“We live today in a world dominated by Anglo-America. How did this situation come about?”
So opens this columnist’s article titled “Virginia’s Western Counties and the Making of America” published last week in the just-issued part 2 of volume 22 of the “Journal of the Historical Society of Western Virginia.”
The columnist’s article covers 22 pages and comes with 67 densely-packed endnotes. It asks and answers the question first posed in a 1999 book by author Kevin Phillips: “How did Anglo-America evolve over a mere three hundred years from a small Tudor kingdom into a global community with such a hegemonic grip on the world today, while no other European power – Spain, France, Germany, or Russia – did?” A principal answer is through the county system of government.
Phillips’ book is titled “The Cousins’ Wars — Religion, Politics, & the Triumph of Anglo-America.” Phillips cites the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War as the three Cousins’ Wars and argues that through these wars Britain and America hammered out their internal religious, ethnic and social differences to claim first place among the world’s nations.
In addition to winning two 20th century world wars, the Anglo-American hegemony manifests itself through the proliferation of the English language — one in twenty of the world’s 7.5 billion humans is a native English speaker and four in twenty speak English as a second language. English is the language of science, banking and commerce. All computer languages are written in English. Journalism is an Anglo-American invention.
After the A.D. 1066 Norman conquest of England, William the Conqueror reorganized the already efficient Anglo-Saxon local government system into a series of counties, with each having a Lord Sheriff as William’s personal representative. Land holding in William’s kingdom was codified by the A.D. 1089 Domesday Book or the so-called “Great Survey.”
Over the next four centuries English monarchs refined the county system of government. By the reign of Elizabeth I, who died in 1603, England was better administered than any other European nation.
The colonial Anglo-Americans who settled in Jamestown (named after Elizabeth’s successor James I) naturally brought the English system of local county government with them to Virginia. Surry County, on the south side of the James River below Jamestown, takes its name from Surrey County on the south side of the Thames River below London. This columnist was born in Surrey and sometimes lightheartedly grumbles that Virginians have their namesake county spelled wrong.
With a vast empire of land to seize and occupy, the colonial Virginians quickly entered into the county-making business. By 1660, the Virginians had created 14 counties around the Chesapeake Bay. By 1700 they had created 22 counties, and by 1734 they had created 33 counties with the most recent of those in the Piedmont region.
As it expanded, Virginia needed new counties because travel was slow and people needed to go no more than a few dozen miles to file a lawsuit, register a land deed, or have a will probated. Once a sufficient number of colonists occupied a remote area of a county they petitioned the General Assembly to create a new one.
Through making counties the Virginians became skilled at governing themselves and independent-minded. Benign neglect by the colonial authorities in London reinforced their spirit of self-governance.
In 1734 and 1738 came the great Virginia land grab. Orange County created in 1734 stretched to “the utmost limits of Virginia,” which most historians regard as the Mississippi River, though some consider to be the west coast. Augusta County created in 1738 took most of Orange County. Colonial Virginia grew eleven-fold in area with the creation of Orange and Augusta. From now on, Virginians such as George Mason, George Washington, and Richard Henry Lee could envision that the future of America lay as a continental nation and not as a seaboard colonial outpost of England.
The French and Indian War and the subsequent 1763 Treaty of Paris cemented a temporary English ascendancy in North America. After that war, France and Spain ceded essentially all of their claims to North America, in what was the greatest ever land transfer following any war in history.
One of the most breathtaking attitude changes in Anglo-America came between 1763 and 1776 when colonial Americans rejected British citizenship and declared their Independence. With the separation of Botetourt County from Augusta County in 1769 after a hiatus of 31 years, the Virginians began again to make western counties, and making them now in defiance of British rule and with their eyes on land beyond the Blue Ridge. With the dam broken by the formation of Botetourt County, the new counties of Fincastle, Montgomery, Washington, and Kentucky quickly followed.
Both the states of Kentucky and Illinois began their lives as Virginia counties. By 1800, Virginia had 79 counties with many more to come.
Today, a map of the roughly 3,000 counties in America reveals that 1,000 literally stand on the land of the original Orange County, while perhaps another 1,000 were formed under the influence the Anglo-Virginian system of local government fanning out from Orange and Augusta counties.
Thus, a significant factor in the triumph of Anglo-America was the historic process of American counties formation, especially the formation of western Virginia counties and their many descendant counties. In some ways, the process of county formation has been more important to making America than has the process of State formation.
By the end of the 20th century, Anglo-America had achieved the hegemonic status described by Kevin Phillips.
History will record what becomes of Anglo-America the 21st century and beyond.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.