The Rages of Governor Francis Nicholson Anger, Politeness, and Politics in Provincial America



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The Rages of Governor Francis Nicholson

Anger, Politeness, and Politics in Provincial America


Steven C. Bullock

Worcester Polytechnic Institute


Looking back three years later, the conversations with Francis Nicholson seemed more ominous than they had at the time. The first took place in December 1698, on the day that Nicholson again became governor of Virginia. After six years of what he considered exile in Maryland, Nicholson should have been elated. Instead he was preoccupied with letters he had received from his supporters, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Anglican Church. Each counseled him to be moderate. The new governor showed the correspondence to his ally, William and Mary College President James Blair. “What the Devil,” Nicholson asked, did “they [mean] to recommend moderacon to him.” Knowing the governor’s hot temper, Blair suggested that they had a point. Nicholson would have none of it. “God, I know better to Govern Virginia & Maryland than all y’e Bishops in England,” he told Blair: “if I have not hampered th’m in Maryland & kept them under I should never have been able to have governed them.”1

Blair felt uneasy about the conversation. When the issue came up again about six weeks later, the college president again emphasized the importance of a civil manner. Nicholson replied that he knew how to deal with discontented assemblies, boasting that he could even do without them. When the president refused to back down, Nicholson commanded him “in a great passion” never to speak with him about government again.2

The dispute was surprising. The two men had enjoyed a long and fruitful political partnership. In his earlier period of governing Virginia from 1690-1692, Nicholson had helped Blair obtain the charter for what became the College of William and Mary and backed him as its first president. But Nicholson had been forced to accept a lesser post as Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. Even when he became governor there two years later, he still dreamed of returning to Virginia. In 1697, Nicholson paid Blair's expenses for a lobbying voyage to London that led to Nicholson's regaining the post. Even after the arguments that marred the governor's return, Blair remained a close ally. The two worked together to move the colony’s capital to what became Williamsburg.

As time went on, however, what Blair called “the violence of [Nicholson’s] Governm’t” increased. The governor engaged in “continual roaring & thundering, cursing & swearing, base, abusive, billingsgate Language." Blair warned a correspondent that these rages were so extraordinary that his account would seem incredible to "those who have not been the spectators of it.”3 Other observers reported similar experiences. In 1702, some naval officers assigned to Virginia were staying in the College building. The governor, who had been pacing the halls with one of the guests that evening, “flew out into . . . a Passion.” His shouts and curses echoed through the building. Fearing a repeat of the fire that had broken out two days previously, the sea captains, fearing the worst, rushed quickly from their rooms. One moved so quickly that he forgot to bring his wooden leg. A witness reported that the guests, amazed at Nicholson’s “Folly & Passion,” declared that "the fittest Place for such a Man” was "Bedlam," the fabled London asylum for the insane.4

About the time of the incident (although not entirely because of it), Blair too began to question the governor's fitness. The problem, he told London officials later in 1702, was not the governor's madness or "passions," frightening as they might be. Nicholson's rages must be a smoke screen for his true intentions, “a maine designe” to take further power. Blair's frustration grew so intense that he finally embarked on another voyage to London. Once again, he succeeded. The British government relieved Nicholson of his duties in 1705.5

Blair's belief that the governor had deeper political designs is difficult to credit and he soon ceased to make the argument. But Blair rightly recognized that the rages were more than expressions of extreme personal peevishness.6 A number of imperial officials in the 1690s and 1700s exhibited similar fits, often causing greater specific damage than Nicholson. Even more important, the terms used to attack Nicholson and other angry officials, as well as those used to praise the Virginia governor's mild-mannered successor, were also politically charged. Anger, aggression, and self-control in these years were part of a wide-ranging contemporary discussion about the nature of government and social relationships, a set of ideas that can be called "the politics of politeness."7

This chapter uses the various contexts of Nicholson's outrageous actions to examine the political and cultural developments that transformed thinking about power and politeness. What Blair called the "strange stories" of Nicholson's rages shows anger as communicative, symptomatic, and problematic. The discussion begins with the governor himself, looking at how his anger expressed his high view of authority. Next the focus moves to the changing political situation in which he operated, one in which the potential for both anger and resistance to such attempts at overawing subjects was expanding. Finally, the discussion turns to Nicholson's rages as a larger cultural problem. Nicholson's fits of anger provoked fear, frustration, and opposition; but it also spurred new thinking about the interrelated issues of power and of self-presentation.8
I. A Terror to Evil Doers
On July 9, 1698, Maryland governor Francis Nicholson faced down an opponent. Gerard Slye had been arrested and brought before the governor and the Maryland Council. He stood accused of libeling the governor and plotting against the government. The merchant had allied himself with his stepfather John Coode, a perpetual malcontent who had overthrown the Calvert proprietors almost ten years before and who had now set his sights on Nicholson. Slye attempted to take a similarly aggressive approach in the meeting. Placing his hands on his hips in what the council minutes note as “a proud Scornful manner,” he informed the governor that he expected to be treated like a gentleman. Slye then sat down opposite Nicholson without been told, symbolically suggesting that he was the governor's equal. But when he addressed Nicholson as Mr. rather than as his Excellency, the governor took action. He commanded Slye to stand. Did he, the governor ask, “kn[o]w him to be his most Sacred Majestys Governor of this Province"? Faced with a question that required submission or actual rebellion, Slye pulled back, fully acknowledging Nicholson's authority.9

The records of the encounter do not refer to the governor as angry. But his aggressive tone was of a piece with his most outrageous fits of passion. In both, Nicholson demanded that subordinates fully recognize and accept his authority. This combative stance served him well in the confrontation with Slye. Two long days of questioning and browbeating forced the prisoner to admit his various attacks on Nicholson. A more formal court prosecution, again overseen by the governor, followed. A weary Slye finally begged Nicholson’s pardon. Whereas before he had sat down with the governor, he now figuratively threw himself at Nicholson's feet. "Your Excellencys humble Petitioner from the Bottom of his heart is sorry," he wrote, adding that the governor’s "care prudence diligence & Circumspection may Justly deserve the affections & prayers of your Excellencys long Continuance in the Government." Probably upon Nicholson's prompting, he also included a separate statement that his offenses were not just against the governor but the government as well. Presenting the petition to the council, Nicholson noted that he was happy to see the last admission. Had the crime been against him, the governor claimed, "he would have Scorned to have kept him in prison half an hour." The council questioned Slye's sincerity, but Nicholson pronounced himself satisfied. Asking only for bail to ensure Slye’s appearance at the next trial, he let the prisoner return home.

Nicholson's actions had deftly defused the situation. Slye and Coode did not oppose Maryland's government for another decade. When Nicholson returned to Virginia later that year, he boasted to a member of the Board of Trade that Maryland was now "in profound peace and quietness.”10

The strategy visible in the prosecution of Slye also lay behind Nicholson's anger as well. The governor held that maintaining respect for government formed the central task of governing--in fact, such respect served as the foundation of government and civilization itself. Nicholson’s anger, like his public persona as a whole, was partly a performance, a dramatization of a power that admitted no questions and brooked no competitors. Nicholson held himself to the same high standards. In the numerous testimonies to his rage, none note him directing it at his superiors.

This section attempts to probe Nicholson's anger from the inside. After brief noting its primary characteristics, the discussion turns to clues and patterns that suggest Nicholson’s purposes. The governor's dealings with Slye and with others suggests his approval of views that praised the wrath of rulers, whether God or the king. Although Nicholson's outbursts may not always have worked in the ways that he or the theorists expected, even his more dysfunctional rages seem to have been directed at the same ends.
Nicholson first came to America in early 1687 as captain of a company of troops that served the Dominion of New England. The thirty-two-year-old captain had served in the army for about a decade, with posts in Holland, Northern Africa, and England. In America, he quickly became the Dominion's Deputy Governor. One of the earliest accounts of his anger in America comes from this period. A lieutenant who served under him testified in 1689 about receiving a command to report to Nicholson's quarters. The junior officer, who presumably spoke primarily Dutch, asked his corporal to accompany him. Having two soldiers appear when only one had been sent for outraged Nicholson. He took down a pistol and threatened to shoot the corporal if he did not leave immediately.11 Nicholson's anger could be as long-lived as it was sudden. Even after an unparalleled career that included a knighthood, promotion to general, and appointment as governor in four colonies from South Carolina to Canada, he continued to nurse his grudges against Blair. In 1727, the former governor (then 72 years old) published a collection of documents refuting the charges that the college president had made some 23 years before.12

Nicholson's quick resentment and settled grievances made him a formidable figure. Not long after the prosecution of Slye, the Maryland legislature complained about the governor's demeanor. His belligerence in the courtroom, they argued, made it difficult for jurors to fulfill their official responsibilities. They were " unjustly vexed menaced overawed [and] Deterred.” The legislators were particularly sensitive to these concerns since, as they admitted, his aggressiveness frightened them as well. They "humbly Implore[d] yo’r Ex’cy that [he would] neither Implicitely or Expressly . . . Menace Deterr or overawe the house or any member thereof from freely debateing matters . . . ."13

Maryland legislators, already at odds with Nicholson, may have been particularly thin-skinned. But others reported similar fear. The Virginia minister Jonathan Monroe was riding in the woods in 1704 when the governor appeared and "abused him." Monroe traveled with the angry governor for four miles, even though he had gone far out of his way. When council members asked why he simply did not leave, he stated that he was afraid that Nicholson might shoot him.14 Even the great gentlemen of Virginia's Council, the leading figures in the mainland’s wealthiest colony, found Nicholson frightening. According to Blair’s later testimony, “nobody went near him but in dread & terour.”15

But Nicholson’s “rage & fury” was not, as Blair suggested, directed at “all sorts of people.” Nicholson never lashed out against his superiors. On the contrary, he went out of his way to emphasize his loyalty. “I hope in God,” he wrote in 1697, “I shall never be so great a Rogue as to eat his Ma’tys Bread, & not to the utmost of my power serve him.”16 Even a request to procure birds for the royal gardens led to at least three official orders in two colonies.17 English officials clearly found such displays of loyalty convincing. Despite the complaints of Blair and others, Nicholson's American career spanned almost 40 years.18

Scholars who have looked at this record tend to separate Nicholson's devotion to public service from his ferocious temper. Nicholson’s unfortunate personal flaws, they suggest, undermined his laudably energetic administration.19 But Nicholson’s devotion to English rule inspired not only his energetic administration, but also his extraordinary anger. The former army officer expected his subordinates to offer the same submission to his authority that he himself gave to his superiors, an expectation his aggressive demeanor sought to make clear. Just as Slye needed to know his insolence was unacceptable, so too jurors and legislators needed to realize that their actions were being watched. After the Maryland assembly complained of Nicholson’s aggression in 1698, he responded that he only sought to stop people from straying from their duty. Did the legislature, he asked incredulously, “desire to be despotick and [so much] above the Law so as not to be questioned”?20

The link between aggression and authority also appears in his response to one of Slye’s charges. Very few of the governor's statements in the July 1698 Council meetings were recorded, but his answer to Slye’s protest about his “Striking people” reveals the hierarchical vision that fed (and, he believed, justified) his anger. Nicholson easily admitted he had beaten two people. But Slye persisted and raised the case of a “Burroughs.” The governor found the point irrelevant. “What if he had?” he responded brusquely. Burroughs was “his Servant and his Cook,” therefore his responsibility. The other two cases required more explanation. The first was that of Coode himself, who was not only was the leader of the faction supported by his stepson Slye, but a prominent Maryland leader. Coode’s transgression, however, had been substantial. He had first arrived drunk at a Church service, where he made a “Disturbance." Then he “affronted his Excellency in his own house." Such flouting of both religious and political authority seemed more than adequate cause for physical discipline. Coode himself may have felt the same way; sooner after the incident, he offered the governor a written apology.21

The other incident Nicholson noted suggests even more clearly the hierarchical purpose of his anger. While visiting a Captain Snowden, the governor noted some of the Captain’s men fighting with swords. The outraged Nicholson, however, did not reprove the men himself. Instead, he turned his cane upon Snowden.22

Nicholson then did not simply lash out at whoever was closest. His anger sought to uphold the social order. He told the members of the Virginia council in one tirade that he “would beat them into better Manners.”23 This lively sense of the hierarchy of authority also allowed Nicholson to be extremely generous when, as after Slye’s humble petition, his authority was fully accepted. Revealingly, Nicholson seems to have been popular with many Virginians during both his terms, even when, especially in the second term, many of the colony’s most prominent leaders turned bitterly against him.

Nicholson's commitment to what he considered the responsibilities of rank also led him to encourage intellectual and cultural activities. His support was essential to the creation of the College of William & Mary, the second college chartered on the American mainland. President Blair considered Nicholson one of “the greatest Encourager of this Design” in Virginia.24 Even after he was moved to Maryland, where he spearheaded the creation of a free school, Nicholson’s active support of the college continued. He also made extensive donations to Church of England ministers and church buildings, going went far beyond his duty as governor. While Blair turned bitterly against Nicholson, virtually all the Virginia clergy lined up solidly with the governor. Letters of support from ministers in various other colonies sent to London reveal a personal concern that extended beyond Virginia. A New Jersey minister dubbed Nicholson the colonial church’s “nursing Father.” The artist Mark Catesby, engaged in creating a volume describing and picturing American animals, found Nicholson similarly helpful when he arrived in South Carolina in the 1720s. The governor offered an annual pension as long as he held office.25

Nicholson’s cultural interests also included town planning. He personally directed the establishment and planning of new capital cities in both Maryland and Virginia. Like his encouragement of the Anglican church, Nicholson’s activities creating Annapolis and Williamsburg were of a piece with his desire to strengthen authority and to make plain the structures of power. In Williamsburg, Nicholson’s early plans seem to have included arranging city streets to form a “W,” a visual reminder of the authority of King William. Nicholson’s plan for Annapolis placed the capitol, the center of political power, on the town’s highest hill--and the Anglican church, representing religion, on the next highest. All the other streets were arranged around or radiated from these two centers, representing what he called in another context the “2 inseperables, the Church of Engl’d and monarchie.”26

Nicholson considered the task of making authority visible (whether in the streets of the capital or the person of the governor) essential to proper government. After lashing out at the protesting Maryland assembly in 1698, he called the members in again the following day for his further thoughts. This time he responded positively to one of their concerns, agreeing the House journals needed to be protected. “. . . he looked upon Records,” he told them, “Especially the Records of Supream authority next to the Divine Laws to be sacred.” But the survival of government also required respect for the governor: “All Rebellions were begun in all Kingdoms and States by scandalizing and makeing odious the p[er]sons in Authority.”27

In a statement that clearly representing Nicholson’s position, the council also responded to the assembly. Their reply also emphasized the government’s responsibility to preserve “the pe[a]ce and quiett of the Province.” To do this, the council explained, government needed to be, in the words of St. Paul, a “Terror to Evill doers.” Just as Jurors should not think that they would go unpunished if they erred, assembly members should not expect “to debate at Random without any reguard to the dignity of his Ma'ty and hon'r of his Governm't.”28

Nicholson and his supporters enunciated common views of governing. King James I, nearly a century earlier, had given similar advice to his son. “Where ye finde a notable injurie,” he counseled, “spare not to give course to the torrents of your wrath.” Quoting a Biblical proverb, he noted that “The wrath of a King, is like to the roaring of a Lyon." Even though the ruler should be humble, that humility should not stand in the way of “high indignation” at evildoers. Kings (and by extensions other rulers) were similar to gods and fathers, two other examples of the value of righteous wrath and discipline.29 When Governor Nicholson confronted a priest who had criticized him, he similarly lectured him: “you are now insolent and proud, but I’ll humble you & bring down your haughtiness”30

Machiavelli’s The Prince had confronted the issue even earlier in its famous discussion of “Whether It Is Better To Be Loved or Feared.” Cautioning rulers that being hated is always bad, he went on to suggest: “men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”31 Nicholson’s angry looks and terrifying rages sought the same persistent hold on his subordinates.


II. In the Queen's Name
"If I were given to astrology," Nicholson suggested to the Board of Trade in March 1705, "I should fancy" that something new was happening. Perhaps, he suggested, "some Malignant Constellations were in opposition to the Governing Planets in these parts of our Hemisphere." Such an event would explain why there have been "Complaints against most if not all the Governors" in America in recent years.32

The comment was not simply a witty aside in a long and painful plea for his career. Although he was careful to avoid criticizing his superiors, his astrological reference discreetly noted that he was not alone in attracting critics and that he needed to be judged within that larger context. As one of his supporters had already noted more directly to the Board, Nicholson came off quite well in comparison with contemporary American governors.

Although the governor's usually hot temper and his strongly authoritarian views of power fueled the feud between the governor and his opponents, the Virginia conflict was deeply rooted in problems that affected nearly all other American colonies in the 1690s and 1700s. Colonial officials like Nicholson were caught between two groups intent on preserving and expanding their power. Neither imperial officials nor colonial elites were willing to forego the respect and the power they believed they deserved. Nicholson's resolution of this position in favor of complete submission to his superiors heightened the difficulties Virginia's leaders who not only needed to create a new means of dealing with an increasingly intrusive empire but also to convince these same officials that the governor who was so attentive to imperial desires was actually a serious threat to the province.

This section examines the conflict between Nicholson and his opponents within those interactions. The governor’s unusually intense sense of duty, it suggests, responded to the growing demands on American officials by the imperial government, requirements that caused problems for governors in other locations. The focus then shifts to the colonial Virginians that complained about Nicholson. They too felt pressured by the shifts in imperial governance—and they had developed the resources that made it possible to resist Nicholson’s relentless attempts to bully them into submission. The result was a dysfunctional situation, in which Nicholson’s angry demands for obedience merely stoked further resistance --a vicious circle of cross-purposes and growing suspicions.


One clue to Nicholson's view of his role lay in a habit that infuriated his opponents, his constant use of the name of the Queen. Messages that he wanted to speak to someone would say: “his excellency commands you in the queen’s name to come to him immediately.” Owners of boats or horses needed for the governor's use were approached in the same way. “Whatsoever other command he gives, though no manner of way relating to the government,” Blair explained, “they are all given in the queen’s name . . . .”33

The phrase was particularly galling because Nicholson's orders often seemed less the result of the monarch's requirements than the governor's whim. One man was called from forty miles away, but then kept waiting for several days. Horses were impressed for the use of visitors and even their servants, though other horses could easily have been hired. Surely, Blair argued, the governor should reserve the queen’s name for higher purposes, rather than rendering it "cheap and contemptible" by using it on "frivolous" occasions.

Nicholson rejected the distinction. As governor he served as the representative of the monarch he almost invariably referred to as "most sacred" and all his actions were directed toward fulfilling that responsibility. ". . . I don't look upon any thing I have done" as unusual or particularly praiseworthy, he told the Board of Trade as he left Maryland in 1698. It was simply "my bounden Duty to his Majesty: and [I] am heartily sorry that I have not been able to doe more."34 The same intensity had led Nicholson's commander in Morocco to use him as an express rider to take urgent messages on the long and dangerous journey to London.

Later imperial officials also found Nicholson's fervor useful. Trustworthy servants in America were necessary for the revolutionary changes they were creating. Before 1670, the colonies had been all but autonomous. American governors and English officials communicated only irregularly, and the central government exerted authority only intermittently. After 1670, however, in what one historian has called "the end of American independence," the English government under King Charles II and his brother, the future James II, began to exert increasing control over the colonies. They ruled without a legislature in New York, revoked the charter of Massachusetts, and eventually united all the Northeastern colonies into the Dominion of New England. As part of the Dominion's military and then political leadership, Nicholson formed the vanguard of this change. When James II was removed from the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Nicholson left New York as well.

Unlike his royal master (who never returned to England), Nicholson's absence from America was only temporary. In 1690 he became lieutenant governor of Virginia (operating as governor in all but name), a move that clearly signaled that the policy of reshaping the colonies would not end with departure of its greatest royal champion. Although William and Mary rejected the previous decade's radical attempts at remodeling governments (allowing, for example, the northern colonies to resume their separate governments), they expected more from the colonies and their governors than ever before. Charles and James had sought to bring the colonies to heel by restricting their governments; William and Mary attempted to make them active and contributing participants in the empire. Their attempts to regulate England's trade and to expand its military and fiscal capacities were not limited to the mother country, but extended across the Atlantic as well.

Nicholson responded enthusiastically to these new expectations, reporting regularly and at length to the Board of Trade. His July 1699 letter, however, included not just standard information on politics and the economy, but also specific suggestions about how to arrange the files in the provincial offices and a broad analysis of Virginia’s history. To support his points, he attached 54 documents. The governor's June 1700 letter, written aboard a ship where he had personally helped fight a pirate crew, included 60.35 “We have not from any Governour So Exact accounts as from you," an impressed member of the Board of Trade had noted several months before.36 Even Blair had to admire this dedication. According to his later testimony, he hesitated to oppose the governor because of his “vigor & dilligence in stirring about & driving on the business of his Government.”37

Nicholson believed this vigor was necessary because of the weakness of royal government. Maryland, which he noted as "not very well setled either in the Church, Civil, or Military Government," had been a particular challenge.38 But the much larger and longer-established crown government of Virginia also required similar attention. When he returned in 1698, the government was unable to pay its expenses from the funds devoted to that purpose and, despite raids on other accounts, was deeply in debt. Five years later Nicholson could boast that the colony accumulated a surplus of over £30,000, almost twenty times the older debt he had paid off.39 "I have had more Audits in a Year than any of" my predecessors, Nicholson told his superiors in 1705.40

Nicholson invested the same effort in enforcing trade regulation as in achieving fiscal stability. Even Edward Randolph, surveyor general of the American customs since the 1670s, was impressed. Although his scorn for American officials was usually unbounded, he considered Nicholson "sincere & indefatigable in his Ma'ties service." The governor's influence on trade regulation extended beyond Virginia. Just as Nicholson financed and encouraged Church of England ministers as far north as New York, so too he supported Pennsylvania customs officials struggling against the colony's notorious inattention to trade rules.41

Nicholson also paid particular attention to military preparation, even supervising some militia training himself. Robert Quary, Randolph's replacement as surveyor general, judged Virginia's troops "under far better regulation than any other Governm’t on the Main[land],"42 but Nicholson wanted to go further. He created an elite militia force and even proposed that the colony sponsor what would have been essentially a professional standing army. When Virginia's legislature failed to comply with the imperial demand for men and money to defend New York from the French and Indians, Nicholson advanced funds from his own pocket.43

The governor's faithfulness in these matters seems all the more remarkable by comparison with the record of other colonial governors of the time. The cautious Nicholson only pointed out this in an aside. Robert Quary had been blunter. The customs official told the Board of Trade in 1703 that he had confronted the governor's opponents with the issue, challenging them to explain what the governor had done to provoke such virulent attacks. "Hath the Gov’r violated any of the Queens Commands, or Instructions, or acted contrary to them? Hath he omitted any occasion or oppertunity of serving her Majtie or the Interest of the Country? Hath he embezel’d any of her Majties Revenues, or misapplied it? or Hath he omitted any occasion of improving it? Hath he neglected to regulate . . . the Militia . . . . Hath he neglected to put the Act of Trade &c: in execution? Hath he any ways wincked at or encouraged illegal Trade?"44

Quary's vigorous questioning revealed a central problem in the case against Nicholson. Lengthy rages and death threats were serious problems, but convincing people an ocean away that such behavior posed a serious danger proved difficult. A number of English officials blamed Nicholson's ill temper on a failed love affair.45 Unable to find an egregious crime, the governor's opponents instead complied long lists of what they categorized as "maladministration," few of which were so far out of bounds that they clearly warranted immediate dismissal.46 For example, Nicholson was accused of arbitrarily taking men into custody, opening the mail of suspected enemies, and stopping his opponents from going to England. Yet other governors had performed similar actions--and in much less defensible ways. Sir Edmund Andros had arrested Nicholson himself, a fellow governor, in Virginia. Bermuda Governor Samuel Day read Edward Randolph's letters to his English superiors by forcing his scribe to surrender the rough drafts. And Nicholson's attempts to stop people from traveling to England had never risen to the level of Leeward Islands governor Christopher Codrington. After Codrington discovered former Speaker of the Assembly Edward Walrond had written a letter of complaint, the governor threw Walrond into prison, threatened him before the Council, murdered one of his slaves, and hunted down his son with dogs.47

Nor could opponents convincingly argue that Nicholson was driven by self-interest. Robert Beverley's The History and Present State of Virginia, completed while Nicholson was still in office, included many harsh words about the governor. But he did not charge him, as he did an earlier governor, with "[making] it his Business to equip himself with as much [money] as he could, without Respect either to the Laws of the Plantation, or the Dignity of his Office.”48 Other colonies suffered from similarly greedy leaders. Isaac Richier, Bermuda's second royal governor, jailed the collector of the customs after he failed to take into account that Richier had built the ship he was prosecuting for illegal trading and then sold it to a Scottish trader in violation of the Navigation Acts. When the next governor arrived in 1693, he in turn jailed Richier in a dispute over salary and perquisites. Richier regained his freedom only after the King had twice ordered his release.49

Other governors also found it difficult to deal with the military and trade matters that Nicholson handled so diligently. When New York governor Benjamin Fletcher traveled to Connecticut in October 1693 to assert control of its militia, his demands were received so poorly that he finally threw a naysayer down a flight of stairs.50 Massachusetts Governor William Phips had attacked the captain of a royal ship earlier that year. After Captain Richard Short reported it would be impossible to carry out an order, Phips called him a “Whore,” and beat him with his cane. He continued the attack even after Short, who had a disabled right arm, tripped on a cannon and lay on the dock.51

Another important element of Nicholson's activities, the regulation of trade, also proved vexatious elsewhere. A few months after the January 1693 incident with Captain Short, Phips also publicly beat the Customs Collector, Jahleel Brenton, for his action in seizing a ship (the ironically titled Good Luck). Phips only threatened to “drubb” Edward Randolph, the Surveyor-General--for once acting in a more restrained way than some other governors, who almost universally hated the rigid and self-righteous official.52 In 1689, Bostonians had placed Randolph in jail for six months during the uprising against the Dominion. Ten years later, he was imprisoned for more than seven months in Bermuda. In between, he was arrested by the Pennsylvania governor and hid in a Maryland swamp to avoid capture by that colony’s executive.53

As Nicholson knew, imperial officials were paying increasing attention to these difficulties. Although customs officials like Randolph often proved imperious to criticism, leaders coming under the Board of Trade's purview were kept on a tighter leash. The Board wrote a scathing letter to Bermuda governor Samuel Day about his jailing of Randolph, and then removed the governor from office soon after the release.54 Phips suffered a similar fate after news that he had attacked two royal officials reached England. In the same March 1705 week that Nicholson wrote his extended letters of justification, the Board of Trade: recommended the removal of the Church of England minister in Newfoundland, whose anger helped set off a mutiny in the garrison; wrote a letter to the Lieutenant Governor of Bermuda ordering him to live in peace with the formerly disrespectful Secretary of the colony; and examined eleven affidavits from Barbados accusing the governor of tyranny and thirty-two more documents attempting to refute the charge.55

Nicholson's opponents, however, would have found little comfort in this broader context of new demands and problematic governors. They were faced with a man who threatened to destroy their reputations, to take away their possession, even to kill them. Furthermore he would accept nothing less than complete subordination to the sacred will of the queen. Unfortunately, he understood as little of the larger context of the situation as his opponents. Just as they failed to recognize the imperial pressures that drove his already authoritarian outlook, so too Nicholson refused to see that a newly confident set colonial elites had arisen who refused to accept becoming mere subjects--and who had the strength to resist the demands even of the formidable Virginia governor.


Even "the best Gentlemen we had in the country," Blair complained in 1702, failed to impress Governor Nicholson. He told them he "valued them no more than the dirt under his feet." He complained that they had risen to power by "cheating the people," and kidnapping their servants. Even lesser landholders, Nicholson sneeringly noted, had little regard for Virginia's leaders, knowing that their grandparents (and sometimes their parents) had also been common people.56

Unfortunately for elite Virginians, Nicholson's "most contemptable" characterizations had more than a measure of truth. By English standards, the leaders whom the governor referred to "the mighty Dons" were still raw parvenus not far removed from the "primitive nothing" that Nicholson threatened to reduce them to. Although their fortunes were relatively substantial, they dated back only a generation or two. And they depended upon forced labor whose origins were not far from kidnapping--not only for the English indentured servants that aroused Nicholson's indignation, but even more the Indians taken from their Carolina villages or the Africans who made up the majority of field workers soon after 1700.

Nicholson's dismissive descriptions would have been more plausible in the years before his first arrival in 1690. Particularly after the 1660 Restoration, Virginia's best gentlemen struggled (often unsuccessfully) both to establish authority in the colony and resist the power of a resurgent empire. They found common people particularly worrisome, especially when several plots by indentured servants were discovered in the 1660s. The growth of racial slavery in succeeding decades raised further fears about what Governor Berkeley called "the giddy multitude." Bacon's Rebellion in 1675 posed the most direct challenge to the colony's leadership. Though he was himself wealthy and powerful, Nathaniel Bacon had little respect for Virginia's leaders. The men "in authority and favor," he complained, hardly deserved their status. Like Nicholson, Bacon contrasted these leaders' "vile" backgrounds and "the mean quality in which they first entered the country" with the "sudden rise of their estates" since. Bacon aroused such support that he was able to capture and then burn Virginia's capital city.57

Governor Berkeley's supporters soon defeated the rebellion, but they had to contend with unwelcome attention from the English government that had sent soldiers and a commission of inquiry to the colony. The troops arrived too late and the commission soon put the blame for the unrest on the rebels but on the colony's leaders. Crown policy came to center on taming unruly provincial leaders. The home government demanded permanent revenue for the colonial government, strict limits on the powers of the House of Burgesses, and even royal approval before passage for all legislation. Delay (and, at a crucial point, a sympathetic governor) prevented the most substantial structural changes. Still Virginia's leaders lost power in these years; governors in the 1680s called meetings of the Burgesses fewer than once a year.58

The provincial leaders who opposed Nicholson at the turn of the new century no longer faced such dire difficulties. They often belonged to wealthy and politically active families who had given them a broader education in the ways of the larger English world. Just as important, they could pass along their political status, a continuity seen in the growing number of leaders who bore their parent's name. A Benjamin Harrison had served in the House of Burgesses as early as 1642. Benjamin Harrison II entered the body in the 1670s and then was chosen for the council in the 1690s. His son Benjamin III received an English legal education before serving as the colony's attorney general for five years until Nicholson removed him in 1702.

The Beverley family shows a similar pattern. Nicholson turned out Robert Beverley II from his post as clerk to the House of Burgesses in 1703. The place had previously been held by both his father and elder brother, a brother who had since become the Speaker of the body. The following year, the governor also removed Robert Beverley II from his position as clerk of the House of Burgesses. Both his father and his elder brother had held the same office; his brother was then Speaker of the body (and the father of his late wife served on the Council). The displaced Beverley's trip to England in 1703 allowed him both to publish the first history of a British colony by a native-born American and to lobby against Nicholson.59

James Blair seems an unlikely leader of this increasingly interconnected and cosmopolitan group. As a Scot, he belonged to a distrusted minority; as a parish minister, he held his position at the whim of local leaders. Within two years of his 1685 arrival, however, he had convinced Sarah Harrison, the daughter of Benjamin Harrison II, to marry him, even though she was already betrothed to another. This alliance with the wealthy and influential Harrison family gave the minister colonial connections that equaled his impressive ties in Britain. Blair had caught the eye of the Bishop of London, the church leader responsible not only for the capital city but for the colonies as well, after the Scot had moved to England because of a political dispute. The Bishop later appointed Blair his representative in Virginia. His aid also proved essential not only in Blair's lobbying for the college and its presidency, but also in the removal of Governor Andros. The crucial meeting in that case (in which Blair was supported by Benjamin Harrison III and the absent Andros by William Byrd II) took place before the Bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury. By then, Blair had also developed close ties with John Locke, the philosopher and political thinker who served on the Board of Trade during those years. Nicholson's own correspondence with Locke seems to have begun only because of Blair. In this broader world, it was not as clear which of the two Virginia leaders was more important. William Byrd II, who observed the minister lobbying for the return of Nicholson in both England and Virginia, considered Blair the primary figure in the relationship. He predicted that the minister expected to "be able to lead [Nicholson] by the nose as much as he pleases."60

The returning governor was intent on preventing such dependence. Unfortunately for Blair--and for the well-being of Virginia--the governor could not imagine a connection that did not involve a superior and subordinates. The issue of obedience played a major role in the governor's tirades. When the colony's attorney general suggested that one of Nicholson's commands might be illegal, "­the Gov’r in great wrath took him by the Collar swearing that he knew of no Laws we had but would be obeyed without hesitation or reserve.” Angered by another gentleman of considerable standing, he swore that "he must hang one half of these rogues before the other would learn to obey his commands."61 The governor even delighted in a story he had heard about Blair's wedding ceremony. In this (almost certainly apocryphal) account, the bride three times refused the traditional promise to obey her new husband. Needless to say, Nicholson did not admire Sarah Blair's supposed independence, but he must have found very appealing the idea that the man who more than anyone else had denied him submission had been forced to accept what he would have considered similar insubordination within his own household.62

Nicholson was particularly tender on this point because he saw such issues through the lens of the problems that had bedeviled seventeenth-century England. Rebels had dethroned and executed one king in the 1640s and driven away another in 1680s. Nicholson began his military career under the son of the first and his American career under the second. Even after making peace with the new monarch, Nicholson still believed royal control threatened. Blair complained that the governor viewed all America as "haughty, tainted with republican notions & principles, uneasy under every Governm’t, & . . . ready to shake off their obedience to England.”63

Blair may have exaggerated Nicholson's position, but only slightly. The governor Nicholson protested to the Board of Trade that his opponents' objections to his militia policy would lead to the "mere Skeleton of a [royal] Government." They might as well, he suggested, go all the way and seek a commonwealth, government without a king. If Virginians controlled the militia, it could be used "in the same manner as the Parliament did to King Charles the First" in the 1640s, first overthrowing and then executing him.64 Nicholson, of course, believed Blair the key figure in these plans. The minister had "sounded the Trumpett of Rebellion, Sedition &c." and "hoped to [create] an Army" of followers "over which he might be Cheif Commander."65

The clash, however, was not just between two men who sought to be chief commander. It was also between two larger groups, the imperial government and colonial elites. Each sought more control--and each believed the other side's demands both dangerous and illegitimate. Although Virginia offered an unusual (and unusually well-matched) pair of adversaries, the dynamics behind the controversy were shaped by problems that went beyond its borders.

Like Virginia, a number of American colonies experienced similar crises in the 1670s and 1680s. Jamaica, taken over from the Spanish in the 1650s, became a haven for marauding pirates. Carolina's government was briefly overthrown in 1677, while New England's Indians began what was known as King Philip's war in 1675, the same year that Bacon began attacking Virginia's Indians and the year before he turned on the colony's government. For Massachusetts leaders, the war raised first the problem of physical survival during a bitter war and then the difficulty of political survival in the reaction against the high taxes necessary for recovery. The 1688 Glorious Revolution caused another series of upheavals as Boston elites attacked the Dominion government, and New York and Maryland also took advantage of the confusion to topple their regimes as well.

The aggressive colonial policies of Charles II and James II added to the internal difficulties facing provincial leaders. The remaking of governance attempted in Virginia followed a policy attempted earlier (on a much grander scale) in Jamaica, where the royal governor tried to push through an imperial legislative program that would have made the colonial assembly virtually unnecessary. After the failure of this program in Jamaica, a new 1680s governor, the Duke of Albemarle, deliberately removed established leaders from their position in favor of less wealthy and well-connected (but more loyal) men. English rule in New York, recently captured from the Dutch, showed a similar disregard for earlier leaders. The Duke of York did not even create a legislative body there--and he failed to include one in the Dominion of New England that he formed when he became king in 1685.

The growing stability of Virginia's colonial leadership after 1690 also followed a pattern similar to other colonies, although the timing varied greatly. In Maryland (as well as the Caribbean Leeward Islands) a much more settled native-born elite emerged in these years. Moving beyond a much greater series of crises, Jamaica experienced the same. But, thanks to intense English lobbying on a scale that went far beyond Blair's trips, Jamaican planters were able to regain their position and control English colonial policy toward the island on a virtually unprecedented scale. Other colonies experienced lengthier and a more troubled route to stability. Provincial elites in both New York and the Carolinas would remain at odds until the 1720s.

Massachusetts, where local leadership developed earlier than other colonies, provides a particularly telling comparison with Virginia under Nicholson. The governorship of Joseph Dudley (1703-1715) created similar discontent. Unlike Nicholson, Joseph Dudley had deep roots in his colony. Son of a Massachusetts governor, Dudley had been a provincial leader since he was a young man, even serving in the London delegation that sought to resist (unsuccessfully) the revocation of the charter. But his decision to serve as the temporary governor of New England in the Dominion and then (with Nicholson) a council member aroused intense anger within the colony. When Bostonians overthrew the government in 1689, they imprisoned Dudley along with Governor Andros. He was sent to England, where he remained in virtual exile for more than a dozen years.

Although a native rather than a newcomer, Dudley's return as governor in 1703 was more divisive than Nicholson's five years earlier. While Nicholson's reappointment was widely celebrated, Dudley's appointment reopened old political wounds. The two governors, however, shared a common goal, the strengthening of royal government. Dudley collected more tax money during his governorship than the colony had raised in its previous history, leading opponents to complain of poor New Englanders forced to sell the feathers from their beds to survive.66 Like Nicholson as well, Dudley saw the Anglican church as a central part of strengthening royal power. He carefully steered patronage to churchmen. Dudley's strong sense of duty almost matched Nicholson. "A request from a superior" Dudley told colleagues, "was the strongest command."67 Dudley also aroused strong ministerial opposition, though his primary adversary was actually a father-and-son combination. Although Increase and Cotton Mather were dissenters rather than members of the church, Increase in particular shared with the Commissary strong English connections and a history of successful lobbying.

But the Mathers, unlike Blair, proved unable to dislodge their governor. Dudley stayed in office for thirteen years--and was finally removed only because the death of Queen Ann required an explicit renewal of his commission. Dudley's greater success grew out of two primary advantages. Surprisingly the Massachusetts native's 1690s exile brought him stronger English connections than Nicholson. By the time the latter returned to Virginia as governor in 1698, he had been in American for almost a dozen years and had returned only once, for less than a year. Dudley returned to Massachusetts in 1703 not only with the strong support of the nobleman Lord Cutts, under whom he had served as Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Wight, but also with connections built by time in Parliament. No other mainland-born American colonial served in either position. Dudley's support of the Church of England proved similarly valuable. His dissenter opponents were precluded from developing the close ties to the church hierarchy that were essential to Blair's political power.

But Dudley's longevity rested on more than English ties. Although he gained powerful enemies, he was also able to win substantial support, in part because of a relatively mild temper. Dudley occasionally showed flashes of anger. He and his son drew their swords on some carters who refused to give way to their carriage in 1705--and, like Nicholson, he received advice from England suggesting that "moderation is a virtue."68 But Dudley also showed a sensitivity to the aspirations of the colony's leaders that Nicholson never developed. As an early supporter noted, Dudley lacked his predecessor Phips's "Natural passionateness."69

By contrast, Nicholson's demeanor intensified Virginia's political difficulties, deeply dividing the colony. Both the governor and his opponents worked assiduously to undermine the other. The governor complained that Blair and his group seemed to be following the "the old diabolical saying": "Fling dirt enough and some will stick."70 His letters were filled with charges that his enemies engaged in "artfull trifling, malitious insinuations, and many notorious falsities." Yielding to pressure from the governor, the burgesses, grand juries, and ministers all prepared addresses of support. Robert Beverley II found this willingness to praise the governor horrifying, comparing it nursing poisonous snakes in bed or adding fuel to a house fire.71 He and other opponents fought back with letters, memorials, and affidavits to the home government (Nicholson called his opponents the “Affidavit Sparks").72 They also circulated writings in both Virginia and England, including the “ballads, Pasquils & Lampoons . . . posted upon trees in high roads” that Virginia clergy cited. There were, they noted, “Criminations & Recriminations on both sides (God knows).”73

The result was a standoff. Blair and his allies would not accept the subordinate role that Nicholson expected of them; to Beverley, they were already close to "Slavery and utter ruine."74 But the governor's view of governing allowed for no other position, no other result. The contest would end only in spring 1705 when the Board of Trade took away the governorship from Nicholson; even then, however, they still did not admit the dangers of Nicholson's temper. In response to the governor's pleas, they issued a public statement that he had done nothing wrong.

Nicholson's harshness had intensified the difficulties inherent in a situation where relationships within the empire and within the colony itself were proving difficult. The imperial government needed to renegotiate the terms of their relationship with colonial elites if they wished to expand their power further. And Virginia gentlemen needed to reconsider how they presented themselves to the broader world as well as to other Virginians. As Nicholson's supporters rightly observed of Blair, provincial leaders were hardly models of self-control. But their difficulties (as the next section suggests) had helped them rethink the link between anger and government, to reimagine new forms of authority. Nicholson never did so. In Blair's vivid description, even the governor's attempts to gain allies "appeared more like a design of perpetrating a rape than obtaining a consent.”75


Directory: seminars -> earlyam
seminars -> Harriet Tubman Seminar York University 7 February, 2000
seminars -> Harriet tubman seminar department of history york university 27 March 2000
seminars -> Parliaments, Estates & Representation
seminars -> Harriet Tubman Seminar Department of History York University February 28, 2000 The World of Books and the Real World: An Eighteenth-Century Jamaican Perspective Philip D. Morgan
seminars -> The Atlantic Slave Trade in local history writing in Ouidah (Republic of Bénin) Robin Law
seminars -> Work in progress. Do not quote!! Winners and Losers from Globalization: Why both European and us farmers were angry in the Grain Invasion era, 1870-1900
seminars -> With or without the imf? Economic Recovery after Devaluation in Argentina and Brazil
earlyam -> Thomas jefferson, autobiography

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