The Dean's Diaries: How my family caused the United States

The Dean's Diaries: How my family caused the United States

by Prof D.W. Purdie
article from Wednesday 13, January, 2016

From the Dean:

The College of William & Mary,
Virginia, USA

   HERE I AM, still in the Land of the Free, but having moved on from Princeton. We have come south to Virginia and the extraordinary ‘township’ of Colonial Williamsburg. This is a section of modern Williamsburg which is devoted to recreating the town as it was c.1774, i.e. just a year or so before the American Revolution. A century and a half earlier, Virginia had become our first Colony on the North American mainland when King James VI & I rounded up a bunch of his most argumentative and theologically abrasive subjects. He then packed them off to found, on the James River, a colony to be named for his predecessor Good Queen Bess, the virgin Queen – hence Virginia. 

   Williamsburg is home to the College from which I write; one of the hosts of last week’s Conference on 18th century Studies. The College of William [III] and Mary [II] is the second oldest in America, after Harvard, and is a fine liberal arts School.
The concept of Colonial Williamsburg owes a lot to Rockefeller Foundation money which endowed the library here and funded the infrastructure which produces the sights, sounds and even smells of two centuries ago. The ‘colonists’ here are played by actors who speak Middle English, appear in period dress and precisely recreate the life of an English town as it was in George III’s day. For make no mistake, these people had always regarded themselves as patriotic Englishmen & Scotsman, who happened to be living and working 3,000 miles from their ultimate seat of Government. That, as we shall see, was the problem…
Each day, visitors to Williamsburg are regaled with the actual events of the 1770s when the town prepared to join in the political movement reacting to the absolute refusal by the King to countenance elected representatives from the Colonies among Members of the House of Commons. That intransigence, together with punitive taxation measures, would eventually lead to what was in effect a disastrous and entirely preventable civil war. Defeat in that conflict would see Britain lose her original Jewels in the Crown, the 13 Colonies stretching south from New Hampshire to Georgia.

   If you read the biographies of the Founding Fathers of the United States you will see that until the early 1760s the loyalty of the Colonists to the Mother Country was unshaken. However, in a series of Acts, the King and his Ministry, headed by Lord North, gave their people in America little option but to swing that loyalty westward until it became rooted in the New World. That shift in allegiance naturally required the institution of an independent political system. This would be based on a republican Constitution rejecting, inter alia, both a monarch as head of state and an aristocracy as a central root of power. For success however, the Revolution, which began up north in Massachusetts, needed the support of what was then the most populous and economically developed of the Colonies – Virginia. 

   In its capital of Williamsburg, the House of Burgesses was divided. Should it send representatives to a gathering of delegates to an All-Colonies forum which was itself seen by the King as a treasonable act? This was the famous Continental Congress in Philadelphia which would eventually draw up and sign the country’s most famous document on Thursday, 4th July 1776.  In Boston, the revolutionary firebrands such as Sam Adams, leader of the Boston Tea Party, would need activists at the heart of Virginia. Enter Uncle Sandy!

Sometime in the 1760s, my 5x great-grandfather’s brother Alexander Purdie left Scotland in a big hurry. I’ve always wanted to know why, but it remains a mystery. Anyway, he came to rest in Williamsburg, Virginia where he followed his trade as a printer, becoming editor of The Virginia Gazette. The cry of ‘No Taxation without Representation’ was taken up by the Gazette in which a series of incendiary editorials advocated that Virginia should get off the fence and send delegates to Philadelphia. This they did, two of those delegates being the lawyer Patrick Henry, whose father came from Aberdeen – and a certain farmer and soldier from Mount Vernon who would become the new nation’s first President.

   Uncle Sandy and his newspaper was of course not alone in advocating that Virginia join the Continental Congress, but the Gazette was a powerful voice and clearly had the support of the  then largely rural population of the Colony.
Consequently, I have now completely persuaded myself that had it not been for him and his advocacy, there would have been no Virginians, hence no successful Congress, hence no Declaration of Independence. It is therefore with humility not unmixed with pride, that as the head of the family now, I take responsibility for the United States.

   And here at Williamsburg this week was Alexander Purdie himself! Played by Dennis Watson, a Scots emigrant from Edinburgh, the editor superintends the work and output of the printing press in his old home, the Print House and Post Office in E. Duke of Gloucester Street in the colonial town. Printed on the original rough paper of the time copies of the Gazette still advocating resistance to the dictates of London, together with advertisements and Notices asking for the return of strayed horses and runaway slaves.
It was an odd sensation to be having lunch with a man born 280 years ago, but that is what Colonial Williamsburg is all about. There is nothing quite like it in these islands – and that’s a pity.  


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