The colonial period has been the proving ground in America for the new social history, which concentrates on the ordinary doings of ordinary people rather than on high culture and high politics. Unfortunately ordinary people, almost by definition, leave behind only faint traces of their existence. Until very recently most ordinary people could neither read nor write, and their lives have to be reconstituted from the way they appear in records kept by their not-so-ordinary contemporaries.
The starting point for the new history, both in Europe and America, has been the record of births, marriages, and deaths, which most literate societies preserve in one form or another. In colonial America surviving records of this kind—as of every other kind—are most abundant for New England. The men who founded and governed Massachusetts and Connecticut took themselves so seriously that they kept track of everything they did for the benefit of posterity and hoarded their papers so carefully that the whole history of the United States, recounted mainly by their descendants, has often appeared to be the history of New England writ large. The new social history, too, began here with the studies of various New England towns, where local records and family papers made possible not only the “reconstitution” of the families living at a particular time but also much of the network of relationships that bound them together in towns and counties.
New England records are sparse and sporadic by comparison with those available in France (where the new history began) and England, and the records of the other English colonies in America are even more fragmentary, especially in the South. The southern colonists were not preoccupied with their own historical significance and mostly did not bother even to make the records of births, marriages, and deaths that they required of themselves by law. Nor did they write accounts of what they were up to for the benefit of posterity, and if they wrote and received letters they did not squirrel them away for their descendants. What is more, from 1860 to 1864 they fought a devastating war on their own ground against their record-keeping brethren to the north.
Nowhere was the devastation of that war more damaging to historical documents that in Virginia, where virtually all the central records of the colony were lost in the burning of Richmond. Historians are left only with a number of local county records and stray family papers, and whatever can be gleaned from records preserved in England and from archaeological digs. On the basis of these bits and pieces, during the past ten or fifteen years the new social history has moved on Virginia. Entering by way of nearby Maryland, where the records are somewhat better, the historians have begun to piece together the contours of a society that contrasts dramatically not only with New England but with contemporary England as well. It has been an exacting if challenging process, requiring extrapolation from isolated bits of evidence to recover even such elementary facts as the approximate size of the population and its rate of growth, let alone the exact numbers of births, marriages, and deaths. With patience a great deal can be inferred from a few figures, in the way a paleontologist can reconstruct a dinosaur from a few bones.
As the figures accumulate, they show us a society where death was the most common fact of life. After the 1640s Virginia’s population grew rapidly, to make it the largest English colony in America, but it grew at a price in human life that seems almost incredible today. One of the most remarkable discoveries of the new history about New England was that the first settlers there improved their life expectancy by as much as twenty years. Those who went to Virginia were more likely than not to die in their first year.
What sort of relationships did the survivors bear toward one another? Because they spread so widely and rapidly along the banks of tidewater rivers, they could not in any case sustain the closely knit communities that characterized early New England. But the death rate would almost seem to preclude the development of anything that could be called a community at all. Not so. Darrett and Anita Rutman have now examined in loving detail a single county in Virginia during the first century of its existence. Middlesex county, on the south bank of the Rappahannock River, has better surviving records than most other Virginia counties; but only one who has struggled through those records can appreciate the extraordinary pains that the Rutmans have taken to reconstruct from them the lives and deaths of some twelve thousand persons and the web of relationships that, despite all handicaps, bound them together in neighborhoods and the neighborhoods into communities.
The new history’s computerized pursuit of numbers has sometimes had the ironic effect of dehumanizing the very people whose lives it aims at recovering. That is not the case with this volume. The Rutmans give us plenty of numbers, more of them than have hitherto been available for any part of early Virginia, and the numbers themselves are eloquent. Their figures for mortality in Middlesex are even more appalling than the more general ones that have been estimated (largely on the basis of Maryland records) for the Chesapeake region in general. The life expectancy of a colonial Middlesex resident at age twenty, whether immigrant or native born, was not only much less than that of a New Englander but less than that of someone remaining in England. What is worse, while estimates for the colony as a whole have emphasized a falling off of the death rate after midcentury, in Middlesex it rose. In constructing life tables (estimates of life expectancy at a given age) for Middlesex, the Rutmans found that the models constructed for varying degrees of mortality in modern “undeveloped” countries did not even envisage rates as high as the ones in Middlesex (at age twenty a man born in Middlesex in the 1680s could expect to live no more than twenty-four years longer). Some sense of what this meant may be gained from the fact that throughout the century most native-born children in Middlesex lost one or both of their parents by their thirteenth birthday, and almost half did so by their ninth birthday. Victorian novelists with their predilection for the plight of the orphan would have found plenty of material in Middlesex.
The Rutmans are not novelists, but neither are they mere number jugglers. They have confined most of the technicalities to a separate volume, with the arch subtitle “Explicatus.” This leaves them free to convey in their text something of the spirit of their community gained from prolonged intimacy with all traces of it that they have pursued over many years. It was a community, as must be obvious, filled with widows and widowers, and with stepmothers, stepfathers, and stepchildren. It was a community where, in the absence of living kin, friendship might count for much. The fragile, transitory character of human relationships, instead of diminishing dependence on neighbors, seems to have increased it, even though neighbors might be much more widely separated than in New or old England. And the effect of high mortality on domestic relations may have been similar.
It has been plausibly argued by recent historians of the family that heavy child mortality prevented medieval and early modern parents from committing their affections to children who might so quickly be taken from them. The evidence from Middlesex, admittedly fragmentary, does not support such a view: Middlesex parents seem to have exhibited a lively affection for their children and showed their concern for family continuity by naming children either after themselves or, more significantly, after their own parents. Admittedly the inferences to be drawn from the thin evidence cannot be conclusive, but in the absence of harder data, the social historian of early America often has to be content with probabilities.
Perhaps the most interesting and convincing data that the Rutmans have been able to assemble is that showing the effect of slavery on their community. The Middlesex materials reveal little about the lives of the slaves themselves, but a great deal about the way in which the advent of slave labor affected the lives of the white settlers. At the outset of settlement in 1650 slaves accounted for only a tiny proportion of the labor force either in Middlesex or anywhere else in Virginia. By 1700 they were most of it. The Virginians who experienced this transformation were remarkably silent about it, but the Middlesex records as pieced together by the Rutmans show in concrete detail how the new labor system worked as a lottery to the benefit of the fortunate few who, literally, held the lucky numbers.
Investing in human beings was nothing new in Virginia. From the beginning tobacco planters had bought and sold white indentured servants, who worked out the cost of their passage to the New World by several years of labor. The risks to the purchaser were reflected in the fact that a servant who had survived his first deadly year or two, even though he might have only two or three more years to serve, brought a higher price than a man who had just stepped ashore. When a planter bought a newly arrived slave, at twice the cost of the most expensive indentured servant, both the risks and the possible profits were much larger. If the slave lived, he might in the course of his or her life bring a huge return on the investment and even increase the owner’s capital by presenting him with children. On the other hand, death and the various afflictions of humanity might bring disaster to the small planter who invested his all or more than all in so perishable a commodity. But the large planter, who could spend enough to put the law of averages to work for him, could spread the demographic risks. Among fifty slaves there would be enough survivors to outweigh the loss. The overall return on the large investment might not be as great as that of the small planter who bet his small savings on the lives of one or two slaves and won, but the odds of the slavery game were stacked against the small-time planter and almost guaranteed a large profit to the big spender.
That was the way it worked in Middlesex. The country began with a wide gap between the largest and smallest of its independent planters, but neighborhoods and neighborly feelings could encompass both. A hundred years later both large and small householders had prospered. Inventories of the smallest households show more of the goods that suggest material comfort than had been present in comparable houses at the offset. But the gap between large and small had perceptibly widened, and the character of the community had evidently changed. Though the difference cannot be measured in the records of births and deaths and taxes and inventories, neighborhoods had lost some of their neighborliness, and the networks of human relations stretched more closely along class lines than across them.
From the fragmentary records of Middlesex the Rutmans, with remarkable skill and meticulous care, have constructed a vivid picture of a place in time. It is unlikely that the new social history can do more for any place in Virginia during the time to which they have confined themselves, between 1650 and 1750. Their very success invites reflection on the limits of the genre itself.
The study of ordinary people in their daily lives needs no justification, and there can be no doubt that the new history has opened up vast areas of what one of its practitioners has aptly called “the world we have lost,” a world lost as much to previous historians as to everyone else. The effect has been not directly to erase the old landmarks of the past, but to render them seemingly insignificant. When the new history initiated its investigation of colonial New England, its practitioners did not attempt to reassess the developments or trends, the political and intellectual crises that had previously dictated the structure of historical accounts of the region. They were simply uninterested in the theological controversies and political maneuverings that had occupied the attention of previous historians. It was not a question of refuting or revising earlier interpretations but of bypassing them. It was not even a question of replacing old landmarks with new. What are the landmarks of the history that grows from registers of births and deaths, taxes and inventories? There are occasional catastrophes: epidemics of one disease or another, years of bad harvests—but the watersheds of the kind that marked the old history are missing.
The Rutmans’ study of Middlesex is a case in point: the opening and closing dates are arbitrary. The first merely approximates the gathering of substantial numbers of settlers in the county; the closing date of 1750 is simply a hundred years later. And the arbitrary choice is deliberate. We are not concerned here with big events. And there is an implication, as in the New England studies, that the events that seemed big in previous accounts were not so big when placed in proper perspective. The period covered here saw Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, the largest uprising against constituted authority in America before the Revolution and the centerpiece in conventional accounts of Virginia’s colonial history. In Middlesex, so far as the Rutmans’ investigation indicates, Bacon’s Rebellion was no great matter, and whatever may have been the grievances that brought it about, they were not conspicuously felt by the people of Middlesex. In Middlesex it was “simply a venting of frustrations and a release of tension, precipitated by events unrelated to the county’s doings and, in the end, negligible in effect.” That may be a fair judgment, but it raises some interesting questions about the relationship of the new history to the old.
Is it possible that the events that seemed important in the old history have lost their significance in the new, not because they were negligible to ordinary people of the time but because the kind of sources on which the new history necessarily depends cannot disclose either their significance or their lack of it for ordinary people? Governor William Berkeley, who was first displaced by Bacon’s Rebellion and then succeeded in putting it down, offered the opinion that there were no more than five hundred people in Virginia who had supported him against Bacon. Perhaps Berkeley was wrong, but if the great majority of Virginians were sufficiently discontented with their government to take up arms against it, it stands to reason that the evils they suffered had become insufferable. Were the people of Middlesex an exception? If not, is the new history incapable of reaching or registering the discontents that provoked the rebellion?
One is reminded of the grip that another kind of new historical method recently held on the historiography of eighteenth-century British politics. Sir Lewis Namier’s brilliant study, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, so dazzled a generation of British historians that they not only confined themselves to examining political structures but also followed their master in proclaiming that structure was all seemed to be a sham. It is now evident, thanks to the work of a new generation of historians including John Brewer and Linda Colley, that political issues and parties disappeared from Namierist historiography because concentration on the structure of politics could not disclose them.* Is something analogous happening in the new social history’s concentration on the kind of information to be gained by compiling and analyzing statistics? If so, it does not follow that the statistical method is at fault, but that a marriage of the new and the old might be fruitful. The new history might profit by a closer look at the landmarks of the old.
January 17, 1985
See John Brewer, Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III (Cambridge University Press, 1976) and Linda Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party, 1714–1760 (Cambridge University Press, 1982). ↩