Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Planting and Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America • Jean B. Russo and J. Elliott Russo • Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012 • xii, 238 pp. • $50.00 cloth; $25.00 paper
Reviewed by Warren M. Billings, distinguished professor of history emeritus at the University of New Orleans and visiting professor of law at the College of William and Mary Law School. His most recent book is Magistrates and Pioneers: Essays in the History of American Law (2011).
Planting an Empire is an admirable little book. Aimed at undergraduate readers, it is a brief tale of colonial Virginia and Maryland and their place within the early British empire. The authors, who are affiliated with the Maryland State Archives, tell their story learnedly and engagingly. That is no small accomplishment, given how the Russos recount a long, intertwined tale of the two colonies from the seventeenth century to the eve of the Revolution in a mere 211 pages of text. Their success springs from their two-pronged treatment of that history.
A prologue, five chapters, an epilogue, and an essay on sources constitute the book. The prologue stands as a brief for treating Virginia and Maryland in tandem on the grounds that their commonalities eventually surpassed their offsetting attributes and gradually drew them together. Came the time by the middle of the eighteenth century when, according to the authors, "Virginia and Maryland, finding that they had more in common with their younger siblings along the seaboard than with their distant parent, declared their independence" (p. 13). The chapters buttress the argument, and in them the emphasis is largely upon social and economic developments. Readers learn that the history of the region began not with the arrival of the English in the 1600s but with the rise of the "first families" of the Chesapeake—the Native Americans—centuries before. Similarly, they are introduced to the influences of geography and tobacco culture and are shown the evolution of both colonies into slave societies. They meet individuals, some great others not, and they are also treated to a superb discussion of the rhythms of daily life and the rigors of an existence profoundly different from their own. Picking up the story in 1754, the epilogue carries it forward to the declaring of independence. There the Russos remind readers that Thomas Jefferson's soaring words in the Declaration were more rhetoric than reality. Nevertheless, they conclude, the "union of 'Independent States' that began at Jamestown but that dissolved all 'allegiance to the British Crown' in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War has been, and continues to be, a work in progress" (p. 211).
The essay on sources is arranged topically. It is by no means an exhaustive discussion, but it does direct readers to a generous and fairly up-to-date sampling of
pertinent books that are available in any good undergraduate or public library. As an introduction to the literature, it more than suits that purpose.
Fine book that it is, Planting an Empire comes up short in some respects. The Russos exhibit a more comfortable command of the Maryland situation than they show in their handling of Virginia, presumably because they are better acquainted with the Old Line State than they are with the Old Dominion. As social historians, they downplay the importance of politics and the legal order. Then there are statements that mislead, the most obvious of which is likening the colonial councils of state to the English Privy Council rather than to the House of Lords and equating precedent with English common law (pp. 6–7). To be sure, these are limitations that undergraduates are likely to miss, but calling attention to them is not intended to trivialize students or to disparage the Russos. Rather, noting them is to comment on their value in classroom settings, where they can be turned into teachable moments.
To conclude, the Russos are to be congratulated on their achievement. Readers of this magazine who teach advanced undergraduate early American history courses would do well to consider assigning Planting an Empire in those classes.