Virginia and Maryland - the early years

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The first colonies in Virginia were characterized by the corporate rule of the Virginia Company, at times enforced by local martial law, charter rules that required adherence to the Church of England, and extreme hardship that took its toll in human life. By necessity there was a premium on hard work and ambition. Leaving civilization to carve out subsistence in the conditions they encountered would not have tolerated half measures, though in practice, the social and political conditions in the colonies were more liberal than what had been left behind.

In 1660 the eastern seaboard had a number of thriving English colonies stretching from Newport News to the Penobscot River – though still sparsely populated. The English Colonies had a population approaching 80,000 (Channing, Vol I, page 510) [1] plus another 6 or 7 thousand in the Dutch colonies. In 1660 representative government had been introduced in the English colonies, though the early charters promised it not. There was a little more religious tolerance than at home in England, though officially and in government that was not the case. Religious nonconformance was prohibited in most charters. A single established church (the Church of England) was still the norm. By 1660, survival in the colonies had become more certain than in the early days in which the odds were fearsome. During the first few attempts to establish colonies in Virginia the chances of survival were around 1 in 4. But the English had kept coming. The reasons must have been compelling.

Why leave England for an American wilderness?

The first Virginia colonists were a mixed bag from noble to criminal. The very first were men of some means, looking to establish new estates, with servants and a small group of laborers. Those who came in 1609 were laborers and English society's undesirables of all classes propelled by a variety of reasons. They were followed in 1610 by skilled workers, recruited (and sometimes compelled) because they were badly needed.
In 1616, the profitability of tobacco changed the landscape somewhat.

  • Tobacco was not suitable to cultivation on a small freehold. It required a larger scale.
  • New settlers were then men with capital and others who came bound to service for a time by contract and worked the tobacco plantations.

So, the emigrants were a variety of people spanning all the English classes. But colonial society was quite different from in England largely because the task of surviving in early colonial days was a great leveler, which threw everyone into very similar conditions.

From about 1600, laws that governed the unemployed in England were illiberal and made it desirable to be somehow employed. Such laws were an attempt to deal with the large numbers of vagrants and beggars on the roads and they were much to the benefit of the ruling class.

  • A person, without a skill (such as carpenter, tailor or butcher) or property and not being of gentle birth or a student, could be compelled to serve farm employment for one year and then could not leave the parish where employed without permission.
  • During the harvest, local magistrates could even send those with skills to the fields.
  • Laws were passes to allow vagrants (men and women) to be whipped and branded - a mark to allow identification of repeat offenders for which the punishment could be severe.
  • The poor laws written in 1598 made the parishes responsible for their own poor. To avoid the burden of an increasing Parish poor population, vagabond punishment was harsh.
  • Such people were turned over to the Virginia Company by magistrates.
With some of them being sent to America from prison - particularly if they had a skill like carpentry.
And some such people volunteered to escape their situation
  • Of course, some chose to go to America for other reasons, and some of them would have been skilled, educated, and of gentle or even noble birth (who were far down the family inheritance chain). But such sources could not have provided the quantity of labor that was needed in the new settlements.

A 'servant', in the colonies, was someone employed on a contract of indenture. It was sufficiently common that the term came to refer to the colonial white working class in general - even if not indentured.

  • A 'servant' could be anyone from an educated schoolmaster to a convict. Indenture was a popular way to receive passage to America and employment upon arrival.
The term of indenture could vary from 2 to 7 years. While it was longer for rougher cases - such as convicts - once in America the past was forgotten and once the indenture completed, the 'servant' was free and could rise in the world.
  • According to Channing (Vol I page 214)[1] the farm worker in a Virginia settlement, once the colonies were sufficiently established, was clothed, fed, and housed better than if in England and had opportunity to rise in the world. He had virtually no such opportunity in England. Once the indenture was served, land could be obtained and the servant was suddenly a landowner - something that would have been unobtainable otherwise.
The exception was the slave, who was becoming more numerous starting in 1619 with the arrival of a Dutch slave trade ship.

Some colonists were recruited and sent to Virginia by capitalists seeking to develop tobacco plantations. The grants they obtained usually had provisions for land in proportion the number of people they transported to Virginia.

  • It was the liberty of the capitalist grantees to order the government of the people settled on their land as long as it was not "repugnant to the laws of England'.

The Virginia Charter of 1606

In 1606 King James I issued a patent usually cited as the first Virginia Charter. This document is remarkable for what it says about the English and their colonies.

It asserts the right of the English king to colonize America between the 34th and 45th parallels – from the Cape Fear River to Halifax. These were the southern and northern limits of Virginia – almost the entire eastern seaboard of North America. The Spanish considered Virginia part of the Spanish Indies, which were islands in the Caribbean. James I essentially said – no, we found it, so it’s ours. And that seems to have been the end of it.

English rights

More importantly for our purposes is its establishment of the rights of the English colonists.

  • In this charter there is a clause which states that the colonists and their posterity “shall have and enjoy all liberties, franchises, and immunities within any of our other dominions, to all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and born within this our realm of England or any other of our said dominions.”
James thus established that English colonies would be unlike the colonies of other countries – notably those of France and Spain that remained more feudal.
  • English colonists would be considered subjects of the king and citizens who enjoyed the protection of English common Law in the same way as those at home.
Historian Edward Channing notes that "Go where he would, so long as he settled on land claimed by England and acknowledged allegiance to the English crown, the Englishman carried with him as much of the Common Law of England as was applicable to his situation and was not repugnant to his other rights and privileges."[1]
  • Further, most English had ceased to see the king as divinely ordained.
Henry of Bracton, a prominent English jurist of the 13th century, wrote that the king "is under no man, but is under God and the law." This quote is from the writings of, an English jurist of the 13th century famous for his writings on law, particularly De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae ("On the Laws and Customs of England") who, among other writings argued that a ruler was king only as he obtained and exercised power in a lawful manner - i.e., he placed law above king - which is, of course, what Magna Charta was about.

These two points are remarkable in that, together, they provide a fair approximation of the central concept of the central concept of the Constitution of the United States - the rule of law - though it still had far to go in practice.


The first charter was breaking new ground. It did not allow for self rule. It was created under complete royal oversight (which was quickly abandoned in the second charter) for lack of practicality).

  • The charter created a Council for Virginia in England which was over all and appointed by the king.
  • Shareholders in the company had no say in company governance.
  • This council had executive, legislative, and judiciary functions. Its authority was absolute as was considered necessary due to the high risk nature of the venture.
  • The colonists were to be governed by “Articles and Instructions for the Government of Virginia” issued by James I.
  • The articles contained much legislative matter
including how to deal with crime. Which, for some reason meant that punishment for crime was more liberal than in England then and for years to come. (Channing Vol. I, pg. 166)[1]
  • The Instructions went so far as to tell the colonists how they were to determine a proper site for a plantation.
It is interesting to note, that while the charter is clear about English rights, the colonists seem to have been regarded as employees to conduct themselves as directed by councils sitting in England and appointed by the king.
The charter to follow three years later provided some degree of self rule – though not a great deal. But self-rule would eventually come.
It should be noted that the first colonists could not have cared about the details of the charter or instructions from councils in England. Survival was the immediate issue.


The colonists who travelled to America under this first charter met with hardship that ended in the death of most of them.

  • December 20, 1606, The Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery sailed for the southern part of Virginia.
16 of the 120 died on the voyage.
  • They entered Chesapeake Bay on May 6, 1607.
A few went to shore and were attacked by natives - 2 wounded.
  • They built a fort on the James River.
  • Six months later, less than half of those who reached Virginia were still alive due to malaria, Indian arrows, and hunger.
  • There was also much internal strife. In January 1608, of the colonial council appointed by the king one had died of disease, one had been executed (reason unknown), two were waiting execution, leaving only two others alive and at large.
  • One of the council recommended including all surviving members be consulted on governing, but this was considered too democratic. However, it seems unlikely that made a difference. One can't know, but because of the harsh conditions encountered, they were likely acting on their own cognizance as soon as they stepped on land. It is known that the settlers paid scant attention to the council's instructions on how to build a plantation.
  • Of these first 197 colonists who sailed for Virginia from England in 1606 and 1607, 53 were alive in April 1608.
This was typical of the first groups to sail to America and an important thing to understand. Primarily men, but also women and children; these were the first heroes of American history.

The Charter of 1609 and beyond

The failure of the 1st attempt was disappointing, but not fatal to England's desire to establish its commercial and religious sphere of influence in the new world. New investors came forward and joined with a few of the first to make another try. A new charter was granted by the king. It had a more limited extent - 200 miles both north and south of Point Comfort (a point now in Hampton, VA) and due west to the Pacific - though they had no idea what that meant.

  • The failure of the 1st Virginia Charter was attributed to the fact that common stockholders had no say in its governance or direction. (Obviously, not much depth of thought was given to the actual cause of the high rate of mortality.) In the charter of 1609, the king placed government in the hands of the stockholders. This did not yet mean, however, having a local representative legislature.

New Adventurers and Planters

The group of partners who obtained this 2nd charter set to work to raise money and recruit emigrants.

In the current language, 'planter' referred to anyone who emigrated to America and 'adventurer' referred to a stockholder who remained in England.
  • The partners printed pamphlets which were designed to sell investors and emigrants on the venture and were, whether or not by intent, deceptive in the way it described the prospects.
  • Each adventurer received one common share in return for 12 pounds ten shillings.
  • Each planter, male or female, over the age of 10 received one common share.
  • Each planter, no matter their rank or station in England, was promised meat, drink, clothing, a house, orchard, garden and 100 acres for himself and each family member. (sign me up!)

New people came forward ready to continue the effort to colonize America. Some of these were motivated by politics (expanding the sphere of the English empire), some by missionary zeal, and some by a desire for material gain and to improve their current condition.

  • 200,000 pounds were raised and 500 emigrants were recruited from every English class.
  • The 500 sailed for the James River in 9 vessels on June 2, 1609. About 100 were women and children.
  • 32 died of disease during the voyage.
  • One vessel sank in a hurricane and another was driven into the Bermudas.
  • 7 vessels reached the James River (the eighth did arrive later)
Upon their arrival, these emigrants were undeceived of the conditions that they were to encounter in their new home.
The English people that had survived from the previous attempt to colonize were dispersed and hungry, some living with the Indians.
  • For all - newcomers and previous survivors - life was grim to the point of being hard to read about. Without recounting the details and all the causes, a year after this second sailing, 900 had actually landed in Virginia and 150 were still there.
These were tough people; the survivors who became the nucleus of what was ultimately a successful colony.
  • In 1619, 1650 people had sailed from England for Virginia. 300 had returned to England and there were 350 English living in Virginia. So 1000 had died en route or in Virginia.


As mentioned above, the company was to govern the plantations rather than the king, but it was still a despotic rule in that the company wrote the governing regulations without taking the planters or their representatives into counsel. The code created by the company had the title "Articles, Laws and Orders, Divine, Politique, and Martial for the government of Virginia". The title is a good statement of the scope of these regulations.

  • There was no religious tolerance. Only those who had taken the "Oath of Supremacy" could go to Virginia - which was de facto establishment of the Church of England and excluded Roman Catholics. There was a list of religious offences for which one could be flogged or sent to service in the galleys for six months. Some repeated offences could result in a death sentence. But, apparently, carrying out a death penalty was quite rare.
It should be remembered that this mirrored practice in England and it was, in practice, much more lenient than in England.
  • Whatever the settlers produced went into a common stock and they were clothed and fed alike from it. They were, in effect, employees of the company. And the company was run like a commune.
This idea was also used later at Plymouth with almost devastating results. As it was, in this settlement, it required what amounted to martial law to keep people working, and of course, the results were not great, but the colony did survive.
In the words of historian Edwin Channing (Channing, Vol. I, pg. 187)[1]
". . . the new rulers of Virginia, were soldiers hardened to the usages of war. . . They compelled the colonists to work as they had never worked before. They protected them from the Indians, they fed them, and punished them when they idled away the company's time. . "
A group that attempted escape in company boats was executed.
But Channing also states that Virginia and the United States owe Sir Thomas Gates, who was in charge of all this, a debt of gratitude - which is likely true. It is unlikely that colonization of Virginia would have succeeded otherwise.
  • Much of the code addressed offenses to keep people as honest as possible in this regard with severe punishments. But it can be imagined how effective that must have been. Malingering was a punishable offence, but how could a requirement for everyone to work to his best ability be enforced?
  • Perhaps the savior of the Virginia colony was tobacco. It grew well in Virginia, and sold well in England once they learned how to cure tobacco for the English market.

The Charter Revoked and good riddance

The Charter of 1609 was revoked in 1625. It made no difference to property owners in Virginia since it was a principle of English law that a legal title to any property cannot be divested without just cause. This principle, already in place from Virginia's beginning, is central to liberty.

  • For the most part, Virginia colonists did not miss the company for a moment. Channing states that: "The story of Virginia in the fifteen years following the dissolution of the company is one of slowly growing contentment and prosperity." [1](Channing Vol I, page 227)
  • With the revocation, government of Virginia reverted to the crown. Ownership of unallocated land reverted to the crown.

In 1941, a commission was given to William Berkeley who, with his appointed council, were given "full power to direct and govern, correct and punish, the colonists, and order all affairs of peace and war within the colony." they were answerable to the Lord Commissioners and Committees for the Plantations.

  • This commission reasserted that all planters should take the Oaths of allegiance and Supremacy - establishing the Curch of England. Refusal was to result in being returned to England.
  • The commission did require that a general ssembly be held yearly to make laws "as neas as may be to the laws of England." The Governor could veto them, but they were not required to be approved in England.
In practice, because of Berkeley's force of character, he ruled mostly as he wished in spite of the representative assembly.
  • An important article in the commission required that all tobacco be shipped to England and only in English ships and that only English ships be permitted to trade in Virginia - which could be considered a government enforced monopoly - and perhaps the first if the charters themselves are not counted. American distaste for government grated monopolies was one of the causes behind the movement for independence.

A Turn Toward Liberty

In some ways, English Americans, before 1763, received a higher degree of self rule than those in England. In some important ways they lead more liberal lives. There were, for example, virtually no remnants of feudalism in the colonies.

(In Civicwiki articles, 'liberal', as an adjective, means endowed with liberty. As a noun it means a person whose political philosophy is one that holds liberty as fundamental to life.)

There have been many turning points throughout history that turned a society toward or away from liberal life. Edwin Sandys was a turning point toward liberty for the colonies.

In May 1619, Sir Edwin Sandys was chosen treasurer of the Virginia Company.

  • Sandys was son of the Archbishop of York and the leading reformer of the time in Parliament.
  • Sandys and his fellow reformers were liberal radicals. They demanded a "law paramount", meaning a constitution based on rule-of-law.
  • Sandys is reported to have proclaimed in Parliament "No successive king, but first elected. Election double of person and care; but both come in by consent of people, and with reciprocal conditions between king and people."
With this statement he denies the divine right of kings and asserts the supremacy of the people.
Sandys proposed (unsuccessfully) that persons accused of crime should be permitted to employ counsel in their defense.
He sought (again unsuccessfully) to rid England of relics of feudalism - wardships, feudal tenures, and purveyance.
He sought to overthrow monopolies (granted by the king) and for the introduction of free trade.
He was mostly unsuccessful due to the king's prerogative and the royal will.
  • Through several turns of events, Sandys found himself in charge of the Virginia Company.
  • Sandys and friends liberalized the granting of land to individuals and groups
  • Perhaps more importantly, they gave these landholders self-rule and made them independent of the Virginia Company officers in England
  • Sandys had also argued for toleration of Catholics and to retain Nonconformists in the Established Church. This was radical.
  • Sandys also sought to secure a monopoly of the tobacco market of England (which may have been counter to Sandys' earlier opposition to monopolies, depending on how it was sought).
  • Sandys sought also to have the whole trade of the colony - providing supplies in ships that would return with all of the tobacco export.
  • So Sandys' desire was to grant freedom of government and religion and also to secure the English tobacco trade. But Sandys was denied control of Virginia for a time.
  • The idea of self rule was put into practice - and it was allowed a fairly large span of control, but it was, in some sense, still despotic in that it was not a set of laws carefully crafted with fundamental human rights in mind. It required the establishment of a legitimate church and the detailed regulation of moral and social behavior and of trade to be within the realm of legislative power.
  • On July 30th, 1919 the first assembly of elected burgesses - 22 people from 11 locations - met in Jamestown.
  • This assembly adopted new laws which drew heavily on their English background in regard to religion and social behavior. They established the Church of England and outlawed idleness, gambling, drunkenness, and 'excess in apparel'.
  • The assembly directed the production of agricultural products.
  • Tobacco was the most profitable, but its production was limited to stimulate the production of silk, flax, and grapes, as well as sufficient food for the colonists.
  • The assembly also sat as a court of law. Sentences tended to be short and severe. For example, conviction might obtain a 4 day sentence - spent standing in a pillory with ears nailed to a board and being publicly whipped each day - and then paying a fine.


Maryland was founded after the demise of the Virginia Company. It was about 100 years after the creation of the Church of England. Nonetheless, there was still considerable tension between the Established Church and the Roman Catholics. The Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy were still required of many - particularly of those in positions of authority and clerics, but often also of emigrants to America.

The Charter

Both Maryland and Carolana were created by charters issued to Cecilius Calvert, second Baron Baltimore (a Roman Catholic, son of Sir George Calvert who was had requested the charter but died prior to it being written), and to Sir Robert Heath, the Attorney General who had managed the legal side of the destruction of the Virginia Company. Carolana was the southern part of Virginia and Maryland the northern part from the Potomac to New England, with the Old Dominion in the middle.

The Maryland charter was issued in 1632. It was very like other charters that preceded it for Avalon, Carolana, and New Albion. The statement of powers conferred on Baron Baltimore are confusing. While they appear on one hand to confer unlimited authority,

  • there is a clause that laws may not be repugnant to the laws of England or that no part of the charter should be construed to diminish allegiance to the king.
  • One clause states that churches must follow the Established Church of England, and all clergy were to acknowledge the religious leadership of the king by taking the Oath of Supremacy.
  • It is to be noted that religious freedom was not a principle on which American colonies are founded. That was to come later. Most of the colonial charters required uniformity in religion.

Despotism gives birth to liberty

These things notwithstanding, Maryland became the most liberal colony outside New England.

  • Charles Calvert - son of Cecilius - in 1678 wrote, in defense of having brought a number of Catholics to Maryland, that recruits were in short supply and he had to take what he could get.
  • And that those people demanded that all Christians should enjoy toleration in Maryland as condition for becoming the first planters in Maryland.
  • Apparently, religious tolleration was a cause of success in Maryland. If this is so, it demonstrates that, to many colonists it mattered little to them if one were Catholic or Church of England and the charter clauses dictating religious participation were, to them a nuisance. (The requirement for Church conformist was a remnant of a time when the influence of a particular church could threaten a king or queen.)
On the other hand, it certainly mattered to some . . .
  • The first voyage to Maryland in November, 1633 carried both Catholics (including 3 Jesuit priests) and members of the Church of England.
  • Though Catholic services were supposed to be conducted quietly and in private, they were not. The Jesuits seemed to be on a mission to establish a Catholic haven in the new colonies.
  • The Catholics acquired considerable land in Maryland, and being far from England, were bold in their purpose of establishing an asylum for persecuted English Catholics, Charter rules notwithstanding.
They imported a fair amount of labor
They favored Canon Law over Parliament or Charter.
  • Back in England, Calvert Lord Baltimore, got wind of this and, though a Catholic sympathizer, wisely understood that should this Catholic boldness become widely known, it could be the end of the Maryland charter.
He used the [Satutes of Mortmain] to divest the Jesuits of their land and reached an agreement that headed off confrontation.[1](Channing Vol I pages 261, 262)
  • Nonetheless, it was apparent that Maryland favored, or at least tolerated Catholics. For this reason, many protestants sought out Virginia or New England rather than Maryland.
  • But also, and perhaps more importantly, Baltimore was more strict about the terms on which land was granted than Virginia. The terms were not so different than Virginia, but in Virginia they were not strictly enforced - quit rents for example.

The constitutional arrangement of Maryland was much less liberal, but the practice was otherwise.

  • Legislative rights were exercised by the proprietor with consent of the freemen of the province, represented and assembled in a manner decided by the proprietor.
Ordinances were made by the proprietor - which had to be in accord with English laws.
  • Such ordinances had to recognize property rights. They could not oblige or take the property of any person.
  • Such clauses granted and then limited the power of the proprietor. As he exercised them, growth of Maryland and the freedom of its people depended.
  • Baltimore thought to initiate all laws to which the freemen should give their assent.
The freemen thought to initiate laws themselves.
It was a political contest with most of the yielding done by Lord Baltimore. After all, he was one against everyone else.
It came about that Maryland became a colony of numerous small freeholders who voted for a relatively powerful legislative body. This arrangement was quite liberal for the time,
but not economically optimal. Tobacco was the moneymaker and it required a large scale operation. Maryland, for a time, lagged Virginia with its more aristocratic approach of large plantations worked by many servants. But such advantages that are based on a commodity can't outrun the initiative of many people working for their own interests in the long term.

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Channing, Edward. History of The United States, Volume I The Planting of a Nation in the New World, 1000-1660. New York. The MacMillan Co. 1909