Robert Beverley

Robert Beverley (ca. 1673-1722) is noted for "The History and Present State of Virginia," the first extensive analysis of Virginia's political and social development.

Robert Beverley, second son of Maj. Robert and Mary Beverley, was born in Middlesex County, Va. His father had emigrated from Yorkshire, England, about 1663 and had become a leading tobacco planter, attorney, and militia officer. Young Robert, schooled in England, inherited his father's plantation and 6,000 acres from two half brothers. He began public life as a scrivener for the secretary of state while studying law and Virginia politics. In 1697 he married Ursula Byrd, the 16-year-old daughter of William Byrd. She died in child-birth the next year, leaving an only son, William. Beverley never remarried.

Beverley held important posts as clerk for king and Queen County and clerk of the House of Burgesses. In 1699, 1700-1702, and 1705-1706 he represented Jamestown in the House. His unrelenting quest for land led to a lawsuit, necessitating a voyage to England in 1703, where he unsuccessfully appealed his case. Writing caustic letters home, he attacked Virginia's ruling clique as his father had done before him. He accused Governor Francis Nicholson and the surveyor of customs of scheming against the colony's liberties. Beverley's quarrelsomeness, despite his concern for Virginia's welfare, cost him his clerkship of King and Queen County. With his political position undermined, he was rarely active again in public life and after 1715 retired to his plantation, Beverley Park. Though he continued to acquire land, he remained unpretentious, leading a quiet life devoted to reading and studying nature.

While in London, Beverley had read John Oldmixon's history of British North America in manuscript. Appalled by its errors, he wrote The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), which appeared in print 3 years ahead of Oldmixon's account. In the original edition (which was also translated into French) Beverley combined shrewd insights into the Virginia of his day, sharp comments about the colony's leaders, and vivid descriptions of the natural world, all written with an engaging enthusiasm for his native land. Though a section on Virginia's early history is cursory and at times inaccurate, the book as a whole remains important. Beverley drew on John Smith's General History of Virginia but sketched the colony's development to 1704, incorporating valuable observations of his own. The author's descriptive powers are best revealed in the section on the culture of Native Americans in Virginia. This sympathetic account presents the Native Americans "in their simple State of Nature, and in their enjoyment of Plenty, without the Curse of Labour," an existence which Beverley himself appeared to envy.

In his last years Beverley revised but did not improve his volume, eliminating controversial comments but sacrificing the original verve. The new edition was published in 1722, the same year his compilation of the local laws, entitled An Abridgement of the Public Laws of Virginia …, appeared. Beverley probably did not see either edition in print, as he died on April 21, 1722.


Further Reading on Robert Beverley

While there is no full-length biography of Beverley, an excellent introductory sketch appears in Louis B. Wright's edition of Beverley's The History and Present State of Virginia (repr. 1947). Louis B. Wright, The First Gentlemen of Virginia: Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial Ruling Class (1940), gives a sympathetic and lively account of Beverley and his contemporaries. Genealogical data are in John McGill, The Beverley Family of Virginia: Descendants of Major Robert Beverley (1641-1687) and Allied Families (1956). Valuable for an understanding of the historical background are Philip Alexander Bruce, Social Life of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (1907; 2d ed. 1927), and Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Patrician and Plebeian in Virginia (1910) and The Planters of Colonial Virginia (1922).