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
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.
9 Ibid., 60
14 Ibid., 61.
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.