The original thirteen American colonies faced an enormous challenge in coming to agreement on declaring independence from Britain. Each colony had its own separate issues. For numerous reasons that will be disclosed, Virginia was viewed as a key player in convincing others that it was in the interest of all the colonies to declare independence in united fashion. To shed light on Virginia’s role in the birth of this nation, the Virginia State Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence asked Clifford R. Dickinson, a long-time history teacher and scholar at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia for assistance. Mr. Dickinson responded with a thoroughly researched and documented paper on what transpired in Virginia in the crucial years leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We hope his paper will serve as an educational resource for teachers and all those interested in knowing more about this extremely important part of Virginia and American history.
Lawrence M. Croft R. Bruce W. Laubach
1st Vice-President General of DSDI President, Virginia State Society of DSDI
Richmond, Virginia Williamsburg, Virginia
“All America Looks Up to Virginia;” Virginia and the Declaration of Independence
In 1763 British and French negotiators affixed their signatures to the Treaty of Paris, thus ending what had come to be known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War and in America as the French and Indian War. Some labeled this war “Virginia’s War” for that colony’s role in initiating military confrontation with France in the Ohio River Valley in the 1750s.
Following her victory, Britain moved to tighten control over her empire, particularly in the provinces in North America. Few people in Europe or America could have foreseen then that in thirteen short years, Great Britain would face the prospect of losing her American colonies.
Fewer still would have predicted that Virginia, the oldest, largest, most populous American colony, and the one with the closest cultural and economic ties to Britain, would find herself at the storm center of a bitter continental debate: should the thirteen American colonies declare their independence from Britain. “All America looks up to you to take the lead on the present occasion,” wrote the Philadelphia Committee of Correspondence to its counterpart in Williamsburg Virginia in 1774. “You are ancient, you are respected, and you are animated in the cause.”
Within months Virginia would find herself in the midst of revolution against royal authority, spearheading a growing colonial movement for American independence. By spring 1776 it had become clear that Britain’s goal was nothing less than absolute subjugation of the American provinces, and that this would be achieved through force, not conciliation.
Virginia and Parliamentary Legislation In the wake of its global victory, Britain began to devise new methods for generating revenue. During the Seven Years’ War her national debt quadrupled: in 1763 it was seventeen times greater than the national income. In an effort to offset a portion of the huge cost of colonial defense, Parliament voted to place new taxes on the American provinces.
Hoping to avert another costly Indian war, Parliament closed lands west of the Appalachian Mountains to further settlement. This was a blow to the colonies’ land speculators. In April 1764 Parliament passed the Sugar Act, reasserting its control over imperial trade and reaffirming its mercantile philosophy that colonies existed solely to benefit the mother country. Since the American colonies had no elected members representing their interests, the Sugar Act led to outcries of “taxation without representation.” In 1765 the American economic situation worsened when Parliament passed the Currency Act, which prohibited the colonies from printing paper money.
The first great test of political wills between Parliament and the American provinces came in 1765 with the passage of the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act was Parliament’s first direct tax on the American colonies, projecting London into the heart of American affairs. It placed a tax on paper, a material used in virtually every type of transaction in the colonies – court documents, deeds, records of goods and shipments at ports, contracts, newspapers and other public prints (with the exception of books), and on all newspaper advertisements. It also struck every nerve in American life. People from all walks of colonial life realized that the stamp tax was to be implemented without approval of their legislatures.
This was not the first time that Virginians challenged British authority over colonial taxation. In 1715 the House of Burgesses had refused to authorize money for defense against Indians, questioning Governor Alexander Spotswood’s demand that the colony furnish funds he requested. Spotswood in return denounced the Burgesses and sent them home. He knew that any attempt to raise funds without the burgesses’ approval would be resisted. Between 1715 and 1763 Virginia’s governors avoided run-ins that might spark a debate over rights. Richard Henry Lee reignited the debate by claiming that the Stamp Act denied the constitutional rights of all Americans.
Aroused by news of the stamp duty, Richard Henry Lee, a well-educated articulate planter from Virginia’s Northern Neck (the area between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers) and son of one of its wealthiest and most prominent families, and a member of the colony’s House of Burgesses, communicated to an English correspondent that Britain appeared bent on oppressing the American colonists. Lee explained that he opposed the stamp tax because the American provinces were not represented in Parliament. Their rights to be governed and taxed by elected representative bodies, he reminded his friend, were essential elements of the British constitution.
Controversy over the Stamp Act resulted in destruction and violence in several colonies. A Stamp Act Congress convened in New York, and Virginia passed a series of resolutions challenging the act’s constitutionality. Virginians of all ranks opposed the Stamp Act through a boycott of British trade goods and rigid noncompliance. The colony’s extreme constitutional position, articulated by Richard Henry Lee challenged the very heart of Britain’s sovereignty.
An already financially stricken American merchant class pushed for repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. Parliament then passed the Declaratory Act, claiming exclusive power to impose binding taxes on the colonies. Parliament declared its own authority to levy taxes although it had repealed a specific tax.
In 1767, a second series of trade laws, the Townshend Acts, again challenged colonial self government. Citing the supposed distinction between “internal” and “external” taxes (taxes on commodities produced and sold within a colony versus commodities produced overseas and imported into the colonies), Parliament placed taxes on glass, paint, lead, and tea. The Townshend Acts sought to raise revenue in order to pay the salaries of judges and governors in America, making them independent of colonial legislatures. The American colonies, especially those in New England, met the Townshend Acts with stiff resistance.
The following year March British occupation of Boston, Massachusetts led to a clash between civilians and soldiers in which five Bostonians were killed. As a result of the “Boston Massacre”, Parliament began considering a motion to partially repeal the Townshend duties. Most of the act’s provisions were repealed, but the tax on tea remained in effect. In Virginia the remaining tea tax was generally seen as a continued symbol of British oppression.
In 1773 Parliament granted the British East India Company a monopoly on the American tea trade. In Virginia a boycott on tea was imposed and most Virginians quit drinking tea. On December 16, 1774 a group of Bostonians boarded three vessels dressed up as “Indians” and dumped 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Parliament responded by passing the Coercive Acts. Four of the Coercive Acts’ provisions targeted the town of Boston and the colony of Massachusetts.
Simultaneously, and unconnected with the Coercive Acts, Parliament passed the Quebec Act in an attempt to solve western land problems in America. All land north of the Ohio River was to be transferred to the province of Quebec. This was a major blow to Virginia land speculators, many of whom were members of the Virginia Council and House of Burgesses. From now on land would be distributed from London, not from Williamsburg.
In 1749 a group of northern Virginia land speculators established the Ohio Company and acquired huge tracts of land. Since then half a dozen other land companies had been created. The investors, many of them wealthy planters and merchants, most of them members of the House of Burgesses, were angered by the unilateral assignment of western lands to Quebec. They argued that the land beyond the Appalachian Mountains had been granted to Virginia in royal charters.
Between the end of the French and Indian War and the outbreak of the American Revolution, the greatest single economic activity in Virginia was land speculation. Thomas Jefferson had investments in three land companies, Richard Henry Lee and his brother Francis Lightfoot had sunk large sums in two companies. Patrick Henry saw five land deals evaporate in the Quebec Act. George Washington, also an investor in land companies, had title to thousands of acres of bounty lands purchased at low prices from veterans of the French and Indian War. Every person of wealth and means was involved in a land speculation scheme. All of Virginia’s delegates to the First and Second Continental Congress were invested in the west.
The Coercive Acts, or the Intolerable Acts as they became known in the colonies, were viewed as wholesale reprisal against the colonies. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, possibly George Mason and others met on the night of May 23 and drafted a resolution opposing the closing of Boston’s harbor. In it they called for a declaration in support of the people of Boston. They set aside June 1 as “a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” To avoid appearing defiant, they decided that the resolution would be introduced in the House of Burgesses.
Lt. Governor John Murray, Lord Dunmore denounced the action and dissolved the House of Burgesses. On May 27 eighty-nine former members privately reconvened in Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern at the urging of former House speaker Peyton Randolph. A convention to discuss future relations between Virginia and England was called for August 1. Richard Henry Lee recommended that a committee of correspondence invite all of the colonies to meet in a general congress to address issues of common concern.
First Virginia Convention (August 1-6, 1774) On August 1, 1774 thirty-one counties and towns dispatched 153 representatives to the First Virginia Convention in Williamsburg. Many convention delegates were former burgesses. The former speaker of the House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph, was chosen president of the convention. The delegates then established the Virginia Association in order to set up and implement a colony wide trade boycott. Importation of slaves and other commodities of trade from Britain and the West Indies were to cease November 1, and colonial Virginians would wear clothes that they themselves manufactured. They would not drink tea. The convention also passed a declaration of rights and denied Parliament’s right to tax the American colonies.
Many delegates also called for some sort of formal protest against Britain, but the Convention was unable to reach a consensus on a course of action. The Convention then passed definitive resolutions authorizing its delegation to the upcoming Congress to enter into non-importation and non-exportation agreements with other colonies. The First Virginia Convention’s final and most important step was to formally call for a “general congress” to be held the following month in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On Friday August 5 the Convention selected seven delegates to the September congress - Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison and Edmund Pendleton. They were instructed to reach a consensus with the other colonies on parliament’s arbitrary taxation policy.
A significant sidelight of the First Virginia Convention was the appearance of a pamphlet written by Thomas Jefferson of Albemarle County. Jefferson hoped that A Summary View of the Rights of British America might serve as a set of instructions for the colony’s delegates to congress.
A Summary View delineated the American interpretation of the British constitution. It expressed the opinion of a growing number of colonials. It was also very frank and left little room for backtracking: “The king is no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government erected for their use, and consequently subject to their superintendence.” What was the political relation between England and America? Jefferson asked. He denied Parliament’s authority to make trade laws and condemned it for trying to take unfair advantage of the fruits of American labor. George Wythe, a forty-eight year old Williamsburg lawyer and Thomas Jefferson’s former law instructor, was the only delegate who shared Jefferson’s belief that Parliament did not have absolute authority over the colonies. All of the other convention delegates believed that A Summary View was too radical and voted to table it. Jefferson’s friends, however, had the pamphlet printed and circulated, and it earned Jefferson an inter-colonial reputation as a brilliant writer and ardent American patriot.
“Our Rights and Privileges” The people of Virginia were well aware that they too had a stake in the affairs set to transpire in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They would certainly be affected by courses of action set upon there over the next few months. Rumors circulated and everyone speculated about the convention’s purposes.
As delegate Benjamin Harrison rode out from Berkeley plantation, his estate on the James River, he was approached by a group of plainly dressed local citizens. In Virginia society Harrison was what they called a “better.” He knew that they had come to see him, and pulled up his horse in order to hear what they had to say. The small group expressed their confidence that Harrison would do what was best for the people of Charles City County. “You assert,” one man addressed him, “that there is a fixed intention to invade our rights and privileges. We own that we do not see this clearly, but since you assure us that it is so, we believe the fact.” The fellow told Harrison that they would return to their homes and abide by Congress’s decisions. He nodded and rode on, not knowing what those decisions might be.
First Continental Congress (September 5- October 26, 1774) The First Continental Congress convened at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 5, 1774. Peyton Randolph was elected “President,” and the gathering delegates decided that they should be called “The Congress.” It was decided that votes would be taken by colony. Every province but Georgia attended.
Those in attendance were solid in their resolve to present a united front against Parliament, but they were unable to agree on a strategy. The New York and Pennsylvania delegations had firm instructions to seek a resolution with parliament. The other colonies were also firm in asserting their rights. However, there were delegates who believed that a satisfactory settlement could be reached and differences reconciled. A few spoke of separation from Britain.
Virginia’s delegation was divided but understood the importance of presenting a unified front. Richard Henry Lee, who would play a prominent role in the independence movement later on, had little influence in the Virginia delegation in 1774. In 1768 he had become embroiled in a bitter political dispute that pitted him against the established James River-York River group in what Virginians remembered as the “Robinson Affair.” Lee became a lightning rod for controversy by challenging several of the colony’s most important leaders about former Speaker John Robinson’s malfeasance of public funds. Several burgesses had been involved and owed the colony money, and when leadership tried to keep the affair quiet, Lee and his friend Patrick Henry publicly exposed it. It created great embarrassment for the House of Burgesses, and many of those directly connected with the Robinson scandal never forgave Richard Henry Lee.
Although the objectives of the First Continental Congress were not entirely clear, several tasks were accomplished. The delegates agreed that the King and Parliament must be made to understand colonial grievances, and that Congress must do everything in its power to communicate these grievances to the rest of the world.
Virginia’s two most outspoken critics of Parliamentary taxation, Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, were the first delegates to speak before Congress. Benjamin Harrison of Charles City County chaired the preliminary debates over whether or not American exports should be withheld from Britain. Harrison was a capable man on committees, good-natured and forthright; he knew how to employ humor to thaw tensions. Harrison also sat over the debates on the Articles of Association, a plan for establishing a trade boycott against England.
Richard Henry Lee chaired three of the nine committees established by the First Continental Congress and served on three others. Lee proved to be one of the most active and radical members of the Virginia delegation, but he exerted little influence within the Virginia delegation, which looked to Peyton Randolph for its leadership. Lee struck up a fast friendship with John Adams and Sam Adams of Massachusetts. They often breakfasted and dined together and were occasionally joined by Henry. “These gentlemen from Virginia appear to be the most spirited and consistent of any,” John Adams noted in his diary. “Harrison said he would have come on foot rather than not come,” and “Lee is for making the repeal of every revenue law.”
On September 22 Congress adopted the Suffolk Resolves and pledged itself to support the people in the town of Boston. Three weeks later on October 14, Congress charted a clearer course of action when it adopted the Declaration and Resolves. Colonial objections to the Intolerable Acts were outlined, colonial rights spelled out, and a list of grievances compiled. A trade boycott was also established: non-importation of British and West Indian commodities would begin December 1, and if necessary, non-exportation of American goods would commence September 1, 1775. Addresses to the peoples of Great Britain and British America were also prepared, and a petition sent to King George III. The Virginia delegation played a leading role in these tasks.
Congress then adopted the Continental Association to enforce the trade boycott. It was based on the Virginia Association and called for the formation of organizations in all of the colonies with police powers to enforce and regulate the boycott. Every county, city, and town in the provinces was urged to enforce the embargo. “Virginia gave the signal to the continent,” reported General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in Boston. The First Continental Congress’s final act was to agreement to meet again the following year if its grievances had not addressed by parliament.
The Virginia Association Before the First Continental Congress met, Virginia’s boycott was largely ineffective. There was confusion and disagreement in the colony over when importation of British goods should end and when exportation of Virginia commodities would be halted. Now the colony moved quickly to strengthen its Association. Tidewater and Eastern shore counties established committees of safety to monitor economic activity and tighten the boycott. Participation increased and by the end of 1774 thirty-six Virginia counties and towns had formed local enforcement committees. By the end of January 1775 the Association was aggressively and effectively enforcing the boycott over a wide area in the province of Virginia.
As the boycott threatened to cause shortages of goods, dissension arose among Virginians. Salt was in short supply, especially in the backcountry, and on several occasions people there seized salt stocks. Governor John Murray, Earl Dunmore believed that the trade boycott would split the patriots into factions: “The people of fortune may supply themselves and their Negroes for two or three years; but the middling and poorer sort, who live from hand to mouth, have not the means of doing so, and the produce of their lands will not purchase those necessaries.” Dunmore was sure that the boycott would ruin many families. In October 1775 he reported that shortages had already brought a decline in support for the trade boycott, even among those who were initially enthusiastic.
When new county-level committees replaced county courts, enforcement improved. On November 7, after receiving the green light from the York and Gloucester County committees, Yorktown merchant Thomas Nelson, Jr. and a handful of other men boarded an English vessel at Yorktown and dumped two and a half chests of tea into the York River. Virginia had had its own scaled down version of the Boston tea party. The hand of the Association grew stronger.
On November 9 a copy of the Continental Association boycott agreement with almost 500 Virginia merchant’s signatures appeared in Williamsburg. This was strong evidence that the trade embargo had taken hold in Virginia.
Second Virginia Convention (March 20-27, 1775) In January 1775 Governor Dunmore again used his authority to prorogue the Virginia House of Burgesses. This was the fifth time the governor had utilized his authority in this legal manner. This time it was to keep the House of Burgesses from choosing delegates to a second continental congress. On March 20 the colony’s former burgesses assembled at St. John’s Church in Richmond as delegates to the Second Virginia Convention at the request of Peyton Randolph. Virginia’s most important men assembled in the uncomfortable wooden pews, among them six future signers of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Nelson, Jr. and George Wythe had ridden up from York County and Williamsburg respectively. Benjamin Harrison represented Charles City County and Carter Braxton represented King William County. From the Northern Neck came Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee and the wealthy planter George Washington. Thomas Jefferson of Albemarle County was also present.
The Second Virginia Convention assembled to review reports from the province’s delegation to the First Continental Congress, and to check on the progress of the Association. Peyton Randolph placed the published proceedings of the First Continental Congress before the Convention and they were examined in detail. The Convention then passed a resolution thanking the delegates for their efforts in Philadelphia.
On the next to last day of the Convention, the delegates found themselves in a debate over military preparation sparked by Patrick Henry. On March 23 Henry electrified the delegates with his immortal “Liberty or Death” speech, calling for a plan to establish a Virginia militia. Richard Henry Lee seconded Henry’s motion. For the first time, it appeared that the growing tensions between Great Britain and her American colonies might lead to an open rupture. The possibility had not yet been publicly discussed when Henry’s emotional proposal for military preparation was offered. The ensuing debate intensified disagreements between Virginia’s two emerging political factions.
Within the convention delegation, these factions argued over how to handle the rapidly escalating political situation. The conservatives, composed of primarily the large established tobacco planters and Virginia merchants from the lower James River and York River valleys, considered the idea of resisting Britain to be rash and unwise. They believed that mobilization for war was premature and radical. Changes were taking place, but a “revolution” was not underway that would lead to separation. The conservatives wanted no part of anything that undermined established society and the political structure holding it together. They were especially adamant in their opposition to any actions that might introduce a more democratic, less class conscious form of “mob rule” into Virginia.
Benjamin Harrison of Charles City County pointed out that creating a Virginia militia was putting the cart before the horse. Petitions had been dispatched by the First Continental Congress to Parliament, but as yet had been unanswered. Harrison believed that Parliament needed more time to respond, and he encouraged the delegates to be patient. Others feared that Virginia would never be able to meet the full brunt of British military might if it were to be directed against the colony. George Wythe surprised the delegation by opposing Henry’s resolution on the grounds that a militia organization would be incapable of meeting a serious British threat. He proposed instead that Virginia create a regular army of 10,000 men.
The younger more aggressive liberals did not share the optimism of their conservative counterparts: they doubted that Parliament would be just in dealing with Virginia’s claims. Many of the liberals, including George Mason, George Washington, Francis Lightfoot Lee and his brother Richard Henry Lee hailed from the Northern Neck. Others such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry came from the Piedmont. George Wythe, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Nelson, Jr., were among the small handful of liberals who came from the lower James River region.
Nelson, a son of one of the richest merchants in Virginia, and colonel of the York County militia, staked out his place in the liberal ranks by supporting Patrick Henry. British warships sat at anchor in the York within clear sight of his plantation house at Yorktown, and if they attempted to land troops in York County, Nelson promised the convention, he would attack them at the beaches without orders. He surprised the convention with his fervor and left no doubt that he favored a firm stance against Britain. Thomas Nelson became one of staunchest supporters of independence and would give his home and fortune to the American cause.
The radicals pushed through Henry’s militia resolution by one vote. Afterwards some of the moderate delegates agreed to work to support the resolution, believing that it was important to present a unified front. Benjamin Harrison had opposed the measure at first, but once the convention voted in favor of the militia measure, he worked actively to support it. Harrison was appointed to the twelve-man committee to pursue the militia plan. Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson were also assigned to this committee. Two days later the committee submitted a report calling for the recruitment of at least one infantry company and at least one cavalry company in every county in Virginia. This action for mobilization constituted the chief accomplishment of the convention.
The final act of the Second Virginia Convention was to appoint an alternate to the upcoming continental congress in Philadelphia in the likelihood that a vacancy opened up in the delegation. Edmund Randolph, overweight and in declining health, had presided over the first two Virginia conventions and had indicated that he planned to return to Williamsburg for the third, if and when it took place. Many Virginians believed that Virginia’s affairs took precedence over those under consideration in Pennsylvania, and Randolph was one of them. If called home from Congress, then he would return to Virginia for the next convention. Thomas Jefferson was not excited by his appointment as alternate on the delegation. Believing that Virginia would act decisively and eventually declare independence on its own, Jefferson wanted to be at the next convention to weigh in on a new government.