18th Century Venture Capitalists

dismal.jpgAs I posted earlier, of late I have been reading Virginia history. I have one title to suggest: Charles Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company. It is an tremendously detailed history of one of the great 18th century land speculations, the attempt to drain and sell the Great Dismal Swamp on the Virginia-North Carolina border. George Washington was one of the movers and shakers in the company, but other characters in the story include names like George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and a host of other luminaries from the American Revolution, as well as lesser known names like Christopher Gist, a Virginia merchant who helped to found Lloyd’s maritime insurance business.

Royster is a good writer and — for me at least — the narrative works nicely. The research represented by the book is awe-inspiring and the result is an enormous wealth of detail about everything from family politics (everyone who was anyone is colonial Virginia was related to everyone else) to imperial politics. At the center of the story, however, is what amounts to a venture capital deal.

To me one of the most fascinating parts of the story is the role that the events of the American Revolution play in it. The Dismal Swamp Company was founded as the Seven Years War (aka the French and Indian War) was coming to an end and its story twists through the years leading up to independence. Furthermore, given the vast scale of the project it inevitably became entangled in colonial and ultimately metropolitan politics. Hence, the events of the Revolution play out in the story, but in a new angle. They are not at center stage. Rather, the Stamp Act and Patrick Henry’s fiery speeches in the House of Burgesses are secondary characters who come on and off stage only as they impact the unfolding drama of the deal.

If one sees history in legal terms, the plots are often structured around public law stories in general and constitutional ones in particular. Royster’s book is, in a sense, the private law story of the American Revolution. He is not a legal historian, but the law is hardly a bit player in his story. The drama, however, centers less around constitutional arguments about rights and representation than around bills of exchange, maritime insurance contracts, mortgages, debts, collection actions, wrangles over title to land, corporate governance, and the like, all of which propel the characters in the story via various complicated paths to ruin or fortune.

Definitely worth reading.

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3 Responses

  1. Eric Muller says:

    May I suggest Andrew Levy, The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves (Random House 2005)? Not flawless, but an excellent read, and fascinating.

  2. Al Brophy says:

    Hi Nate, welcome back to co-op. I’m looking forward to your posts. If it’s the history of American enterprise you’re interested in, I’d suggest Thomas Doerflinger’s Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Develoment in Revolutionary Philadelphia (1987).

    I haven’t yet had the chance to read Royster’s book, though I hope to soon. So I’m curious about a statement in your post: Royster’s book is “the private law story of the American Revolution.” Why is that? Because it tells of private events going on alongside the Revolution, or because the book traces changes in private law (and economic behavior) wrought by the Revolution? Or for some other reason….

  3. Nate says:

    Al: Mainly because it simply tells a story of private events going on along side of the revolution. Royster is not a legal historian, and doesn’t seem much interested in the substance or evolution of the law that the characters in his story were using. Hence, my statement is metaphorical rather than actually summarizing some sort of jurisprudential discussion in the book.