The Present State of Virginia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“But to me it seems to be more Prudence and Charity for our own Poor and Vagabonds to be there imployed and provided for, than for us to maintain and use such great Numbers of Africans.”

Summary Overview

The Present State of Virginia was a short book written to inform British people of conditions in Virginia and the surrounding region. It covers the colony’s population, geography, economy, and political and religious institutions. Like many works on the colonies, its purposes were largely promotional, encouraging interest in and immigration to Britain’s possessions in North America by painting a rosy picture of colonial life. It was one of a group of texts on the colonies produced in the era, and its author, Hugh Jones, even suggested that it be read along with Robert Beverly’s History and Present State of Virginia. The book is not merely descriptive, however, but contains suggestions by Jones on how Virginia and British relations with the colony could be improved.

Defining Moment

The Present State of Virginia reflects the formation of colonial Virginia’s tobacco plantation economy based on African slavery. Tidewater Virginia had ceased to be a frontier zone with the final marginalization of the American Indian communities of the area, and the increased security following the War of the Spanish Succession had led to an era of peace and prosperity that was attracting notice in Britain as well as Virginia itself. Indentured servitude, an important tool for labor recruitment in the seventeenth century, was diminishing in importance, although it still existed. There were relatively few white servants in Virginia or the southern colonies compared to the northern ones, as enslaved Africans filled more and more of the need for both skilled and unskilled labor. The society of colonial Virginia, based on dominance by the owners of large plantations and country houses coexisting with smaller landowners, was also formed by this time. However, Virginia planters were concerned about the large numbers of African and African-descended slaves in the colony, and there had been an insurrection scare in September 1722. Most opposition to slavery at the time was rooted in these pragmatic concerns, rather than being motivated by opposition to the slaves’ lack of freedom or a humanitarian desire to improve their condition.

Jones’s career also reflects the growing interest and presence of the Church of England in the southern colonies, where it was the dominant religious institution. In Virginia, the Church of England was the established church and ran the College of William and Mary, the only institution of higher education in the southern colonies and the second oldest (after Harvard) in the British North American colonies.

The Present State of Virginia was also designed to attract British interest in Virginia at a time when many, following the collapse of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, were suspicious of colonial schemes. At the time when Jones was writing, British elites were concerned with the large number of poor people, vagrants, and criminals in Britain itself. One solution was the large-scale relocation of British convicts to the American colonies, a process that began with the passage of the Transportation Act in 1718 and would continue until the American Revolution. The colonies were becoming one possible solution to the large numbers of poor people in Britain itself.

Author Biography

Hugh Jones was born around 1691 in Hereford County, England, close to the Welsh border. His name indicates Welsh ancestry. He matriculated at the University of Oxford and became a clergyman in the Church of England. Throughout his career, he remained a loyal supporter of the established order in church and state. Jones planned to emigrate to the colonies, and the bishop of London, John Robinson, recommended him to fill the professorship of mathematics and natural philosophy at the College of William and Mary. He arrived in Virginia in 1716 and filled the professorship from 1717 to 1721, when he returned to England. Williamsburg, the location of the college, was also the capital of the colony following the abandonment of Jamestown, and Jones was connected to Virginia’s colonial landholding political and economic elite as a clergyman affiliated with local churches and as chaplain to the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s legislative body. He became involved in Virginia politics as an ally of Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood in Spotswood’s many quarrels with Reverend James Blair, then the president of William and Mary and the commissary of the bishop of London, the administrative head of the Church of England in the American colonies.

In England, Jones published The Present State of Virginia and a short guide to English grammar, An Accidence to the English Tongue, in 1724. That year, he again journeyed to Virginia, where he became a parish minister. Blair, still his enemy, assigned him to a notoriously difficult parish. After a quarrel with the vestry (administrative committee of parishioners), he migrated north to Maryland, where he had a successful career in the church. Jones served as the representative of Lord Baltimore, the proprietor of Maryland, to the Pennsylvania-Maryland commission for determining the border of Delaware. The meeting ended in failure, and Jones was charged with trying to extend the territory of Maryland because it would increase the size of his parish. In addition to The Present State of Virginia, his best-known book, he published works on standards of measurement and calendar reform. He died in Maryland in 1760.

Document Analysis

These passages from The Present State of Virginia deal with labor relations, specifically slavery and indentured servitude, primarily in an agricultural context as was suited to Virginia’s agrarian economy. Anxious to paint Virginia in as pleasant a light as possible, Jones minimizes the hardships and oppressions suffered by slaves, painting a picture of slavery as an institution that both provided a good life to the slaves and profitable estates to the masters. His praise of slavery accompanies a poor estimate of the mental and emotional capacities of African and African-descended people. However, Jones’s principal ideological goal was not the defense of slavery, which as an institution was not under serious attack at the time, but the encouragement of the immigration of the British poor to the colony, whether voluntarily as free or indentured servants or under coercion, as in the case of convicts. For this reason, he also shows the conditions of white servants as in a very positive way, both during their indentures and afterward, and claims that the colonies offer opportunities to poor British and Irish people.

Jones’s portrait of Virginia was designed to attract English interest and support at a time when many were suspicious of colonial ventures. His parenthetical remark that not all schemes are bubbles is a reference to the South Sea Bubble, a financial crash based on the stock of the South Sea Company that had wiped out many British investors in 1720. Jones claims that Virginia is a going concern, not another potential disaster, and points out that the slave-worked tobacco plantations of Virginia are highly profitable. Like other promoters who wanted to emphasize the economic value of the colonies to Britain, Jones wrote of the great mass of commodities shipped every year from British ports to Virginia, establishing prosperous colonies as valuable markets for British exports. Excluding rival exporters from the British colonies had been a goal since the seventeenth century.

Jones presents some aspects of Virginia culture in a way that would be familiar to British readers, for example, referring to the landowners as “gentlemen,” the same term used for members of the landowning class in Britain. However, although the abolitionist movement had not begun by 1724, slavery and the plantation system was still a major challenge in presenting Virginia to British readers. Part of the reason was the simple issue of unfamiliarity. Britain was not populated by the large numbers of African-descended people characteristic of the southern British colonies, and British agriculture was organized on a far different basis than Virginia plantation agriculture. Although some literature of the time, such as Aphra Behn’s popular novel, Oroonoko (1688), presented slavery as a cruel institution, Jones portrays slavery as practiced in Virginia as a humane institution. One reason for this, he claims, is that African and African-descended people (whom he refers to most often as “Negroes”) are particularly well adapted to the physical conditions of Virginia tobacco plantations. He minimizes the burdens slaves face in their work, which he describes as “not very laborious.” The intense heat characteristic of the Virginia summer he identifies as something the slaves actually enjoy. He also asserts that during the cool, damp times of the season, presumably less congenial to people originating in tropical Africa, their owners protect them from heavy work. The frequent use of the whip and other forms of physical punishment on plantations goes unmentioned.

Of course, slavery was not merely hard physical labor, but also the deprivation of freedom, an important value for Jones’s British readers, who saw Britain as a country enjoying a freedom unique in the world and frequently referred to those living under foreign despotic regimes as “slaves.” Although Jones recognizes that the slaves complained of their lack of freedom, he immediately adds that they do not know what to do with themselves when free. He also points out that many slaves were already slaves in Africa and are thus accustomed to the condition.

A major part of Jones’s praise of slavery consists of favorably contrasting the lot of slaves with that of free workers in terms of material rewards. Jones claims that although both slaves in Virginia and free people in England work as woodcutters, the slaves are better fed. Jones also argues that the slaves were better off in America than they were in Africa, pointing out that many would have been slaves in Africa as well.

Although Jones’s idyllic portrait of slavery has little to do with the harsh exploitation that was the lot of the typical slave, it is somewhat more accurate in depicting Virginia tobacco slavery than it would be in describing other forms of agricultural slavery, such as the sugar slavery of the Caribbean and the rice slavery of South Carolina, which were far more physically debilitating. In these areas, slaves lived shorter lives and reproduced at a much lower rate than in Virginia. By contrast, Jones describes the Virginia slave population as “prolifick,” and such was the reproductive rate on tobacco plantations that Virginia planters were much less dependent on slave importations to maintain their work forces than were planters in South Carolina and the Caribbean colonies, although the expansion of the Virginia colony did lead to large-scale slave importation.

Although Jones emphasizes the carefree life, good working conditions, and plentiful food allegedly available to Virginia slaves, he does not sentimentalize slavery as based on the benevolence of the master, but rather explains that its beneficial nature is rooted in the master’s economic interest. Since slaves were an important economic asset to their owners, it was in the owner’s interest to maintain the slaves’ health and even to care for slave children, who would grow up to be valuable economic assets in the future. (Jones does not touch on the fate of slaves who grew too old or too sick to work and lost their economic value to their master.) Cruel and careless masters were actually harming their own economic interests, as well as their reputations. The same economic incentives extended to overseers, whose compensation was based on a proportion of the slaves’ production. (The sexual exploitation of enslaved women by masters and overseers alike, an important part of the culture of slavery, goes unmentioned, save for a brief reference to mulattoes.)

Jones did little research into the history and lifeways of the slaves themselves, nor were his opinions of the overall benevolence of the system apparently based on conversations with slaves. Jones distinguishes between the slaves born in Virginia, who had adopted, however superficially, the English language and English lifeways, and those recently arrived from Africa. Since a larger proportion of Virginia slaves were American-born, the process of acculturation that Jones observes was more advanced in Virginia (and the other Chesapeake and northern colonies) than it was in colonies farther south. His description of African languages as “various harsh Jargons” is virtually meaningless and reflects a profound cultural arrogance; for African customs, he simply refers his readers to another book. Clearly, he did not regard the African cultural background of the slaves as of significant value, but he did not consider the assimilation of the slaves into English customs as altogether good either. He states that the slaves “affect” the culture of the English, suggesting that they do not wholeheartedly adopt it and that their adoption of English customs is an affectation. Curiously, for a clergyman, he says little of slave religion. At the time, the Church of England that dominated religious life in Virginia was not greatly concerned with converting the slaves, nor did many plantation owners encourage it, although this would change later. There is some evidence that later in his career, as a parish clergyman in Maryland, Jones worked hard to spread Christianity among the slave population. He also distinguishes the African slaves who had been slaves in Africa and are resigned to their lot in Virginia as well from those leaders in African society who had been enslaved by their enemies and have not accepted their enslavement, even in America. These latter figures were not presented as tragic, like the title character of Oroonoko would be in European literature, but as comic—”haughty” and “lazy.”

Jones’s discussion of the nature of the slaves themselves is basically negative. According to him, Africans have an inherently “barbarous and cruel” nature that is only restrained by keeping them under a strict discipline. He clearly thought little of the mental capacities of African-descended people as well. Jones portrays African and African-descended slaves as best suited for hard physical labor and less able to perform skilled labor such as artisanal work. Although he does recognize that slaves trained as artisans are the most valuable slaves, he adds that they are not suited for this work, as could be seen in the relatively poor quality of what they produce. According to Jones, African-descended people are not only inferior in intellectual capacity to whites, but to American Indians as well; the good “Mechanicks” are the plantation owners themselves, and the slaves only perform well under their direction. The difficulties former slaves face in dealing with their new freedom is presented as further evidence that they are not truly worthy of it.

What keeps Jones from fully endorsing the slave society of early eighteenth-century Virginia, ironically, is his positive valuation of the lives of enslaved workers. In effect, he argues that work in Virginia is too good for Africans and that the support given the African population should instead go to the British poor. Like many of his contemporaries, Jones believed that there was not enough work for the poor in Britain itself and that relocating them to Virginia would provide them work to support themselves while enabling Virginia to fill its labor needs without importing Africans. (He does not specify what would happen to the African-descended people already in Virginia if his plan were adopted.) Jones recognizes that this would interfere with the business of slave traders but dismisses this consideration as unimportant. (Slave traders as a class were not highly regarded in colonial society, and elsewhere in The Present State of Virginia, Jones suggests that they should go into other professions.)

Jones sees the solution to Virginia’s labor problem, therefore, as ultimately solvable by encouraging white immigration. The wish to encourage immigration was one he shared with many other writers on the colonies going back to the earliest days of colonization. Jones focuses principally on the immigration of the lower classes who would become workers in America rather than those already doing well in Britain, who would be much harder to persuade, due in part to cultural prejudices. Most English people, Jones asserts, view England as the best country in the world and are reluctant to leave it for another, no matter how bad their circumstances. (Although Jones mentions Scottish, Irish, and Welsh as well as English people in the context of immigration, he ascribes this stay-at-home prejudice solely to the English.) By default, the majority of immigrants were considered the refuse of English society.

Jones views a mass migration of poor British whites to the colonies as the solution for many social problems, including unemployment and petty crime. Although he does not advocate the enslavement of the poor, he does allow for a coercive element in dealing with the criminal classes, in line with the Transportation Act of 1718.

In discussing the fate of white convicts shipped to America, Jones adopts basically the same line that he does with slaves, claiming that convicts live better as servants, with more “Ease and Satisfaction” in Virginia, than they did as either convicts or free people in their home countries. Regarding the contributions made by servants, Jones is most skeptical of those of convicts, many of whom, he claims, would simply renew their lives of crime in a new setting, exert a bad influence on other servants, and ultimately face the same fate—hanging—that they had avoided in Britain itself. However, Jones does not believe that this is true of all transported convicts, nor do problems with individual convicts cause him to question the entire project of convict transportation. He does point to efforts to regulate the number of convict laborers and slaves in Virginia but adds that these efforts have been ineffective.

Jones refers to two Jonathans in dealing with the subject of convict labor. Jonathan Wild was the master criminal of early eighteenth-century London, and before his hanging, he controlled hundreds of thieves and other offenders. “His Forward Namesake” was the tobacco and slave merchant Jonathan Forward, who contracted with the British government to transport convict laborers across the Atlantic after the passage of the Transportation Act. The fact that the government turned to a slave merchant to transport convicts and that Forward won the contract based on being able to ship the convicts for the lowest amount of money per head indicates a connection between the brutalities of the established African slave trade and those of the new convict trade. It also suggests that shipping British workers across the Atlantic was perceived as an economic alternative for slave traders as well as for employers in Virginia. Jones explicitly refers to convict laborers as “enslaved.” Although skeptical of the possibility of reformation in most cases, Jones places convict labor in the context of the need of the American colonies for labor rather than in that of punishment, since he maintains that work in Virginia is relatively easy.

While he believes that African laborers are best suited for hard, unskilled physical work in the hot Virginia sun and not well suited to becoming free workers, Jones emphasizes the diversity of economic options available for white immigrants once they have finished their indenture: In addition to laborers, white immigrants could become overseers, tenant farmers, or artisans. Jones lists a range of occupations that could be followed in Virginia. He maintains that any able-bodied person should be able to support himself. (Jones did not explicitly distinguish between male and female emigrants here, but most of the professions he lists were male professions, and males outnumbered females among emigrants. The principal economic advantage for female emigrants was the ease of finding a husband in a predominantly male society as compared to staying at home.)

Jones endorses the regulation of the movement of laborers, white and black, within Virginia by means of a pass system, where workers who were found away from their place of employment would be required to produce a written pass from their employer or owner. This system prevented the growth of an unregulated, mobile, “vagrant” population, which, like other English social reformers going back to the sixteenth century, Jones sees as a major problem in England itself. Virginia offered the possibility of a far more regulated society, through slavery, indentured servitude, convict labor, and the pass system.

Essential Themes

Although Jones’s book itself was not reprinted until 1865, when it was an antiquarian curiosity, its themes would have a long history. Numerous writers on Virginia and other southern colonies would deal with similar issues of slavery and free labor.

Although The Present State of Virginia was not produced as part of the debate on slavery that would start later in the eighteenth century, it introduces several key themes that would underlie later proslavery polemics. Jones’s glowing picture of life under slavery as carefree would contribute to the image of the slave as fundamentally contented and irresponsible. Jones’s favorable comparison of a slave’s life to that of a free worker would be a staple of slavery apologias and antiabolitionist literature into the Civil War, as would his argument that slaves were better off in America than they had been in Africa. Jones’s assumptions about the inferior capacity of Africans would be more explicit in subsequent proslavery writings, explained in both scientific and religious terms. Although Jones’s fundamentally economic analysis of the master’s motives for treating slaves well would not disappear, it would be partially supplanted by one that emphasized the patriarchal benevolence of the slave owner and his role in spreading Christianity to the enslaved population.

Jones’s hope to replace slavery with the mass immigration of the English poor proved in vain. Although the high wages and relative class mobility of the American colonies attracted English immigrants, the poor mostly went to the northern colonies where land was cheaper. There was also substantial white immigration from other parts of Europe, particularly Germany, which Jones discusses in another part of the book, but again, most of those immigrants went north. The economic success of slavery continued to discourage mass white immigration to the south, as white craftspeople could not compete with cheaper slave artisans. Convict transportation to the Americas, which aroused resentment among colonists, would end with the American Revolution. (Jones had denied that a revolt on the part of the colonies was possible, claiming that they would find it impossible to cooperate with each other.) The idea of solving Britain’s social problems with the poor by encouraging settlement, however, would remain popular in British elite circles into the twentieth century. It underlay James Oglethorpe’s later colonizing venture in Georgia (which initially excluded slavery) and, after the loss of the thirteen colonies, Britain would launch the largest convict resettlement program in history in Australia.

The idea of a multitiered labor system, with immigration from Europe encouraged as an alternative to hiring blacks, however, would have a long history in independent America.

  • Jones, Hugh. The Present State of Virginia, from Whence Is Inferred a Short View of Maryland and North Carolina. Ed. Richard L. Morton. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1956. Print.
  • Morton, Richard L. “The Reverend Hugh Jones: Lord Baltimore’s Mathematician.” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 7.1 (1950): 107–15. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Bell, James B. The Imperial Origins of the King’s Church in Early America, 1607–1783. New York: Palgrave, 2004. Print.
  • Davis, Richard Beale. Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1583–1763. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1978. Print.
  • Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718–1775. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990. Print.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 2003. Print.
  • Parent, Anthony S., Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660–1740. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2003. Print.

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