”The title explains itself. The content does, too.”
— Wilbur S. “Wil” Johnston, author of “Virginia Shapes the Nation”
WINCHESTER — Of necessity, Wil Johnston, 93 years young but robust, is a man in a hurry. He cuts to the chase quickly.
And so he begins his latest cartographical romp through local and regional history — “Virginia Shapes the Nation” — with a rather pointed question: “Are you tired of hearing ‘Virginia, the Mother of Presidents,’ all eight of them?”
Johnston’s contention is that, a century-and-a-half or so after the settlement at Jamestown, the Washingtons, Jeffersons and Madisons “couldn’t help being Virginian. The most populous of the 13 colonies with its central geographical location stumbled into its natural role of leadership and couldn’t get up.”
Truth be told, Virginia-as-leader’s fate was sealed when the Susan Constant and her two sister ships set off from England toward Jamestown. Within a sealed tin box, Johnston writes, contained orders from King James — a formula, you might say. Not to be opened until the ships had reached distant shores, the orders provided guidelines for the administration of a new colony, even down to whom the leaders should be.
But there was a catch: No overall leader was named. The colonists would have to choose their own. Hence, the first “free election on American soil” — taproot of democracy and, in time, of self-government, in the New World.
So, in the truest of senses, as Johnston said in an interview last week, “Everything started here.” The author hastens to remind us that the Virginia Company’s “Plymouth group,” which initiated the settlement of New England in 1620, were “venture capitalists” just as the Jamestown settlers were. They were not headed for present-day New England by any means, but landed there when blown off course in challenging Atlantic seas.
Thus, America grew out of Virginia, Johnston maintains, not just through establishment of self-government, but via sheer geography that did, in fact, “shape” the nation. In a sense, all roads — or at least the key north-south arteries — led to and through Virginia: from Pittsburgh and from Philadelphia, eventually funneling into the Great Wagon Road (aka “The Great Warrior Path” and “The Valley Road”).
A principal point of confluence? Right here in Winchester, thus establishing an argument that our city was the first “Gateway to the West.”
But this is to get a bit ahead of ourselves — or, more importantly, ahead of Johnston, who, as usual, lays out his story with great care, employing maps — he was a career cartographer for the U.S. government — to move tale and thesis along. The 80-page book boasts more than two dozen maps and two pictures, one a photo of the only known portrait of Thomas, Lord Fairfax.
Further spicing up the presentation are biographies of diverse men who played key roles in Virginia “shaping” the nation: Sir Edwin Sandys, Royal Gov. William Gooch, Bishop Francis Asbury, and land baron Robert “King” Carter.”
”Virginia Shapes the Nation” sells for $21 (tax included). Though no formal book-signing is planned, the book can be obtained at the Winchester Book Gallery, through the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society and from the author at The Village at Orchard Ridge.