For those of us who hail from the Catholic libertarian (lowercase-l) perspective, Tom Woods has been an indispensable resource. Whether it is his books, writings, or his longstanding podcasts and video — as a professor turned senior fellow at the Mises Institute, Woods is about as sincere as they come.
His most recent podcast entitled “Anarchism in Ireland” with Kevin Flanagan is a historian’s dream come true, explaining the Celtic tribal conditions that enabled for a system of justice without a system of governance. Worth a listen:
…but I’ll abbreviate it for you as best I can.
Flanagan and Woods explore the impact of societal norms in communitarian Ireland, where defendants picked their judges, penalties increased for those who could afford more (and increased significantly if the ability to “right the wrong” was within the power of the offending party), the obligations of hospitality of the community to the traveler, etc.
All of this was very much in the tradition of the “hundreds” — the very earliest form of political community in Virginia bearing a long tradition in the Anglo-Saxon world that reinforced the idea of townships that one might today see manifested in New Hampshire.
One is immediately struck that this is not exactly an Anglo-Saxon tradition in the fullest sense; the Celts had this tradition as well. If it lingered through the Romano-Celtic period of British history and was revived after the invasion of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, what you get is a rather unique blending of Northern European civic traditions that find their manifestation in Magna Carta — our earliest Bill of Rights.
These “shires” consisted of 100 families, which ideally could raise 100 men for their liege lord in a call to arms. By 1634, Virginia was dotted with “hundreds” — Berkeley Hundred, Bermuda Hundred, Martin’s Hundred, Flowerdew Hundred — that were divided into eight shires, the earliest form of county government in Virginia. By this time, the Virginia colony had reached a population of 5,000 and has survived starvation, the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, and was safely behind a six-mile palisade stretching across the peninsula on Middle Plantation (modern day Williamsburg). This gave Virginia the nuclei to create towns around the court days, yet for one reason or another, things didn’t go exactly to plan.
It’s interesting to note that towns never quite took off in Virginia in the same way that they did in New England for many suspected reasons: plantation culture, quality of the soil, the type of immigrant brought to Tidewater Virginia (second sons and Irish bondsmen, and later African slaves), climate, and the nature of Virginia’s relationship with England — the latter emphasizing a mercantilist relationship with the “fifth part” of an emerging Great Britain.
By 1684 the Treaty of Albany had been signed, which gave the Virginians by treaty what earlier colonists had effectively settled and depopulated by force, liberating the early Virginia colonists from a territory effectively starting at the fall line in present-day Richmond and extending south along the James River into Hampton Roads. Remarkably, this tiny branch was Virginia. It was only in 1722 that Virginia was able to incorporate the Piedmont in a second Treaty of Albany with the Algonquin tribes, nations we typically identify as being more native to New York than Virginia, this demonstrating the Algonquin Nation’s expanse at the time.
Consider that in that time — between 1722 and 1776 — we are talking about a span of about 51 years of western expansion that towards the revolution, Virginians were talking of expansion into the Ohio Valley, Kentucky, and beyond. With such speed, how could towns really take root in Virginia?
After the English Civil War and the Restoration, King Charles II expressly desired Virginia to establish more towns within the tiny enclave along the James River. The General Assembly attempted to respond to the call, with three attempts to create towns within the pre-Albany lines. A second act was passed in 1691, a third in 1706… but the attempts failed as the Board of Trade rejected each and every proposal for fear that Virginia manufactures would compete with manufactures in England. A fourth attempt in 1711 did not even pass the General Assembly, and just two years after the 1722 Treaty of Albany, visitors would openly complain at the agrarian nature of the Virginia landscape, where “neither the interest nor the inclination of the Virginians induce them to cohabit in towns.” Even though some smaller towns did exist and thrive — Urbanna, Yorktown, Hampton, Port Royal — all succeeded and thrived, their condition today suggests they survive more for their picturesque “Little Williamsburg” settings in the vast majority of cases (Hampton being a clear exception).
Thus the existence of towns in Virginia tended towards land grants and patents serviced by county seats rather than local trades and manufactures. The appropriation of Maryland by Lord Baltimore and the near-appropriation of Fairfax by Lord Culpeper combined with the mass settlement of Pennsylvanians along the Shenandoah Valley created an insatiable appetite for land, and when the Piedmont ceased to have its enduring appeal, Virginian settlers pushed south along the Appalachians until they met the Cumberland Gap, spilling out into the Midwest.
Though the French and Indian War between 1756 and 1763 provided a temporary stop (along with an enduring string of forts along the Blue Ridge in response to the expansion of the Iroquois Confederacy and the aftermath of the French-Indian War that were remarkably obsolete by 1780), then-Governor Lord Dunmore’s campaign against the remaining Iroquois tribes who refused to honor the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix removed the last impediment to Virginian settlers who could care less about treaties and honor.
So what does this have to do with the Irish? For this, we will have to fast forward to today with a very brief comparison.
When one considers the nation of Ireland, one thinks of a place with its own distinct culture, language, arts, economy, independence, embassy, armed forces, etc. All of the trappings of a modern nation state — close knit, and with tremendous global reach.
Ireland’s population? 4.6 million.
Virginia’s population? 8.3 million.
Ireland’s square miles? 32,595.
Virginia’s square miles? 42,775.
Ireland’s GDP per capita? $50,503.
Virginia’s GDP per capita? $53,723.
Ireland’s total GDP? $232 billion.
Virginia’s total GDP? $383 billion.
The reason why I mention this is that for someone in Ireland, one particularly feels themselves to be a part of an Irish community, in an Irish nation, with an Irish heritage and Irish culture, expressing an Irish language in a grand tradition of Irish arts, poetry, thought, and literature.
Alternatively, Virginia has practically none of these things. Mencken’s critique of the Old Dominion as an “intellectual Gobi” strikes hard when contrasted with our legacy of men such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Mason and Henry. Where is our particularly Virginian poetry? Virginian literature? Virginian community?
Of course, one could have picked any two nations in the world, but Virginia and Ireland share a special condition in the fact that both were part of Great Britain in a way no other American state can claim — as the Old Dominion, Virginia’s boast was that we formed the fourth part (and after the 1707 Act of Union, the fifth).
There is another comparison worth drawing in this. Though the tradition of cultural enfranchisement remains strong in Ireland, it never quite took root in Virginia given the transient nature of settlers in the 17th and 18th century, the ravages of war and reconstruction in the 19th century, piled on top of urbanization and commercialization in the 20th century have taken the agrarian landscape and created one abandoned community after another.
True, Ireland has its abandoned communities as well after the Great Famine, yet Virginia seems to have more of its fair share of abandoned homes if for no other reason than we are here to see the decline.
But the decline of townships should bother us for more than just the aesthetic.
Consider Virginia again at the birth of the Republic. The Commonwealth of Virginia in 1790 had a population of 820,000 souls and 23 Representatives and 184 delegates. Today, Virginia is home to 8.3 million souls and just 11 representatives and 100 delegates.
Originally 22 men when the colony consisted of 5,000 souls, the Virginia House of Burgesses stood at 114 burgesses by the dawn of the American Revolution in 1774, with King George III ordering his colonial governors to veto any legislation that would expand the number of representatives — a noted complaint of Mr. Jefferson in his Declaration of Independence. By 1790, the House of Delegates had swelled to 184 members and by 1828 boasted 236 members — roughly “1 Delegate for every 5,517 residents and 1 Senator for every 34,218 residents.”
Today, one delegate represents 80,000 souls. One senator? 207,000 souls. One representative theoretically represent as many people in 2017 as Governor James Monroe did in 1800.
The Founding Fathers grappled endlessly with the appropriate amount of individuals that were required to be within a polity, much less how representative a legislative body should be.
Part of the problem today is that the average American (and average Virginian) is more distant from their government today than at any time in the history of the American Republic.
Part of the solution in early America was a strong degree of localism, where decisions were taken at a local level — at the level of the “hundreds” and within the county shire.
One suspects that most politicians are loathe to dilute their power by creating new rivals, much less politicians in Washington countenancing the idea of creating new states in order to bring government closer to the people.
Yet there is merit in the idea of devolving power to localities, and even greater merit in devolving the duties and powers of a government back to the “hundreds” — or what we today would call precincts.
Part of today’s cultural problem is that Americans are too distant from their own government. Problems are handled by “them” — whether that is the courthouse, the statehouse, or Washington — but rarely handled by the people themselves in their community.
Let’s take the idea of a park. If a “hundred” wanted to create a park, they could just as easily band together, buy the property, maintain it through voluntary dues or taxation, and use it for their own purposes. Rather than paying a groundskeeper, perhaps the community bands together one Saturday a year to do basic maintenance in lieu of the cost of upkeep.
Take other concepts. Law enforcement in rural localities, libraries, land use, trash collection, amenities, and so forth can either be assented to by the community or abandoned altogether. All of these would have consequences or benefits, but the “hundred” or the precinct would have to tackle them.
Something else to consider as well. Just as the Irish have their own gravity towards culture and the arts, so too does a sense of community help inculcate these very same values and appreciations. That Ireland with half the population of Virginia can command such a rich culture speaks more to a devotion to the soil and traditions of the old country than transient Virginians today have to our own atomized and abandoned senses of localism and self today. Similar histories; different results.
All of this brings to bear a single thought: representative government only works when the citizens themselves are actively engaged in the process of governance.
When it doesn’t work this way? We get fake news. We get lazy citizens who rely on 140 characters or less, news by fourth string English teachers and “pressure groups” more agenda driven than solutions oriented, opportunists rather than statesmen.
We get what we deserve — politicians who are ultimately reflections of their electorate and who shouldn’t be held to blame when they are viewed as lazy, contemptible hypocrites.
The core to all of this is not bringing government to the people, but rather bringing people to the government. By creating more localism, looking to “the hundreds” and expanding the franchise of decision making rather than merely the vote — that’s where you have the chance to bring back some of the communitarian ethic known to our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and to the Celts before them.
There’s a strong tradition for this in Anglo-American society — one we should embrace.
UPDATE: So one always hopes at the end of a 2,000 word essay that folks will read and respond to a piece. I have to say that I am very pleased to see the reactions over the last few days — thank you!
For most of my recollections on the condition and history of Virginia towns in the colonial era, I am entirely indebted to Christopher Hendricks’ book “The Backcountry Towns of Colonial Virginia” — a phenomenal tome I picked up in Colonial Williamsburg’s bookstore and have found to be a tremendous resource in explaining the agrarian nature of the Virginia Tidewater and Piedmont. Worth the read; highly recommended for you Virginia history types.