Study Guide

Colonial Virginia Introduction

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Colonial Virginia Introduction

No new nation can be successful if it allows its people to run amok in a lawless state of chaos. We gave that concept a try in the Shmoop office, and it was a disaster. Broken laptops, graffiti on the walls, desks TPed, apple cinnamon oatmeal everywhere... Anyway, we had to institute some rules.

And if you've got rules (read: laws), you need somebody—or a group of somebodies—to enforce them, or even just to determine whether or not someone is breaking them. This is true whether you're a band of renegade Shmoopers or bold colonists on the Virginia coast.

Let's back it up. Tired of being outdone by Spain, Britain decided to get on the Colonies Parade by starting colonies in what is now Virginia and North Carolina. Roanoke mysteriously disappeared, its residents never to be seen again, and Jamestown, after a very rocky start, failed to find the gold and silver its investors wanted. But it did strike it rich in another way: by growing tobacco.

Once Virginia began to thrive, the Jamestown colonists and other Virginians decided to get on the "having laws" train by creating the House of Burgesses. Established in 1619, the House of Burgesses was the first European elected assembly in America. At first, the colonists thought of it as a group of consultants, which means they thought its rules were more like guidelines. It also didn't meet consistently like our lawmakers do today. By the second half of the 17th century, however, the House had established itself as a more regular and essential part of Virginia's government.

So, who were these mysterious burgesses, and how did they achieve burgeosity? Well, the free, white, property-owning men over 17 in each county were allowed to elect two other free, white, property-owning men over 17 to serve as their representatives, or burgesses. 

So, yeah, less than 100% of people could vote. Like, way less. Baby steps, right?

While the House of Burgesses only allowed some of the colonists to have a say, it was infinitely better than the martial law Virginia's governors had previously enforced. Some representation is infinitely better than no representation. 

And honestly, in 1676, political stability didn't look like it was in the forecast for the colony. That year, Bacon's Rebellion, led by grumpy farmers displeased with the government's failure to handle the Native Americans, could have easily toppled the toddler colony. 

But it didn't. In the hundred years following Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, Virginia became the colony that we now imagine. It matured into a colonial powerhouse, expanding the tobacco economy, generating enormous wealth, and increasing its slave labor force.

Plus, we don't want to give too much away, but the HOB would also serve as a philosophical, democratic training ground for some of the nation's future leaders. 

What is Colonial Virginia About and Why Should I Care?

Colonial Virginia was many things. It was Thomas Jefferson sitting on a hilltop thinking deeply about the natural rights of all humankind, and Patrick Henry rising to the floor in the House of Burgesses and declaring that he would rather die than sacrifice his liberty.

But colonial Virginia was also 90,000 people kidnapped in Africa and carried to the colony in the death-filled hold of a slave ship. Colonial Virginia was the great plantations of Westover and Gunston Hall—enormous testimonies to genteel living nestled among fields of sweet-smelling tobacco.

But it was also planter William Byrd II forcing a young slave to drink a pint of urine because he wet his bed—and Robert "King" Carter cutting off the toes of a slave who resisted other forms of discipline.

Virginia was George Washington painstakingly copying the rules of good behavior into a diary as an adolescent. But it was also cockfights on Saturday and drunken militia marches through the slave quarters on Sundays.

Virginia was genteel and barbaric, all at the same time. Which was the real Virginia? They both were.

Colonial Virginia Resources


Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996)
Brown explores the interplay between race and gender in this fascinating and challenging book. In places, the argument is complex, but the narrative lying beneath the argument is both readable and compelling. Readers looking for a detailed and authoritative survey of the laws and attitudes surrounding race and gender in colonial Virginia will be rewarded.

Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (1982)
In this Pulitzer Prize winning book, Isaac explores life and society in Virginia during the second half of the 18th century. This isn't straightforward narrative or political history. Instead, Isaac takes on a wide range of subjects including the organization and use of space, festive culture, religious belief, and community experience. Isaac advances an important argument about the egalitarian challenges to the Virginia's old order emerging after 1740. But the book's subject matter and structure allow readers with less time to selectively explore various slices of colonial Virginia life.

Donald Mathews, Religion in the Old South (1977)
This book ranges beyond Virginia and the 18th century. But it remains the best introduction to Southern religion available. It's particularly good in exploring the disruptive impact of evangelicalism on Southern society and struggle within evangelicalism over slavery.

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975)
This classic exploration of Jamestown and colonial Virginia attempts to explain the evolution of a colony paradoxically committed to both slavery and freedom. It's academic but highly readable and its provocative analysis is contained within a well-paced and fascinating narrative.

Charles Sydnor, American Revolutionaries in the Making: Political Practices in Washington's Virginia (1952)
This is an old book, but students interested in a short and provocative introduction to Virginia's distinctive political culture will find it useful. Portions of Sydnor's argument have been challenged by more recent scholarship. But the book's description of Virginia's political processes—including the election-day tradition of "swilling the planters with bumbo"—remains unsurpassed.


Hesperus, Colonial America (2003)
Hesperus Early Music Ensemble promises "spirited sounds from across the sea to the shores of the new land" and delivers just that. This collection of classic compositions reflects the diverse mix of settler communities in 17th-century America.

Hesperus, Early American Roots (1997)
Another fantastic offering from the Hesperus Early Music Ensemble, this disc includes 22 performances based on 18th-century ballads, hymns, and cotillion tunes. See if you can pick out the unique sounds of baroque violins, recorders, violas da gamba, and other period instruments.


Samuel Davies
Samuel Davies, influential Virginia clergyman.

Distinguishing Black from White
A tobacco label from the 18th century.

The Slave-Hunting Sage of Monticello
This runaway slave notice was placed by Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Gazette in 1769.

New Light Baptist Beginnings
The Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Liberty, North Carolina. Built in 1755 by Shubal Stearns, this church was the center of the New Light or Separate Baptist movement that swept the South in the 25 years before the Revolution.


Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg, the elaborately recreated capital of early Virginia, maintains a website that's part travel guide and part research hub. Virtual tours illustrate period architecture, clothing, and daily life. The research tab links students to scholarly articles, selected primary sources, manuscript collections, and colonial newspapers.

Plantation Life
Gunston Hall Plantation, built by statesman George Mason during the 1750s, has an excellent website. In addition to useful material about Mason, the site offers virtual tours, rich images of the plantation, and extensive information about the activities and materials that filled daily life.

Virginia's Aristocracy
The Virginia Historical Society website includes a searchable collection of digital images and several useful online exhibits, including one on colonial Virginia's family dynasties.

Historical Documents

Early Slavery Laws
The texts of several Virginia laws pertaining to servitude and slavery are available at this site.

New Light Sermons
Several sermons by Samuel Davies, the New Light Presbyterian minister who brought the First Great Awakening to the South, are available here.

Virginia Runaways
Runaway slave ads that ran compiled from 18th-century Virginia newspapers are available at this site hosted by the University of Virginia.

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