June 19, 2012

Williamsburg Musings

The Governor’s Palace (Photo Credit: Flickr)

It’s good to be back from last week’s vacation. I traveled with my family to  Williamsburg, a Virginian pilgrimage that yields both relaxation and fascination. Although this was the third time I had visited the colonial area, I still learned some new things (or else was reminded of things forgotten). Our favorite lecture both for this trip and the last remains the county courthouse presentation, which reveals a radically different approach to common life when contrasted with present American culture.

Working on a principle of subsidiarity, the capital court in Williamsburg handled felony cases (offenses that generally merited hanging) while the country court looked after minor suits as well as the regular duties we see today, such as licensing and registration. The county court had appointed nine justices of the peace, with one assigned as a head justice. All were culled from the gentry–men eligible to vote since they either owned 100 acres of undeveloped land or 24 acres developed. They were unpaid for their work; it was expected that these independently-wealthy men would fulfill these duties as their noble obligation. They also had a large stake in the current order and thus would not be eager to upset society with revolutionary innovations. Every year, one of the justices would be elected sheriff. Along with his undersheriff (deputy), he was tasked with such unpleasantries as gathering taxes, making arrests, and managing elections. Because of the office’s time and difficulty, the position came with a stipend.

Compared to the 21st century, imprisonment was short and judgment rapid. Although it could take weeks–even months–to gather witnesses and evidence, imprisonment over a year was considered cruel and unusual. Likewise, once juries retreated to make a decision, they were denied light, heat, food, water, and chamber pot until they made their statement. Hung juries were never a problem, though margin of error might have been.

The justices of the peace did not have to receive formal education in law. They relied on the clerk, their legal adviser, who had received training–generally in an apprenticeship to another lawyer before they could pass through the literal bar of the court. The clerk also helped with civil documents, registration, and licensing–for a fee. Many Founding Fathers followed this career, such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.

Interior of the county courthouse (Photo Credit: Flickr)

There was no standing police force and rarely a standing army, for that matter. For protection from exterior threats to the colony, the government had to provide arms and equipment for the militia. Husbands, fathers, sons, and neighbors trained in order to protect their families from either Native American raids or opposing European forces such as the French. More interestingly, colonists had to apply for a permit in order to NOT have their own private gun(s) besides those in the common armory. With no police force, the sheriff had to call together members of the community to assist in arrests and the enforcement of the law. (Think of Westerns where they “rustle up a posse.”) For the good of your own and your community, you had to be armed. And the NRA rejoiced.

City works were also granted to the common trust. The construction and repair of public roads or buildings were laid on the citizens’ shoulders, not paid employees. In 1700s Virginia, one could work himself as well as send slaves for the completion of a task. This common-labor tradition had been present since the ancients, including the poleis of the Greeks. Now such practices seem utterly foreign and assure consternation from committed libertarians and socialists alike.

With the efficiency of aristocracy come several insults to democratic sensibilities. Unfortunately, since slaves were property, they could be tried and hung at the county level. Women did have full rights and responsibilities, contrary to popular opinion. Nevertheless, these were ceded when she married. The civic responsibilities  (including fines, etc.) as well as representation now lay on her husband’s shoulders. She regained these if widowed.

One could be fined by law for not attending the official church of Virginia, i.e. the Church of England. This rule was not established out of concern for one’s soul. Instead, the church gathered a required tithe (and thus was a form of taxation). Also, church is where new laws, regulations, and other official announcements were made on a weekly basis. Regular church attendance assured that one could never complain of ignorance if hauled into court.

Likewise, clergy were required to have a preaching license. This policy always receives virulent condemnation from evangelicals. At the time, however, there were several reasons why this was a regulation. First, the Anglican Church continued the tradition of training clergy. Recognized teachers and administrators of the church needed to be well educated in the doctrines of the faith passed down by the saints. Poor exegesis and unrestrained, untethered Biblical interpretation quickly leads to heresy. Second, the wages of unorthodox teaching had proved themselves dangerous and bloody in the two previous centuries. For example, during the 1600s English Civil War and following, the Leveller and Digger sects tried to push for radical egalitarianism, popular suffrage (thus granting the little-taxed poor access to the public purse), the equalization/elimination of property, removal of any and all hierarchy, polygamy, and other revolutionary policies. False beliefs led to much bloodshed and a slight distaste for unlimited license to spread novel ideas.

Interior of Bruton Parish (Photo Credit: Flickr)

As the Colonial Williamsburg guide told us, institutions such as the common law justice system prepared the colonists to peacefully transition from subjects of the king to citizens of the republic. They provided the stability and order of human justice to allow for some kind of thriving society. The costumed instructor did not tell how these institutions came to an end through various reforms and policy decisions, ranging from Thomas Jefferson’s disestablishment of the Episcopal Church’s official position (much to the ire of Patrick Henry), his rending of primogeniture (thus true landed aristocracy), frontier revivalism, Enlightenment thinking, national centralization from the new Constitution, and an all-encompassing democratization of American life.

Nevertheless, we can enjoy these fresh breezes to the imagination from the past. We come to see that age’s blind-spots and–if we’re perceptive–our own. For example, I was struck to see how involved people were in so many spheres of activity. The church, the state, family, clubs, and public events were tightly interwoven into one’s life. Today, what used to be a life built around the local church, the farming cycle, Ruritans, Lions, garden clubs, Kiwanis, baseball bush leagues, and festivals have fallen by the wayside as more Americans glaze over in front of various screens. I have come to appreciate our forefathers for being citizens–of two cities, if they were Christians–rather than merely spectators.

2 Responses to Williamsburg Musings

  1. Howard Merrell says:

    I assume by licensure you refer to “by the state.” The licensing of preachers is common among many of today’s evangelicals. Not by the state, though. When someone tells me they have been “licensed to preach,” I often think of 007. Unfortunately, I am sometimes right.

    • Bart Gingerich says:

      Yes, the licensing issue was by the state. The interactions (some would say “entanglements”) between church and civil government are quite different from our post-1st Amendment (or rather, post-1833 Congregationalist Massachusetts) consciousness today. Maybe it wasn’t right, but it’s always a good discipline to see why they acted differently.

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