Take Them At Their Word: Virginia’s Opposition to the Townshend Duties


March 23, 2018
by Michael Cecere Also by this Author


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The other day I became indirectly embroiled in a disagreement about what belonged on a historic road sign that was to be posted to commemorate a local battle during the Revolutionary War. The folks in charge seemed determined to include information on the sign that I felt, and still feel, was not properly sourced or supported by the historical record. Alas, the narrative they chose apparently fits the story they want to tell rather than the story they ought to tell.

Readers of this journal are well aware that history is very subjective and even a question like what caused the American Revolution solicits multiple answers. I certainly don’t intend to offer the definitive answer to that question in this article, but I thought it might be useful, on the 250th anniversary of the year 1768, to share with readers an event in Virginia that I think helps explain what the leaders of the Old Dominion were thinking a few years into the dispute with Parliament and a few years before bloodshed erupted in Massachusetts. Borrowing from the advice of a key participant of the Revolution, John Adams, who, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1815 recommended that students of the Revolution should consult the legislative records (as well as printed pamphlets and newspapers) of the time period to develop a better understanding of what caused the dispute between Great Britain and her colonies, this article examines the petitions in opposition to the Townshend Duties drafted 250 years ago this April by the Virginia Council of State and House of Burgesses to King George III and the British Parliament.1

Historical Context
Patrick Henry’s provocative Stamp Act resolves of 1765 had placed Virginia in the forefront of opposition to the British Parliament’s new colonial policies for America following the French and Indian War. Although the Old Dominion was not able to send a delegation to the Stamp Act Congress in the fall of 1765, Virginians took great pride in the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 and felt they played an important role in achieving that outcome.

When the next troubling measures from Parliament were passed in 1767 (the Townshend Duties) Virginians were initially subdued in their reaction. The publication of a series of letters in the colonial gazettes over the winter and spring of 1768 entitled “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” ignited opposition in Virginia and throughout the colonies to the Townshend Duties. Written by John Dickenson of Pennsylvania (who was destined to argue against independence in the Continental Congress of 1776) his twelve letters argued that the Townshend Duties were unconstitutional for the same reason the Stamp Tax was.2

Influenced by Dickenson’s writings and prodded further by a circular letter from the speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives written in late December 1767 that urged all of the colonies to take a strong stand against the Townshend Duties, Virginia’s burgesses were determined to address the issue at their next session in April.

The death of Virginia’s royal governor, Francis Fauquier, in early March 1768 at the age of sixty-five, although lamented by most Virginians, presented an opportunity for the House of Burgesses to act boldly in its opposition to the Townshend Duties without fear of being dissolved by the King’s representative.3 Robert L. Scribner, editor of an immensely valuable seven volume documentary record of Virginia’s road to independence, notes that with Fauquier’s death, “There was in the colony no chief magistrate owing his livelihood to the pleasure of the Crown, none to prorogue the Assembly should it act contrary to instructions from London.”4

In early April 1768, Virginia’s burgesses, with the concurrence of the Council of State (the upper house of Virginia’s legislature and a sort of privy council for the governor) drafted three petitions to the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons that outlined their strong opposition to the Townshend Duties. As the petitions to the House of Lords and House of Commons were very similar there is no need to examine both of them; the petition to the House of Commons will suffice. But first, let’s look at Virginia’s petition to King George III.

The Petition to the King
This relatively brief, 475 word petition is extremely complimentarily to the King, repeatedly assuring him of Virginia’s loyalty and love. The petitioners pledged their “most cordial and inviolable attachment to your sacred Person and Government,” expressed their gratitude for the benefits their connection to the King and Great Britain provided them, and thanked the King for his assent in the repeal of the despised Stamp Act.5 In nearly the same breath, however, the petitioners lamented the adoption of the Townshend Duties, which they asserted were, “derogatory to those Constitutional Privileges and immunities, which they, the Heirs and Descendants of free born Britons, have ever esteemed their unquestionable and invaluable birth Rights.”6 The burgesses implored the King to intervene on their behalf with Parliament to protect, “their antient and inestimable right of being Governed by such Laws only, respecting their internal Polity and Taxation as are derived from their own Consent,” via their own colonial legislatures.7 The petition closed with a reiteration of their loyalty and a pledge to “at all times exert their best Endeavours even at the expense of their Lives and Fortunes, to promote the Glory of your Majesty’s Reign and the Prosperity of Great Britain upon which they are convinced that their own Security and Happiness does essentially depend.”8

The Petition to the House of Commons
The 2,000 word petition sent to the House of Commons had a different focus and tone. It began with a bold reminder that the authors of the petition, the counselors and burgesses of Virginia’s General Assembly, “were the sole constitutional Representatives of his Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal Subjects [in] Virginia.”9 The petitioners then expressed their grief and amazement that their loyalty had come into question by some in Britain and acknowledged the great benefits they derived from their connection and dependence upon Great Britain.10 In their defense, declared the petitioners, “they presumed not to claim any other than the common unquestionable Rights of British Subjects, who, by a fundamental and vital Principle of their Constitution cannot be subjected to any kind of Taxation or have the smallest Portion of their Property taken from them by any Power on Earth without their Consent given by their Representatives.”11 In other words, they simply sought the same constitutional rights that all British subjects possessed, namely, to be taxed only with the consent of their duly elected representatives. They added that the great distance between the colonies and Britain made any attempt at Parliamentary representation futile because there was no effective way for the colonists to communicate and influence the members of Parliament.12 If this basic principle of representation were allowed to decay, the petitioners continued, “the Constitution must pine away and Expire with it, as no Man can enjoy even the Shadow of Liberty or Freedom, if his Property acquired by his own Labour and Industry can be wrested from him at the will of another.”13

Concerned that their intentions might be misconstrued, the Virginians asserted that they had no interest in independence from Great Britain. They acknowledged Parliament’s authority to regulate trade and commerce throughout the empire, describing it as necessary to promote the interests of the whole empire, and maintained that the benefits the colonies derived from the protection of Great Britain were more than repaid by the benefits Britain accrued from its control of colonial trade.14

While acknowledging the assistance the mother country provided the colonies in past instances, the petitioners also noted the occasions in which the colonies assisted Great Britain. “When his Majesty has had Occasion for the assistance of dutiful Subjects in America, Requisitions have been constantly made from the Crown by the King’s Governors, to the Representatives of the People, who have complied with them to the utmost of their Abilities.”15 Such requisitions were seen by the petitioners as, “incontestable Proofs that the Commons of Great Britain never, till very lately, assumed a Power of imposing Taxes on the Peoples of the Colonies for the purposes of raising a Revenue.”16 The petitioners reiterated that, “To say that the Commons of Great Britain have a Constitutional Right and Authority to give and Grant at their Pleasure the Properties of the People in the Colonies or to impose an internal Tax of any kind upon them, who are not and cannot, from the nature of their Situation, be represented in their House of Commons is in a Word to command them to bid Adieu to their natural and civil Liberties and to prepare for a State of the most abject Slavery.”17

It was the old, “no taxation without representation” argument, and since the colonists had concluded that there was little distinction between the Townshend Duties of 1767 and the Stamp Act of 1765 (both of which were meant to raise revenue for Britain among the colonists), the petitioners concluded that the duties were unconstitutional.18

Returning to the assertion that as free born Englishmen themselves, they had a right to be treated accordingly, the Virginians boldly predicted that, “British Patriots will never consent to the Exercise of anti-constitutional Powers, which, even in these remote corners, may in Time prove dangerous in their Example to the interior parts of the British Empire.”19 They ended with a warning and subtle threat, noting that should Parliament disappoint them and continue forward with the Townshend Duties, “the necessary result will be that the Colonists, reduced to extreme Poverty, will be compelled to contract themselves within their little Spheres and obliged to content themselves with their homespun Manufactures.”20


1 J. Jefferson Looney, ed., “John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 24 August 1815,”  The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, Vol. 8 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 682–684.

2 These unsigned letters appeared in the Virginia gazettes of 1768 between January and March and laid out a very strong argument against the Townshend Duties.

3 Governor Francis Fauquier was indeed a well-liked royal governor who had presided over Virginia for a decade. John Blair, the president of the Council of State (the upper chamber of the General Assembly), and the privy council to the governor, assumed the executive role until Governor Fauquier’s replacement arrived, nearly a year later.

4 Robert L. Scribner, ed., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. 1, 1973, 54.

5 Ibid., 55.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 60

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 61.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 61-62.

18 The Virginians added the 1766 Quartering Act (which compelled the colonies to provide supplies for British troops in America when requested under threat that their legislatures would be suspended if they refused to comply as had happened to New York) as another example of an unconstitutional tax on the colonists.

19 Scribner, Revolutionary Virginia, 63.

20 Ibid.


  • Michael,

    Your description of John Adams admonishment to consult the legislative records is certainly on point as it is virtually impossible to understand what was going on in this pivotal time period without doing so. You are also correct to examine the use of petitions as a part of that process, but I would also suggest that it is important to step back even further and, as you point out, consider their context and which brings us to the critical role that the law played in this highly law-oriented society.

    We cannot understand the Revolution without appreciating the fact that the law was at a huge juncture in its evolution at this time and that things like petitions helped to change that radically. Society had been ordered on the basis of the English common law that was swayed by these appeals to royal authority to exercise equitable principles in resolving them. At the same time, the law courts (which did not have equitable jurisdiction) were dispensing legal rulings on the basis of the common law. Courts of Chancery dispensing equity did exist, but were available for limited purposes.

    Making it even more complicated, the Parliament was beginning to codify the law and take it out of the common law practice and place it into the books as statutes. Even more troubles existed because the legislators were battling with the law judges over who had overall control in applying the law, thus we see judicial activism taking place as the courts imposed their own perceptions on practice, sometimes at odds with Parliament. Add to that the existence of these petitions to the Crown that circumvented, and short-circuited, all of these processes and it was sheer havoc that the colonists experienced.

    So, look at the 1763 to 1775 time period as the early stages in which feudal practices were dying off and codified laws took their place. Legislators and judges continued in their battle for several more decades until the common law was finally subsumed within the law courts in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, it was the revolution, both literally and figuratively, brought on by a population entrapped by a legal system that failed to adapt to the wholesale change they required after the Seven Years’ War to meet their particular demands that propelled the necessary change.

    It can be difficult to appreciate these things and it does take work to understand, but such an example may explain in some part the response you received on the signage dispute. People are most comfortable in their biases and it takes the work of the (unwelcomed) historian to shatter them, or at least suggest another way to look at things.

  • Mike – well done! A nice intellectual satisfaction regarding the Virginia Petitions of 1768. Perhaps not fully formed, but inspired by you and Gary’s note, and in keeping with Adams’ thoughts on context of the time, the Virginia petitions highlight how out of step colonial thinkers had become with evolution of British governmental structures.

    Virginia became known as the “Old Dominion” for supporting and continuing to recognize monarchs who battled for control of the English monarchy. That period finally ended with the ouster of King James and Parliament’s invitation to William of Orange to assume the throne. The shifts in Britain’s legal structure that Gary noted, and particularly Britain’s governmental structural evolution, were born in the concluding moments of that power struggle; specifically in Parliament’s actions to legalize the imposed abdication of King James and to justify inviting William of Orange (and his wife, Mary) to assume the English throne. In order to justify ousting James, Parliament (specifically the House of Commons) had to show how James had trampled the rights of British citizens. To do so, Parliament first had to craft a statement of those rights. The resulting English “Bill of Rights”, and Scottish “Claim of Right”, accepted by William and Mary in December 1689 as part of the conditions for ascending the throne, were further supplemented by the “Act of Settlement” in 1701. Together, these laws significantly enhanced the role of Parliament and reduced and restricted the role of the Monarch within British government. Consolidation of this shift in governmental roles and the ascendency of Parliament was somewhat enabled by civic turbulence during the reign of William, followed by religious turbulence during Queen Anne’s rule, along with political consolidation of England and Scotland into the single nation-state of “Great Britain”. Following Anne, the Hanovarian line stepped to the throne, and Parliament presumed additional power in the partial vacuum of a foreign-born and non-English speaking monarch; George I. By the conclusion of the Seven Years War, Parliament had consolidated its governmental power.

    Meanwhile, in the American Colonies 3,000 miles to the west, a succession of Royally-appointed governors maintained the colonial impression that the monarch remained the chief governmental authority. Thus, in 1765, when Parliament then began issuing the many acts which alienated colonists, Americans responded by patronizing the Crown and excoriating Parliament. Only a few realized that governmental power in Britain had been inverted. The Virginia petitions are the best example of the apparent American belief that a sympathetic Monarch could, and would, wield royal authority to void abhorrent parliamentary acts. But, that royal authority to suspend or dispense with Parliamentary laws was the first royal privilege terminated by the Bill of Rights in 1689. By 1765 Parliament had consolidated its power and Royal edict was extinct. The colonists’ petitions were not just out of step with British governmental evolution, but petitions from the “Old Dominion”, the last bastion of monarchial fealty, were insulting to a Parliament who had – in the best interest of all Britons – wrested these powers from the Crown.

  • I like the statement “American resistance to Britain was transplanted to Ireland”. What I like about this statement is that many of the Continental soldiers who were Irish used the American Revolution as a way to either benefit themselves socially and economically. While others took the lessons learned from the American Revolution and returned home in hopes of declaring Independence from Britain.

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