The year 1676 dawned upon troublous scenes in Virginia. Being a time when men were wont to see in every unusual manifestation of Nature the warning shadow cast ahead by some coming event, the colonists darkly reminded each other how the year past bad been marked by three "Prodigies." The first of these was "a large comet every evening for a week or more, at southwest, thirty-five degrees high, streaming like a horse's tail west-wards, until it reached (almost) the horizon, and setting towards the northwest." The second consisted of "flights of pigeons, in breadth nigh a quarter of the mid-hemisphere, and of their length was no visible end, whose weight brake down the limbs of large trees whereon they rested at nights, of which the fowlers shot abundance and ate 'em," and the third, of "swarms of flies about an inch long, and big as the top of a man's little finger, rising out of spigot holes in the earth, which ate the new sprouted leaves from the tops of the trees, without other harm, and in a month left us."
Looking backward from the practical point of view of our day, and beholding that memorable year under the cold light of fact, it does not seem that any evil omen should have been needed to make clear that a veritable witch's caldron of dangers was brewing in Colonial Virginia, and that some radical change in the administration of the government alone could have prevented it from reaching boiling point.
Sir William Berkeley had served two long terms as Governor, during which his attractive personality and intellectual gifts had brought him wide popularity, and his home, "Green Spring," some four miles from Jamestown, had become famous for its atmosphere of refinement and good cheer, and as a resort for wandering Cavaliers. He was now-grown old in years and sadly changed in character-serving a third term; reigning, one might almost say. Stern and selfish as he had become, bending his will only to the wishes of the young wife of whom he was childishly fond and who was, by many, blamed for the change in him, he makes an unlovely, but withal a pathetic figure in the history of Virginia.
Every inch a gallant soldier, every inch a gentleman, yet haughty, unsympathetic and unlovable; narrow in mind and in heart; clinging desperately to Old World traditions in a new country eager to form traditions of its own; struggling blindly to train the people under him to a habit of unquestioning obedience and submission to the powers that be, however arbitrary and oppressive those powers might become-a habit which, however deep-rooted it might have been in its native soil, could hardly be expected to bear transplanting to a land so wide and free as America, and so far distant from its parent stem.
To Sir William Berkeley his sovereign was literally "his most sacred Majesty." Whatever that sovereign's human frailties might be, the kingly purple covered them all. His slightest whim was holy; to question his motives or the rightness and wisdom of his commands was little short of blasphemy. Furthermore, as the King's agent and representative in Virginia, Governor Berkeley expected like homage toward himself. In short, he was a bigoted royalist and egotist, believing first in the King and second in himself, or rather, perhaps, first in himself, and then in the King, and the confession of faith which he lived up to with unswerving consistency was the aggrandizement of those already great and the keeping in subjection of those already lowly.
Yet, high-spirited old Cavalier though he was, knowing nothing of personal cowardice nor fearing to match his good sword against any in the land, The People, whom his aristocratic soul despised, inspired him with continual dread.
It most naturally follows that to such a mind the unpardonable sin was rebellion. No matter what the provocation to rebellion might be, the crime of presuming to resist the King's government was one that could not be justified, and the chief policy of Sir William's administration was to keep the people where they were as little as possible likely to commit it. Recognizing that ideas might become dangerous weapons in their possession, he took pains lest they should develop them, and thanked God that there were no public schools or printing-presses in Virginia. He even discouraged the parsons from preaching for fear that the masses might gain too much of the poison of knowledge through sermons. He declared that "learning had brought disobedience into the world," and his every act showed that he was determined to give it no chance to bring disobedience to the English government or to himself into Virginia.