Virginia on the Eve of Revolution

Parliament’s passage of the 1765 Stamp Act is rightly viewed by many as a key moment in the American Revolution. This new “internal” tax, which the British parliament adopted so that the American colonists would pay their “fair share” of Great Britain’s massive French and Indian War debt, (and also contribute to ongoing military expenses), sparked outrage and opposition throughout the colonies, not because the tax promised to be a financial burden on the colonists, but rather, because of the principle of taxation without representation. Virginians, as evidenced by Governor Francis Fauquier’s January 30, 1763 Report to the Board of Trade, were no strangers to taxation; the House of Burgesses had levied a number of new taxes in the late 1750’s to pay Virginia’s own mounting war debt. These taxes, combined with the continued trade imbalance between Virginia and Great Britain, did indeed represent an increased financial burden on the colonists. Yet, it was a burden that they could manage, in part, through their own legislature.

To better appreciate the economic situation Virginians faced in the early 1760’s, a closer look at Virginia’s economy, as characterized by Governor Francis Fauquier, is necessary.

Imports and Exports

Portrait of Virginia Colonial Governor Francis Fauquier
Portrait of Virginia Colonial Governor Francis Fauquier

Governor Fauquier’s January 30th, 1763 report on Virginia’s economic activity revealed a colony that, despite a very lucrative export trade in tobacco, imported more goods from Great Britain than it exported. Governor Fauquier reported that Osnaburg (course German linen) and Negro cotton were imported for Virginia’s slaves while woolen and silk goods and Dutch, Irish, and Scotch linen textiles were imported for free Virginians. Shoes, stockings, hats, gloves, ribbons, etc. (presumably all from England) were also shipped to Virginia in large amounts, as were unspecified goods from India.

Fauquier noted that such imports increased daily and that the common planters of Virginia dressed almost exclusively in “the manufacturers of Great Britain.” The governor added that Virginians also imported large quantities of strong beer, wrought iron and ornamental and useful furniture in all metals, all produced in England.

As for its export trade, Governor Fauquier reported to the Board of Trade that over 85% of Virginia’s exports was tobacco, approximately 50,000 hogsheads worth nearly half a million English pounds. Other items exported by Virginians were pork, wooden shingles, corn, bread, flour, and tar as well as some bar iron, furs, indigo, flax-seed, lard, oats, beans, and pease.

Virginians shipped grain and corn to the northern colonies in return for rum, loaf sugar, molasses, and wooden wares. Corn, pitch, turpentine, pork, beef, biscuit, flour, and lumber from Virginia were shipped to the West Indies for rum, molasses, coarse sugars, and salt.

Although Virginians raised large stocks of cattle, it was devoted mainly to domestic consumption. As for manufacturing, Governor Fauquier noted that such activity barely existed in Virginia.

Sources of Government Revenue

To support the operation of Virginia’s government a series of taxes designed to raise 7,000 pounds annually were implemented by the House of Burgesses and included:

A 2 shilling duty per hogshead of exported tobacco
A 1/3 shilling duty per ton on all ships that sailed to Virginia
A 6 pence per poll (passenger) on every person imported who was not a Mariner

Additional duties were levied on wheeled carriages:

10 shillings for each two wheeled carriage
20 shillings for each four wheeled carriage

A 10 pound duty on every imported horse (designed as much to discourage the importation of horses as to raise revenue) was also levied.

To support the operation of the College of William and Mary, Virginia’s colonial legislature levied a 2 pence duty per gallon on rum and other distilled spirits and wine imported into the colony. An additional 1 penny duty was added for any of the said liquors that were imported from outside of Great Britain. The penny duty also extended to cider and beer imported from outside of Great Britain. A duty on furs was also levied on behalf of William and Mary, but Governor Fauquier failed to specify the amount of that tax.

In addition to the numerous taxes levied by the House of Burgesses, there existed a wide range of fees for all kinds of government services. There were Governor’s fees, Secretary’s fees, Clerk of Council fees, Officers of the House of Burgesses fees, Admiralty Court fees, Collectors fees and Naval Officer’s fees. The Governors Fees, which were meant to raise revenue for the use of the governor, included:

Ordinary (tavern) license… 1 pound and 15 shillings
License…. 1 pound
For every vessel entering at the naval offices over 100 tons…1 pound and 10 shillings
For every vessel entering at the naval offices under 100 tons…1 pound
For signing patents of land… 1 pistole (a Spanish gold coin worth about 18 shillings)

Lastly, to pay down its large war debt (incurred from the French and Indian War), the Virginia legislature passed a 10% duty on all slaves imported and sold and a one shilling tax on every tithable for the years 1763 through 1766 (tithables included any slave – male or female over 16 years old – or any male indentured servant or freeman over 16 years old). The taxes on slaves and tithables were in addition to a number of other taxes passed by earlier assemblies between 1757 and 1760 that were still in effect and included:


A duty of 2 shillings per hogshead of tobacco passed at the public warehouses; also 2 shillings on every Tithable for the years 1761-64; also 1 shilling on every 100 acres of land for said years


One shilling tax on every Tithable for the years 1761-64, also 1 shilling on every hundred acres of land for said years


A tax of 2 shillings on every tithable for the years 1765-66 and 4 shillings for 1767


Tax of 9 pence on every 100 acres of land for the years 1767 and 1768, and 1 shilling 3 pence for the year 1769; also 2 shillings for every tithable for 1768 and three shillings for 1769

As one can see, Virginians, like many of their fellow colonists, struggled with their own debt and mounting taxes in the early 1760’s. Passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 only increased their anxiety and concern. It is little wonder that with no way to exert influence over the British parliament (short of appeals and petitions), Virginians worried that the Stamp Act was a precursor to their economic demise and political enslavement.

Source: The Official Papers of Francis Fauquier Vol. 2 (University of Virginia Press, 1983), 1009-1028


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