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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter III: The Rights of a Nation

The truth is, therefore, that while everyone protested in such spirited terms as might occur to him, few men in these early days supposed the new laws would not take effect, and fewer still counseled the right or believed in the practicability of forcible resistance. “We yield obedience to the act granting duties,” declared the Massachusetts Assembly. “Let Parliament lay what duties they please on us,” said James Otis; “it is our duty to submit and patiently bear them till they be pleased to relieve us.” Franklin assured his friends that the passage of the Stamp Act could not have been prevented any more easily than the sun’s setting, recommended that they endure the one mischance with the same equanimity with which they faced the other necessity, and even saw certain advantages in the way of self-discipline which might come of it through the practice of a greater frugality. Not yet perceiving the dishonor attaching to the function of distributing stamps, he did his two friends, Jared Ingersoll of Connecticut and John Hughes of Pennsylvania, the service of procuring for them the appointment to the new office; and Richard Henry Lee, as good a patriot as any man and therefore of necessity at some pains later to explain his motives in the matter, applied for the position in Virginia.

Richard Henry Lee was no friend of tyrants, but an American freeman, less distinguished as yet than his name, which was a famous one and not without offense to be omitted from any list of the Old Dominion’s “best families.” The best families of the Old Dominion, tide-water tobacco planters of considerable estates, admirers and imitators of the minor aristocracy of England, took it as a matter of course that the political fortunes of the province were committed to their care and for many generations had successfully maintained the public interest against the double danger of executive tyranny and popular licentiousness. It is therefore not surprising that the many obscure freeholders, minor planters, and lesser men who filled the House of Burgesses had followed the able leadership of that little coterie of interrelated families comprising the Virginia aristocracy. John Robinson, Speaker of the House and Treasurer of the colony, of good repute still in the spring of 1765, was doubtless the head and front of this aristocracy, the inner circle of which would also include Peyton Randolph, then King’s Attorney, and Edmund Pendleton, well known for his cool persuasiveness in debate, the learned constitutional lawyer, Richard Bland, the sturdy and honest but ungraceful Robert Carter Nicholas, and George Wythe, noblest Roman of them all, steeped in classical lore, with the thin, sharp face of a Caesar and for virtuous integrity a very Cato. Conscious of their English heritage, they were at once proud of their loyalty to Britain and jealous of their well-won provincial liberties. As became British-American freemen, they had already drawn a proper Memorial against the Sugar Act and were now, as they leisurely gathered at Williamsburg in the early weeks of May, 1765, unwilling to protest again at present, for they had not as yet received any reply to their former dignified and respectful petition.

To this assembly of the burgesses in 1765, there came from the back-country beyond the first falls of the Virginia rivers, the frontier of that day, many deputies who must have presented, in dress and manners as well as in ideas, a sharp contrast to the eminent leaders of the aristocracy. Among them was Thomas Marshall, father of a famous son, and Patrick Henry, a young man of twenty-nine years, a heaven-born orator and destined to be the leader and interpreter of the silent “simple folk” of the Old Dominion. In Hanover County, in which this tribune of the people was born and reared and which he now represented, there were, as in all the backcountry counties, few great estates and few slaves, no notable country-seats with pretension to architectural excellence, no modishly dressed aristocracy with leisure for reading and the cultivation of manners becoming a gentleman. Beyond the tide-water, men for the most part earned their bread by the sweat of their brows, lived the life and esteemed the virtues of a primitive society, and braced their minds with the tonic of Calvin’s theology–a tonic somewhat tempered in these late enlightened days by a more humane philosophy and the friendly emotionalism of simple folk living close to nature.

Free burgesses from the back-country, set apart in dress and manners from the great planters, less learned and less practiced in oratory and the subtle art of condescension and patronage than the cultivated men of the inner circle, were nevertheless staunch defenders of liberty and American rights and were perhaps beginning to question, in these days of popular discussion, whether liberty could very well flourish among men whose wealth was derived from the labor of negro slaves, or be well guarded under all circumstances by those who, regarding themselves as superior to the general run of men, might be in danger of mistaking their particular interests for the common welfare. And indeed it now seemed that these great men who sent their sons to London to be educated, who every year shipped their tobacco to England and bought their clothes of English merchants with whom their credit was always good, were grown something too timid, on account of their loyalty to Britain, in the great question of asserting the rights of America.

Jean Jacques Rousseau would have well understood Patrick Henry, one of those passionate temperaments whose reason functions not in the service of knowledge but of good instincts and fine emotions; a nature to be easily possessed of an exalted enthusiasm for popular rights and for celebrating the virtues of the industrious poor. This enthusiasm in the case of Patrick Henry was intensified by his own eloquence, which had been so effectively exhibited in the famous Parson’s Cause, and in opposition to the shady scheme which the old leaders in the House of Burgesses had contrived to protect John Robinson, the Treasurer, from being exposed to a charge of embezzlement. Such courageous exploits, widely noised abroad, had won for the young man great applause and had got him a kind of party of devoted followers in the backcountry and among the yeomanry and young men throughout the province, so that to take the lead and to stand boldly forth as the champion of liberty and the submerged rights of mankind seemed to Patrick Henry a kind of mission laid upon him, in virtue of his heavenly gift of speech, by that Providence which shapes the destinies of men.

It was said that Mr. Henry was not learned in the law; but he had read in “Coke upon Littleton” that an Act of Parliament against Magna Carta, or common right, or reason, is void–which was clearly the case of the Stamp Act. On the flyleaf of an old copy of that book this unlearned lawyer accordingly wrote out some resolutions of protest which he showed to his friends, George Johnston and John Fleming, for their approval. Their approval once obtained, Mr. Johnston moved, with Mr. Henry as second, that the House of Burgesses should go into committee of the whole, “to consider the steps necessary to be taken in consequence of the resolutions…charging certain Stamp Duties in the colonies”; which was accordingly done on the 29th of May, upon which day Mr. Henry presented his resolutions.

The 29th of May was late in that session of the Virginia House of Burgesses; and most likely the resolutions would have been rejected if some two-thirds of the members, who knew nothing of Mr. Henry’s plans and supposed the business of the Assembly finished, had not already gone home. Among those who had thus departed, it is not likely that there were many of Patrick Henry’s followers. Yet even so there was much opposition. The resolutions were apparently refashioned in committee of the whole, for a preamble was omitted outright and four “Resolves” were made over into five which were presented to the House on the day following.

Young Mr. Jefferson, at that time a law student and naturally much interested in the business of lawmaking, heard the whole of this day’s famous debate from the door of communication between the House and the lobby. The five resolutions, he afterwards remembered, were “opposed by Randolph, Bland, Pendleton, Nicholas, Wythe, and all the old members, whose influence in the House had, till then, been unbroken;…not from any question of our rights, but on the ground that the same sentiments had been, at their preceding session, expressed in a more conciliatory form, to which the answers were not yet received. But torrents of sublime eloquence from Mr. Henry, backed by the solid reasoning of Johnston, prevailed.” It was in connection with the fifth resolution, upon which the debate was “most bloody,” that Patrick Henry is said to have declared that “Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third–“; upon which cries of “Treason” were heard from every part of the House. Treason or not, the resolution was carried, although by one vote only; and the young law student standing at the door of the House heard Peyton Randolph say, as he came hastily out into the lobby: “By God, I would have given 500 guineas for a single vote.” And no doubt he would, at that moment, being then much heated.

Next day Mr. Randolph was probably much cooler; and so apparently were some others who, in the enthusiasm of debate and under the compelling eye of Patrick Henry, had voted for the last defiant resolution. Thinking the matter settled, Patrick Henry had already gone home “to recommend himself to his constituents,” as his enemies thought, “by spreading treason.”

But the matter was not yet settled. Early on that morning of the 31st, before the House assembled, the young law student who was so curious about the business of lawmaking saw Colonel Peter Randolph, of his Majesty’s Council, standing at the Clerk’s table, “thumbing over the volumes of journals to find a precedent for expunging a vote of the House.” Whether the precedent was found the young law student did not afterwards recollect; but it is known that on motion of Peyton Randolph the fifth resolution was that day erased from the record. Mr. Henry was not then present. He had been seen, on the afternoon before, “passing along the street, on his way to his home in Louisa, clad in a pair of leather breeches, his saddle-bags on his arm, leading a lean horse.” The four resolutions thus adopted as the deliberate and formal protest of the Old Dominion were as mild and harmless as could well be. They asserted no more than that the first adventurers and settlers of Virginia brought with them and transmitted to their posterity all the privileges at any time enjoyed by the people of Great Britain; that by two royal charters they had been formally declared to be as surely possessed of these privileges as if they had been born and were then abiding within the realm; that the taxation of the people by themselves or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them “is the only security against a burthensome taxation, and the distinguishing characteristick of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist”; and that the loyal colony of Virginia had in fact without interruption enjoyed this inestimable right, which had never been forfeited or surrendered nor ever hitherto denied by the kings or the people of Britain. No treason here, expressed or implied; nor any occasion for 500 guineas passing from one hand to another to prove that the province of Virginia was still the ancient and loyal Old Dominion.

But Fate, or Providence, or whatever it is that presides at the destinies of nations, has a way of setting aside with ironical smile the most deliberate actions of men. And so, on this occasion, it turned out that the hard-won victory of Messrs. Randolph, Bland, Pendleton, and Wythe was of no avail. William Gordon tells us, without mentioning the source of his information, that “a manuscript of the unrevised resolves soon reached Philadelphia, having been sent off immediately upon their passing, that the earliest information of what had been done might be obtained by the Sons of Liberty.” From Philadelphia a copy was forwarded, on June 17, to New York, in which loyal city the resolutions were thought “so treasonable that their possessors declined printing them”; but an Irish gentleman from Connecticut, who was then in town, inquired after them and was with great precaution permitted to take a copy, which he straightway carried to New England. All this may be true or not; but certain it is that six resolutions purporting to come from Virginia were printed in the Newport “Mercury” on June 24, 1765, and afterwards, on July 1, in many Boston papers.

The document thus printed did not indeed include the famous fifth resolution upon which the debate in the House of Burgesses was “most bloody” and which had been there adopted by a single vote and afterwards erased from the record; but it included two others much stronger than that eminently treasonable one:

“Resolved, That his Majesty’s Liege people, the inhabitants of this colony, are not bound to yield obedience to any law or ordinance whatever, designed to impose any taxation whatsoever upon them, other than the laws and ordinances of the General Assembly aforesaid. Resolved, That any person who shall, by speaking or writing, assert or maintain that any person or persons, other than the General Assembly of this colony, have any right or power to impose any taxation on the people here, shall be deemed an enemy to his Majesty’s colony.”

These resolutions, which Governor Fauquier had not seen, and which were perhaps never debated in the House of Burgesses, were now circulated far and wide as part of the mature decision of the Virginia Assembly. On the 14th of September, Messrs. Randolph, Wythe, and Nicholas were appointed a committee to apprise the Assembly’s agent “of a spurious copy of the resolves of the last Assembly…being dispersed and printed in the News Papers and to send him a true copy of the votes on that occasion.” In those days of slow and difficult communication, the truth, three months late, could not easily overtake the falsehood or ever effectively replace it. In later years, when it was thought an honor to have begun the Revolution, many men denied the decisive effect of the Virginia Resolutions in convincing the colonists that the Stamp Act might be successfully resisted. But contemporaries were agreed in according them that glory or that infamy. “Two or three months ago,” said Governor Bernard, “I thought that this people would submit to the Stamp Act. Murmurs were indeed continually heard, but they seemed to be such as would die away. The publishing the Virginia Resolutions proved an alarm-bell to the disaffected.” We read the resolutions, said Jonathan Sewell, “with wonder. They savored of independence; they flattered the human passions; the reasoning was specious; we wished it conclusive. The transition to believing it so was easy, and we, almost all America, followed their example in resolving that the Parliament had no such right.” And the good patriot John Adams, who afterwards attributed the honor to James Otis, said in 1776 that the “author of the first Virginia Resolutions against the Stamp Act…will have the glory with posterity of beginning…this great Revolution.*

* Upon the death of George II, 1760, the collectors of the customs at Boston applied for new writs of assistance. The grant was opposed by the merchants, and the question was argued before the Superior Court. It was on this occasion that James Otis made a speech in favor of the rights of the colonists as men and Englishmen. All that is known of it is contained in some rough notes taken at the time by John Adams (“Works of John Adams,” ii., 125). An elaboration of these notes was printed in the “Massachusetts Spy,” April 29, 1778, and with corrections by Adams fifty years after the event in William Tudor’s “Life of James Otis,” chs. 5-7. This is the speech to which Adams, at a later date, attributed the beginning of the Revolution.

James Otis in 1765 declared the Virginia Resolutions to be treasonable. It was precisely their treasonable flavor that electrified the country, while the fact that they came from the Old Dominion made men think that a union of the colonies, so essential to successful resistance, might be achieved in spite of all. The Old Dominion, counted the most English of the colonies in respect to her institutions and her sympathies, had a character for loyalty that, in any matter of opposition to Britain, gave double weight to her action. Easy-going tobacco-planters, Church of England men all, were well known not to be great admirers of the precise Puritans of New England, whose moral fervor and conscious rectitude seemed to them a species of fanaticism savoring more of canting hypocrisy than of that natural virtue affected by men of parts. Franklin may well have had Virginia and Massachusetts in mind when he said, but a few years earlier, no one need fear that the colonies “will unite against their own nation…which ’tis well known they all love much more than they love one another.” Nor could anyone have supposed that the “Ancient and Loyal Colony of Virginia” would out-Boston Boston in asserting the rights of America. Yet this was what had come to pass, the evidence of which was the printed resolutions now circulating far and wide and being read in this month of July when it was being noised about that a Congress was proposed for the coming October. The proposal had in fact come from Massachusetts Bay in the form of a circular letter inviting all the colonies to send delegates to New York for the purpose of preparing a loyal and humble “representation of their condition,” and of imploring relief from the King and Parliament of Great Britain.

No very encouraging response was immediately forthcoming. The Assembly of New Jersey unanimously declined to send any delegates, although it declared itself “not without a just sensibility respecting the late acts of Parliament,” and wished “such other colonies as think proper to be active every success they can loyally and reasonably desire.” For two months there was no indication that any colony would think it “proper to be active”; but during August and September the assemblies of six colonies chose deputies to the congress, and when that body finally assembled in October, less formally designated representatives from three other colonies appeared upon the scene. The Assembly of New Hampshire declined to take part. Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina were also unrepresented, which was perhaps due to the fact that the governors of those provinces refused to call the assemblies together to consider the Massachusetts circular letter. Of the 27 members of the Stamp Act Congress, few if any were inclined to rash or venturesome measures. It is reported that Lord Melbourne, as Prime Minister of England, once remarked to his Cabinet, “It doesn’t matter what we say, but we must all say the same thing.” What the Stamp Act Congress said was to be sure of some importance, but that it should say something which all could agree to was of even greater importance. “There ought to be no New England man, no New Yorker, known on the continent,” wrote Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, “but all of us Americans.” New Yorkers and New England men could not indeed be so easily transformed over night; but the Stamp Act Congress was significant as marking a kind of beginning in that slow and difficult process. After eleven days of debate, in which sharp differences of opinion were no doubt revealed, a declaration of rights and grievances was at last adopted; a declaration which was so cautiously and loyally phrased that all could subscribe to it, and which was perhaps for that very reason not quite satisfactory to anyone.

His Majesty’s subjects in the colonies, the declaration affirmed, are entitled to those “inherent rights and liberties” which are enjoyed by “his natural born subjects” in Great Britain; among which rights is that most important one of “not being taxed without their own consent”; and since the people of the colonies, “from local circumstances, cannot be represented in the House of Commons,” it follows that taxes cannot be “imposed upon them, but by their respective legislatures.” The Stamp Act, being a direct tax, was therefore declared to have a “manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonies.” Of the Sugar Act, which was not a direct tax, so much could not be said; but this act was at least “burthensome and grievous,” being subversive of trade if not of liberty. No one was likely to be profoundly stirred by the declaration of the Stamp Act Congress, in this month of October when the spirited Virginia Resolutions were everywhere well known.