Sunday, May 07, 2006


In debt in olde Virginia.

Charles Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company (Knopf, 1999).

The Great Dismal Swamp lies where the border between Virginia and North Carolina starts at the coast, more north of the border than south. From the first survey of the border in the 1720s, colonists schemed to cut the timber, drain the swamp, and sell the land, and within a few decades a company was formed to this end, its shareholders having convinced their peers in the government to grant them the land, conditioned on its development. Charles Royster's history uses the company, and its succession of shareholders, as a window into the business dealings of Virginia's nascent aristocracy -- primarily landowners, who made their money in speculating on land and growing tobacco. Royster has surveyed a stunning volume of historical records, mostly of business records. My main criticism of the book is that these business records are often not sufficiently leavened with other materials, leaving the narrative little more than a welter of transactions lacking context. Especially in the earlier decades, Royster apparently did not have much else to work with, and the result can be dry and overwhelming, little more than a succession of names and business relations between a small cast of characters. And not just in business -- in marriage, too, generations of Virginia's upper class throughout the eighteenth century entered into a thicket of interlocking ties.

As Royster nears the Revolutionary War, he draws on more and more political history to put the transactional records in context, and a thicker picture emerges. In these periods, the central thrust of the book is a welcome alternative to the traditional narratives of the Revolution, in which figures such as George Washington and Patrick Henry strut their role on the political stage without any sense of their life before or later, save perhaps for the obligatory mention of Mt. Vernon. Washington was a longtime investor in the Great Dismal Swamp Company, a venture less successful than his efforts to win landgrants in the Ohio River Valley for veterans of the French and Indian Wars, many of whom assigned their rights to him. Henry first appears as a firebrand lawyer defending a Virginian debtor from British creditors.

If Royster synthesizes political and business history, other perspectives are lacking. With all the discussion of Virginians' dealings in land, tobacco, and British goods, I would have welcomed more of an economic perspective, some synthesis of the repeated patterns of trade: in particular, British capital lent to Virginian landowners and the exchange of tobacco for manufactured goods. Nor is there enough social history for my taste. Royster can look back into the office better than he can the kitchen or the bedroom. While the perspective he provides here is a new one to me, I would prefer a guide who can take me beyond the business district and tell me more about what I am seeing.

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