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Image Virginia Learning Ways: Anglican Traditions of Hierarchical Learning

Virginia’s folkways also appeared in its patterns of learning and literacy. In the year 1643, for example, an illiterate farmer named Robert Lawson lay dying in his home on Virginia’s eastern shore. He had a substantial property but no family, and in his last hours the neighbors gathered around his deathbed. After a few perfunctory inquiries about his health, they began to ask pointed questions about his property.

“If thou dyest, who shall have thy cow,” one neighbor asked bluntly.

“George,” whispered the dying man.

“George Smith?” the neighbor persisted.

“Yea,” he answered.

“Who shall have your Bulchin?”

“George Smith.”

“Who shall have your sow—shall George Smith have it?

“Yea,” came the reply.

“Who shall have your match coat?”

“Robert West is a knave,” the dying man inexplicably answered. Then he turned from his questioners and “did most fearfully rattle in the throat” and passed away.

The neighbors were much concerned about the disposition of his estate. “This will by word of mouth … is worth nothing,” one of them observed, “the king will have all because there was no literate fellow to the making of it.”

Their fears proved to be well founded. Two shady characters called Mr. Thomas Parks and Robert West suddenly appeared in court with a sealed paper which they represented to be Robert Lawson’s will. The document was written in Thomas Parks’ hand and signed by mark. It left everything to Robert West, except a few choice items that went to Parks.

The neighbors were outraged. They swore up and down that this document was false, and the very opposite of Robert Law-son’s intention. But they failed to convince the court, because there had been “no literate fellow” among them who could provide written proof. The court accepted the document of “Mr. Parks,” who had the rank if not the character of a gentleman.1

This episode reveals an important truth about Virginia. It tells us that literacy was an instrument of wealth and power in this colony, and that many were poor and powerless in that respect.

The proportion of adults who could read and write in Virginia was significantly lower than in Massachusetts. In the seventeenth century, most adult Virginians (white and black, male and female altogether) were unable to sign their own names. Disparities by wealth, race, class and gender were very great. Among Virginia’s gentry, literacy approached 100 percent. But of male property holders in general, about 50 percent were able to write. Among tenants and laborers that proportion fell to about 40 percent. Even the minority who could spell their own names often did so in a clumsy and trembling script which suggested that writing was an alien act.2 Indentured servants in the Chesapeake had even lower rates of literacy; only about 25 to 30 percent were able to sign their names in the seventeenth century.3 And of African slaves, less than 1 percent were literate in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. These disparities were larger than in New England.4

Large differences in literacy also existed between men and women. Before 1641-1700, less than 25 percent of women could sign their names on legal documents. Even women of the highest rank in Virginia were unable to write their names. The wives of Colonel John Washington, Colonel George Mason and Colonel John Ashton all signed by mark. More women could read than write in Virginia—a condition of passive literacy which was the common lot of females in the seventeenth century.5

Altogether, the pattern of literacy in seventeenth century Virginia differed from that of Massachusetts in many ways, but it was similar to those parts of rural England from whence the colonists came. It is interesting to note that the incidence of literacy in the rural south and west of England was markedly lower than in East Anglia.6

During the eighteenth century, literacy rapidly increased on both sides of the Atlantic. As it did so, differences between people of high and low status tended to diminish in New England and Britain. But in Virginia the opposite was the case. Disparities in literacy between rich and poor actually grew greater. Here was yet another system of inequality in the cultural life of the colony.7

As it was with literacy, so also with learning. There was a striking paradox in attitudes toward schools and schooling in Virginia. The elite was deeply interested in the education of gentlemen. “Better be never born than ill-bred,” wrote William Fitzhugh in 1687. By “ill-bred” in that passage, he meant “unschooled.”8

At the same time, visitors and natives both agreed that schools were few and far between, that ignorance was widespread, and that formal education did not flourish in the Chesapeake. This condition was not an accident. It was deliberately contrived by Virginia’s elite, who positively feared learning among the general population. The classic expression of this attitude came from Governor William Berkeley himself. When asked in 1671 by the Lords of Trade about the state of schools in Virginia, he made a famous reply: “I thank God,” he declared, “there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a ] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”9

This remark has earned Governor Berkeley a place of infamy in the history of education. But it was not merely the isolated absurdity of an eccentric reactionary. Precisely the same policy was adopted by Berkeley’s kinsman and successor, Lord Culpeper, who actively suppressed printing in the colony. When John Buckner set up a press, he was “prohibited by the governor and council from printing any thing, till the King’s pleasure should be known.” An historian observes that the King’s pleasure was “very tardily communicated, as the first evidence of printing thereafter in Virginia was … 1733.”10

Berkeley and Culpeper were not unique. Many English Royalists were of the same mind in the seventeenth century. William Cavendish wrote to Charles II in the 1650s, “The Bible in English under every weaver and chambermaid’s arm hath done us muchhurt.”11 This fear of learning in the general “populace” was shared even by gentlemen who are remembered for their devotion to scholarship. Francis Bacon wrote to James I in 1611 that England was in danger of educational “excess,” at a time when three-quarters of adult men and women were illiterate. Bacon feared that if schools were expanded, “Many persons will be bred unfit for other vocations and unprofitable for that in which they are brought up, which fills the realm full of indigent, idle and wanton people.” This attitude was carried to Virginia by “distressed Royalists” in the mid-seventeenth century, and became a persistent part of Chesapeake culture for many generations.12

These hierarchical attitudes toward learning also appeared in the distribution of books in Virginia. The libraries of great planters William Byrd and Robert Carter were among the best in British America, superior to the holdings of most colleges in the northern colonies. But the yeomanry of Virginia owned few books, and servants nearly none. Slaves were forbidden to read at all, on pain of savage punishment. The penalty for a slave who tried to learn how to write was to have a finger amputated. The riches of great plantation libraries made a dramatic contrast with the inaccessibility of books for ordinary people.13

The same duality also appeared in regard to schooling. Virginia gentlemen cultivated the arts, sciences and education among themselves, but did not encourage schools for the general population. They hired private tutors for their own youngsters, sponsored schools of high quality for children of the elite, founded the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, and sent their sons to Oxford.14 Altogether, the proportion of planters’ sons who were sent to college in England and America was similar to that of the gentry of southern England. But these same county oligarchies were largely responsible for the miserable condition of parish schools throughout Virginia, and for the long absence of printing in the colony.15

It might be noted that Virginia learning ways were not the product of slavery, or of rural poverty. They were fully developed before slaves appeared in large numbers, and when that colony was one of the richest in British America. They were rooted in a culture which came out of England in the seventeenth century, and persisted in the southern states for three hundred years.16

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