

  1. One of my ancestors was granted around 10,000 acres of land around Battle in Sussex in 1066. He was the first companion of the Conqueror to be granted land too, so it is assumed he’s a relation of the Duke. Therefore also Charlemagne. That’s only one relative. Talk about Anglo-Norman.

  2. Thanks for posting this, really fascinating material! It provides an Anglican theocratic alternative to the Puritan founding narrative in New England, very valuable for our present purposes.

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