Spotswood was born in the English colony of Tangier, Morocco, in 1676, where his father, Robert Spotswood, was a surgeon for the English garrison. Alexander’s mother, Catherine Spotswood, brought the young boy to England in 1683; his father died in 1688. In 1693 Spotswood began his military career as an ensign in the earl of Bath’s infantry regiment in Flanders; he rose through the ranks to lieutenant colonel. Spotswood was seriously wounded at the Battle of Blenheim (1704) during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714); legend has it that he was struck by a four-pound cannonball, which he kept as a souvenir and liked to show his guests. In 1708 he was taken prisoner in the Battle of Oudenarde, but John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, negotiated his release. By September 1709 Spotswood had become disappointed by failed promises of promotion and sought advancement outside the military, though he retained an interest in military matters throughout his life. On February 18, 1710, Queen Anne commissioned Spotswood as lieutenant governor of Virginia—a position he obtained either through Marlborough or through his friendship with George Hamilton, earl of Orkney and governor of Virginia (1704–1737).
In his first years as acting governor, Spotswood demonstrated his commitment to effective and efficient leadership, immediately tackling the colony’s major issues: security, Indian relations, and economic depression. But as Spotswood confronted these challenges to Virginia’s security and prosperity, he faced the dilemma of many other eighteenth-century colonial leaders: his responsibility to the colony exceeded his resources and his power to effect real change. Spotswood in particular had little support from the General Assembly. His arrival in Virginia had ended a four-year period during which the governor’s Council, a group of twelve men appointed by the Crown, ruled the colony without the assistance of a governor or the House of Burgesses. Spotswood made no effort to conceal his low opinion of Virginia’s government—especially the House of Burgesses, which he famously called “a Set of Representatives, whom Heaven has not generally endowed with the Ordinary Qualifications requisite to Legislators.”
In 1713, in an attempt to ameliorate both Virginia’s economy and his relationship with the General Assembly, Spotswood created the Tobacco Inspection Act. The act called forto be inspected before it entered the European market, which would ideally result in a smaller amount of higher-quality leaf that would increase demand and raise tobacco prices. To quell the anticipated resistance from the assembly’s planter elite—and to generate power for himself—Spotswood created patronage positions: forty inspectorships, worth £250 a year, which he awarded to twenty-nine of fifty-one sitting burgesses. Unfortunately for the governor, his patronage scheme failed. Tobacco prices did not increase immediately, and the inspection policy was unpopular with Virginia farmers. In the next election, all but one of the Spotswood appointees lost their legislative seats.
Spotswood also ran afoul of Virginians with the Indian Trade Act, which he established in 1714. The act granted the Virginia Indian Company, a joint-stock company, a twenty-year monopoly over American Indian trade, and charged the company with maintaining Fort Christanna, a settlement in southern Virginia for smaller Indian tribes. Establishing the company was Spotswood’s attempt to circumvent any political opposition by shifting some of the financial burden of defense against Indians from the colonial government to private enterprise, but in doing so, he angered those who had invested in private trade, such as.
Not all of Spotswood’s policies were so vehemently opposed. He sent the Virginia militia to the North Carolina border when Tuscarora Indian uprisings in 1711 and 1712 threatened that colony, and he took an aggressive stand against pirates, who were wreaking havoc on colonial trade in Virginia and North Carolina. It was Spotswood who in 1718 dispatched the force that killed the notorious Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, in Ocracoke. Spotswood also strengthened and expanded the colony’s western frontier by leading an expedition in the summer of 1716 across the Blue Ridge Mountains and down into the Shenandoah Valley. He claimed these lands for the, and in the 1730s was settled as a buffer against French and Indian aggression. Similarly, he established a fortified settlement at Germanna on the Rapidan River as a frontier outpost.
The Bodleian Plate
An original mid-eighteenth-century engraved copperplate depicts Virginia flora, fauna, and Indian life, as well as the College of William and Mary and government buildings in colonial-era Williamsburg. Part of the vast collection at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the plate lay unlisted and forgotten for about 150 years. Once discovered, the plate was recognized as including the most important visual record of early Williamsburg. The so-called Bodleian Plate emerged as the "cornerstone of the restoration" of Colonial Williamsburg that began in 1929, according to Margaret Pritchard, the foundation's curator of prints, maps, and wallpapers. The librarians at Bodleian, aware of the importance of the plate in restoring the original capital, presented the artifact to John D. Rockefeller in 1938.
Pritchard believes that the Bodleian Plate was one of a series of copperplates created to illustrate The History of the Dividing Line, an account by Virginia planter William Byrd II of the expedition he led in 1728–1729 to establish the boundary between Carolina and Virginia. Byrd's interest in architecture, his unabashed boosterism, and his concern about the widespread notion of the capital being a backwater, probably led him to have the artist include these impressive Williamsburg structures. Shown on the top row are three buildings at the College of William and Mary—the Bafferton, the Wren Building, and the President's House; shown on the row beneath it are the Capitol as it appeared before the fire of 1747, another view of the Wren Building, and the Governor's Palace.
A modern print made from a mid-eighteenth-century copperplate known as the Bodleian Plate depicts Virginia flora, fauna, and Indian life, as well as the College of William and Mary and government buildings in colonial-era Williamsburg. Margaret Pritchard, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's curator of prints, maps, and wallpapers, believes that the Bodleian Plate was one of a series of copperplates created to illustrate The History of the Dividing Line, an account by Virginia planter William Byrd II of the expedition he led in 1728–1729 to establish the boundary between Carolina and Virginia. Byrd's interest in architecture, his unabashed boosterism, and his concern about the widespread notion of the capital being a backwater, probably led him to have the artist include these impressive Williamsburg structures. Shown on the top row are three buildings at the College of William and Mary—the Bafferton, the Wren Building, and the President's House; shown on the row beneath it are the Capitol as it appeared before the fire of 1747, another view of the Wren Building, and the Governor's Palace.
Removal from Office
Spotswood learned too late that he had several masters to please, each with a different set of interests: English merchants, imperial bureaucrats, and the Virginia planter elite. The last were so well connected to Britain and the Privy Council that they brought considerable pressure on policies that did not meet their favor. Indeed, by 1717 the imperial government had disallowed the Tobacco Inspection Act and the Indian Trade Act. Though the governor tried a number of schemes to increase his power—appointing judges for his newly created court of oyer and terminer, calling for new elections, trying to remove certain members of the Council (including Byrd), insisting he could appoint new parish ministers without consulting the local vestry—his political position had been sorely weakened. As a soldier, Spotswood was accustomed to commanding and being obeyed. As a governor, he had discovered that he could not overcome the increasing power of Virginia planters as exhibited through the House of Burgesses and Council.
Spotswood and the Council achieved a détente on April 29, 1720, when both parties resolved “to act for the future as cordial friends in the administration of the government.” Central to this change was Spotswood’s commitment to becoming a permanent Virginia resident. Later that year, as part of a series of land grants awarded to settlers to create a buffer against the French, the Council granted Spotswood 86,000 acres in the newly created Spotsylvania County. In a letter dated June 11, 1722, Spotswood wrote to thethat the “angry proceedings of the Assembly in 1718” were “balanced by their good agreement in 1722.”
Despite the Council’s change of heart and the apparent harmony that followed,arrived in Virginia on September 25, 1722, to replace Spotswood as lieutenant governor. Historians are uncertain as to exactly why Spotswood was removed, but several factors may have contributed; the cumulative effect of ten years of vocal opposition from members of the House of Burgesses and the governor’s Council certainly played a role. Some historians have suggested that in accepting his massive land grant, Spotswood showed a disregard for Crown policy that could not be ignored (according to the Board of Trade, no single person or family was allowed to claim more than a thousand acres of land in Virginia). Another theory is that two of Virginia’s most powerful councillors, Byrd and the Reverend , were behind the dismissal. Byrd and Blair had never reconciled with the governor, and both were in London when the decision to replace Spotswood with Drysdale was made. If Blair did have a hand in Drysdale’s gubernatorial appointment, Spotswood would be the third consecutive Virginia governor Blair helped to unseat. Spotswood’s governorship demonstrated that cooperation with the Virginia elite could make or break a political career—a lesson from which future governors would benefit.
Spotswood settled in Germanna on the Rapidan River in Spotsylvania County, where he had constructed a house or, as Byrd later described it, an “enchanted castle,” larger even than the Governor’s Palace (archaeological evidence indicates that the house was later abandoned and destroyed by 1750). He diverged from the Virginia norm of cultivating wealth through tobacco by building the South’s first ironworks—though he, too, relied on slave labor to run his business. Spotswood became a major producer of iron, which he exported primarily to England while also manufacturing iron products for Virginia.
In 1724, Spotswood returned to England to secure title to his lands in Virginia and to determine the taxes on the vast grants. That same year he married Anne Butler Brayne of St. Margaret’s Parish, Westminster, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. With the final confirmation of his large grants and clarification of his taxes in February 1729, Spotswood was able to return to Virginia in the same year with his wife and her sister. In 1730, imperial officials appointed him to a ten-year term as deputy postmaster general for North America. In addition to bringing postal service as far south as Williamsburg (it had previously extended only to Philadelphia), he selected Benjamin Franklin as Philadelphia postmaster in 1737.
When war with Spain broke out in 1739, Spotswood resumed his military career. He was appointed a brigadier general in the British army and second in command to Major General Charles Cathcart. At long last, Spotswood had fulfilled his dream of military advancement. But he never saw battle: after suffering a short illness, he died on June 7, 1740, in Annapolis, Maryland, where he had traveled to organize troops and consult with colonial governors. His burial site is unknown.