How Englishmen Fought a Duel With Tyranny
At last Virginia prospered. But while it prospered the man who had first conceived the idea of this New England beyond the seas had fallen on evil days. Sir Walter Raleigh had been thrown into prison by King James. There for twelve long years he languished, only to be set free at length on condition that he should find a gold-mine for his King. He failed to find the mine, and by his efforts only succeeded in rousing to greater heights than before the Spanish hatred against him. For Spain claimed the land and gold of which Raleigh had gone in search. And now the King of Spain demanded that he should be punished. And James, weakly yielding to his outcry, condemned Sir Walter to death. So on 29th of October, 1618, this great pioneer laid his head upon the block, meeting death as gallantly as ever man died.
“I shall yet live to see it (Virginia) an English nation,” he had said, after his own fifth failure to found a colony, and his words had come true. But long ere his death Raleigh had ceased to have any connection with Virginia. And perhaps there was scarce a man among those who had made their homes there who remembered that it was Raleigh who had prepared the way, that but for Raleigh a new Spain and not a New England might have been planted on the American shores.
So the death of Raleigh made no difference to the fortunes of Virginia. But the same stupidity, that same “wonderful instinct for the wrong side of every question” which made James kill his great subject, also made him try to stifle the infant colony. So while in spite of sickness and massacre the colony prospered, the company at home was passing through strenuous times. The head or treasurer of the company was still that Sir Edwin Sandys who had been the chief mover in giving the colony self-government. King James, who was full of great ideas about the divine right of kings, had never forgiven him that. He was as eager as any of his people to build up a colonial Empire, but he desired that it should be one which should be dependent on himself. He had no intention of allowing colonies to set themselves up against him.
Now the time came to elect a new treasurer, and the company being very pleased with Sandys, decided to elect him again. But when King James heard that, he was very angry. He called the company a school of treason and Sandys his greatest enemy. Then, flinging himself out of the room in a terrible passion, he shouted “Choose the Devil if you will, but not Sir Edwin Sandys.”
Still in spite of the King’s anger the company decided to go its own way. They had their charter sealed with the King’s seal, signed with the King’s name, which gave them the right of freely electing their own officers, and not even the King should be allowed to interfere with that right.
On the day of the election nearly five hundred of the “adventurers” gathered together. Three names were put up for election, Sir Edwin’s heading the list. But just as the voting was about to begin a messenger from the King arrived.
“It is not the King’s pleasure that Sir Edward Sandys should be chosen,” he said, “so he has sent to you a list of four, one of which you may choose.”
At this, dead silence fell upon the company, every man lost in amazement at this breach of their charter. For minutes the heavy silence lasted. Then there arose murmurs which grew ever louder until amid cries of anger it was proposed to turn the King’s messengers out.
“No,” said the Earl of Southampton, “let the noble gentlemen keep their places. Let them stay and see that we do everything in a manner which is fair and above board. For this business is of so great concernment that it can never be too solemnly, too thoroughly or too publicly examined.”
Others agreed that this was right. So the messengers stayed. Then there came impatient cries from every part of the hall, “The Charter! The Charter! God save the King!”
So the charter was brought and solemnly read.
Then the secretary stood up. “I pray you, gentlemen,” he said, “to observe well the words of the charter on the point of electing a Governor. You see it is thereby left to your own free choice. This I take it is so very plain that we shall not need to say anything more about it. And no doubt these gentlemen when they depart will give his Majesty a just information of the case.”
This speech was received with great noise and cheering. In the midst of it a friend of Sir Edwin’s stood up and begged for silence. And when the noise had abated a little he said, “Sir Edwin asks me to say that he withdraws his name for election. I therefore propose that the King’s messengers choose two names and that we choose a third. Then let all these three names be set upon the balloting box. And so go to the election in God’s name. And let His will be done.”
Thereupon with one voice the whole assembly cried out, “Southampton!
The King’s messengers then pretended that they were quite pleased. “The King,” they said, “had no desire to infringe their rights. He desired no more than that Sir Edwin Sandys should not be chosen.”
Then they named two from the King’s list, and the ballot was immediately taken; the result being that one of the King’s men had two votes, the other but one, and the Earl of Southampton all the rest.
When the King heard of this result he was a little anxious and apologetic. The messengers, he said, had mistaken his intention. He had only meant to recommend his friends, and not to forbid the company to elect any other. But once again Englishmen had fought a duel with tyranny, and won.
From this day, however, the King’s hatred of the company became deadly. He harassed it in every way and at last in 1624 took its charter away, and made Virginia a Crown Colony. Henceforth in theory at least self-government was taken away from Virginia, and to the King alone belonged the right of appointing the Governor and Council. But in fact the change made little difference to the colony. For in the spring of 1625 King James died, and his son Charles I, who succeeded him upon the throne, had so much else to trouble him that he paid little heed to Virginia.