‘to make a Virginia fence’: meaning and origin

Especially used of an inebriated person’s gait, the American-English phrase to make a Virginia fence, and its variants, mean: to walk in a swerving, unstable manner.

This phrase refers to the noun Virginia fence, denoting a fence consisting of sets of wooden rails that interlock in a zigzag fashion.—Synonyms: worm fence, snake fence.

The earliest recorded occurrence of the noun Virginia fence is from the account of “A Meettinge of the ffree Inhabitants of the Towne of portsmouth 1, Held the 26ᵗ of Aprill 1671”—as published in The Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth (Providence, Rhode Island: Printed for the Rhode Island Historical Society by E. L. Freeman & Sons, 1901):

Voated ffor as much, as there is many Damages done in Corne and Grass, and many Catle hurt and many harte burneings amongst Neighbours: It is Ordered for the time to come that he or they within the Bounds of this Towne of portsmouth that will make Suffitient ffences Shall Recover Satisfaction of the owners of the Catle that doth him damage: or of the owners of the Catle that doth him damage: or of the owners of the ffences by which he hath his damage the fence beinge not found according to Order ffor a fence Called a Virginia ffence It is ordered that it Shall be fower ffoot and a halfe high Stakt with Stakes halfe a foot above the fence plumb up and that not any of the Rayles be above fower inches from his ffellow till it come to the Rayle next under the Stakes and that next under the Stakes be but tenn inches from that above the Stakes, And for post and rayles it Shall be of the Same hight of the Virginia ffence ffower ffoot and Six inches high and the distance betweene Every rayle accordinge to that of the Virginia ffence afore-sayd And for Stone wall they Shall be fower foot and Six inchis high

1 This refers to Portsmouth, a town in Rhode Island.

Virginia fences were evoked by ‘a Gentleman’ in Notes on America, published in The Morning Post (London, England) of 23rd January 1829:

Want of hedges makes the country look dead: the fencing throughout the United States is railing, with heavy, rough, split timbers zig-zagged, resting upon each other without posts, called the Virginia Fence.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase to make a Virginia fence and variants that I have found:

1-: From The Drinkers Dictionary, by Benjamin Franklin 2, published in The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of 13th January 1737:

V

He makes Virginia Fence,
          Valiant,
          Got the Indian Vapours,
[&c.]

2 Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was an American statesman, inventor and scientist.

2-: From The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal (Boston, Massachusetts) of 15th August 1768:

ANECDOTE.

One day last week as one of the new Inquisitors of the Customs was making Virginia Fence on the brink of Charlestown Ferry, he fell into the River. There was a Consultation among the Ferrymen, &c. whether to pull the Publican out, and it passed in the Negative. But one of the Company having more Compassion, if not more Wit than the rest, hoisted him out, saying—That drowning was comparatively too low a Death for any of the late imported Crew.

3-: From The Providence Gazette; and Country Journal (Providence, Rhode Island) of 20th April 1771. This newspaper reprinted Observations on Drunkenness, by T. Norworth, which was originally published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle (London, England) of December 1770. But The Providence Gazette inserted the phrase “Makes a Virginia fence”, which was not in the original text:

To express the condition of an Honest Fellow, and no Flincher, under the effects of good Fellowship, it is said that he is,
1 Drunk,
2 Intoxicated,
[…]
Besides these modes of expressing drunkenness by what a man is, what he has, and what he has had, the following express it by what he does.
70 Clips the King’s English, i.e. does not speak plain.
71 Sees double,
[…]
78 Goes over the tops of trees; this is provincial, and alludes to the unequal pace of a drunken man, like that of stepping from a high tree to a low one, and from a low one to a high one.
79 Makes a Virginia fence.
To these must be added one phrase that expresses drunkenness by what a man cannot do; it is said by the sons of science at Oxford, of a man in ebrious circumstances,
80 That he cannot support a right line.

4-: From The Providence Gazette; and Country Journal (Providence, Rhode Island) of 2nd November 1771:

The drunkard is like the salamander, for he lives in the midst of fire, and is always boiling with the fumes of his excesses, which he continually supplies with new debaucheries.—His time is not measured by the day or hour, but the bottle; and his whole arithmetic is, “what have I to pay, and how much have I drank?”—To use a common phrase, he makes Virginia fence when he walks; and his head is frequently too heavy to be supported by his legs.

The variant to make a Virginia rail fence occurs for example in the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia) of Thursday 5th June 1845:

MACREADY’S PERPLEXITY.—The manners and customs of the inhabitants of the New World excited in Macready 3 many emotions of curiosity. He could scarcely fathom many the [sic] “eccentricities” of the Yankees. Going to the manager of one of the theatres in which he was playing he said—
“Mr. —— what a singular company you have—how eccentric! how queer!”
“How so, sir?”
“Why one man comes to me and says ‘I’m tight,’ another says ‘I’m high,’ another ‘I’m blue,’ another ‘I’ve got a brick in my hat,’ another ‘I’m making a Virginia rail fence,’ another ‘I’m obfusticated!’”
“Well, sir,” interrupted the manager, “surely there is nothing remarkable in all that.”
“It is very remarkable,” said Macready petulantly, “for upon inquiry, I find that all these men are drunk.”

3 William Macready (1793-1873) was an English actor.