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The Founding Swindlers

Posted on June 26, 2000

The great planters of eighteenth-century Virginia have long enjoyed a romantic and patriotic aura for living in grand mansions and for leading the American Revolution to victory. Freshly painted and carefully manicured, the great colonial houses — including Monticello, Mount Vernon, and the array at Colonial Williamsburg — shimmer in our eyes and our imaginations as pristine stages for the lost world of our moral and political superiors. The heroic version of the Founding Fathers dates to the new generation of the early nineteenth century. In 1817 William Wirt, an ambitious Virginia lawyer, wrote a fawning history of Patrick Henry and his compatriots. Wirt demanded: “Were not these men, giants in mind and heroism? Compared with them, what is the present generation, but a puny race of dwarfs and pigmies?”

We continue to ask the same selfflagellating question. But Charles Royster quotes Wirt for ironic effect, because his “fabulous history” leads us into the private lives and the sordid business practices of the Virginia gentry, which in his account was a vast interlocking web of illusions, deceptions, and evasions. Royster depicts the standard great events of eighteenth-century America, including the Seven Years War, the colonial resistance to British taxes, the War for Independence, and the new republic; but, as if by shifting our lens, these affairs of state appear greatly reduced in grandeur because they are yoked and subordinated to the wheeling and dealing that usually preoccupied the gentry. Cast in a harsh new light, eighteenth-century Virginia reappears as a tawdry landscape of human folly. Royster describes Norfolk, for example, as the very antithesis of our pristine Colonial Williamsburg:

Flimsy new buildings lined crooked, narrow, dirt streets… New clapboard warehouses among the wharves — some stood three stories high — were bigger than most residences and stores but just as ugly. Construction followed no design, creating a maze of lanes and alleys. Raw sewage ran in open ditches bridged by narrow planks. Near the river a stench hung over the city, especially at low tide.

Royster is an accomplished scholar and writer. Each of his three previous books was a profound meditation on warfare and the American character. In his new book, Royster turns from war to land speculation to find a new key to our national origins. He astutely demonstrates that land speculation consumed the eighteenth-century American elite, including the republic’s great men: George Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, James Wilson, Robert Morris. But more often than not, their estates eventually collapsed into bankruptcy, almost invariably because of excessive speculations in poor locations, such as the Great Dismal Swamp.

Eighteenth-century fortunes rested on shaky foundations of bad debts. They were owed to, and owed by, every man of apparent property and probity. Prominent Virginians procrastinated on paying their debts, while living well and compulsively adding new debts to build an expending network of undercapitalized land companies. Robert Beverly, a leading Virginian, explained that his people lived by “being in Debt & making great Promises for the future.” Surely, they reasoned, the next, bigger land speculation would recoup every gamble and retire every debt in one colossal score. The grandest speculations involved millions of acres and functioned like pyramid schemes, requiring new marks to invest at a premium before the original debt became due. In the end, almost no one — except lawyers such as Wirt — outran the approaching wave of destructive debt. Eventually, impatient and desperate creditors consigned a surprising number of apparently wealthy gentlemen to a debtors’ prison or a dotage of genteel poverty.

Exploiting their political connections, eighteenth-century gentlemen cheaply purchased government titles to thousands of acres of Indian lands. After expelling the natives, the speculators expected to grow rich by retailing lots to the common settlers, who turned the forest into productive farmland. On the edge of a fertile continent, with a population doubling every twenty-five years, American land speculation seemed a sure path to riches — provided the locations were good. As a young man, George Washington recognized that “the greatest Estates we have in this Colony were made … by taking up & purchasing at very low rates the rich back Lands which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable Lands we possess.” Resolved to become richer, Washington accumulated political offices and allies, obtaining the leverage to procure an array of lands in the Great Dismal Swamp and on the western frontier in the Ohio valley.

To curry favor with the imperial government, colonial land speculators usually promised that their schemes would lead to the massive cultivation of hemp (which governments valued to make rope for shipping, rather than dreaded as marijuana for smoking). Almost nothing came of these projects, because Russian hemp remained cheaper and better for rope; but the colonial speculators kept patriotically promising to save the Royal Navy from its dependence on a foreign supplier. So characteristic of their age, the hemp projects combined pipe-dreams with remarkably detailed (albeit wildly unrealistic) calculations of all the (small) costs and (stupendous) benefits.

The projectors even saw an opportunity in the Great Dismal Swamp, a watery tract of approximately 900 square miles located along the Virginia-North Carolina border. The swamp both alarmed and intoxicated visitors. “Moving into the swamp,” Royster writes, “one waded in standing water the color of tea. Farther in, bamboo among the trees grew more thickly. Vines climbed trunks and hung from branches above huge, intricate ferns. Clouds of mosquitoes were so large as to make it hard to guess what kept all of them alive.” The Great Dismal Swamp hosted a complex and intense array of vibrant life and frequent death:

In the night, frogs and bats consumed part of the vast population of insects. In summer, blood-sucking horse flies swarmed. Large mosquitoes hovered in thick clouds. Barred owls preyed on shrews and mice… Dense growths of tall bamboo hung in broad arches. On these, snakes sometimes sunned themselves — copperheads or a water snake exposing its bright red underside. Water snakes consumed fish and fell prey in turn to long king snakes.

In the teeming and predatory swamp, Royster finds a metaphor for the tangled connections and unscrupulous intrigues of the Virginia elite.

With good cause, colonial farmers bypassed the Great Dismal Swamp to settle on drier and more elevated lands. But all of that cheap real estate, so conveniently close to the seaport at Norfolk, teased the greedy imaginations of ambitious men, who calculated the profits of draining the swamp to procure fertile farmland for retail sale to farmers. Here, Royster hints, lie the origins of the enduring American talent for selling swampland, bridges, and websites to dupes.

During the 1720s, the great planter and writer William Byrd first proposed to drain and clear the swamp by employing enslaved Africans to dig ditches and to fell the immense trees, producing boards, shingles, pine tar, hemp, cattle, and more slaves as byproducts. Nothing came of this project until 1763 — nearly two decades after Byrd’s death when twelve grandees, including George Washington, founded the Dismal Swamp Company. They promised to raise hemp, and persuaded the colony of Virginia to grant them title to the swamp, and assembled fifty slaves to dig and chop amidst clouds of voracious insects. Over the next decade, their hard labor made barely a dent in the immense and resistant landscape, which consumed slave lives and the money of the Dismal Swamp Company. The slaves produced bundles of shingles and clapboards, but almost no hemp and little drained land.

The War of the Revolution dispersed the slaves and paralyzed the company, as some partners embraced and led the American independence movement, while others remained loyal to the British empire. Revived during the late 1780s, the Dismal Swamp Company continued to drain the partners of funds rather than the swamp of water. Fed up, Washington sold his shares, seemingly for a great profit. Of course, the buyer was yet another speculator who never paid his debt, eventually obliging the frustrated Washington to reclaim the shares. By abandoning land-draining in favor of timber-cutting, the company at last began to turn a profit in 1810 — eleven years after Washington’s death.

The dismal swamp company is less the subject of Royster’s book than a useful vehicle for him to pursue a kaleidoscopic array of apparent digressions suggested by fortuitous, and often tenuous, connections to the twelve partners and dozens of their friends, relatives, acquaintances, and enemies. For most of this big book, the swamp and the company recede into the background as hundreds of stray threads accumulate to become the real fabric of the book. Ranging far beyond the swamp, the company, and Virginia, Royster’s narration extends around and across the Atlantic to the West Indies, West Africa, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, London, and the coal mines of Wales.

Francis Farley was a West Indian sugar planter, and because he invested in the Dismal Swamp, Royster promptly finds an invitation to describe, in succession and great detail, the Caribbean island of Antigua; the processes of cultivating cane and making sugar; the island’s seaport; and Farley’s brothers. A decade later, Farley’s daughter Eleanor married Captain John Laforey, of the Royal Navy — which leads Royster to recount the Captain’s prior naval career, including a very particular version of the British conquest of the French fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island in 1758. Two other company partners, the merchants Anthony Bacon and Samuel Gist, moved to England — which encourages Royster to explore insurance underwriting, Parliamentary politics, and the London stage. In addition to the melodramatic Sarah Siddons, the celebrated performers included “the Amazing Learned Pig,” who used his mouth to arrange cards bearing letters and numbers into apparent answers to questions.

Few of these far-flung people, places, and animals directly bear upon Royster’s starting point, the Dismal Swamp Company — to which he sporadically returns to start a fresh chain of distant connections. He entitles one chapter, “The Last Voyage of the Slave Ship Hope,” but the vessel merely provides a nicely ironic name and a shaggy dog for the chapter’s rambling narrative. One third of the way into the chapter, the ship becomes wrecked off the coast of Africa, far short of its Virginia destination; and the chapter proceeds without the ship, and discusses a royal governor of Virginia; spring flooding in the colony; the trade in convicted English felons; a depression in London trade; a hurricane in Antigua; and the provocative British tax on tea shipped to the colonies.

Royster sets aside no fact and no anecdote. He seems to weave every one of his research notes into his book, which often turns thick and heavy, given the prodigious dimensions of his learning and research. Readers must frequently explore dense thickets of obscure names and extraneous details.

As Gist grew acquainted with his fellow underwriters, he could survey the room and review any number of stories telling how diverse men had come to Lloyd’s: Samuel Chollet, once Bourdieu’s clerk, now his partner; Robert Bogle, Sr., in the Virginia trade; Joshua Mendes da Costa, who subscribed policies in the Portuguese trade and others; William Devaynes, newly returned from the Gold Coast and soon to be director of the East India Company; John Nutt, heavily involved in the Georgia and South Carolina trade; John Shoolbred, not yet thirty, like Angerstein a rapidly rising young man, cutting an ever bigger figure in the Canada trade and the African slave trade; a merchant in Mark Lane with Shoolbred, the policy broker Thomas Bell, not to be mistaken for Captain Thomas Bell, a merchant and insurance broker in Aldermanbury near St. Paul’s, who “had the Good Luck to be call’d Honest Thom Bell, in Distinction to another who frequented Loyds Coffee House.”

Except for Gist, none of these men invested in the Dismal Swamp Company, and few reappear again in Royster’s book. Such passages, replete with asides, comprise most of the book.

Confronted with disparate details from the past, historians ordinarily must make hard choices: what to omit and what to include; and in what sequence. In their choices, historians exemplify their fundamental assumptions and their governing ideas. But Royster seems to have decided against selectivity itself. His book is itself a swamp. He presents an almost indiscriminate mass of detail with little apparent direction or cohesion other than a loose adherence to chronology and some tenuous connections back to the Dismal Swamp Company. Experimenting in a free- form history without an overt argument, Royster resists the temptation to explain his evidence, his methods, and his conclusions. He provides no commentary and no analysis that might frame the beginnings and the endings of his chapters, to guide readers. There is no introduction and there is no conclusion. There is only the big baggy story.

Writing ominously and allusively, Royster hints and teases without committing himself. On January 1, 1777, William Byrd Jr., a member of the company, died of unknown cause. Many years later, a friend named David Meade vaguely lamented Byrd’s gambling for leading to “poverty, want, misery and often suicide.” Royster cryptically adds, “This was as close as Meade could bring himself to recording that Byrd had killed himself, and Meade came closer than anyone else.” And this is as close as Royster comes to telling us whether or not Byrd committed suicide. Later, in discussing the unpopularity of the new Federal Constitution in much of rural Virginia, Royster remarks, “During the war, the Virginia authorities had thought Nansemond [County] people were Tories, while the British had considered them rebels. Electing delegates to the ratifying convention, they did not expect impending ruin and anarchy in the absence of the new Constitution, or they did not care.” Or Royster does not care. Here, as throughout, the style is breezy, evocative, neutral, a tad cynical. The whole thing is just a little too much fun for its own good.

My guess is that Royster’s indifference to structure and contention, and his Rabelaisian appetite for detail, is not just a matter of self-indulgence. It is also a matter of design: he wants his readers to make their own sense of the whole through immersion in the particulars, or to give up in confusion. Royster seems determined to counter the dominant mode of scholarship where a hard and repetitive argument (usually derivative from, or hostile to, some other historian’s argument) overwhelms the many nuances in the historical context. And so Royster provides nuances and context in lavish abundance — and nothing more.

Still, there are patterns and meanings that emerge from the soup. Royster’s seemingly erratic wandering through topics, places, and names implicitly highlights the integration of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world through the nexus of sailing ships and correspondence. The steady circulation of people, news, and goods linked London underwriters, African slave merchants, West Indian sugar planters, Royal Navy captains, and Virginia land speculators in complex webs of credit and debt. The schemes and evasions of Virginians echoed around the Atlantic rim.

Patient readers will also detect the intricate interconnections of the Virginia gentry families through both marriage and investments in interlocking land speculations. Newly arrived in Virginia, a young woman warned her sister, “[The Virginians] are all Brothers, Sisters, or Cousins; so that if you use one person in the Colony ill, you affront all.” Marriages built family alliances that encouraged the construction of land companies. Thus Dr. Thomas Walker — to choose one example out of many — married a cousin to George Washington, whose sister married Fielding Lewis. All three men became partners in the Dismal Swamp Company. Along with John Robinson and Peter Jefferson (Thomas’s father), Dr. Walker also founded the far more ambitious Loyal Company, which meant to monopolize Virginia’s western lands, including much of Kentucky. Lewis and Washington invested in the rival Ohio Company with equally colossal ambitions. Royster remarks, “Had Virginia’s land companies been a spiderweb, Dr. Walker would have been the spider.” And so would John Robinson or George Washington.

Although Royster scrupulously avoids offering editorial comments, he does employ, as a sort of Greek chorus, a succession of quotations that reiterate his apparent themes: that nothing was what it seemed; that everyone chronically deceived himself and cheated others; that it was only the pursuit of money (and the evasion of debt) that finally mattered to anybody eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies. In 1768 a royal official announced that “the Rapacity of the Land Jobbers in Virginia is insatiable.” During the 1780s, a traveler insisted that Virginia’s frontier settlers were “abused by the dreams of enthusiasts, and the falsehoods of knaves.” In 1789 a Frenchman described Virginians as “indolent, unindustrious, poor credit risks, big gamblers, tricksters.” Lamenting corruption in the House of Burgesses, one member assured an outsider: “You know little of the Plots, Schemes, and Contrivances that are carried on there; in short, one holds the Lamb while the other skins; many of the Members are in Places of Trust and Profit, and others want to get in, and they are willing to assist one another in passing their Accounts.” With more concise wit, William Byrd observed, “Our land produces all the fine things of Paradise, except innocence.”

Royster also conveys his historiographical sensibility by narrating with evident delight the disasters reaped by almost all of his characters as the fruits of their delusions. In grim detail, a succession of company partners succumb to drink, insanity, death, and bankruptcy. In 1766 a judgmental bolt of lightning destroyed six warehouses, stuffed with merchandise, all the property of Robert Tucker, a Norfolk merchant and a partner in the Dismal Swamp Company. Shattered, Tucker promptly lost his sanity and dwindled into a death that revealed an insolvency at odds with his conspicuous display of wealth. Conveniently for Royster, another member of the company observed, as Tucker’s obituary, “We are often deceived by Appearances.”

One of the book’s running sardonic jokes is the naivete of all its characters, who foolishly assume that their partners, debtors, or marks are somehow more solvent — despite the insistent evidence revealed at every death that everyone milked his credit far beyond any sane limit. The most notorious failure was John Robinson, the consummate Virginia politician of the 1750s and 1760s. As both the speaker of the House of Burgesses and the treasurer of the colonial government, Robinson controlled patronage, funding, and oversight: a reckless combination. In 1766, his death exposed his estate to a scrutiny that revealed his embezzlement of 100,000 pounds in public funds, which Robinson had loaned, usually without security, to his friends. No wonder he had been the most popular man in the colony.

Almost all of the book’s characters belonged to the genteel classes of enhanced status and sufficient credit to live in the grand style. Ordinary folk, including slaves, appear only occasionally and by indirection- -as the objects of elite action or neglect. The few who receive names and characterization merely display scruffier versions of the elite vices. In 1764 the individual partners provided slaves to the company: “Robert Burwell offered a couple in their twenties: Jack and his wife, Venus. Jack was tall and slim, Venus short and stout. They had in common a gift for fast, smooth talk. They did not look like people who would devote themselves to draining a swamp; they looked like people Burwell wished to get rid of at his partners’ expense.” On the one hand, Royster avoids the cant of finding noble resistance in every slave. On the other hand, he never detects it in any slave. Mostly he does not bother with them.

As the narrative roams around the Atlantic, Royster finds human nature much the same in all settings and among all peoples, slave or free, African or European. On the western coast of Africa, the native Fante merchants eagerly and shrewdly bartered slaves to the British, often getting the best of the competition to cheat one another. A British official considered the Fante “the most rapacious set of People on earth,” which was quite a compliment, given the competition from London underwriters and Virginia speculators. Another worsted Briton whined that the Fante “think it meritorious to Cheat a White man all that lyes in their power.”

In effect, royster establishes a moral equivalency between every people, at the lowest common denominator. For this reason, the great political transformations of the eighteenth century appear trivial: mere variations on the theme of universal human corruption. In Royster’s narration, the Revolutionary War was primarily an orgy of plundering, burning, and cheating — an escalation of previous forms of bad behavior. Colonel Fielding Lewis complained that “every man now trys to ruen his neighbour.” The revolution’s rhetoric of collective self-sacrifice quickly proved a hollow sham. Immediately after the war, Royster notes, “Many Virginians resumed the habit of spending more money than they possessed; while others newly experimented with buying more than they could afford.” The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. The vices just kept on exceeding themselves.

The revolution established an independent American republic, of course- -but this merely enhanced the ambitious and destructive scams of land speculators and commercial profiteers. Royster describes the new polity as a conclave of con-men: “Charles William Janson arrived in America from England in the summer of 1793. Thirteen years later, he realized that he had been duped at every turn.” Under the new regime, as under the old regime, elections pivoted on vice rather than virtue. In 1794 Francis Walker, the alcoholic son of Dr. Thomas Walker, ran for Congress from Virginia but lost. Royster wryly observes that “a shrewd candidate kept the voters drunk, not himself.”

Robert Morris dominates the last two chapters, even though the Dismal Swamp Company was virtually the only speculative venture into which he did not plunge. A wealthy Philadelphia merchant and a United States senator, Morris pursued riches on a continental scale. During the early 1790s, with two equally reckless partners, Morris tried to corner the market on real estate in the new national capital, Washington City. The partners also cheaply purchased over six million acres of frontier land — mostly swamps and barren mountains — in scattered tracts from Georgia to Pennsylvania. Quantity mattered more than quality, for Morris expected to unload his holdings on distant and naive Europeans who had never seen the tracts. Paying little or nothing down, Morris and his partners counted on selling for a profit before their debts became due. When Europeans refused to play the fool, the American partners were left holding the bag. In 1798 Morris lost his credit and landed in Philadelphia’s prison for debtors, where he remained for three years.

Royster has written an ingenious but often opaque satire on both the artificiality of eighteenth-century life and the futility of standard scholarship to capture the delusions of the past. Consider the book’s title. The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times cleverly resembles the misleading prospectus of an eighteenth-century land speculation that promises fields of hemp but delivers a swamp. For The Fabulous History is only sporadically about the Dismal Swamp Company; and Washington looms no larger than another twenty characters; and there is none of the plot structure, building to a transforming climax, that usually characterizes “a story.”

So is The Fabulous History a sort of swindle? Not exactly. In quoting David Hume, Royster comes closest to explaining his book. Noting the political opportunist John Wilkes, Hume sarcastically observed that “I am delighted to see the daily and hourly Progress of Madness and Folly and Wickedness in England. The Consummation of these Qualities are the true Ingredients for making a fine Narrative in History.” Taking Hume literally, Royster pursues that dictum throughout his huge volume, filling the pages with unrelieved human folly. The blizzard of names, places, dates, events, companies, and schemes eventually blurs into a common mass of corruption and waste. Minor variations on the same basic themes, the dozens of characters eventually become a composite: the land speculator as addicted gambler. Robert Morris just happened to live a generation after William Byrd; and George Washington was no better than Samuel Gist.

The immediate impact is often amusing or sobering, but finally the repetition becomes deadening. Indeed, Royster’s cumulative effect perversely vindicates the Virginia elite. If no better than anybody else, they were at least no worse, given the pervasively lousy state of humanity. If the Virginians cannot be awarded praise for, say, the Declaration of Independence, they also cannot be faulted for cheating their creditors and keeping slaves. They were simply acting out their very human nature. In the end, we are left with a version of the conventional (and deeply unsatisfying) apology for wayward American politicians: that everyone does it.

About the author

Alan Taylor is professor of American history at the University of California at Davis. He is the author of William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (Knopf).

Excerpted from The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times by Charles Royster (Alfred A. Knopf, 622 pp., $35)

Copyright © 2000, The New Republic. All rights reserved.