A Posture of Defense: Virginia’s Journey from Nonimportation to Armed Resistance

Prewar Conflict (<1775)

March 17, 2015
by Michael Cecere Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

A month into the historic 1774 meeting of the 1st Continental Congress, delegates John Adams of Massachusetts and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia sparked a heated debate when they proposed that Congress urge each colony to place their militia on a more proper footing.1 Patrick Henry of Virginia forcefully supported these militia proposals, declaring that, “A preparation for Warr is necessary to obtain peace…. Arms are a Resource to which we shall be forced…,” but in October 1774, few in Congress, or even among the rest of the Virginia delegation, agreed with this provocative view, so the militia proposals were voted down in favor of more modest economic sanctions against Great Britain.2

Second Thoughts Emerge

In the weeks following Congress’s call for a continental wide boycott of British goods, reports of the steady British troop build-up in Boston and of the British Ministry’s ban of all gunpowder and arms shipments to the colonies, appeared in the weekly newspapers. In Virginia, a number of county committees reacted to these reports and took measures to secure and in some cases encourage the production of gunpowder within their borders. A few counties went further and followed the lead of Fairfax County by forming their own independent militia companies.

For every county that took such measures, however, another clung to the hope that the economic sanctions adopted by the Continental Congress would convince Parliament to repeal the “Intolerable Acts” imposed on Massachusetts and make military preparations among the colonies unnecessary.

“Our Dependence must be on God & Ourselves”

Hope for the repeal of the Intolerable Acts dimmed in February 1775 when news of King George III’s strong support for Parliament, and the results of England’s parliamentary elections the previous fall, reached Virginia. Many colonists had long ago lost faith in the British Ministry and Parliament, both of which were viewed as corrupt and tyrannical, but they remained hopeful that the King and the English people would rally to their defense and support their constitutional rights as Englishmen. Accounts of the King’s speech to Parliament in late November, a speech that strongly supported the actions of Parliament against Massachusetts, dismayed many Virginians.

Declaring that, “a most daring spirit of resistance and disobedience to the law,” existed in Massachusetts, resistance that was, “countenanced and encouraged in other of my colonies,” the King asserted that Parliament, ”may depend upon my firm and steadfast resolution to withstand every attempt to weaken or impair the supreme authority of this legislature over all the dominions of my Crown….”3 In other words, the King firmly supported Parliament’s claim that it possessed supreme authority over the colonies, a claim disputed by many colonists for the last decade.

It seems as if the King either had not received, or was determined to take no Notice of the Proceedings of the Congress,” speculated George Mason to his friend, George Washington in early February.4 Richard Henry Lee was also troubled by the King’s speech, noting that, “All America has received with astonishment and concern the [King’s] Speech to Parliament.5

The King’s firm support for Parliament left only the British people as a potential ally to the American colonists. Lee acknowledged their importance in a letter to his brother, Arthur, in England:

The wicked violence of the Ministry is so clearly expressed, as to leave no doubt of their fatal determination to ruin both Countries, unless a powerful and timely check is interposed by the Body of the people…. [Perhaps] the proceedings of the last Continental Congress when communicated to the people of England will rouse a spirit that proving fatal to an abandoned Ministry may save the whole Empire from impending destruction.6

Surely, hoped Lee and many other colonists, the British people would recognize the wrongs done to their brethren in America, vote out the corrupt leaders and their supporters in Parliament, and elevate prominent Whigs like, Edmund Burke, John Wilkes, and William Pitt, all of whom had championed the American cause for years. The desired parliamentary election results in the fall of 1774, however, never materialized. In fact, the elections brought very little change in the membership of Parliament and the issue of the American colonies barely registered for most of the English electorate.7

Discouraged by the election results, colonists like Samuel Chase, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Maryland, concluded in February that the colonists could only look to themselves and God for the defense of their constitutional rights. Chase expressed his disillusionment with both the English political system and English people in a fiery letter to James Duane, a fellow congressional delegate from New York:

If justice were to decide the dispute I would be confident, but when I reflect on the enormous Influence of the Crown, the System of Corruption introduced at the Art of Government…the open & repeated Violations, by Parliament, of the Constitution, at Home, the regular, arbitrary System of Colony administration, the several acts related to Massachusetts, the Quebec bill, and the Re-election of the Members of the last Parliament, I have not the least Dawn of Hope in the Justice, Humanity, Wisdom, or Virtue of the British Nation. I consider them as one of the most abandon’d & wicked People under the Sun. They openly sell themselves & their Posterity to their Representatives, who as openly traffic their Integrity & Honor to the Minister. The Roman Senate in the Reigns of Claudius, Caesar, or Nero, were not more servilely wicked, than the present House of Commons…Our Dependence must be on God & ourselves.8

If the colonists did have only God and themselves to depend on, Richard Henry Lee was confident that they could still prevail. In the same letter in which Lee had expressed hope that the British people would rise up to support the colonists, he hinted that Virginians were perfectly capable of defending their rights with force:

This one County of Fincastle can furnish 1000 Rifle Men that for their number make the most formidable light Infantry in the World. The six frontier Counties can produce 6000 of these Men who from their amazing hardihood, their method of living so long in the woods without carrying provisions with them, the exceeding quickness with which they can march to distant parts, and above all, the dexterity to which they have arrived in the use of the Rifle Gun. There is not one of these Men who wish a distance less than 200 yards or a larger object than an Orange. – Every shot is fatal.9

Newspaper Accounts Sway Public Opinion

For the many colonists who believed in February 1775 that talk of armed resistance to Britain was foolishly premature and even criminal, writers to the weekly newspapers like, “A Watchman,” convincingly warned of the dangers of complacency and appeasement.   Drawing upon the lessons of ancient Carthage (whose people surrendered their weapons to Rome in return for the promise of peace but were instead enslaved) “A Watchman”, warned the colonists of a potentially similar fate:

At a time when ministerial tyrants threaten a people with the total loss of their liberties, supineness and inattention on their part will render…their ruin….

Equally inexcuseable with the Carthegenians will the AMERICANS be if they suffer the tyrants, who are endeavouring to enslave them, to possess themselves of all their forts, castles, arms, ammunition, and warlike stores. What reason can be given by them for such cowardly and pusillanimous conduct? Perhaps it may be said that there yet remains some gleam of hope that the British ministry may do us justice, restore us to our liberties, and repeal those oppressive acts which now hang over America; and was this even probable, it would hardly justify such a conduct. But what foundation have we for such hope? If this be the intention of the ministry, is a formidable fleet and numerous army, necessary to bring it about? Could they not have given up their plan for enslaving America without seizing all the strong holds on the continent; upon all the arms and ammunition? And without soliciting and finally obtaining an order to prohibit the importation of war like stores in the colonies? Does this speak the language of peace and reconciliation, or does it not rather speak that of war, tumult and desolation? And shall we, like the Carthegenians, peacefully surrender our arms to our enemies, in hopes of obtaining, in return, the liberties we have so long been contending for? Be not deceived, my countrymen, should the ministry ever prevail upon you to make that base and infamous surrender, they will then tell you…what those liberties are, which they will in future suffer you to enjoy….10

Reminding readers that, “whenever a power exists in a state over which the people have no control, the people are completely enslaved,” “A Watchman” rejected Parliament’s claim of authority over the colonies and called on colonists throughout America to better prepare themselves for armed conflict:11

I am far from wishing hostilities to commence on the part of America; but still hope that no person will, at this important crisis, be unprepared to act in his own defence, should he by necessity be driven thereto. And I must here beg leave to recommend to the consideration of the people of this continent, whether, when we are by an arbitrary decree prohibited the having of arms and ammunition by importation, we have not, by the law of self preservation, a right to seize upon all those within our power, in order to defend the LIBERTIES which GOD and nature have given to us.12

By March, Virginians read with growing concern the resolutions of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which urged the people of Massachusetts to prepare for war:

 February 9, 1775.
To the
 inhabitants of MASSACHUSETTS BAY.

Friends and fellow sufferers,

Fleets, troops, and every implement of war, are sent into the province, with apparent design to wrest from you that freedom which it is your duty, even at the risk of your lives, to hand inviolate to posterity….Though we deprecate a rupture with the mother state, yet we must still urge you to every preparation for your necessary defence; for unless you exhibit to your enemies such a firmness as shall convince them that you are worthy of that freedom your ancestors fled here to enjoy you have nothing to expect but the vilest and most abject slavery.13

CAMBRIDGE, February 15.

WHEREAS it appears to this congress, from the present disposition of the British ministry and parliament, that there is real cause of fear that the reasonable and just applications of this continent to Great Britain, for “peace, liberty, and safety,” will not meet with a favourable reception, but, on the contrary, from the large reinforcement of troops expected in this colony, the tenor of intelligence from Great Britain, and general appearances, we have reason to apprehend that the sudden destruction of this colony in particular is intended, for refusing, with the other colonies, tamely to submit to the most ignominious slavery:

Therefore resolved, that the great law of self preservation calls upon the inhabitants of this colony immediately to prepare against every attempt that may be made to attack them by surprise….14

These accounts in the Virginia newspapers and the events that preceded them must have weighed heavily on the minds of Patrick Henry and his fellow convention delegates as they gathered in Richmond on March 20th, to attend the 2nd Virginia Convention. They were not the only newspaper accounts to do so, however.

Rumors of Reconciliation Persist

Not all of the news in the Virginia newspapers was gloomy towards a peaceful settlement of the dispute between Parliament and the colonies. A number of letters from England appeared in the newspapers in March suggesting that Congress’s boycott was having a positive effect on British opinion.   A number of English merchants, negatively impacted by the loss of colonial trade, had apparently appealed to Parliament to end the dispute with the colonies. Other reports claimed (inaccurately it turned out) that the Continental Congress’s petition had been graciously received by the King who laid it before Parliament for its consideration.15 Incredibly, one letter from London even suggested that Parliament was ready to repeal the Intolerable Acts and grant representation of the colonies in Parliament.

LONDON, January 10.

IT is said that a plan is now agitating in the cabinet to conciliate matters between the mother country and America, by repealing the disagreeable acts, and admitting them to be represented by eighty members in the house of commons.16

Such reports gave hope to those colonists, including many at the 2nd Virginia Convention, who believed that peaceful reconciliation with Britain was still possible.

A Posture of Defense

One Virginian who was not at all swayed by such positive reports, however, was Patrick Henry. On the fourth day of the 2nd Virginia Convention in Richmond, Henry rose to propose that Virginia “Be immediately put into a posture of defense.”17 Henry believed more than ever that armed conflict with Britain was inevitable and he urged Virginia to assume a war footing.

Henry’s proposal to expand the colony’s military preparedness was opposed by moderates like Edmund Pendleton and Robert Carter Nicholas. They argued that such a move was too confrontational and would provoke Parliament. They urged patience and scoffed at the idea of fighting Britain: “Where [are] our [military] stores…our arms…our soldiers…the sinews of war,” they asked? Henry’s proposal might be brave, they said, “but it was the bravery of madmen.”18

Patrick Henry replied to his critics and in doing so delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history. He acknowledged the patriotism of the opposition but suggested that they had, “shut [their] eyes against a painful truth.”19 Henry was alarmed by Britain’s military buildup in Massachusetts and asked the delegates a pointed question:

Are fleets and armies necessary…[for] reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation—the last arguments to which kings resort…I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission…Has Great Britain any enemy in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us, they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging…. (

Henry then recounted the failure of the numerous pleas and petitions sent to Britain over the past decade:

In vain, after these [appeals and petitions] may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free…we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight!6)

Henry confidently exclaimed that, “Three million people, armed in the holy cause of liberty…are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.”2   He then asserted that conflict was inevitable and urged the delegates to prepare the colony for it:

There is no retreat, but into submission and slavery! Our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable – and let it come!! I repeat it sir, let it come!! It is vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace – but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!23

Henry’s stirring appeal worked, and his resolution passed by a narrow margin. The events of the past six months, combined with Patrick Henry’s stirring address, had convinced a majority of the 2nd Virginia Convention to take a more militant stance in its opposition to Parliament. Just three weeks later, events in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord would vindicate Henry and his supporters.


1 Paul H. Smith, ed., “John Adams’ Proposed Resolutions,” Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 1, (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976), 132.

2 Smith, ed., “Silas Deane’s Diary, October 4, 1774,” Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 1, 138-139.

3 Dixon & Hunter, Virginia Gazette, February 4, 1775, 2.

4 Robert A. Rutland, ed., “George Mason to George Washington, February 6, 1775,” The Papers of George Mason, Vol. 1, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1970),   214.

5 James C. Ballagh, ed.,“Richard Henry Lee to Arthur Lee, February 24, 1775,” The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Vol. 1, (NY: Macmillan Co., 1911), 130.

6 Ballagh, ed.,“Richard Henry Lee to Arthur Lee, February 24, 1775,” The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Vol. 1, 130.

7 Lewis Namier and John Brooks, “II. The Elections” The History of Parliament : The House of Commons, 1754-1790, (Online at http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/survey/ii-elections).

8 Smith, “Samuel Chase to James Duane 5 Feb, 1775,” Letters of Delegates to Congress, Vol. 1, 304.

9 Ballagh, ed., “Richard Henry Lee to Arthur Lee, 24 February, 1775,” Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Vol. 1, 130-131.

10 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, “A Watchman,” February 16, 1775,  2.

11 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, “A Watchman,” February 16, 1775,   2.

12 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, “A Watchman,” February 16, 1775,   2.

13 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, “New England, In Provincial Congress, February 9, 1775,” March 9, 1775, 2.

14 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, “In Provincial Congress, Cambridge, February 15, 1775,” March 9, 1775, 3.

15 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, March 16, 1775, 2-3.

16 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, March 23, 1775, 2.

17 Robert L. Scribner, ed., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. 2, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1975), 366-367.

18 William Wirt, Sketches in the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, (Philadelphia: 1817), 136.

19 Wirt, Sketches in the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, 138.

20 Wirt, Sketches in the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, 139.

21 Wirt, Sketches in the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, 140.

22 Wirt, Sketches in the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, 141.

23 Wirt, Sketches in the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, 141.


  • Although Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee led the charge toward militarization, and although Henry spoke passionately in favor of his motion to this effect in the Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, we can’t place any stock in the exact words he is purported to have said. His famous speech ending in “Give me liberty, or give me death” was composed by William Wirt four decades later. In 1815, when Wirt set out to write a biography of the famous orator to inspire young Americans, he confessed to a friend: “It was all speaking, speaking, speaking. ’Tis true he could talk— Gods how he could talk! but there is no acting the while….And then, to make the matter worse, from 1763 to 1789… not one of his speeches lives in print, writing or memory. All that is told me is, that on such and such an occasion, he made a distinguished speech.” (Richard Beeman, Patrick Henry, xi.) This created a huge problem for the biographer: “[T]he style of the narrative, fettered by a scrupulous regard to real facts, is to me the most difficult in the world. It is like attempting to run, tied up in a bag. My pen wants perpetually to career and frolic it away.” (Andrew Burstein, America’s Jubilee, 35). Undaunted, and guided only by one informant’s recollection of what two paragraphs might have said, Wirt allowed his pen to frolic and composed the most stirring call-to-arms the nation has ever seen. Wirt, a supreme orator in his own right, gave the keynote address at America’s official jubilee celebration in 1826, but it’s the speech he attributed to Henry, and particularly its closing line, that became legend. This is not to belittle Patrick Henry’s influence in the militarization of Virginia, but the 1,217-word speech he allegedly delivered was conceived well after the fact to conform with an ex post national narrative. Conveniently, Wirt ignored some of the arguments Henry likely used at the time, such as accusing Britain of attempting to foment slave rebellions. For more on this, see my Founding Myths – I will also give a rendering in JAR sometime soon.

  • I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to learn this about Henry’s speech a couple of years back. I didn’t learn as much detail about Wirt’s struggles as you share, but I knew he pieced a version of the speech together many years after Henry actually argued for his resolution. That is partly why I found passages from writers like ” A Watchman” in the Virginia gazettes of the period so interesting. I’ve often wondered if Wirt discovered the same writings and borrowed from them (for they are similar in many ways) to recreate Henry’s speech.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *