George Washington Makes the Case for a Boycott

Prewar Politics (<1775)

June 24, 2014
by Michael Cecere Also by this Author


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The news that many dreaded reached Virginia in May 1774. The British parliament, determined to punish the inhabitants of Boston for the destruction of thousands of pounds of tea in December 1773, closed Boston Harbor to all commerce until restitution was paid to the East India Company and the King’s treasury. The sum included the value of the destroyed tea and the uncollected duties on the tea. British warships, as well as four regiments of British regulars, were ordered to Boston to enforce this punitive measure, the first of what became known as the Intolerable Acts.

Edmund Pendleton, a moderate member of the House of Burgesses expressed the view of many colonists towards Parliament’s action:

Tho’ it should be granted that the Bostonians did wrong in destroying the tea, yet the Parliament giving Judgement and sending ships and troops to [punish the entire city] in a case of Private property is [an] Attack upon constitutional Rights, of which we could not remain Idle Spectators…..[1]

The Virginia House of Burgesses moved to support Massachusetts by adopting a day of prayer for the people of Boston. Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, took offense to this and dissolved the assembly before it could take more meaningful action. Undeterred, many of the dismissed burgesses met at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, and adopted a non-importation agreement to boycott East India goods. They also declared that:

We are further clearly of opinion, that an attack, made on one of our sister colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, is an attack made on all British America, and threatens ruin to the rights of all, unless the united wisdom of the whole be applied. And for this purpose it is recommended… [that] deputies from the several colonies of British America meet in general congress.[2]

Word soon arrived from the northern colonies of a similar proposal for colonial representatives to meet in Philadelphia to coordinate a united colonial response to Parliament. The dismissed burgesses agreed to hold a special convention in Williamsburg in early August to select delegates, and provide them with instructions, for the proposed continental congress. The former burgesses then adjourned and returned to their homes to join their constituents in a debate on how Virginia should proceed.

Reports of further punitive parliamentary acts against Massachusetts reached Virginia in mid-June and increased support among Virginians for the beleaguered colony to the north. Part of Massachusetts’s ancient 1691 charter was revoked and royal appointees replaced elected officials on the executive council, (the upper chamber of the colonial legislature). Special town meetings — beyond the annually scheduled one for each town — were forbidden without the governor’s consent. Perhaps most troubling to Virginians was passage of the Administration of Justice Act, which allowed the governor to transfer court cases of government officials to Britain where they would be out of reach of hostile Massachusetts juries. Many colonists feared that this measure would allow royal officials to act with impunity from the law because the colonists would have no way to hold them accountable for their actions.

In addition to these measures (which together with the Boston Port Bill became known as the Intolerable Acts) new reports over the summer of British reinforcements heading to Boston to join the newly appointed military governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, prompted a growing number of Virginians to seriously consider a bold response to Parliament, namely, a boycott of British goods.

Not every Virginian supported a boycott, however. Bryan Fairfax, a good friend and neighbor of George Washington’s, wrote to Colonel Washington in early July and expressed his opposition to such a measure. Fairfax, who agreed that Parliament’s actions against Massachusetts were oppressive and unconstitutional, thought that a general colonial boycott would be too provocative to Parliament and difficult to implement. He argued instead, that the colonists should send another petition to England appealing for a redress of their grievances.[3]

George Washington was skeptical of Fairfax’s position. He replied to his friend the next day and asserted that a boycott was overdue:

As to your political sentiments, I would heartily join you in them…provided there was the most distant hope of success. But have we not tried this already? Have we not addressed [Parliament] ? And to what end? Did they deign to look at our petitions? Does it not appear, as clear as the sun… that there is a regular, systematic plan formed to fix the right and practice of taxation upon us? Does not the uniform conduct of Parliament for some years past confirm this…Is there anything to be expected from petitioning after this? Is not the attack upon the liberty and property of the people of Boston…plain and self-evident proof of what they are aiming at? Do not the subsequent bills…for depriving Massachusetts of its charter…convince us that the administration is determined to stick at nothing to carry its point? Ought we not, then, to put our virtue and fortitude to the severest test? With you I think it a folly to attempt more than we can execute…yet I think we may do more than is generally believed, in respect to the non-importation scheme.[4]

Bryan Fairfax remained troubled by what he viewed as an escalating policy of confrontation. He wrote another letter to Washington in mid-July and urged restraint. He believed that patient petitions and appeals to Britain had the best chance of changing British policy. Fairfax wanted to wait for the outcome of yet another petition to Parliament before stronger actions were taken. He told Washington that:

Americans ought to consider the Majority of the english Parliament…as acting from honest tho’ erroneous principles…Whatever Corruption there may be in the Parliament, whatever unjust designs some Men may have, we ought to gain the Affections of those who mean well; we should strive to conciliate the Affections of [England]…. It is incredible how far a mild Behavior contributes to a Reconciliation in any dispute between Man & Man….[5]

Fairfax repeated his fear that an aggressive approach towards Parliament would only offend and anger that body and result in the rejection of colonial appeals. Colonel Washington, however, had already abandoned hope that the petitions would sway Parliament. He responded to his friend on July 20th:

I see nothing to induce a belief that the Parliament would embrace a favorable opportunity of repealing acts, which they go on with great rapidity to pass, in order to enforce their tyrannical system; [In fact], I observe…that [parliament] is pursuing a regular plan at the expense of law and justice to overthrow our constitutional rights and liberties. How can I expect any redress from a measure which has been ineffectually tried already?[6]

Washington then reminded Fairfax what was at stake in the dispute:

For Sir, what is it we are contending against? Is it against paying the duty of three pence per pound on tea because [it is] burthensome? No, it is the right only, we have all along disputed, and to this end we have already petitioned his Majesty in as humble and dutiful manner as subjects could do. Nay, more, we applied to [Parliament] setting forth, that, as Englishmen, we could not be deprived of [our constitutional rights].[7]

Washington maintained that Parliament’s harsh treatment of Massachusetts demonstrated its intention to enforce arbitrary rule over all the colonies. He ended with a simple explanation of his position:

I think the Parliament of Great Britain hath no more right to put their hands into my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money; and this being already urged to them in a firm, but decent manner, by all the colonies, what reason is there to expect anything from their justice?[8]

The freeholders of Fairfax County apparently agreed with Colonel Washington and selected him as one of their two convention delegates in mid-July. In early August, the 1st Virginia Convention in Williamsburg selected Colonel Washington as one of seven delegates to attend the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He joined Peyton Randolph, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendleton, Benjamin Harrison, and Richard Bland. Together, this delegation helped adopt a continental wide non-importation and non-exportation agreement. As Washington had stressed to his friend Bryan Fairfax in July, the time for petitions had passed. It was now time to take action and 240 years ago the 1st Continental Congress did so.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: “The able doctor, or, America swallowing the bitter draught.” London, 1774. Source: Library of Congress]


[1] David John Mays, ed., “Edmund Pendleton to Joseph Chew, 20 June, 1774,” The Letters and Papers of Edmund

Pendleton, Vol. 1(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967),   93.

[2] William J. Van Schreeven and Robert L. Scribner, ed., “An Association Signed by 89 Members

of the late House of Burgesses, 27 May 1774,” Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence,

Vol. 1, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1973), 97-98.

[3] Beverly H. Runge, ed., “Bryan Fairfax to George Washington, 3 July, 1774,” The Papers of George Washington:

Colonial Series, Vol. 10, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 107-108.

[4] Runge, ed., “George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 4 July, 1774,” 109-110.

[5] Runge, ed., “Bryan Fairfax to George Washington, 17 July, 1774,” The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 10,


[6] Runge, ed.,“George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 20 July, 1774,” The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 10,

[7] Runge, ed.,“George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 20 July, 1774,”  129.

[8] Runge, ed.,“George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 20 July, 1774,”  129.

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