Anyone interested in learning about the vexing issues their 18th-century Virginia ancestors had to contend with would do well to read this fascinating study of life and politics in the Shenandoah Valley during the 18th century.
On one level, of course, the work is an ably told personal political biography of Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax, the Baron of Cameron (1693-1781). Fairfax was heir to his grandfather Lord Culpeper’s share of the Virginia Northern Neck proprietary, an inheritance that ultimately enabled him to claim over five million acres. The master of Leed’s Castle at Oxford, his lordship did not fully enjoy the privileges of the English nobility because his father had squandered much of the family fortune. Given the opportunity to lay claim to his Virginia inheritance and thereby provide for his family’s future, in 1747, following several visits, Fairfax settled permanently at Greenway Court–and later Belvoir–in old Frederick County, where his impact would be considerable.
But author Stuart Brown has delivered quite a bit more than a biography. He seizes upon the fact that Lord Fairfax’s life spanned most of the 18th century to furnish a bird’s eye view of daily life and culture, as well as political machinations, on both sides of the Atlantic. On the one hand we observe the foibles of the British aristocracy and are witnesses to the hijinks and political nepotism that operated between the Privy Council and members of Parliament regarding the awarding of titles to land in the New World. On the other hand, Mr. Brown portrays the mundane challenges that faced Lord Fairfax in building his estate, constructing roads, buying and selling slaves, fending off rival claimants, contending with the summer heat, and so forth. Because of the circles Fairfax walked in, his story brims with a cast of supporting characters like Robert “King” Carter, William Byrd, Governor William Gooch, and even George Washington. At every stage in Fairfax’s life, the author sets the scene with incidents from daily life in colonial Virginia. By the time of Fairfax’s death in 1781, only months after Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown, we come away with a complex picture of the rise and fall of a Virginia aristocrat and the social and political evolution that led the way to the American Revolution.