The Mystery of “The Alternative of Williams-burg”

"The Alternative of Williams-burg," by Philip Dawe, Printed for Robert Sayer and John Bennett, February 16, 1775. (Library of Congress)

According to the Virginia Gazette between 400 and 500 merchants gathered in Williamsburg in early November 1774 and “voluntarily and generally signed” the Continental Association.[1] The Association provided for a boycott of Britain, with provisions not to import from, export to or consume products of the mother country. On November 9, 1774, the merchants presented their signatures to some of the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress, then in the city.

This report suggests broad compliance with the Association. But the report is also very odd. How is it that 500 men could gather in a city as small as Williamsburg (with a population of roughly 750 whites and 750 slaves in 1775) and largely escape historical notice?

It was at least physically possible for Williamsburg to host that many men. Williamsburg was geared to hosting several thousand additional people when Virginians came to the city to govern, trade, and socialize.

Yet the event is unmentioned in any of the recent scholarly literature on the Revolution in Virginia[2]—despite the conflicts between merchants or lenders on one hand and planters on the other presenting a through-line of interest for the last century of historical writing, from Arthur Schlesinger, Sr’s Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution to Woody Holton’s Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. Nor is there mention of this in the published papers or biographies of prominent Patriot leaders thought to be involved. Like the plot to burn down Norfolk and blame British troops, Virginia Patriots have their fingerprints everywhere and nowhere in this episode. Are we really to believe that a new event in Virginia Revolutionary politics—heretofore unnoticed—has been discovered?


Indeed, the event is even more significant than it first appears. The gathering at Williamsburg was a larger meeting—by far—than the House of Burgesses or the First Virginia Convention (August 1774). There were a little more than one hundred burgesses in 1774, and not all attended every session.[3] In the context of Patriot efforts to organize nonimportation, nonconsumption, and nonexportation in 1774, a large meeting of merchants from across the colony inevitably had major political significance.

And yet the newspaper account of this meeting (which appears in both Purdie and Dixon’s and in Pinckney’s Virginia Gazettes)[4] is tricky. The newspapers give a short address by the merchants and a reply by the Continental Congressmen. This was really a press release, announced by involved parties, and should not be taken as a disinterested eyewitness account. It remains unclear who wrote the announcement. It was probably not the newspaper editors—the accounts in the two papers are identical, which suggests someone gave both papers the same text to print. The author most likely represented the Patriots, not the merchants. Official Patriot pronouncements in the press were often misleading and self-serving. Patriots may have inflated the number of merchants to make compliance with the Association appear a fait accompli to other merchants in the colony.[5] Perhaps the gathering was only 200 or 300 strong, still a significant number, but a crowd more easily lost to time.

The story in both Virginia Gazettes is misleading in other ways. The Gazettes claimed that merchants “voluntarily” signed the Association, but this is directly contradicted by merchant correspondence indicating merchants were forced to sign the association.

As Tory merchant William Aitchison explained to James Parker on November 14, a “large tar mop” and “a Bag of feathers” with a “Bar[re]l of Tar underneath” was set up across from Raleigh Tavern, where Patriots met. Threats started with tar and feathers and escalated: “every method has been used to [force] every one [to] sign the association.”[6] Parker, who was not there himself but heard of the event from multiple sources later added more detail. “At Wmsbg there was a pole erected by order of Colo Archd Cary a strong Patriot, opposite the Raleigh tavern upon which was hung a large mop & a bag of feathers, under it a bbl of tar.”[7] Parker does not indicate that there was a mob, but it is hard to imagine tar and feathers could be much threat without a few roughnecks to force merchants to undergo it. The Continental Congressmen intervened and used the moment to their advantage. Whether or not the merchants signed onto or agreed with or voted for the Association, the congressmen explained that Congress required them to obey it, which of course completely took away any reason not to sign it. “You are mistaken in Mr Pendletons moderation,” Parker explained, “he said at Wmsbg that it was not of Consequence whether the Merchts signd the Assn or not, As they [the Congressmen] were the representatives of the whole & what they did in Congress bound the Whole, but if anyone refused he should be delivered over to the People, in this sentiment he was joined by Old Bland.”[8]An illegal body, the First Virginia Convention, had selected representatives to an illegal Congress, whose illegal acts were now made laws. Patriots, with their “laws” and political violence, monopolized rule for themselves—a political revolution.

Far from voluntarily signing—unless one considers choosing between signing the Association and being tarred and feathered to be real choice—the forced signing of the Association and the forced mercantile obedience to Congress was a crux moment in the Patriot putsch. Merchants as a group posed a serious potential challenge to Patriot authority and efficacy in the coming boycott. Their submission was vital. This is the moment London engraver Philip Dawe referred to in his image “The Alternative of Williams-burg,” not the earlier signing of the Virginia Provincial Association in August 1774, with which Dawe’s image is usually associated.[9] Dawe showed merchants signing the Association with tar and feathers hanging in the background, matching the tar and feathers set out by Cary in Williamsburg. Dawe seems to point us to the coercion of Virginia merchants en masse. But is this right?

Perhaps, perhaps not. Cary’s targets included two men in particular: Anthony Warwick and Michael Wallace. These were Nansemond merchants at the Williamsburg meeting. They had previously gotten in trouble with the Norfolk committee for importing tea. They had promised to report the tea to their home committee in Nansemond, but at least some of it ended up in North Carolina. Aitchison reported that in Williamsburg Warwick and Wallace’s “lives were threatened.” According to Parker, “An Occasional Committee” was called “to consider all things” with Cary as chair. Warwick and Wallace were among its targets.[10] Of course, threatening to kill two merchants in front of a few hundred others was useful pour encourager les autres to sign, which maneuver was right out of the Patriot playbook. The committee’s remit was vague enough to target Warwick and Wallace and the larger body of merchants at once. Perhaps Dawe’s image referred to the specific plight of Warwick and Wallace, perhaps he referred to the merchants as a whole; either way the two were inexorably linked.

There were hundreds of merchants at Williamsburg; it is difficult to imagine that Cary raised a mob large enough to intimidate the body of merchants as a whole. Or at least, if he had, a riot on that scale would have been noticed by historians previously.[11] But Cary did not have to threaten the merchants en masse to have the desired effect. Patriots could rough up two particularly egregious merchants, drag them to the tar mop and then “save” them at the last minute, while leaving their future fate open-ended. Thus suspiciously in the nick of time, the Congressmen Edmund Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, and Richard Bland intervened to save the merchants.[12] The message was clear enough: the merchants were doomed without Congressional planter-aristocrats to save them. The Congressmen’s implied message went like this: You are free to sign or not. But whether or not you sign, the Association is now law. We cannot guarantee your safety or predict what local Patriots will do if you go back home without signing. Nice business you have there—shame if anything should happen to it.

And so the merchants “voluntarily” signed.

Why, if Warwick and Wallace were in trouble with their home committees, did they go to Williamsburg at all? This was risky. As Parker, who was based in Norfolk, explained, the Norfolk Patriots “cannot raise a mob” against Warwick and Wallace, and a nearby naval vessel, HMS Fowey, afforded the men further protection. The merchants forsook this safety to travel to Williamsburg for a “meeting of the merchants,” according to the Nansemond committee.[13] It must have been some meeting to pull Warwick and Wallace out of the relative safety of Norfolk.

Given that, it is all the more interesting to know who, precisely, attended the meeting. The signed Association from November 9, 1774, does not survive. Merchant correspondence, however, reveals the names of a few attendees, including: Anthony Warwick, Michael Wallace, Samuel Inglis,[14] Alexander Diach,[15] James Robinson,[16] a Mr. Hanson,[17] and William Henderson.[18] Yet most, hundreds, remain unnamed. Further research is needed into 1774 Virginia merchant correspondence in order to discover others who attended and their politics—there were both Patriotic and Loyal merchants in Virginia.

Strikingly, we can name more politicians than merchants in attendance. Aitchison indicated several leaders were there: “the [former] Speaker [of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph] Treasurer [Robert Carter Nicholas] [Edmund] Pendleton, [Richard] Bland, and others.” Nicholas was a moderate. Pendleton, Randolph, and Bland were Virginia congressional delegates, and probably the men who received the merchants’ petition on the 9th as described in the Virginia Gazette.[19] Why had those three members of Virginia’s Congressional delegation travelled to Williamsburg at all? Randolph, at least, lived in Williamsburg. But what was Edmund Pendleton doing there? His home was in far-off Caroline County. Why was Richard Bland there, and not at Jordan’s Point? And how is it a Nansemond committeeman just happened to be there to question Warwick and Wallace? How was Chesterfield committeeman Archibald Cary there as well? Robert Munford III from Mecklenburg County was there, along with “Young Nicholas (the Comptroller to be)” “& Some others,” according to Parker.[20] The Virginia Gazette added that Continental Congressman Benjamin Harrison, from Charles City County, Virginia, was there too.[21] They were all in Williamsburg at the same time as the merchant meeting. Surely this was no coincidence.

It was not. The explanation is simple: the Virginia General Assembly (which included the Governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses) was about to meet. Gov. John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, had famously dissolved the House of Burgesses on May 26, 1774 for its response to the Coercive Acts. But Dunmore had not just dissolved the Assembly; he prorogued (i.e., delayed) the next Assembly session, scheduled for August 1774, until November 3, 1774.[22]

Thus merchants gathering in Williamsburg in early November 1774 for their meeting ran into scores of burgesses gathering in Williamsburg for their meeting. The burgesses remained in town, as Thomas Nelson, Yorktown merchant and President of the Governor’s Council, prorogued the November 3 session (for which “a considerable Number of the Members attended at the Capitol”[23]) until the 7th, and then again to November 10, 1774. The session scheduled for the 10th was eventually prorogued until February 1775, but by the 10th issues between the merchants and the Patriots had already reached a head, and the merchants had signed the Association the day before. Because the assembly was continually prorogued, the presence of so many burgesses in Williamsburg for an assembly session that never happened has been missed. Yet because it was prorogued by only a few days each time, the prorogations kept the burgesses in the city.

The overlap between the two groups’ time in Williamsburg was extensive. James Robinson, a Scots factor who traveled to Williamsburg for the merchant meeting, explained that the meeting had been scheduled for October 25, 1774, though he gave no clue who organized it, and that, as of November 1, delays were so extensive that “there are few others yet in town” and only “one half of these who signed the agreement to meet here” had yet arrived.[24] Robinson’s letter is interesting for several reasons. First it indicates some sort of signed agreement to attend the meeting was circulated among merchants; no other indication of this has yet been unearthed from merchant correspondence. Second, the merchant meeting was scheduled for the week prior to the assembly meeting. Given that the November 3 date for the Assembly session was announced on July 8, it is difficult to imagine that the organizers of the merchant meeting were unaware of the subsequent meeting of the Assembly. The scheduling, whether hoping for outside support from the governor or from the Whig burgesses, was deliberate. Third, and most crucially, because merchants were delayed in their arrival, merchants and assemblymen were in Williamsburg at the same time.

The large crowd of (presumably frustrated) burgesses took up their haunt in Raleigh Tavern, where they had met in August 1774 as the (illegal) First Virginia Convention. Their meeting at Raleigh Tavern suggests they had a pseudo-Convention in November, one which perhaps gave its weight to the committee set up under Cary to deal with the merchants. This was not an official Convention (there is no indication minutes were taken), but then again the conventions were, technically speaking, not official events anyway. Patriots at the time seem to have treated the meeting at the Raleigh Tavern as authoritative. On November 7, Yorktown and Gloucester Patriots destroyed tea imported on the Virginia. Yorktown Patriots explained their action by claiming that on the 7th they had “waited for some time for the determination of the meeting of several members of the house of burgesses in Williamsburg, who had taken this matter under consideration,” before acting on their own. This suggested a general awareness of the meeting of the burgesses/conventioneers at Williamsburg and a belief, among Patriots at least, in their authority.[25]

Early November 1774 was the great missed moment in Virginia politics. In October, Governor Dunmore found himself traveling down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh with a volunteer militia looking to engage Shawnee and Mingo Indians. The main conflict, the Battle of Point Pleasant, occurred on October 10, and by the 19th Dunmore had secured a treaty. As indicated by the successive short prorogations of the Assembly in November, Dunmore was expected back in Williamsburg, and it took some time for Nelson to realize Dunmore would not make it. (There was, of course, no way Dunmore could have made the trip from Point Pleasant to Williamsburg—over 400 miles through the Appalachian Mountains—in time.) Dunmore did not get back to the capital until December 4 and wrote his official report on the war from Williamsburg on December 24, 1774.[26]

November, then, provided the potential for a grand collision between the governor, newly popular from his war pacifying the Indians (and defying Pennsylvania in the backcountry), the Continental Congressmen, the burgesses, and the merchants. Indeed, it was Lord Dunmore’s calling of the Assembly in early November which probably precipitated everyone else making their way to Williamsburg in the first place. That Dunmore, still in the backcountry, missed out, was probably the greatest missed connection of his career.

Congressmen Pendleton, Randolph, Harrison, and Bland were probably in Williamsburg to speak to the burgesses/conventioneers and to keep those who might be lured by Dunmore’s newfound popularity on board with the Association.

Merchants, meanwhile, had many reasons to attend, enough even for men like Warwick and Wallace to venture out. They could expect to formulate a common response to the Virginia Association (which had declared nonimportation effective November 1, 1774 and nonexportation effective August 10, 1775).[27]The Continental Association (issued October 20, 1774) would not have been known at the time the merchant meeting was organized, but its provisions were gradually becoming known in Virginia as merchants made their way to the capital. The first outlines of the Continental Association appeared in the Virginia press on October 27.[28]The meeting was an opportunity for merchants to gather business intelligence. Merchants could obtain market information and strike deals. They could see what prices, volumes and in what forms of money their fellow merchants planned to buy tobacco in 1775. They could see whether other merchants were giving advances on tobacco, and on what terms. They could ensure they would not be the only merchants left out if their fellow merchants decided to abide by the Associations, or the only ones left holding the bag of compliance if their fellow merchants decided to defy the Associations. Merchants expected the governor there, as per the (misleading and ultimately erroneous) announcement on October 13 in the Virginia Gazette that Governor Dunmore “intends to return” to Williamsburg in time for the Assembly session on November 3, 1774.[29]This may have misled some merchants into expecting their safety could be guaranteed. They could also expect to meet members of the Virginia Convention which had formed the Virginia Association. The Williamsburg meeting provided an ideal venue for gathering political, market, and business information, with the threat of wide-eyed Patriot committeemen seemingly balanced by the presence of the governor.

But the governor did not attend, and the merchants were left to fend for themselves. Suddenly, the colony’s planter-radicals in the Burgesses, waiting around Williamsburg and all too aware from their own experience of how meetings could get away from themselves, seem to have interpreted the merchant meeting as a do-or-die test of the allegiances of the colony’s merchant class.

Ultimately, there was neither an assembly session nor a Convention in late 1774 Virginia, which is why the gathering of Virginia political leaders in Williamsburg has been missed. The assembly was prorogued and there was no need for another convention. Individual Virginia county committees took over enforcement of the Association from Continental Congress directly. There was no need to ratify the Association on a provincial level since the First Virginia Convention had pretty much accomplished this when it issued the Virginia Provincial Association in August 1774. The Virginia Association served as a basis for the Continental Association. This has led historians of the Revolution in Virginia to follow the plot from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to the committees in individual counties, skipping over the moment that never was, the intended clash in Williamsburg between the Continental Congressmen and Governor Dunmore over the Association in front of and by necessity involving large numbers of burgesses and merchants.

More research is clearly needed here, in the papers of Virginia councillors, burgesses, and merchants, to determine exactly how the encounter between merchants and Patriots played out as it reached its denouement. Papers of Williamsburg taverns or inns may shed light as well. Many questions remain: who organized the merchant meeting and why? Where did they meet? Who agreed to attend and who and how many actually came? How long were they there? What did they discuss? How well were Patriotic and conservative merchants represented? How did interconnections between these groups play out? What happened between the Virginia Patriot leadership and the merchants before the tar and feathers were set up—how did the two groups interact and how did trust deteriorate?[30]

The events of 1775 sank Dunmore’s popularity with white Virginians: the Second Virginia Convention, deliberately held in Richmond in March away from Dunmore and Williamsburg; the Gunpowder Incident in April 1775; Dunmore’s flight to HMS Fowey  and his invitations to slaves to join him, culminating in his famous November 1775 proclamation. These might have had a very different course had the Association not been a fait accompli by the time Dunmore returned to Williamsburg in December 1774. And it was the merchants’ “voluntary” signing of the Association on November 9, 1774 which made that fait accompli. “The Alternative of Williams-burg” was a print by Dawe. It was a “choice” merchants made to sign the Association. But it was also an alternative history. An assembly session that did not happen ambushed a merchant meeting that did. Contingency could have taken the explosive combination of people in Williamsburg in November 1774 in a very different direction, were it not for the efforts of the Patriots in attendance and, as always in the American Revolution, the failure of Dunmore and other conservatives to show up.

Note: The author would be grateful for any references readers have about merchants, burgesses, or others who were in Williamsburg for the early November meetings.


[1]Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), November 10, 1774. Special thanks to Mary Beth Norton for discussing the ideas in this article and to Michael A. McDonnell for suggestions as well.

[2]Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 248-255. Michael A. McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race Class and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 17-48. Hamilton James Eckenrode, The Revolution in Virginia (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1916), 42 makes oblique reference to this gathering, but seems not to realize to what he refers. Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1957 reprint), 509 cites the Virginia Gazette issue but does not discuss the meeting. Dale Edward Benson, “Wealth and Power in Virginia, 1774-1776: A Study of the Organization of Revolt” University of Maine, PhD thesis (1970), 164-166 is the only author to discuss this meeting as a coherent event in Virginia revolutionary politics. On Williamsburg’s population in 1775 see James H. Soltow, “The Occupational Structure of Williamsburg in 1775” August 1956 (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series – 128, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1990),, accessed March 9, 2019.

[3]John Pendleton Kennedy, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia 1773-1776 (Richmond: 1905), 67-68.

[4]Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), November 10, 1774. Virginia Gazette (Pinckney), November 10, 1774.

[5]On patriot press control and manipulation, especially in 1774 and 1775 see Robert W. T. Martin, The Free and Open Press: The Founding of American Democratic Press Liberty, 1640-1800 (New York: New York University Press, 2001). Richard D. Brown, “The Shifting Freedoms of the Press in the Eighteenth Century” in Hugh Amory and David D. Hall, eds., A History of the Book in America I: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: American Antiquarian Society and University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Carol Sue Humphrey, “This Popular Engine” New England Newspapers during the American Revolution, 1775-1789 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992). Leonard W. Levy, Emergence of a Free Press (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 72-82. Stephen Botein, “’Meer Mechanics’ and the Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers” in Perspectives in American History IX (1975), 127-228. Stephen Botein, “Printers and the American Revolution,” in Bernard Bailyn and John B. Hench, eds., The Press & the American Revolution (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1980), 17-49.

[6]Catherine S. Crary, The Price of Loyalty: Tory Writings from the Revolutionary Era (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), 59. Crary’s source is: William Aitchison to James Parker, November 14, 1774. 920 PAR I no 2 Liverpool Record Office. Benson, “Wealth and Power in Virginia, 1774-1776,” 166 citing William Aitchison to James Parker, November 14, 1774. Parker Family Papers, Liverpool Public Library, England, microfilm at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

[7]Library of Virginia. Charles Steuart Papers,NLSMSS#5028 (Library of Virginia microfilm#3703, reel2) f 287r [James Parker] [Norfolk] to Charles Steuart, November 27, 1774. Special thanks to Mary Beth Norton for this reference.

[8]Library of Virginia, Steuart Papers. Norfolk. Parker to Steuart, December6, 1774. Special thanks to Mary Beth Norton for this reference.

[9]Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC: Omohundro, 1999), 100-105 gives no precise date for the events depicted in the “Alternative” but associates it with summer 1774. Joan D. Dolmetsch, Rebellion and Reconciliation: Satirical Prints on the Revolution at Williamsburg (Colonial Williamsburg, 1976), 78-79 associates the “Alternative” with the August 1774 Virginia Provincial Association. Though her work does not definitively claim that the “Alternative”refers to the August events, her work has been interpreted by others more definitively. See, for instance, accessed March 8, 2019. Bruce C. Ragsdale, A Planter’s Republic. The Search for Economic Independence in Revolutionary Virginia (Madison, WI: Madison House Publishers, 1993), 228 sets the “Alternative” on the opposite page of his discussion of Warwick and Wallace’s presence in Williamsburg, but makes no explicit attempt to date the events and does not mention the larger merchant meeting.

[10]Library of Virginia, Steuart Papers, Parker to Steuart, November 27, 1774.

[11]Aitchison commented that “[t]here is no contending against such Numbers,” but if it is unclear if he referred to the crowd at Williamsburg or the possibility of future mobs elsewhere. Crary, Price of Loyalty, 59.

[12]Crary, Price of Loyalty, 59. Bland, Pendleton and Randolph were accompanied by the colonial treasurer Robert Carter Nicholas, a moderate who probably sincerely wanted to save the merchants.

[13]Virginia Gazette (Pinckney), December 1, 1774. Dunmore would flee to HMS Fowey in summer 1775.

[14]Crary, Price of Loyalty, 58. Samuel Inglis, son of John Inglis of Philadelphia, operated in Norfolk, Virginia. His firm Inglis and Willing represented the Willing, Morris & Co merchant house. In June 1774 Inglis married William Aitchison’s daughter Ann. Returning to Philadelphia after warfighting began, he became partner in firm Willing, Morris and Inglis.J. Alexander. Inglis, The family of Inglis of Auchindinny and Redhall (Edinburgh: Priv. print. by T. and A. Constable, 1914), 67-70.

[15]Crary, Price of Loyalty, 58.

[16]Robinson was a factor for Cuninghame & Co. James Robinson to Messrs W. Cuninghame & Co., November 1, 1774 in T. M. Devine, ed., A Scottish firm in Virginia 1767-1777. W. Cuninghame and Co.(Edinburgh: Clark Constable for the Scottish History Society, 1984), 164.

[17]Devine, Scottish Firm in Virginia, 166

[18]Henderson was also a Cuninghame & Co factor. Devine, Scottish Firm in Virginia, 168.

[19]Crary, Price of Loyalty, 59

[20]Library of Virginia, Steuart Papers, Parker to Steuart, November 27, 1774. James Parker also confirmed that Pendleton, Randolph, and the elder Nicholas were there. “Young Nicholas”was one of Virginia Treasurer Robert Carter Nicholas’s sons and was, according to the governor, a firebrand Patriot. Dunmore to Dartmouth, December 24, 1774 in K. G. Davies, ed., Documents of the American Revolution 1770-1783 (Irish University Press,1975), 8:269-270.

[21]Virginia Gazette (Pinckney), November 4, 1774 p. 3 indicates that Randolph, Bland and Harrison arrived on Sunday October 30 in Williamsburg. Not all of Virginia’s Congressmen were in attendance. George Washington was definitely not at Williamsburg—here turned from Philadelphia directly to his home in Fairfax and was “at home all day”on the 9th. Thomas Jefferson, who did not attend the First Continental Congress, was at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson’s memorandum books:accounts, with legal records and miscellany,1767-1826 (Princeton: Princeton University Press,1997), 1: 380.Landon Carter was probably at home. Jack P. Greene, ed., The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, 1752-1778 (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1987 reprint of 1965 edition), 2: 884-891 indicates that Carter was at home in late October. His entries for November, however, do not appear in this volume. The absence of Washington and Jefferson may help explain how this event escaped historical notice. This event is not mentioned in biographies of Cary, Nicholas, Randolph, or Munford. Robert K. Brock, Archibald Cary of Ampthill, Wheelhorse of the Revolution (Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie, 1937). Victor Dennis Golladay, “The Nicholas Family of Virginia, 1722-1820” PhD Thesis. University of Virginia, 1973. John J. Reardon, Peyton Randolph, 1721-1775. One Who Presided (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1982), 55. Michael A. McDonnell, “’A World Turned ‘Topsy Turvy’: Robert Munford, The Patriots, and the Crisis of the Revolution in Virginia,” The William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Ser. (61 no 2). David John Mays, Edmund Pendleton 1721-1803. A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952, Virginia State Library Reprint 1984), 1: 297 does note the November 10, 1774 Virginia Gazette article regarding the merchant meeting but goes no farther. Bland does not appear to have a full-length biography but see Perhaps this gathering appears in unpublished manuscript papers, but judging from the biographies (and the gaps in material they imply), some of their surviving papers skip whole months at a time in the crucial year of 1774.

[22]Kennedy,Journals, 132, 165-168.

[23]The text of the prorogations in Kennedy, Journals, 165-168 indicates that the governor personally prorogued the assembly but this is impossible. The Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), November 3, 1774 p. 4 gives the proroguer as “his Honour the President, in Conformity to the Governour’s Instructions.” The president was the longest serving member of the governor’s council, the upper house of the colonial legislature. He served as acting governor when the governor (and any possible lieutenant governor) were absent, using the title “president of the Council.” The senior councilor, and therefore President, was Thomas Nelson, Yorktown merchant, secretary to the colony of Virginia, who had been senior councilor since 1772. James LaVerne Anderson, “The Virginia Councillors and the American Revolution: The Demise of an Aristocratic Clique,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 82, No. 1 (January 1974), 57. The executive journals of the governor’s council shed no light on this, having no formal meetings between June 17, 1774 and May 2, 1775. Benjamin J. Hillman, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia VI (June 20, 1754-May 3, 1775) (Richmond, VA: Virginia State Library, 1966), 577-579,

[24]James Robinson to Messrs W. Cuninghame & Co., November 1, 1774 in Devine, Scottish firm in Virginia, 164.

[25]Virginia Gazette (Pinckney), November 24, 1774 p. 3. This notice can be read in several ways. By referring to “burgesses” and not a convention, it may simply have referred to the expectation that the burgesses would meet on the 7th, as they had been scheduled to do, and the failure of the burgesses to reply might simply have been a result of that house not meeting. Alternatively, the messenger sent to Williamsburg might have sought out the un-convened legislators at Raleigh Tavern. Finally this may have been a way to give the Patriots in Williamsburg plausible deniability of any responsibility for the events in Yorktown. Yet all three of these interpretations remain based on the premise that the author of the notice worried that readers might think politicians meeting in Williamsburg had authority of somesort. Because the general assembly was prorogued, it has usually and erroneously been assumed that the presence of any burgesses in Williamsburg would be “fortuitous.” This shadow meeting of the burgesses has been entirely overlooked. Robert L. Scribner, ed., Revolutionary Virginia the Road to Independence (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1975), 164 n1.

[26]Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon) Supplement, December 8, 1774. Thwaites, Reuben Goldand Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 1774 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society,1905), 368. Dunmore was still on his way to Williamsburg from the frontier on December 1, 1774.Virginia Gazette(Purdie and Dixon), December 1, 1774. Recent scholarship on Dunmore or the war has not been aware Dunmore’s relationship to the meeting at Williamsburg. See James Corbett David, Dunmore’s New World (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013). Glenn F. Williams, Dunmore’s War. The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2017), 304-305.


[28]Virginia Gazette (Pinckney), October 27, 1774 gave a partial run down of the provisions of the Continental Association. The Continental Association provided for nonimport effective December 1, 1774 and nonexport effective September 10, 1775.

[29]Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), October 13, 1774 p. 3.

[30]Thomas Nelson, Jr., for instance, was a burgess from York County and chair of the York county committee. He was also a merchant, a Patriot, a nephew to the Thomas Nelson who was president of the governor’s council, and attempting to get on the council himself in October 1774. And he was hardly the only figure to connect the political and mercantile realms. Kennedy, Journals , 68. Emory Evans, “The Nelsons: A Biographical Study of a Virginia Family in the Eighteenth Century,” PhD thesis University of Virginia (1957), 180, 202, 203. Emory Evans, Thomas Nelson of Yorktown. Revolutionary Virginian (Charlottesville, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the University Press of Virginia, 1975), 42. It is unclear whether the younger Nelson attended, and, if so, in which capacity (as a merchant, a Burgess, or a committee chairman from York). He may have been in Yorktown for that town’s tea party on November 7, 1774, or may have been one of the burgesses in Williamsburg to whom the Yorktown tea partiers claimed they attempted to defer (or both). Williamsburg and Yorktown are a few hours walk apart, and an even shorter ride. Virginia Gazette (Pinckney), November 24, 1774 p. 3. Anderson, “The Virginia Councillors,” 57.

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According to the Virginia Gazette between 400 and 500 merchants gathered in...
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  • As far as the Nicholas family involvement in this episode, my forthcoming book on Robert Carter Nicholas and George Nicholas talks about Robert Carter Nicholas’s efforts to ease the tension in Williamsburg concerning Warwick and Wallace while his son, George, proceeded to do the opposite. I must admit that I did not read into this event all that you noted, however. Nicholas, a resident of Williamsburg, had been involved in several similar episodes prior to this one. For Nicholas, it was about avoiding unnecessary exuberance in such matters.

    • Dear Jeffrey,
      I’ll look for you book. Does it have a formal release date yet? I found the Nicholas family an especially interesting family in this episode. First, getting to which Nicholas son was involved was a nightmare (I only had the Golladay thesis to work with, which is poorly organized). Second, Robert Carter Nicholas is impressively characterized as a conservative, moderate, and Patriot by different historians (of course many people had different stances at different times), but since most historical writing on R.C. Nicholas only mentions him in passing, it’s difficult to know how well any author knows him, which in turn makes it difficult to characterize his motivation. Your book will be quite useful. Did you dig up any sources beyond the Golladay thesis’s sources? I’m particularly interested in looking any correspondence from either Nicholas pertaining to this episode and would be grateful for any tips as to which archives to look at.

      • As a follow up, I’ve seen “Considerations on the Present State of Virginia” (1774) attributed to John Randolph and/or R. C. Nicholas. Any insights on the authorship of that item?

        • The attributes appear correct. Both Nicholas men used the anonymous editorial quite often during their lives. With your background, you may already know about the collected work, John Norton & Sons: Merchants of London and Virginia (Mason, 1937). It contains R.C. Nicholas correspondence, although as you get closer to the Revolution, it begins to decline in number. It is mainly economic in tone, but Nicholas will also discuss local issues. One of Norton’s sons marries one of Nicholas’s daughters, which adds to the relationship.

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