For the past few days, I’ve been back in the area – house-sitting at the old family place in Bermuda Hundred.
It’s strange how little the house itself feels like home to me now. My sister moved back here in 2011 – relieving me as our mother’s caregiver . And, as she will inherit, she also began making it a home for herself and her husband.
The fact that it is no longer my home has changed the way I feel about the house itself – but not the grounds. Bermuda Hundred is in the full bloom of spring now, as are Shirley Plantation across the river and Presque Isle just to the north – and everything looks completely familiar as I walk the land.
During the years that I was back here with Mom, I did considerable tree-planting – including swamp tupelo, bald cypress and river birch in the low land near the riverbank. With global climate change, the tidewater reaches of the James will rise until that part of our land becomes marshy. With these trees thriving, at least we’ll be ready.
I also planted, on higher ground, a live oak – the only one I know of in this part of the county. It’s about twice my height now, and it stays green in winter, which is a good sign.
Visiting here takes me back a long way – not just to my childhood, but to the long springtime of Virginia’s history. Bermuda Hundred was settled a few years after Jamestown, and people of European and African descent have been living here ever since.
Indeed, Bermuda Hundred was around for a century and a half before all the unpleasantness began with King George over his new taxes.
Most people don’t fully grasp this fact. Few colleges require American History anymore, which means that all most of us know about our nation’s colonial history was what we studied in grade school – and one year of high school.
And high school history classes generally cram the whole pre-Revolutionary period into a few weeks of September, when no one is paying much attention.
If a high school course did equal justice to every year of America’s history – even leaving out the tens of thousands of years before white settlement – high school classes wouldn’t get to the American Revolution until almost Christmas break.
Instead, 150 years of complex history gets telescoped into a few weeks, when teachers and students are still getting to know each other. Which is why even intelligent, relatively well-educated Americans often assume that the colonists of 1776 weren’t much different from the people who settled at Jamestown in 1607 or Plymouth in 1620.
This can lead to remarkable misunderstandings – with practical consequences. For example, in recent decades, many Americans have become convinced that the great Revolutionary generation – men like Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton – were men of deep religious faith, and that they intended this country to be a “Christian nation.”
It’s true that many of the early colonists – especially in New England, Pennsylvania and Maryland – were deeply religious. That was often their reason for leaving England, or other parts of Europe, to settle here.
But the seventeenth century was a time of intense religious feeling in Europe. During the years when people in Chesterfield County were fighting off Indian raids, England was approaching its great Civil War between the King and Parliament. And while the English Civil War involved a complex of issues – including constitutional issues – the passions which inflamed it were largely religious.
Indeed, Parliament’s victory led to the decade-long dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, in the 1650s, when England was governed by religious radicals so extreme that they actually wanted to suppress the traditional celebration of Christmas as being too much of a pagan holiday.
During this same period, Germany’s tragic Thirty Years’ War – also fueled by religious passions – tore central Europe apart, causing massive loss of human life and an enormous refugee crisis. As a result, Germany’s political development was set back by almost two centuries.
Little wonder that, in the eighteenth century, Europeans and Americans turned sharply away from religious faith – which had caused so much warfare and dislocation – to focus on science, philosophy, and making money.
The eighteenth century was the Age of the Enlightenment – perhaps the least religious period in Western history. At the peak of the Enlightenment, America was born – founded by philosophical statesmen who placed their confidence in Reason, rather than Faith.
And who drafted a great Constitution which never once mentions a deity.
For anyone who really wants to understand our national history, this is a vital point – but it’s something few modern Americans fully grasp. We simply don’t know nearly enough about where we came from.
But I ponder it, during these few days back home – and enjoying the start of spring where I came from.