Planters, Merchants, Speculators, Rebels

Upon the 4th of July, one’s thoughts naturally turn to the founders of this great country who risked everything to protect their liberties. As 21st-century Americans, we look back upon the people and events of 1776 from a vantage point that views the struggle for independence as entirely natural. Of course Americans wanted their freedom! What else would we expect?

In chronicling the American Revolution, historians tend to focus on the causes of the rift between the colonies and England. As a consequence, they dwell upon the factors that separated us. Overlooked in such a perspective are the ties that bound us to the mother country. I have a new-found sense of those links from reading “The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company.

Author Charles Royster follows the fortunes of the men who in 1767 founded the Dismal Swamp Company. Investors included George Washington, William Byrd and several lesser-known though no less fascinating personalities. The purpose of the venture was to drain the swamp and create land that could be sold to settlers. The enterprise floundered from the lack of strong on-the-spot management and never succeeded in its primary aim, but it did manage to cut and sell a lot of timber. Tangible remains of the company can be seen in the Dismal Swamp Canal, which has since been incorporated into the Intracoastal Waterway.

The commerce between the colonies and mother country was lively. Ambitious young Englishmen came to the colonies to make their fortunes, then returned to live a more cosmopolitan life in London. English financiers and merchants extended large amounts of credit to Virginia planters. The planters, while aspiring to aristocratic lifestyles and often living beyond their means, were far a far more entrepreneurial bunch than I had imagined. Tobacco cultivation was merely a sideline for many. Investors in the Dismal Swamp company also were merchants and land speculators. (George Washington was one of the great land speculators of American history.) They would pursue profit wherever it took them, be it growing wheat and hemp, cutting timber, mining iron or shipping produce to the West Indies sugar plantations.

Business was organized around a nexus of trade and credit built upon relations of trust. Economically and financially, Virginia spun in the orbit of London. The planters, always financially overextended, were beholden to the bankers, lenders and insurers in the great metropolis. One of those described in the book was Anthony Bacon (no relation), a ship’s captain turned colonial investor and arms contractor to the English government. Just as Bacon had his agents in Virginia to look after his interests, Virginians had their agents in London. In the world of business, Virginia and England were joined at the hip.

In 1776 the Virginia signers of the Declaration of Independence risked everything. As modern-day pundits commonly observe in their obligatory July 4th columns, the revolutionaries put their property, their lives, their sacred honor, at risk. Less commonly recognized are the mundane risks they took. In war, their goods would be shut out of English markets. Their ships would be subject to seizure. Their lines of credit would be cut off. Vital business relationships would be severed. Their livelihoods would be put in jeopardy. Yet they rebelled anyway.

As we celebrate our independence with hotdogs and fireworks, we would do well to remember the men and women who, however short they fall from our 21st-century ideals, risked much so we could enjoy our freedoms.

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