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The Southern States of America
The History of Virginia - Chapter IV


FROM COLONY TO COMMONWEALTH, 1763-1776.

The French and Indian War, which closed the issue as to whether the English, French or Spanish should dominate this continent, opened the question as to whether sovereignty over the country should be British or American. The American Revolution was less a revolt from England than the growth of instinctive forces in the life of Anglo-Saxons settled in the western wilderness. In that creative era there culminated three tendencies which sprang naturally out of the conditions of colonial life - democracy, union and independence. Hence the significance attaching to that period is the genesis of ideas, the progress of social forces, and the subtle motives that weave institutions. It was, in fact, an evolution rather than a revolution.

Virginia gladly acknowledged itself the child of England, but a child having substantive aims, and claiming as an heir the great "moral discoveries of habeas corpus and trial by jury, of a representative government and a free press." The Virginia Assembly as early as 1624 declared that it had the right "to lay taxes and impositions, and none other." When, therefore, the intention of the British Ministry as to the Stamp Act became known in 1764, the Virginia Burgesses promptly forwarded their remonstrance.

Despite colonial protests, the Stamp Act was to go into effect Nov. 1, 1765. Acquiescence seemed the only course, when Patrick Henry entered the House of Burgesses on May 1 of that year. He had sprung into prominence in the famous Parsons' Cause, by upholding with rare eloquence the right of Virginia to make her own laws without the intervention of the king's veto. Nine days after Henry took his seat in the Assembly he wrote on the fly-leaf of an old copy of Coke Upon Littleton a series of resolutions against the Stamp Act, which he presented to the House, and thereby "gave the first impulse to the ball of the revolution." Jefferson, then a student, witnessed "the bloody debate," and heard Peyton Randolph exclaim after the count, "By God, I would have given five hundred guineas for a single vote!" Another negative vote would have killed the measure. Governor Fauquier, affrighted, at once dissolved the Assembly. But the work had been done. Virginia's voice echoed in the New York Congress, and the Stamp Act was repealed.

The crisis seemed past. Not so, for Townshend, in 1767, aroused anew the colonies by import duties upon glass and tea. In the choice of the courtly Botetourt as a successor to Fauquier, the Ministry hoped to detach Virginia from the side of Massachusetts. The Burgesses, however, would not desert New England at that critical moment. They embodied, in 1769, their patriotic views in energetic resolves, while sitting behind closed doors. Hardly had the vote been taken when the governor abruptly summoned them to meet him in the council chamber. With flushed face he angrily dissolved them. Turned out of the capitol, the representatives with one accord went to the Raleigh Tavern and agreed to import no more goods from Britain. It is worthy of record that at this session of the Assembly Thomas Jefferson urged a bill allowing owners to manumit their slaves. Of like import was the attempt of the Burgesses, in 1772, to put an end to the iniquitous slave trade. The king denied this appeal and thereby laid himself open to Jefferson's fierce indictment on that score in his draft of the Declaration of Independence.

After 1769 there was a lull in Virginia, in spite of the unrepealed tax on tea. Upon the death of the genial Botetourt, the suspicious Dunmore took his place. Violence, however, manifested itself in other provinces. The Boston Massacre, the burning of the Gaspee in Rhode Island, and the counter coercive measures of the British Ministry, kept alive the great debate. To secure unity, the Assembly, in 1773, devised committees of correspondence to act as a nervous system for the colonial cause.

Virginia's Opposition to Boston Port Bill.

Throughout the events that led up to the Revolution, it seemed ordained that Massachusetts was to suffer and Virginia to sympathize. Until the outbreak of actual hostilities scarcely anything of moment occurred on the soil of Virginia to incite her sons to champion the cause of freedom. Indeed, from the beginning of the controversy between the colonies and the mother country, the British Ministry seemed to have avoided any special cause of irritation to the people of the Old Dominion. The part, therefore, which Virginia took in the events of those days must be attributed to her devotion to the principles of liberty, to her interest in the common cause of the colonies, and particularly to her sympathy with Massachusetts in the suffering which that province was called upon to endure. If we lose sight of these motives as the springs of Virginia's conduct in that struggle, we shall be unable to appreciate either the nobility of her spirit or the wisdom and energy which marked her initiative.

The Port Bill, which closed the harbor of Boston as a retaliation for the famous Tea-party, reached Boston on May 10, 1774, the day of the accession of Louis XVI. Three days later the Bay patriots drafted a circular-letter, appealing to the colonists for united support and urging the cessation of all trade with Great Britain. One writing from the doomed city in New England on May 29, just before the Port Bill was to go into effect, sketches for us the situation there: "Preparations are now making for blocking up this harbor, and affairs at present bear a gloomy aspect in this metropolis. However, we are in good spirits, and if the other colonists will but stand by us we doubt not of doing well. Nothing but an union can be the salvation of America."

On the afternoon of the very Sunday on which the writer was penning these words to his friend, Boston's circular-letter arrived by special messenger in the quiet Virginia capital at Williamsburg, causing hurried consultations among the score or more members of the General Assembly that still lingered in town. On the previous Thursday the House of Burgesses had been abruptly dissolved by the irate governor on account of an active expression of sympathy with the cause of Massachusetts. The reply to Boston's proposal to break off all trade relations with Britain seemed too grave a step for the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, instituted the previous year, to take. Accordingly, at a meeting on the following morning, at which all the twenty-five remaining ex-Burgesses were present, it was decided to ask the counties to appoint deputies to a convention which should consider the question of the cessation of all trade with Great Britain and which should select delegates to a proposed Congress of the American colonies. The Revolution in Virginia had begun ; a body, deriving its mandates not from the Crown but from the people of the colonies, had been called into existence, and this democratic legislature was gradually to draw to itself all the governmental functions of the province. Boston's appeal for support was thus referred by the Committee of Correspondence in Virginia to the representatives of the sovereign people, whom royal writs did not summon nor royal governors dissolve. This call for the first Virginia convention, the original of which is in the State Library at Richmond, was evidently written by Peyton Randolph, the recent Speaker of the Burgesses, whose signature stands first in the list of signers. There follow the names of Thomas Jefferson, Henry, Lee, George Washington, etc.

June the first, the very day on which the Boston Port Bill was to go into effect, had, by appointment of the Virginia Burgesses, been set apart "as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer to avert the heavy calamity which threatened destruction to their civil rights"-the precise resolution that brought Lord Dunmore's wrath down upon their heads. Food was not tasted from the rising to the setting of the sun throughout the colony, and solemn services were held in the local churches. George Mason, in writing from Williamsburg to a neighbor, mentions the day of fasting appointed and adds, "please tell my dear little family that I charge them to pay strict attention to it, and that I desire my three eldest sons and my two eldest daughters may attend church in mourning." At Bruton Church in the ancient capital Rev. Mr. Price, before whom sat Washington and his fellow Burgesses, took as the text of his discourse the words: "Be strong and of good courage; fear not nor be afraid of them, for the Lord thy God, He it is that doth go with thee. He will not fail thee nor forsake thee" - admirably chosen as suggesting divine succor and ultimate success. "The people," wrote Jefferson, "met generally with anxiety and alarm in their countenances, and the effect of the day through the whole colony was like a shock of electricity, arousing every man and placing him erect and solidly on his centre."

The First Convention, 1774.

During the summer of 1774 the Revolution was organizing itself throughout the province by the appointment of local committees of correspondence as a means of promoting union and diffusing information, and by spirited county mass-meetings called to consider the crisis of public affairs and to elect delegates to the Virginia convention, in which the Burgesses were in general empowered to act as representatives of the people.

All eyes now turned to the convention which was to meet at the capital on August 1, just eleven days previous to the time set by Lord Dunmore for the session of the General Assembly. The sinister governor, by way of avoiding any pretext for the gathering of the people's representatives, began a series of six prorogations of the legislature, hoping that meantime patriotic feeling would subside. His proclamation to that effect stands on the page of the yellowed Journal just opposite to the record of the impetuous words with which he dissolved the May Assembly. Little did Lord Dunmore suspect that his act on that occasion virtually closed the labors of a legislature that dated from 1619.

The first Virginia convention met at Williamsburg on Aug. 1, 1774, and remained in session six days. Peyton Randolph was made president. In support of Boston it was unanimously agreed that after November 1 following, no goods except medicines should be imported from Great Britain; that the Virginians would neither import nor purchase slaves imported, after that date, from any place whatsoever; and that, unless American grievances were redressed by Aug. 10, 1775, they would stop all exports of their product to the British Isles. Delegates were chosen to represent Virginia in a general Congress of the colonies. Provision was made for the future sessions of the convention, should the course of affairs demand. The spirit of the planters voiced itself in the words of Washington: "I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston."

Following the session of the first Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia on Sept. 5, 1774, local military companies were raised in various parts of Virginia and steps were taken to arm and provision them. Events in Boston hastened the pace of the patriots, while Parliament, in January, 1775, declared Massachusetts in a state of rebellion and interdicted all trade on the part of the resisting colonies with Britain and the West Indies.

The Second Convention, 1775.

It was under such circumstances that the second Virginia convention was held at Richmond on March 20, 1775. It sat in St. John's church, which crowns an eminence overlooking the valley of the James. The historic building stands to-day amid a beautiful grove under whose shade sleep the village fathers. A hundred and nineteen delegates were present and remained in session for one week. A cleavage in parties soon appeared. The conservative members brought forward a conciliatory resolution, expressing a desire "to see a speedy return to those halcyon days when we lived a free and happy people" under British rule.

There were, however, some men in the convention who favored action on the part of the colony. Seeing no reason to put their trust in papers addressed to King and Parliament-were not the royal wastebaskets full of these?-they began to rely on their muskets as the means of freedom. Were not the Virginian youth from sea to mountains already on the drill-field, but without authoritative organization? Did not a state of war then exist in Massachusetts? Moved by such considerations, Patrick Henry sprang to his feet and offered a barbed resolution to the effect "that this colony be immediately put into a state of defense." The scene that followed this proposal was a repetition of that which the House of Burgesses had witnessed ten years before in the fiery protest against the Stamp Act, when Patrick Henry, by eloquence as natural as it was overwhelming, carried all before him. Bland, Nicholas, Harrison and Pendleton fought the martial resolution, while Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson seconded the impassioned words of the son of Hanover. The proposition to arm the colony was carried, and the committee, including Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, at once formulated plans for executing it. Companies of infantry and horse were soon marshalled in the various counties. Trade was stagnant; government was practically suspended, and the courts closed. For instance, Patrick Henry's fee-books show that in 1765 he charged 555 fees, and in 1774 none.

The convention appointed the same delegates as in the previous year to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress, adding the name of Thomas Jefferson as an alternate in case Peyton Randolph should be unable to attend. It took steps for promoting woolen, cotton and linen manufactures, salt works and the making of gunpowder, steel and paper. The delegates concluded that their labors must be submitted to the approval of the people; that future conventions would be necessary; and that delegates thereto should be elected for one year. Thus a body, which was hastily summoned to give advice on a knotty question proposed by Boston, had largely assumed the direction of affairs in Virginia. It is easy at this time to observe the parts of the patriot government taking shape; first, a committee of correspondence with advisory powers in all questions touching the patriot cause; secondly, similar committees in the counties calling forth military companies; thirdly, a representative body, at present only consultative, but soon to become legislative; fourthly, a militia made up of men trained to the use of the musket and pulsing with patriotism. The Virginians in fashioning these democratic institutions showed how well they had profited by their long political experience. Needless to say, Lord Dunmore growled his dissent at such patriot proceedings by a public proclamation, which went unheeded.

While the sturdy New Englanders were burying the farmers who met death on the Lexington Green, an act of Lord Dunmore in removing some ammunition from the "Powderhorn" to a British man-of-war seemed, for the moment, to threaten bloodshed in Virginia. Patrick Henry headed a movement of troops against Williamsburg. Dunmore became alarmed, fortified the palace, summoned marines from the Fowey, sent his wife and children aboard this ship lying at York, and drew a full breath only after he had learned that Henry had turned back at Doncastle's ordinary upon receiving payment for the powder. The governor's threat that if injury were offered to him or his he would free the slaves and burn the town, greatly embittered the feeling of the people against him.

The Last House of Burgesses.

After repeated prorogations of the General Assembly Dunmore summoned it to meet on the first day of June, 1775, so as to receive Lord North's "olive branch." In order to preside over the House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph left the session of the second Congress in Philadelphia at a time when the news of the battle of Lexington, the capture of Ticonderoga, the investment of Boston by a provincial army, and the arrival of large bodies of fresh British troops at New York and Boston had swept the public mind toward the precipice of revolution. Such was the enthusiasm in his home town for the Speaker, who had been twice honored with the presidency of the general Congress, that companies of horse and foot met him on his approach to Williamsburg and escorted him into the city. When the Burgesses assembled on that June morning, it was noted by Randolph that many of them were habited in hunting shirts and armed with rifles. This assembly marked the last rehearsal of royalty in Virginia. Following the report of a committee that Dunmore had declared his purpose to raise, free and arm the slaves, it was enacted that the import of slaves from the West Indies be checked by a specific duty of five pounds on the head, to which measure the governor refused his assent. "The last exercise of the veto power by the King's representative in Virginia was for the protection of the slave trade."

Consideration of Lord North's conciliatory proposition was interrupted by an untoward incident. The people were uneasy lest the governor should remove the remaining guns from the "Powderborn." When, through curiosity, a Burgess and two other men sought an entrance into the arsenal, three guns went off automatically upon the opening of the door, as had been deliberately planned. The men were all wounded; excitement ran high; the governor, upon being questioned, threw the blame upon his servants, who declared to his face that it had been done by his orders. Stricken with guilt and fear, Lord Dunmore with his family fled on June 7 to the Fowey, anchored at York. From the cabin of this man-of-war he sent repeated communications to the legislature at Williamsburg, twelve miles away; and finally, as this method proved tedious, he requested the House to meet him on shipboard-an invitation which the planters were in no way minded to accept. The Fowney sailing up the Thames with the Virginia House of Burgesses aboard would have been a sight to thrill the heart of King George. Jefferson was called upon to draft the answer to Lord North's proposal, which purposed to divide the colonies by getting them to treat separately on conciliatory terms. The import of the reply to the King is sufficiently indicated by this sentence: "We consider ourselves as bound in honor as well as interest to share one general fate with our sister colonies, and should hold ourselves base deserters of that union to which we have acceded were we to agree on any measures distinct and apart from them." Along with Jefferson's "Summary of Rights," which was intended to be presented to the first Virginia convention, this paper marks another step in the genesis of the Declaration of Independence. "In my life," said Shelburne, "I was never more pleased with a State paper than with the Assembly of Virginia's discussion of Lord North's proposition. It is masterly." With Virginia's reply in his pocket, Jefferson hastened to Philadelphia, where he reported its passage to Congress. He was likewise requested by that body to write its report on Lord North's terms, and did so with no less cogency.

When the House of Burgesses adjourned on June 4, 1775, it completed a legislative career that extended over 156 years. As the members strolled out of the House, Richard Henry Lee, standing with two colleagues on the portico of the capitol, inscribed with his pencil on a pillar these lines:

"When shall we three meet again In thunder, lightning and in rain? When the hurlyburly's done, When the battle's lost and won."

True, there were three other attempts to hold sessions, but in each case a quorum did not appear.

The last entry on the manuscript Journal stands thus: "Monday, the sixth of May, 16 George III., 1776. Several members met, but did neither proceed to business nor adjourn as a House of Burgesses. Finis."

The Third Convention, 1775.

While the House of Burgesses must decrease, the convention must increase. The third session of this Revolutionary body was held at "Richmond town" from July 17 to Aug. 26, 1775. Fifteen days before the planters came together on the James, George Washington had taken command, under the old elm at Cambridge, of the American armies. Both the circumstances of the colony and the movement of thought strengthened the hands of the delegates and forced the convention to assume responsibilities undreamt of by those who suggested in the previous year calling it for the first time. Lord Dunmore had not only abandoned the capital, but he was also threatening to make war on the colony. The royal government was dissolved. The convention tried to meet this new turn in affairs. No longer content with resolutions and recommendations, it followed legislative methods and gave to its acts the forms of law, terming them ordinances.

The chief measures adopted by this convention were to organize the forces for the defense of the colony, to create an executive to act during the recess of the convention, to raise adequate revenue for the provisional government, to establish executive county committees, to regulate the election of delegates to the convention, and to elect new representatives to Congress. As the bare enumeration shows, these were tasks of no little difficulty, and we find the members laboring at hours early and late to solve them. The chaplain was "desired to read prayers every morning at eight o'clock." Patrick Henry was made colonel of the first regiment, and as such acted as commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces. Fortunately there is extant the little slip of paper on which the tellers made their report to the convention as to the balloting for representatives in Congress: "Peyton Randolph 89, Richard Henry Lee 88, Thomas Jefferson 85, Benjamin Harrison 83, Thomas Nelson 66, Richard Bland 61, George Wythe 58, Carter Braxton 24, George Washington 22, George Mason 19, etc." It will be seen that twenty-two members insisted upon honoring Washington again with a seat in Congress in spite of his military commission.

The formation of a temporary. executive was a subject of much discussion. There existed the committee of correspondence, originally a kind of bureau of agitation. Now, however, agitation had done its perfect work; war was at hand. It seemed expedient, therefore, to create a Committee of Safety, consisting of eleven members, of whom Edmund Pendleton was made president. This committee piloted the colony during he trying time from Aug. 17, 1775, until July 5,1776, when Patrick Henry took the oath as governor of the commonwealth of Virginia. During his era of political excitement religious dissent increased rapidly. The spirit of patriotism which animated all classes of citizens finds expression in a petition from the Baptists to the convention, asking for four of their brethren to he granted liberty of preaching, at convenient times, to the troops of that religious persuasion, without molestation or abuse. The petition was granted "for the ease of such scrupulous consciences."

War with Dunmore.

Toward the close of the summer of 1775 the fugitive governor had gathered a flotilla in the Chesapeake, troubling merchant ships and threatening a descent on the coast towns. In October one of his landing parties seized, at Norfolk, and carried on shipboard the press of a newspaper imbued with the patriotic sentiments of the day. On this press was printed Dunmore's proclamation of November 7, in which he proclaimed martial law, declared traitors all persons capable of bearing arms who did not resort to his standard, and offered freedom to "all indentured servants, negroes, or others appertaining to rebels." A messenger was even despatched to the western border to incite the savages against the Virginians. The war in Virginia really began at Hampton, at the very place where occurred the first encounters of the early settlers with the Indians. In a severe storm in September, 1775, one of Dunmore's ships was beached near Hampton and subsequently captured and fired by the inhabitants of the little seaside town. To avenge this act the governor blockaded and attempted to burn the village. The British assault made on October 26 was bravely repulsed by the citizens, reenforced by the Culpeper riflemen. On December 8 the battle of Great Bridge took place, where the regulars were again routed, losing over sixty killed and wounded. On Jan. 1, 1776, after a severe cannonade from sixty guns, Dunmore fired Norfolk, the chief town of the colony with a population of 6,000.

Fourth Convention, 1775.

The fourth Virginia convention was sitting almost within hearing distance of the cannon at the battle of Great Bridge. It had met at Richmond on Dec. 1, 1775, but, after organizing, adjourned to meet at Williamsburg. The chief matters that engaged the attention of this convention were the increase of the troops, which were straightway merged into the continental army; the establishment of an admiralty court ; the appointment of a commission of five men in each county to try the causes of those deemed enemies of America; the authorization of county courts to elect severally a sheriff for one year; and instruction to the Virginia delegates in Congress to urge the opening of the ports of the colonies to the commerce of the world, excepting Britain and the British West Indies.

After the harrowing assaults of Lord Dunmore, it is not surprising that the demand for independence of British rule echoed in every quarter of Virginia. We find, accordingly, during that spring, the several county committees instructing their delegates "to cause a total and final separation from Great Britain to take place as soon as possible." Meantime the prime question in the mind of the Virginian statesmen was how to bridge the chasm from royalty to republicanism, from colony to commonwealth. There was a brisk correspondence between the leading men in the province with a view to the declaration of independence and the taking up of government.

The Fifth Convention, 1776 - Adoption of a Constitution.

The fifth convention met at Williamsburg on May 6, 1776, sixty counties and corporations being represented by 131 delegates. Edmund Pendleton was elected president. The three constructive measures which it formulated were : first, the instructions to the Virginia delegates in Congress to propose Independence of Great Britain; second, the Bill of Rights ; and third, the constitution of the new Commonwealth. After the passage, on May 15, of the resolution instructing their delegates in Congress to propose independence, the British flag on the capitol was at once struck and the colonial colors hoisted in its stead. At night the town was illuminated in celebration of that epochal event.

On June 12 the convention adopted the Bill of Rights. This summary of liberties, at once so comprehensive and concise, we owe to George Mason, whose original draft was afterwards presented to the state. The only serious amendment made to this celebrated paper was that urged by the youthful James Madison, substituting religious liberty for toleration. The air was rife with political theories. Seven different plans of government came before the convention. From these, guided by political sagacity of rare order, they wrought out a republican constitution which, though conceived in the midst of war and framed in a brief space of time, met admirably the needs of the people and presided for more than half a century over the rapidly expanding state. The constitution was adopted finally on June 29, 1776 - the natal day of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. - Burk, John: History of Virginia; Chandler, J. A. C.: Representation in Virginia; Frothingham, Richard: The Rise of the Republic; Gordon's History of America; Grigsby, Hugh Blair: The Virginia Convention of 1776; Henry, William Wirt: Life of Patrick Henry; Hart, A. B.: Formation of the Union; Hening's Virginia Statutes at Large; Ingle: Local Institutions in Virginia; James, C. F.: History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia; Johnson, T. C.: Religious Liberty in Virginia, Rowland, Kate Mason: Life of George Mason; Tyler, Lyon G.: Life and Times of the Tylers; Wilson, Woodrow: Life of George Washington; The Works of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, etc.; The Journals of the Virginia House of Burgesses; The Journals of the Virginia Conventions of the Revolution; Calendar of Virginia State Papers; The files of the Williamsburg Gazette; Manuscripts in Virginia State Archives.

S. C. MITCHELL,
President of the University of South Carolina.


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