Richard Henry Lee, Rhetoric and Rebellion


Prerequisites and Expected Performances

In the Virginia society in which Richard Henry Lee grew up, formal political leadership resided in officers of the colony, though county officials wielded much power. The General Assembly, consisting of the House of Burgesses and the Council, legislated with the Governor’s assent regarding both public and private matters of concern to the colonists.1 By mid-century, considerably prior to Richard Henry Lee’s election as Burgess, the House had gained the power of initiation, leaving the Council the function of approving, disapproving, or seeking amendments to the House initiated bills.2

Legislation required approval by the British government, with the review function being primarily executive. Bills needed to be signed by the Governor, a royal appointee, then were transmitted to England for final review.3 The Governor could veto bills or he might withhold his assent until the legislators inserted a section that became known as the suspending clause. This clause provided that a law would not become effective until notice of royal assent arrived in Virginia. Often the Governor requested specific legislative actions and also often transmitted to the Assembly suggestions made by the government in England, though the Assembly could and occasionally did refuse to comply with the requests.4

The Council exercised multiple roles. Its entire membership, including the Governor, served as the General Court for the colony, having appellate jurisdiction from the county courts and original jurisdiction incases involving life and limb, suits against vestries or justices of lower courts, and civil suits of value over “ten pounds sterling, or two thousand pounds of tobacco.”5 The Councillors, acting as the Governor’s advisory body, performed numerous executive duties. Especially important was their advice concerning appointments and land patents.6

Other executive officers of the colony exercised considerable authority, though formally appearing less powerful than the lawmakers. The Secretary of the colony appointed the county clerks, kept the colonial seal, executive and General Court records, issued all patents, election writs and other executive papers and sent information regarding the colony to the home government. The Auditor-General examined collections of the colony; the Receiver-General had custody of the King’s revenue; and the Attorney-General represented the Crown in General Court.

In Lee’s society counties were the effective lower unit of government. Justices of the county court, the sheriff, undersheriff and county clerk wielded great power, though they shared some control over their small dominions with other county officers.7 The county justices decided contests over all matters covered by the laws except criminal cases involving loss of life and limb, and a single justice acting alone could decide small civil cases.8 The sheriff, or the undersheriff who often remained in office for long periods and may therefore have exercised the real power of this office, possessed multiple powers. He and his deputy executed writs and processes, were charged with keeping the peace, made election returns, reported quitrents and enumerated tithables. The county clerk, who often worked closely with the sheriff, had in his charge the management of the county between monthly meetings of the court. The militia provided the major colonial defense, even when British troops were on the continent. Within each county, a vestry of eight to twelve governed the parishes. Since the church played a broad role in the eighteenth century, the job of vestryman included many tasks besides choosing ministers: caring for the orphaned, collecting the parish levy, caring for the poor, punishing cases of immorality, taking census, building roads and determining property boundaries.

Analysis of the means by which men attained their offices enhances understanding of the leadership role. Richard Henry Lee had been a colonial lawmaker for more than a decade before the practice of making the Virginia governorship an English sinecure ended in 1769. Until then all eighteenth-century Virginia governors remained in England and paid part of their emoluments to a lieutenant. The Crown appointed both men. While in residence, the Lieutenant Governor assumed the duties and local titles of the Governor. Councillors, whose appointments to life terms came from the Crown through the Board of Trade, were almost always native Virginians. Their appointments came upon the recommendations of the Governor of influential English merchants, army officers, the Bishop of London or other politically potent men.9 Among the officers of the colony only Burgesses were elected, two from each county.10 The King made the other appointments, generally on the Governor’s recommendation.11 The Governor formally named most of the county officers, but his power was limited. Because his choices were strictly limited, his appointments of the county justices, sheriffs, coroners and constables have been described as confirmations.12 To fill vacancies on the county court, for instance, sitting justices submitted three names from which the Governor had to select. If he approved none of the three, he could require the court to submit three more but could not pick men of his own choice.13 County justices also nominated the sheriffs who were drawn from the county court itself; the colony Secretary named county clerks.14 Upon formation of a parish, the “freeholders and housekeepers” elected the vestry. Thereafter the vestry themselves filled vacancies unless dissatisfied parishioners could convince the Assembly that for some reason the old vestry should be dissolved. Then legislation could and occasionally did authorize election of a new vestry.15

No examination of the leadership role would be complete if it reported only the formal administrative arrangements. Additional information regarding the offices is enlightening. Often men held more than one influential position. For example, the important officers of Secretary, Auditor-General, and Receiver-General were also Councillors at mid-century while the Attorney-General was an influential member of the House of Burgesses.16 Men commonly held more than one county office, or served as officers of both the county and the colony. Moreover, colonial officers came from an inter-related plantation elite which often extended personal influences beyond the limits of a single position.17

The resulting concentration of formal and informal leadership created a powerful colonial government. The King’s representative often found the desires of these Virginia leaders conflicting with his instructions.18 As a result, “his power was more apparent than real.”19 Governor Dinwiddie’s attempt to impose a fee on land patents illustrates.20 No one questioned he King’s right to grant Virginia lands under whatever terms he chose, but a great furor arose when Dinwiddie, as the King’s representative, tried to change the terms. He could not do so with impunity even if the “right” was unquestionable. The governors of Virginia usually accomplished most by cooperating with the colonials. Occasionally a governor refused to adhere strictly to his instructions because he wished to avoid conflict with colonial officers. Governor Fauquier, for instance, did not strip from the popular and powerful John Robinson the office of the Treasury in the early 1760s even though the Board of Trade wanted him to separate the offices of Speaker of the House and Treasurer of the colony.

The roles of highest prestige, if not power, to which a Virginian could aspire when Richard Henry lee was young were appointive. Hence, a man who wanted to become a Councillor or one of the other officers of the colony needed to win the approval of those who did the appointing. Of prime importance in securing this approval were wealth and acceptability to the local elite. Only slightly less important in gaining election as a Burgess, these factors were virtual prerequisites for would-be leaders. Necessary in understanding the leadership role in Lee’s society, then, is an understanding of the factors determining wealth and acceptability to the local elite.

To be from the proper family was important, though perhaps in a manner different from that commonly believed. The ascendancy of tobacco cultivation in the society and the tendency toward large families created a remarkably inter-related gentry in Virginia at mid-century. But the influence of family in gaining office was largely informal. A young man’s name, by itself, seldom determined an appointment or an election. No strictly hereditary offices of titles existed, nor did a family inheritance alone assure wealth to even the oldest son. Moreover, wide availability of land insured that avenues of entry into the Virginia plantation elite never totally closed. Nor were avenues to wealth other than land scorned.21

Though some men may have been appointed or elected to offices merely because they possessed wealth and the proper surname, the supposition is not easily proven. What is easily demonstrated, however, is that wealth was a prerequisite to office. The acts and attitudes necessary to attain and maintain high colonial offices involved great expense. In Virginia at mid-century, a clearly defined path to political leadership existed, and it was expensive to travel.22 Most officers of the colony received little direct remuneration, though indirect rewards there were, indeed. High office placed its holder in position to influence land grants, receive appointments to paying positions, and make influential acquaintances. But the indirect rewards came after the offices were acquired and influence gained through years of service. As direct remuneration, Councillors received one hundred pounds annually, not a sizable compensation in view of the office requirements.23 The Councillor, constantly on call, usually attended several executive sessions yearly, in addition to the twice annual meetings of the General Court and the legislative sessions of the General Assembly. Moreover, to live in the style expected of a Councillor required an annual income of at least 500 pounds.24 The office of Burgess required only slightly less time and offered much less reimbursement. Burgesses received travel expenses and ten shillings for each day of attendance at a session.25

A Burgess also needed wealth because attaining his office required much time and money. Men who achieved high colonial office usually rose to leadership through a series of posts that could be considered probationary. A seat in the House ordinarily preceded appointment to the Council, and Burgesses commonly were selected from among the county’s justices.26 These justices, as did the vestry, served without fees or pay, yet the tasks consumed much time.27 A young man, once appointed justice, needed to devote considerable resources to his office if he wished to become well thought of and later considered for higher position. Often much of his time was required in attending to routine tasks with which a single justice could deal. Since four justices had to be present to convene the monthly county court, non-attendance by the less ambitious or less conscientious justices sometimes required that the sessions be continued. The press of cases also occasionally required courts to meet longer than a single day.28 Several days each month might be required of the young justice who wanted to move up.

In Richard Henry Lee’s day achieving appointment as justice required no popular support other than acceptability to the local elite. Still, a young man needed more than a distinguished surname; he needed to cultivate the proper men. To gain status among his powerful neighbors he participated in the expensive local customs of conspicuous consumption: giving entertainments and open houses, attending those of others, socializing during court days, dressing himself and his family in finery, traveling in carriages, etc.29

Gaining election to the House of Burgesses also cost sizable amounts of money. Though definitely not democratic in the modern sense, elections were real elections. Until 1762 any white, adult male who owned twenty-five acres of land on which he lived or one hundred acres of unimproved land could vote.30 Though a planter with extensive lands could vote in each county where he held sufficient land, he voted only once in each.31 Moreover, small planters could employ considerable independence in voting. With tenantry relatively uncommon and the populace quite mobile, great landholders exercised relatively little influence over tenants and small planters.32 Certainly, at least, the great planters’ power was small compared to their counterparts in England. Thus, though small planters could rarely aspire to office, they exerted considerable influence in choosing which great planter would speak for them in Assembly.

As a result, Burgesses’ campaigns were expensive. George Washington always recorded his expenses carefully and probably spent about the same as other Burgesses. His elections usually cost twenty-five pounds, often more. Once his total reached fifty pounds.33 Since in revolutionary America a single man could live a year on twenty-five pounds or a family “who wished to live in some comfort” would spend around one hundred pounds annually, these election costs were substantial.34 Campaign methods caused the high expenses. Because openly soliciting votes could disqualify a candidate and at the least was socially disapproved, more expensive campaign procedures resulted. The expected dispensing of hospitality had to be clone according to the “rules.” A candidate usually provided a friendly cup, but not with the anticipation of its buying a vote. Nor could he be free from suspicion if he practiced generosity only at court days when elections were held. Generous hospitality needed to be relatively regular to avoid being suspect as a campaign practice.35

Election as Burgess represented attainment of the status of county leadership. But to maintain a position as leader, either in the county or in the House, required re-election. To continue in office, Burgesses had to win irregularly scheduled elections. Elections were called when a new Governor arrived, a King died, or the Governor dissolved the House hoping a new election would secure a less fractious representation. Perhaps because of unusual circumstances frequent elections were held during the years Lee grew to leadership, between 1750 and 1770. Four elections occurred in the first decade and three in the second.36 In the frequent campaigns re-election could not be taken for granted. For example, Landon Carter, a leader in the House who served on many important committees and who spoke vehemently and wrote voluminously against the prerogatives of Church and King, lost his seat in an election. He failed to be re-elected because, as he put it, he “did not familiarize myself among the People.”37 Similarly Richard Lee, who sat in the House from 1756 to 1776 did not always find re-election simple. In 1771 Richard Henry Lee, his fellow representative from Westmoreland County, described his colleague’s contest as “hard.” The younger Lee wrote, “The Squire is alarmed, kicks, rides, treats, and says he does not value them.”38

Further, money played an important part in becoming a leader within the House once the Burgess achieved election. It freed him to devote much time and money away from his home and business. The Assembly met in Williamsburg, far from parts of the growing colony, and for many members the trips from their plantations were lengthy. Edmund Pendleton, who lived relatively close, usually spent two to three days traveling the sixty miles from his home in Caroline county.39 Richard Henry Lee’s route to the Assembly was about the same distance as George Washington’s, and Washington spent three to four days on the road during his trips to Williamsburg.40 In the 1758 Assembly, Burgesses from nine counties traveled as far or farther than Washington. As the population moved westward this number constantly increased.

Sessions of the assembly varied in length, ranging from two to forty-seven working days during the 1750s.41 The Assembly gathered for 16 sessions during the decade, meeting twice yearly in 1756 and 1759 and three times each year during 1754, 1755 and 1758. One especially brief 1758 session, called so that special war appropriations could be made, lasted only two days. That task completed, those few available Burgesses adjourned without conducting any other business. Each 1754 session was brief, but three trips to Williamsburg could consume much time. The three meetings of 1755, in contrast to the previous year, totalled seventy-one working days. The Assembly averaged fifty working days for each of the eight years during the decade that it met.42

Burgesses received expenses for self-maintenance while traveling, but they often incurred additional costs. A trip to Williamsburg usually meant time devoted to other affairs in the distant part of the colony. Washington once apparently missed a session of the Assembly because he had planned for his family to visit relatives in southern Virginia during or about the time the Assembly had been scheduled to meet. When the Governor called the session early, Washington made the visit at the appointed time rather than disappoint his family.43 Richard Henry Lee often spent extra days in Williamsburg tending the affairs of his brother William, who had inherited the Ludwell properties there.44 To be able to spend the time necessary to gain and maintain his office, as well as to be able to absorb its direct and indirect costs, a Burgess needed wealth.

In addition to the prerequisites of wealth and acceptability to the local elite, other factors influenced the acquisition of a leadership position in mid-eighteenth century Virginia. Public service may have been a tradition among the gentry, but not all the wealthy held high office. Not all who had the prerequisites to leadership became leaders. Wealth did not distinguish Burgesses from non-Burgesses, nor Councillors from non-Councillors. Nor did acceptability to the local elite divide officers from non-officers. Given the prerequisites, leaders were separated from non-leaders by ambition, devotion to duty and rhetorical skill. Some sheriffs may have been reluctant appointees and many life-appointed justices neglected their duties, but no evidence suggests that reluctant or ineffective Burgesses ever achieved important positions in the House.45 Reluctant or disinterested Councillors were rare. The man who wanted to become a leader needed to work faithfully at the duties of his office.

Whether motivated by ambition or conscientious desire to serve his country or both, an officer needed a willing sense of duty to carry out the time-consuming activities his office required.46 The vast wealth of the politically influential William Byrd II was matched by his sense of duty. In contrast, William Byrd III preferred the gaming tables to the scholarly and business pursuits of his famous father and never achieved prominence as a Virginia leader. Doubtless most Virginians enjoyed the horse racing and gambling so often noted by visitors, but men who became leaders did not overindulge in these pursuits.47 The pious and sober Robert Carter Nicholas, the imperious and industrious Landon Carter, the scholarly and businesslike Robert Carter, the sober and learned Edmund Pendleton, the learned and bookish Richard Bland, the brilliant and arrogant family of Lees, these men, characteristic of Virginia leaders, were not the profligates around the gaming tables.

Another important factor in attaining a political office in Richard Henry Lee’s society was skillful use of rhetoric. Numerous opportunities existed for effective persuasion to influence appointments or elections. Sitting justices needed to be persuaded that new men were worthy of appointment; the potential vestryman or Burgess had to convince voters that he would serve the interests of the parish or the county; a man seeking to become a Councillor or some other appointive official had to induce important men to support his cause.48

Skillful use of rhetoric also helped a man acquire an influential position within the Assembly.49 A Burgess speaking in the House addressed his peers in a legislature without strong political factions.50 Elections, seldom if ever determined by issues other than local claims and personal influences, produced Burgesses unencumbered by pledges to constituents.51 Most who spoke in the House actually intended to convince their fellow legislators. And debate the Burgesses did. In this society where men seemed little pressed by time and in this chamber where countless opportunities for it existed, debating seemed endemic.52 The journals record debates on a wide variety of issues, substantive and procedural. Sometimes Burgesses contested over whether or not a petition or bill should even be presented for debate. Sometimes they argued about whether a bill should be read for a first time, or whether once read it should be read a second time. Numerous other procedural debates occurred. The substance of most issues which came before the House was thoroughly debated.

By the time Lee entered the Assembly, the House committee system was fully developed. Burgesses worked often in committees, providing almost limitless opportunities for a man to impress his colleagues with rhetorical skills. Dozens of times four or five men hammered out an address or a bill. Even more often a like or larger number discussed the merits of private petitions and claims and decided what recommendations regarding each should be made to the House. All bills received three readings, usually being committed to a special or standing committee for a careful examination and perhaps amendment after the second reading. Important bills were usually debated in committee of the whole with critical decisions often made there.53

The man who had been most responsible for a bill approved in the House would be directed to “carry it up to the Council for their concurrence.” Usually this carrier was the man who originally introduced the bill or the chairman of the committee which prepared or handled the bill. Regular delegation of this seemingly tedious task to important members of the House probably indicated that on occasion, if not always, the Council inquired into the justifications for the legislation.54 The legislative leader for each bill would have been best at explaining its provisions or most persuasive as he expressed the need for it.

Considerably before Lee entered the Assembly the Council had ceased initiating legislation. Substantive debates in that chamber therefore differed in character from those of the House. Councillors still read a bill three times when they received it from the Burgesses and often suggested amendments. The Burgesses sometimes “disagreed to” the amendments and the Council occasionally replied that the Council “do insist upon” the amendments.55 If the Burgesses persisted some bills died; at other times conference committees met to attempt reconciliation of the differences.56 Occasionally outvoted Councillors entered their objections to a measure in the legislative journal.57 The protestors wanted to inform others, especially English officials, that they had voted no and why. When sitting, both in their legislative and executive capacities, Councillors had countless opportunities for effective rhetoric to influence governmental decisions.

All members of the Assembly employed rhetoric to influence policies of the home government. The closest, most common object of their persuasion was, naturally, the Governor. Councillors, sitting as advisors, regularly communicated directly and personally with him. Since the Governor’s formal addresses to the Assembly included the Council they always prepared an address in reply. Except, however, for the occasions when the Council intended the Governor to transmit their address abroad, the replies seem largely ceremonial.58 The Burgesses, who had less personal contact with the Governor, used their formal addresses to him more as a means of persuasion.

In opening all Assembly sessions except those meeting by adjournment, the Governor read a speech noting items needing the legislators’ attention. The Burgesses regularly replied to the Governor’s speech with an address intended as a rhetorical instrument. After the Governor spoke, the House Speaker obtained a copy of the speech and read it again to the Burgesses when they returned to their own chamber. They invariably answered within a day or two, though in varying manners. First, the House usually approved resolutions stating the substance to be contained in the reply. When no serious controversy loomed and the Burgesses made only one rejoinder to the Governor’s address, the resolutions occasionally contained the exact words of the address. More often the House desired that the resolutions be phrased in more elegant language before presentation to the Governor. If so, a single member or small committee was appointed to cast the resolutions into the proper language.59 Sometimes, however the immediate reply merely extended thanks to the Governor for his gracious attention to the needs of the colony and assured him that the Burgesses would continue, in their “inviolable attachment to the King,” to give serious consideration to the issues he raised. On these occasions, the House later resolved into committee of the whole to consider “the Governor’s speech” or “the state of the colony.” After debate, the committee of the whole reported resolutions and the House appointed a committee to provide the proper phrases. When the committee reported an address, the Burgesses reacted in various ways. Sometimes the address was laid on the table and considered later in committee of the whole; sometimes it was passed without debate; sometimes it was debated and amended immediately. But however they dealt with it, when the phrasing finally satisfied the Burgesses, the member or committee who prepared the address either presented it or was directed to “wait on the Governor” to inquire when the entire House might present it.

Members of both houses needed to influence officials and agencies in England. To do so they sent memorials, addresses, or representations prepared in the same manner as those to the Governor. Many purposes motivated these addresses. The Virginians wanted to explain their reasons for some action or defend themselves against accusations, to seek relief from English legislation considered oppressive or protest disallowance of laws.60

Most colonial assemblies, recognizing that writing alone could not secure their interests in Britain, appointed agents to speak to English officials for the colonists. A conflict of long duration surrounded the Virginia agency. The Governor and Council appointed Virginia’s agent; thus, the Burgesses thought, controlled his allegiance, even though he supposedly represented the entire colony.61 Periodically throughout the eighteenth century, the Burgesses appointed special representatives to England and usually managed to find ways of persuading the Governor to assent to compensating these appointees. Finally in 1759 the House utilized a military appropriations bill to secure Governor Fauquier’s consent for a bill allowing appointment of an agent over whom the House exercised influence.62 Thereafter, until 1770, Virginia had two agents in England, one representing the Governor and Council and one primarily representing the House, though technically appointed by all three.

As a channel of communication between the colony and Britain, an agent was limited only by his instructions. He was expected to represent the colony before British executive agencies and officials in order to secure confirmation of laws, to lobby against unfavorable English legislation, to be a source of accurate information passed both ways, to handle appeals from colonial courts, to promote the colony’s trade, and to accomplish untold miscellaneous assignments. The bill authorizing House participation in appointing an agent also created an eleven member correspondence committee to “transmit such matters and things to him as shall be committed to their charge by the General Assembly; and to receive from him information and intelligence of his proceedings.” Many of the most influential legislators became members of this committee which regularly delegated petitions and addresses to the agent’s care with instructions that he should do whatever he deemed necessary to bring the papers to the attention of the proper people.63

Skillful use of rhetoric aided the young Virginian aspiring to leadership in another manner. Even though he might inherit a sizable estate, to remain a wealthy planter required that he be a successful planter. Being a successful planter involved rhetorical skills. Legend has often obscured the fact that a Virginian born to the planter elite did not enter a secure or a truly leisure class. In the Virginia in which Richard Henry Lee was born, even the great planter seldom lived on rental income, and the economic status of most was insecure.64 For instance, William Byrd III lost nearly the whole of his great inherited fortune because he failed to devote great time and energy to business. Even better illustration is the evidence drawn from studying the tangled Treasury note scandal of 1766.65 Perhaps the only clear conclusion regarding this affair is that economic security belonged to few of even the greatest Virginia planters. Many were deeply indebted to the Speaker-Treasurer, John Robinson, for funds he had loaned them from the colony Treasury. Twenty-five prominent Virginians owed Robinson more than 1,000 pounds; nearly 100 had debts between 100 and 1,000 pounds; while another 120 owed lesser amounts. A recent historian of the House of Burgesses wrote, “the list of debtors to the Robinson estate sounds like a roster of Tidewater elite.”66 Nor did the debtors easily repay. More than fifteen years passed before the estate administrators finally paid the state all monies due, with liquidation even then possible largely because of inflated paper money.

High living, including fondness for gambling, accounted for some of the planter’s debts, but economic conditions contributed largely to the Virginians’ problems. Planters, large as well as small, were at the mercy of a one-product economy and a market, which, though in a long-term decline, fluctuated often and wildly, quite beyond control. Many of the elite came to disaster or the brink of it more than once, the wealthy finding their vast lands of little value when ready cash was demanded.

Confronted with economic insecurity, planters found rhetorical skills helpful. Persuasive communication was often necessary to appease creditors. Virginians needed to persuade merchants to cover protested bills, to rend more goods even though a previous account was unsatisfied, or to postpone bringing suit. Since most of the debts were due in England, Virginians wrote volumes of letters. They solicited aid, support or indulgence from individuals, firms and agencies. Letters were important rhetorical documents in this society, and the successful planter skillfully employed this major contact with England.

Being a successful planter also required administrative abilities, some of which are largely rhetorical: the ability to organize men and ideas, to communicate clearly and persuasively with subordinates, traders and creditors. Contrary to what he probably believed about himself, the successful planter needed much more to be effective as an administrator and businessman than as a farmer.67 A description of the one hundred richest Virginians in the 1780s reported that “usually the great planter had far-flung possessions, which took the form sometimes of speculative tracts in the West but often of well-developed plantations . . . Half of these men had estates in four or more counties.”68 The description is probably appropriate for Virginians two or three decades earlier.69 If not, the difference would emphasize the planters’ business abilities. If they widened their holdings between 1750 and 1780, they engaged in successful land speculation and development.

Managing diverse plantations required that a planter be able to direct and coordinate many workers, both paid and slave. Ownership of 80 or more slaves was not unusual, and often-hired overseers supervised the work. Each large plantation resembled a small village of artisans, laborers, dependents and supervisors, all largely fed, clothed, and housed within its boundaries. Tools, textiles and wine Virginians usually imported; but plantation residents did and made almost everything else needed for survival. In addition to preparing tobacco for market, they raised and processed their own food, converted cloth into clothing, made the bricks, hewed the timber, and built the buildings. Responsibility for coordinating and carrying out all these tasks rested upon the planter. Successful accomplishment both required and rewarded rhetorical ability.

Describing the leadership role also requires description of the ideas and beliefs a society expects from its leaders. The basic premises and goals expected of political leaders in the Virginia of Richard Henry Lee’s youth can be found in format and ceremonial addresses, letters, newspapers, pamphlets and diaries. Statements of these ideas do not appear in philosophical treatises; Virginians in the middle of the eighteenth century wrote little political philosophy. One of their ablest governors, Francis Fauquier, described Virginia leaders well when he said, “whoever charges them with acting upon a premeditated concerted plan, don’t know them.” 70 Fauquier believed, “they mean honestly, but are Expedient-Mongers in the highest degree.” Events later forced some Virginians into thoughtful exposition of their philosophical positions, but this had not happened by mid-century.

From the welter of “Expedient” papers, however, basic themes can be gleaned. Predictably, English themes and symbols dominate. Eighteenth-century Virginia leaders were expected to be loyal to Britain and her institutions, to express devotion to the country and King, to uphold the principles of government which made Britons in the eighteenth century the freest and most “blest” of men.71 These expressions abound. They occurred in speeches to the governor, humble petitions to the King from his “dutiful and loyal subjects,” open letters in newspapers and pamphlets. Writers regularly cited their pride in English heritage and their devotion to British institutions. Virginians repeatedly expressed reverence for symbols of English government: the Magna Charta, the Bill of Rights, English common law, representative government and Britain’s peculiar institution, the limited monarchy. Many examples could be cited. The address of the Burgesses to the Governor in February 21, 1745, stated, “we will unite in every Means our Power can reach . . . to give the amplest proof of our Duty and Affection to His Majesty King GEORGE, and of our Zeal to maintain the Succession of the Crown. . . .72 The Burgesses considered the constitutional monarchy as “the surest Bulwark of our Religion, the best Guardian of our Liberties, and the strongest Support of our happy Constitution.” This outpouring of loyalty came in response to the governor’s report that Charles the Pretender had attempted to recapture the English throne. After assuring the governor of their strong affection for the monarch, the House and Council promptly agreed to address the King. They professed that even though separated by much distance, they still were “ready to oppose ourselves to ev’ry Danger whch can effect ye Safety of your Majesty’s sacred Person & Family. . . .” Since the constitutional monarchy was “the surest Defence, under God, of British Freedom & Religious Truth,” the zealous Virginians unalterably opposed “any Subverson of our most excellent Establishmt in Church or State.”73

Perhaps the professions of loyalty and affection were to be expected in declarations made to the home government, but they permeated the fabric of political thinking. They occurred in all types of writing and speaking about politics and politicians, appearing sometimes in odd places, woven into the preamble of a law, for in-stance. Often acts granting supplies to prosecute wars contained professions of loyalty and pride.74 Even an obituary might reflect pride in British governmental inheritances. When Sir John Randolph, who represented the colony in England during a controversy over a tobacco law, died at the age of forty-four, his obituary praised him for asserting the “just rights and natural liberties of mankind.”75

In the heat of arguments, Virginians still emphasized their pride in English institutions. That their government secured to them the constitutional rights of Englishmen they seldom failed to assert confidently. The Burgesses, objecting to the Governor’s attempt to assess a fee on land patents in 1752, said, “The Rights of the Subject are so secured by Law, that they cannot be deprived of the least Part of their Property, but by their own Consent.”76 The Burgesses knew this constitutional right of Englishmen was theirs: “Upon this excellent Principle is our Constitution founded, and ever since this Colony has had the Happiness of being under the immediate Protection of the Crown. . . .” Britain’s constitutional monarchy assured that “no Man’s Life, Member, Freehold or Goods, be taken away or harmed, but by established and known laws.”77 Richard Bland in 1764 stated his belief that “the present inhabitants of Virginia” descended from freeborn Englishmen who conquered “this country [and] they could not Jose their native privileges by their conquests.” Bland believed that “under an English government all men are born free,” which guaranteed the colonists “the birthright of every Englishman.”78 George Mason, writing two years later, declared that Americans were but “contending for their birth-right.”79 He went on to point out that his were the sentiments of “an Englishman,” “a zealous assertor of the Act of Settlement . . . who adores the wisdom and happiness of the British Constitution.”80 Bland’s and Mason’s ideas were not new to this society. William Byrd II in 1732 cited approvingly Colonel Spotswood’s comment that the Parliament should not force Massachusetts to provide a permanent salary for her governors because it would be “against the Right of Englishmen to be taxt, but by their Representatives.”81 How apt was Mason’s description: these “principles of freedom” the colonists and their “fellow-subjects in Great Britain” had “both sucked in with our mother’s milk.”82 Devotion to and pride in English traditions were the intellectual inheritance of Richard Henry Lee’s generation.

Yet Virginians emphasized specific themes and symbols differently from the English. The Glorious Revolution, especially, did not have the same significance. Virginians gave it lip service, as they shared the English veneration of Locke’s writing. The resulting eleva tion of Parliament that occurred in England, however, was not echoed in America.83 Americans de-emphasized those themes in Locke encouraging parliamentary supremacy, and began to bestow upon the local, colonial assemblies the same glories and privileges the English conferred upon the Parliament. Indeed, the growing belief that the General Assembly was the local equivalent of Parliament became the fundamental rhetorical theme of Virginia’s political leaders after 1750. They considered the Assembly locally omnipotent except in actions affecting the entire empire or its trade. The representation written by the Council and Burgesses following disallowance of ten of the acts passed in the 1748 revision of Virginia laws provides a good example. The Virginians argued that their laws should be allowed to stand unless “repugnant” to the laws of England.84 Later controversies, such as that over disallowance of the Twopenny Acts, made even clearer that Virginians believed they should be able to legislate as they pleased regarding the internal affairs of their colony.85

The entire struggle over the nature of the imperial constitution which occurred in the eighteenth century may be viewed as a development in theory, or as a theoretical rationalization of a power struggle. Either way, one result of the long debate was that arguments enunciating privileges and rights of the Virginia legislature became persistent rhetorical themes by the 1750s.

The controversy raised by Governor Dinwiddie’s pistole fee, assessed for affixing the seal of the colony on land patents, provides an excellent illustration of the adaptation of English symbols and themes to Virginia institutions and conditions.86 Burgesses sensed the fee, an innovation by Dinwiddie, to be a threat. They contested at first with the Governor, then carried the controversy to England. The House authorized the amazing sum of 2500 pounds to support Peyton Randolph’s effort of stating their position in England. The Virginians wanted to emphasize that in the contest with Dinwiddie they were not objecting to their sovereign, but protesting “against the usurpation of a viceroy.”87 Every address they made in the controversy protested their loyalty to the British sovereign and, by implication, the nation. Among the identifiable men whose responses typified the thinking of House leaders were Landon Carter and Richard Bland. Bland’s analysis of representation is typical: “the rights of the subjects are so secured by law that they cannot be deprived of the least part of their property without their own consent.” He continued, expressing a belief familiar to his fellow Virginians. These principles were fundamental to “evry person who has the felicity to live under a British government.”88 In the pistole fee controversy, the Governor consulted with the Council in advance and they approved the fee. Naturally, in the ensuing contest, the Councillors defended the Governor’s right to assess the tax. Councillors could do so without negating their belief that, assent of local legislators was necessary to local laws. The opportunity to give prior authorization conditioned Council approval of Dinwiddie’s action. Had he assessed the pistole fee without consulting them, the Council’s concurrence with the Burgesses, who had not been asked in advance, could have been safely predicted. How safely is demonstrated by their total concurrence with the Burgesses in similar arguments during the later controversy over the Twopenny Acts.89

To amplify and support their fundamental rhetorical themes, Virginians called upon tradition and precedent. Though it is easy for later generations to forget that the House of Burgesses celebrated its centennial in 1719, none who were members when Richard Henry Lee joined them failed to note that Virginia was “his Majesty’s most Antient Colony & Dominion.” Repeatedly Burgesses noted that precedent of many years justified their conduct.90 The age and consequent maturity of Virginia society by 1750 help explain the extent to which another symbol common to both the colony and the parent state acquired different meanings. Patriotism, a deep-seated emotion of every man proud to be a Briton, by the middle of the eighteenth century also mean pride in being Virginian. Again, examples abound. Landon Carter, writing in 1759, prepared a pamphlet designed for publication in England. He wrote that he wanted to explain the actions of the “legislative Body of my Country.”91 Bland, writing in defense of the Burgesses during the Twopenny Act controversy, was anxious to “wipe off these severe reflections from my Country.”92 Richard Henry Lee wrote the colony’s agent seeking an appointment to the Council, citing as his reason for seeking the office the “desire I have to do my country service.”93 Richard Ambler, writing his sons who were at school in England, admonished them to study diligently and observe the “Trade and Commerce” as conducted there because it would “prove useful . . . when you come to settle here in your own Country.”94 In each case “my country” referred to Virginia, not Britain.

Almost every reply by the House of Burgesses to an address by the Governor suggested the implications of their patriotism. The Burgesses intended to serve the King and the Mother country, certainly. But they would best show their “dutiful Regard to the Honour and Dignity” of the King and their “just Concern for the Interest of our Country” by concurring with the Governor “in every Measure that is necessary . . . for the Welfare and Prosperity of this Colony.”95 By mid-century political leaders conceived their task to be service of the interests of their constituency and the King. More than one time did they tell a Governor they would be most willing to concur with him in “any Measure that may tend to the Honour of our most Gracious and Excellent Sovereign, and the Prosperity and Safety of This His most antient Colony.”96

That prominent men could use “my country” to mean Virginia clearly forecast their impending battles. Few Virginians perceived in the 1750s that any inconsistency existed between their two devotions. That they could not venerate all the British institutions and all those specifically Virginian at the same time was inconceivable. Two decades later it would not be. The potential diversion of these two devotions fully occupied the Virginia legislature in the ensuing twenty-five years.

The Environment

Finally, role analysis must examine the setting in which leadership occurs. Men in power follow the traditions of their group and act according to established patterns. But since few environments are stable and totally controllable, political leaders must react to events they do not expect and deal with situations they cannot control. Thus, understanding the economic and political environment of the Virginia in which Richard Henry Lee matured is necessary in understanding the leadership role to which he aspired.

Born to the planter elite and nursed on its eighteenth-century traditions, a young man at mid-century who aspired to lead Virginia nourished expectations that he would master his own destiny because he seemed able to dominate his immediate environment. But he soon entered a larger would where his control diminished, for Virginia society in 1750 was primarily characterized by instability, both political and economic. This condition of life sat hard upon the Virginia gentry. They expected to dominate and were accustomed to prosperity. But instead, Virginia leaders in her “golden age̶ were destined to deal with a series of events which created great upheavals in their erstwhile genteel way of life.

Economic instability derived primarily from three sources: a non-diversified economy, a lack of control over the economy and wartime conditions. By their excessive reliance on tobacco production, Virginians created numerous economic difficulties for themselves. They sold tobacco in Britain and purchased goods there, leaving themselves almost no local medium of exchange.97 The delay existing between production of tobacco and its marketing would have created a constant debt for Virginians even without the long-term eighteenth-century decline in tobacco prices. Planters often endured years of little or no production because tobacco plants are highly susceptible to extremes of weather. Quick land exhaustion resulting from tobacco culture also reduced the size and quality of crops. Since their tobacco had to reach England before they realized any profit, Virginians sacrificed both potential profit and control over marketing by relying almost entirely on English or New England traders to move their product to market.98

Even if they had not relied excessively on tobacco, and if they had controlled shipping, Virginians would still have differed little from the other American colonists in being unable to control the markets for which they produced. Since the colonies were established for commercial purposes, Britain encouraged a tendency, which might have been natural even under un-manipulated economic conditions. Any commercial planter in America produced almost exclusively for European markets. No colonists controlled market conditions or prices for their products. Virginians repeatedly attempted to influence their markets by controlling the quality of exported tobacco. But any influence exerted by one colony could not offset the fact that tobacco was produced in other colonies also, and oversupply continued to depress the market. Furthermore, even those controls, largely political, which Virginians might have imposed to regulate their own economy ultimately succeeded only if approved by British policy and officials. Virginians’ goals sometimes differed from those of the British, and the resulting conflicts over economic controls created instability.99 Virginians’ attempts to use import duties to regulate the slave trade illustrate. Fears of both economic and social effects of the too rapid increase in the black population led Virginians to attempt repeatedly to inhibit slave importation. Almost as consistently the imperial authorities vetoed the laws as undue interference in affairs of British merchants and undue restriction of trade.100

The recurring wars, a final factor creating instability, probably had minor effects compared to the other sources. Still the effects of war influenced an already troubled economy.101 When British troops arrived, they created an unusual local demand for supplies. War spending created an artificially inflated economy. Each time the fighting ended the markets and other boosts to the economy also ended. The resulting economic re-allocations were often painful. Serious financial problems followed the French and Indian wars, especially the last when heavy taxation, an unstable exchange rate and large paper money issues all contributed to economic unease in Virginia.102

Inability of Virginians to exercise political controls over their society compounded the economic instability. Theirs was a colonial government with all the resultant administrative problems. The three to six months required for messages and instructions to cross the Atlantic accentuated the difficulties. As the colonial society matured, political maturity also developed.103 Yet, however capable the Virginia officials may have felt or actually been to handle their own local affairs, they shared control with non-indigenous officials. Some British officials actually resided within the colony, but officials in England made many decisions, which affected and disturbed the Virginians. Policies for governing Virginia emanated from two sources whose viewpoints did not always coincide.

Moreover, both the local imperial levels of the government exercised control over adoption of policies. The Virginia Assembly controlled most of the revenue for administering internal government. Only the Governor, the Auditor-General and the Attorney-General received salaries not subject to Assembly approval. The Assembly often influenced even the governor’s conduct with “gifts” of appreciation which could vary in size or be withheld depending on his cooperativeness.104 Local control increased especially at the times when the English needed Virginia’s cooperation to conduct imperial wars. At the same time, imperial authorities exercised veto power over laws initiated in Virginia and thus could prevent policies they opposed. Another imperial control, inconsistently utilized, required that a suspending clause be included in all legislation altering laws previously assented to the Privy Council.105 This clause suspended the effective date of a law until local authorities received notification of the Crown’s assent, given through the Board of Trade. In practice the suspending clause was often omitted or ignored, but this very inconsistency in its use created confusion, as did the inevitable delays resulting from its use.

On occasion, the English either insisted upon the suspending clause or vetoes laws Virginians felt strongly about. The 1748 revision and codification of the laws by the Assembly that occurred only a decade prior to Richard Henry Lee’s election is an excellent case in point. It also illustrates the difficulties created by seemingly interminable delays in reviewing legislation. Sixty-seven revised laws, representing the work of more than a year, were transmitted to England after the session closed in May, 1749.106 Not until August, 1751, did the Board of Trade report to the King. The Privy Council ordered repeal of ten of the acts and the King’s proclamation of repeal bore the date October 31, 1751. The news did not reach Virginia until April, 1752.107 Little imagination is required to sense the consternation in Assembly on April 8 when Governor Dinwiddie called the legislators before him and reported he had just received word that ten laws passed three years earlier had been repealed. One vetoes law presented a special problem. It had codified several different laws regulating the General Court. Cases determined in the interim might now be considered not legally binding. The Assembly hastily passed a law declaring valid the proceedings of the court “between the Commencement and Repealing” of the act.108 Frustration doubtless increased because of the seemingly innocuous nature of some laws repealed. Disallowance of “An Act for allowing Fairs to be kept in the town of Suffolk and preventing Hogs and Goats going at large therein,” or acts “for establishing a Town in Augusta County” and “to prevent the Building of Wooden Chimnies in the Town of Walkerton” was hard to understand.109

The King’s official assent to the other fifty-seven laws disturbed the local legislators perhaps even more. This, they sensed, created a situation in which “We have not full Power now to revise alter or amend the same” without the suspending clause. Being required to use the suspending clause, they believed, would create “great Hardships and Inconveniences.”110 Four years delays before legislation became effective would create even more difficulties in governing than would a veto four years later. Naturally, the Assembly protested by preparing an “Address and Representation,” but secured change in the vetoes of only two of the laws.

The royal veto created instability in Virginia whether the local legislators chose to protest a particular use or not. The veto was exercised by men with largely second-hand knowledge of America. Most had never visited the colonies and most would not have legislated differently if they had. Since English officials often differed greatly from second and third generation colonial residents in their beliefs about the purpose of colonies, inevitably the English and Virginians differed regarding needed legislation. Inevitably the differences created instability. In the eighteenth century, English officials made economic policy from an imperial viewpoint. This view, later described as mercantilism, dictated that colonies existed to supply the parent state with raw materials it did not have and to provide a market for its manufactured goods.111 As a result, Britain encouraged Virginia to produce tobacco. The empire thus did not have to share its wealth by purchasing tobacco elsewhere; English ships profited from the carrying trade; and the British navy had a trained supply of manpower. Furthermore, British traders and manufacturers profited from selling goods and slaves to Virginians. Virginians, in selling their raw materials to England, earned purchasing power in a sheltered market. In theory both parties benefited; mercantilism was not intentionally exploitative. Nor had the system, in fact, operated to the economic disadvantage of England’s American colonies before 1750, perhaps because offending portions of mercantilist legislation had not yet been enforced. Prsperity of most colonists exceeded that of comparable groups in the homeland.112

Decisions based on the imperial point of view did not always coincide with desires of local inhabitants. British treatment of the American iron industry illustrates. The British tried to encourage production of crude iron by allowing free import of iron ore, but they legislated against erection of slitting or plating mills or steel furnaces in America.113 But as the back country filled and tobacco became less profitable, the attractiveness of manufacturing grew. Actual conflict over the potentially divisive issue never occurred, though it might have, perhaps because for much of the century the mercantilist laws were not enforced. More likely, however, conflict growing from English mercantilist legislation remained potential in Virginia, because by the time tobacco profits dropped sufficiently that economic diversification became necessary, more explosive differences separated the local and imperial governments.

Decisions made in Britain sometimes created instability in Virginia even when no conflicts of imperial philosophy were involved. Because the highest authorities of government were in Britain, Virginia’s internal conflicts could be carried overseas for resolution. Decisions in these cases occasionally seemed capricious to some Virginians. Disallowance in 1760 of the Twopenny Acts is a good example. A short term Virginia law allowed 1758 taxes to be paid in money in lieu of the long-standing law requiring payment with tobacco. The 1758 act, therefore, was an amending act, but did not include a suspending clause. The one-year duration would have been meaningless with a suspending clause. Severe drought created the need for the law as very short crops pushed tobacco prices up. Thus taxes were, it seemed to most Virginians, raised precipitously. Moreover, some people raised no tobacco at all in 1758. If the former law were enforced, these drought stricken planters had no means of paying taxes and their property was subject to suit.114 When a similar situation existed in 1755 the Assembly had passed a similar act. An even earlier precedent for the last Twopenny law was that two counties threatened by a tobacco shortage in 1753 had been allowed to pay taxes with money instead of tobacco. Governor Dinwiddie had assented to the three earlier laws even without the suspending clause. The Assembly, including the new governor, could and did claim they had acted on the good faith of established precedent.

The conflict arose because local clergymen viewed the law differently. Among the tax obligations it affected were those paid to support the clergy. For them the act cut potential income drastically, and some believed, unjustly. When the dissatisfied clergy had exhausted all possible appeals within the colony without receiving satisfaction, they took the case to England.115 The ministers, led by John Camm, requested the Privy Council to declare the offending law null and void. They did not achieve their objective, but the Council did disallow the act and rebuked the popular governor for failing to insist on the suspending clause. The Privy Council action offended Virginia legislators, partly because of the rebuke to the popular Fauquier and partly because they had been over-ruled by the British.

Having partially secured their aims, some local clergymen initiated suits attempting to recover lost income. This phase of the controversy generated much heat. Richard Bland, Landon Carter, and John Camm exchanged acrimonious pamphlets.116 Some clergy won their suits; some did not. In one of the trials Patrick Henry made a fiery speech which aided his rise to prominence.117 Many arguments enunciated during the battle related to the later revolutionary conflicts. The event is important here, however, to illustrate the growth of a local controversy to enormous proportions because the arrangements of imperial administration allowed an outside agency to reverse local government.

British decisions regarding policies affecting Virginia, finally, sometimes were capricious, not just seemingly so. Sudden changes in colonial policies occasionally occurred because of factors totally unrelated to the colony or its problems. Use of trade regulation as a mechanism of imperial administration exemplifies. The British were warned early in the eighteenth century that the colonies were developing “independent” tendencies. The British initiated only intermittent action to correct the tendencies, not because of imperial policy, but as a result of the political situation in England. Wars, European politics and the insecurity of the Hanoverian succession largely occupied the government during the first half of the eighteenth century. No ministry had much time to devote to matters of imperial administration as long as these more critical problems confronted it.118 Erratic enforcement of existing laws probably inevitably resulted.

Policies sometimes changed purely on the whim of the currently responsible administrator. Robert Dinwiddie provided an example of this kind of change when he attempted to impose the pistole fee. In perspective the fee was not large; Virginia land still cost less than comparable land in neighboring colonies. Yet the Burgesses, not consulted by Dinwiddie, felt that their exclusive rights in matters of taxation and finance had been violated.119 The bitter controversy precipitated a long series of position statements and much political maneuvering. It largely interrupted normal economic and government activities. Though neither side won a complete victory in the ultimate decision, the Virginians had been required to react unexpectedly to a policy change unrelated to any overall imperial policy or development. Similar instability was possible with each new imperial administrator on either side of the ocean.

A final characteristic of the young Richard Henry Lee’s political environment perhaps most affected the actions and rhetoric of Virginia leaders in the ensuring decades. The theory and the facts of their government did not coincide. The philosophy of government to which Virginia political leaders subscribed held that the English governmental system was the most perfect man had yet invented. But the English theory had not provided justification for the development of colonial governments. Political philosophers had not recognized or vindicated colonial acquisition of some powers formerly held by imperial authorities. Separation of powers the English and the colonists understood. Both read Locke and knew Montesquieu. But neither theorist wrote of divided sovereignty. Neither provided he warrant for colonial governments sharing the powers of the imperial government. If asked, English and colonists alike in 1750 would have agreed with William Pitt’s words of 1766, when he described the parliament “as the supreme governing and legislative power” for all the empire.120 They would also have accepted Edmund Burke’s 1774 statement that “The Parliament of Great Britain sits at the head of her extensive empire . . . she superintends all the several inferior Legislatures, and guides and controls them all. . . .”121 One hundred fifty years of maturation by the Virginia legislature, however, had brought it to a position in fact more powerful than allowed by this theory. It had come to share Parliament’s sovereignty. When the English government at last devoted attention to matters of imperial administration, steps would be designed to once again make the facts fit the theory.122

This, then, was the role of a political leader in the environment in which Richard Henry Lee matured, that of mid-eighteenth-century Virginia. The colonial Virginia leader needed to be a wealthy man, but his wealth was seldom secure. He needed to be acceptable to the local elite, and for some offices, acceptable to the imperial government as well. His leadership tasks required that he be dedicated and conscientious, even though many of his followers were not. He needed to be an effective persuader to attain his office, and similarly to maintain it, for few Virginia offices were sinecures. Moreover, once he had gained office, effective rhetoric made him influential with his colleagues and elevated him to high position within the legislature. He was expected to be loyal to his King and to the British nation and to serve both unselfishly. Though he often did not realize it, his loyalty was divided. He truly believed that his devotion to England surpassed all else, but in truth he was often more devoted to Virginia. He was proud to be Virginian. In 1750 he did not see that these two devotions would ultimately come into mortal conflict. He was a planter-administrator, accustomed to ruling. But paradoxically he lived in a political and economic environment characterized most of all by instability he could not control. Finally, the reality of his political environment differed vastly from its theoretical form.

Succeeding chapters of this paper, in discussing the rhetoric of one man who became a Virginia leader, include analysis of events that occurred when the imperial authorities attempted to make the facts fit the theory. These British efforts threatened the position of colonial Virginia leaders. How Virginia leaders reacted to this threat to their power is the macrocosm in which the story of Richard Henry Lee, Virginia leader 1764–1774, is the microcosm.



1. The Governor was technically a member of the Council, though the legislative journals of the Council indicate that he never sat with them in that capacity after 1750, H. R. McIlwaine (ed.), Legislative Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (3 vols.; Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1918–1919), hereafter cited as LJC.

2. Lucille B. Griffith, Virginia House of Burgesses 1750–1774 (Northport, Ala.: Colonial Press, 1963), p. 14; Jack P. Greene, The Quest for Power: The Lower Houses of Assembly in the Southern Royal Colonies 1689–1776 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), pp. 27–28.

3. Approval or disallowance came officially from the Privy Council. Actual procedure involved prior review and recommendation to the Council from the Board of Trade, though it is hard to determine if the Board’s recommendations were invariably adhered to by the Privy Council. Imperial administrative machinery was complex and inefficient so that precise location of responsibility was and is difficult, if not impossible. Leonard W. Labaree, Royal Government in America (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1930), pp. 5, 29; Thomas C. Barrow, Trade and Empire: The British Customs Service in Colonial America 1660–1775 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 110–13.

4. Virginians’ handling of their paper money and of wartime appropriations, discussed at length in chapter three of this study, provide examples.

5. William Waller Hening (ed.), The Statues at large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619 (facsimile reprint; Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1969), IV, 327–28.

6. Griffith, pp. 14–15; Greene, Quest, pp. 21–31; Richard Henry Lee to Arthur Lee, 20 December 1766, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, ed. James C. Ballagh (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912), I, 19. The collection of Lee’s letters is hereafter cited as RHL, Letters.

7. In addition to those offices discussed in the text, the constable who as an officer of the court of a single justice performed duties similar to the sheriff, and the coroner who held inquests and performed the sheriff’s duties in his absence were officers of importance. The account of county government is based on Albert O. Poerter, County Government in Virginia: A Legislative History, 1607–1904 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947), pp. 42–105; Oliver P. Chitwood, Justice in Colonial Virginia (Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Vol. XXIII. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1905), pp. 75–121; Griffith, pp. 3–6.

8. Cases a single justice could decide were those for amounts less than 25 shillings current money or 200 pounds tobacco.

9. Greene, Quest, p. 25; Griffith, p. 14; Labaree, pp. 135–41.

10. For description of the electorate, see below.

11. Griffith, p. 15.

12. Ibid., p. 8.

13. Porter, pp. 48–49.

14. Ibid., pp. 68–70; Griffith, p. 5.

15. See for example, Hening, Statutes, VI, 258–60, 272–73; VII, 144–46, 301–4.

16. Griffith, p. 16; Greene, Quest, p. 472; J. P. Kennedy and H. R. McIlwaine (eds.), Journals of the House of Burgesses (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1909), VII, 258, hereafter cited as JHB.

17. Greene, Quest, pp. 24–25; Jack P. Greene, “Foundations of Political Power in the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1720–1776,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, XVI (October, 1959), 485–92.

18. Note, for instance, the comment of John Robinson, Speaker-Treasurer of the House, in 1758: “it is not uncommon for the Interest of the Colonies and that of their Governors to be very opposite,” John Robinson to William Pitt, 11 June 1758, cited in Greene, Quest, p. 281.

19. Griffith, p. 8.

20. A more thorough discussion of the resulting controversy, usually referred to as the Pistole Fee dispute, is below.

21. Greene, Quest, pp. 24–25; Greene, “Foundations,” pp. 487–89. Law and commerce provided great wealth for some men who quickly invested in land and slaves, thus blurring the distinctions in Virginia society. Among the best-known wealthy men of this type were Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, but many well-known Virginia names were among families who drew their wealth from sources besides land, Jackson T. Main, “The One Hudnred,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, XI (July, 1954), 354–84; Griffith, pp. 174–91.

22. Charles S. Sydnor, American Revolutionaries in the Making: Political Practices in Washington’s Virginia (New York: The Free Press, 1965), pp. 101–6.

23. Griffith, p. 14.

24. Jackson T. Main, The Social Structure of Revolutionary America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), pp. 120–23.

25. David J. Mays, Edmund Pendleton 1721–1803: A Biography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), I, 60. This was true if the Treasurer had 1500 pounds remaining after paying public debts. If not, the pay was 130 pounds of Tobacco per day “Going and Returning, besides Ferriages.” While it is not likely that the minimum necessary expenses incurred while serving as Burgess exceeded the reimbursement, doing the job well enough to rise in the ranks involved many indirect costs which were not, of course, repaid.

26. Greene, “Foundations,” pp. 490–91; Chitwood, Justice in Colonial Virginia, p. 93, notes that seventy per cent of the Burgesses were justices in 1714; Sydnor, p. 100, indicates that in 1776 more than seventy-five per cent were justices and that in 1789 more than seventy-five per cent of the state House of Delegates were justices. My count for the Burgesses elected in 1752 revealed more than eighty per cent who were or had been county justices, Wilmer L. Hall (ed.), Executive Journal of the Council of Colonial Virginia (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1945), V, 389–95. Furthermore, willingness to adhere to this traditional pattern of gaining office seems to have been important in acquiring influence once a man reached the House. Well known names such as Richard Bland, Peyton Randolph, Landon Carter and Richard Henry Lee appear among those who took this route to election. Among those who did not are George Douglas, John Felt, Samuel Scott, and others whose service was short and whose influence in the House was never great. Though George Washington was not appointed justice until he had been a Burgess for ten years, he is an exception for he had earned a reputation at war prior to his first election.

27. Porter, p. 68; Carl Bridenbaugh, Myths and Realities: Societies of the Colonial South (New York: Atheneum, 1965), p. 16. Of the remunerated local officers, the sheriff was prohibited by law from serving in the House. The county clerk was free to be elected Burgess and often was, but which of these offices traditionally preceded the other is uncertain. Richard Henry Lee, for instance, applied for a clerk appointment fourteen years after his first election as Burgess, Richard Henry Lee to James Steptoe, 4 July 1772, RHL Letters, I, 68.

28. Mays, I, 42; Jack P. Greene, The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter of Sabine Hall 1752–1778 (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1965), I, 432, 462, 521, 569, 585; II, 709. Carter complained repeatedly of court postponements and poor attendance, Ibid., I, 405, 641; II, 709, 937, 1072, 1121. The Virginia Almanack Williamsburg: William Hunter, 1756) presumably voiced the sentiments of many in lodging a poetic protest against the interminable delays. The poet concluded: “So many Rubs appear, the Time is gone/ for Hearing, and the Tedious Suit goes on./ Then rather let two Neighbours end your Cause,/ and Split the difference; tho’ you lose one Half:/ Than spend the whole, entangled in the Laws,/ While merry Lawyers sly, at both rides laugh.”

29. Main, Social Structure, p. 162; Bridenbaugh, pp. 21–28; Rufus R. Wilson (ed.), Burnaby’s Travels Through North America (reprinted from the third edition of 1798; New York: A. Wessels Company, 1904), pp. 54–55; Hunter D. Farish (ed.), Journal and Letters of Fithian Vickers Fithian 1773–1774 (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., 1943), pp. 212, 220–21. Fithian thought in 1774 that the crisis with Britain was inducing Virginians to mend their ways to some extent.

30. Griffith, pp. 56–58; Sydnor, pp. 35–36. A 1762 law lowered the landholding requirements, but it contained a suspending clause and never received the King’s assent, so that practices actually changed is not known.

31. Sydnor, pp. 39–40.

32. lbid., pp. 60–73. Main, pp. 44–67, 164–96, has demonstrated the high mobility, especially of the frontier population. The extent of tenantry in Virginia varied. Concentration of tenants in the Northern Neck was quite high, but this may not have been representative of the entire colony.

33. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: the Colonial Experience (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 115, claims that Washington never spent less than twenty-five pounds, but Douglas S. Freeman reported that the 1765 election, an “easy” poll in Washington’s opinion, cost only nine pounds, eleven shillings and one penny, George Washington: A Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), III, 142.

34. Main, Social Structure, p. 118.

35. Sydnor, pp. 44–59; Griffith, p. 75. For examples see JHB, VII, 34–35; VIII, 360–61; IX, 82–84; X, 269–72. The last pages cited report the often noted Littlepage case.

36. Griffith, pp. 53–56. Elections were held in 1752, 1755, 1758, 1760, 1761, 1765 and 1768.

37. Greene, Diary of Landon Carter, II, 1008.

38. Richard Henry Lee to William Lee, 1 April 1771, Autograph letter, Lloyd W. Smith Papers, Morristown Historical Park.

39. Mays, I, 61. Pendleton’s trip was at least seventy miles, longer by another route.

40. George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1931), III, 215, reports a four day trip with Mrs. Washington. Freeman notes several trips of three days or longer, III, 29, 35–36, 82, 202.

41. These tallies are based on JHB, VIII and IX. Sundays were not working days; Saturdays were.

42. The Assembly was not called in 1750 and 1751.

43. Freeman, III, 197.

44. Richard Henry Lee to William Lee, 7 July 1770, and 8 January 1771, RHL, Letters, I, 45–51, 52–55.

45. Griffith, p. 4; Porter, pp. 68–72.

46. Sydnor, pp. 91, 105; Greene, “Foundations,” pp. 485–92.

47. Farish, Journal and Letters of Fithian, pp. 220–21; Nicholas Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell 1774–1777 (London: Jonathan Cape, Ltd., 1925), p. 255; Johann David Schoepf, Travels in the Confederation 1783–1784, ed. Alfred J. Morrison (New York: Bergman Publishers, 1968), pp. 55, 65–66, 95; Bridenbaugh, Myths and Realities, pp. 24–28; Louis B. Wright, The Cultural Life of the American Colonies 1607–1763 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), pp. 10–13, 189–90.

48. The earliest extant letters of Richard Henry Lee, for instance, are those he wrote seeking support for a Council appointment, RHL, Letters, I, 1–4.

49. Sydnor, pp. 102–3. Sometimes a Burgess campaigned among his colleagues for an office within the House. At least this occurred during the content for Speaker and Treasurer after John Robinson’s death. See Richard Bland to Richard Henry Lee, 22 May 1766, and Robert Carter Nicholas to Richard Henry Lee, 23 May 1766, in Paul P. Hoffman (ed.), The Lee Family Papers 1742–1795 (Microfilm Publications; Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library, 1966), I, hereafter cited as Lee Papers.

50. Thad W. Tate, “The Coming of the Revolution in Virginia: Britain’s Challenge to Virginia’s Ruling Class, 1763–1776,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, XIX (July, 1962), 342; Sydnor, pp. 102–3; Greene, Quest, pp. 29–30; Greene, “Foundations,” pp. 485–87.

51. Oliver P. Chitwood, Richard Henry Lee: Statesman of the Revolution (Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 196717 p. 246n; Griffith, pp. 71–76.

52. S. M. Pargellis, “The Procedure of the Virginia House of Burgesses,” William and Mary Quarterly, second series, VII (April, 1927), 73–86; VII (July, 1927), 143–57, summarizes Burgesses’ procedures. He lists a wide variety of subjects on which debates occurred, pp. 151–52. Griffith’s study of specific issues within the House illustrates the constant debating, pp. 16–52. Reference to JHB, VIII and IX, discloses numerous examples throughout the decade of the 1750s, including Lee’s early years as a Burgess.

53. Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act Resolutions of 1765 are the best known of many examples of a Burgess speaking in committee of the whole and directly influencing policy decisions. This well-known incident is distinguished not by its uniqueness but by its importance. Most Virginians in 1765 agreed with the ideas expressed in Henry’s resolutions; the Assembly had unanimously assented to papers equally strong the year before. Yet the Burgesses violently debated and nearly defeated Henry’s resolutions. Henry’s bold language, his brashness in offering the resolutions as so new a Burgess, the harshness of the statements when unaccompanied by the customary lengthy protestations of loyalty, the fact that no reply to the papers of the year before had yet been received were probably in combination the reasons so many Burgesses opposed the resolutions. But in a single session of debate, perhaps even in a single speech, the Burgesses were persuaded to approve resolutions so controversial that the fifth one approved in committee was reversed the next day in Henry’s absence. Many accounts of this incident are available; this study relies primarily on Edmund S. and Helen M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (revised edition; New York: Collier Books, 1965), pp. 121–32. This book was originally published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1953.

54. Reference to any volume of JHB would illustrate. For example note JHB, IX, 236–37, 240, 245, when the task was given to Charles Carter, George Wythe and Peyton Randolph, respectively.

55. LJC, II, 1032–36 and III, 1295–98 illustrate.

56. Note, for example, LJC, II, 1027, 1036–37, 1041–44.

57. The protest entered by Richard Henry’s father, Thomas Lee, and others in LJC, II, 1037–38 illustrates. Unfortunately journals of the House are not so informative.

58. See below, pp. 116–26, for the address regarding paper money, which though addressed to the Governor was certainly intended to be sent abroad. For purely ceremonial addresses, see as examples LJC, II, 1006, 1060, 1097-98. Almost every session of Assembly provided similar examples.

59. JHB, X, 173 is one example of many possible.

60. The paper money addresses, discussed on pp. 116–26, below, explained and defended Burgesses actions. The long representation in LJC, II, 1082–87, protested disallowance of ten laws included in the legislative revision of 1748. The protests against disallowance of the Twopenny Acts discussed below, pp. 103–6, both sought changes in English law and defended Assembly action. War matters occasionally created the need to send addresses to Britain, as the Assembly did when requesting aid to defend the Virginia frontier in 1756, JHB, VIII, 388.

61. Michael G. Kammen, A Rope of Sand: The Colonial Agents, British Politics, and the American Revolution (New York: Cornell University Press, 1968), pp. 3–15, 53; James M. Leake, The Virginia Committee System and the American Revolution (Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Vol. XXXV. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1917), pp. 59–62, 70–74; Greene, Quest, pp. 278–84.

62. JHB, IX, 110, 118; LJC, III, 1210–11; Hening, VII, 276–77.

63. The Committee, named in the bill, included four Councillors and eight of the most prominent Burgesses. William and Thomas Nelson, Philip Grymes and Peter Randolph were the Councillors; John Robinson, Peyton Randolph, Charles Carter, Richard Bland, Landon Carter, Benjamin Waller, George Wythe and Robert Carter Nicholas were the Burgesses.

64. Carl Bridenbaugh, “Violence and Virtue in Virginia in 1766,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, LXXVI (January–December, 1964), 12; Bridenbaugh, Myths and Realities, p. 14; Greene, Quest, p. 23; Emory G. Evans, “Planter Indebtedness and the Coming of the Revolution in Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, XIX (October, 1962), 517–25; Freeman, III, 42–53, 87–103.

65. Mays, I, 174–208, contains the only reasonably complete historical account of the Robinson scandal. It is also virtually the only reliable account.

66. Griffith, p. 201.

67. Bridenbaugh, Myths and Realities, p. 17; Wright, pp. 10–13.

68. Main, “The One Hundred,” pp. 358–59.

69. Ibid., pp. 366–67. Main, Social Structure, pp. 193–94, 221, 239, believed that the richest of the gentry had larger estates in the earlier decades.

70. Francis Fauquier to the Board of Trade, 2 June 1760, JHB, IX, 284–85.

71. Wright, pp. viii–ix; Main, Social Structure, pp. 193–94, 221, 239; Greene, Diary of Landon Carter, I, 35–38.

72. JHB, VII, 156.

73. LJC, II, 967.

74. Hening, V, 401–2; VI, 435–36 are examples.

75. The Virginia Gazette, 11 March 1936/7, cited in Richard L. Morton, Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1960 , II, 521.

76. JHB, VIII, 143.

77. Ibid.

78. “The Colonel Dismounted,” Pamphlets of the American Revolution 1750–1776, Bernard Bailyn, editor (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1965), I, 319–20.

79. George Mason to the Committee of Merchants in London, 6 June 1766, Kate M. Rowland, The Life of George Mason, 1725–1792 (New York: Russell and Russell, Inc., 1892), I, 382.

80. 80Ibid., p. 388.

81. Cited in John S. Bassett (ed.), The Writings of Colonel William Byrd (New York: Doubleday Page and Co., 1901), p. 366.

82. Rowland, I, 384.

83. Randolph G. Adams, Political Ideas of the American Revolution (Durham, North Carolina: Trinity College Press, 1922), pp. 122–27, 160–69.

84. LJC, II, 1082–87.

85. See discussion of Two-Penny Acts below, pp. 71–73, 101–7.

86. This incident has been reported many places. Relied upon here are Morton, Colonial Virginia, II, 621–34; Greene, Quest, pp. 158–65; Jack P. Greene, “Landon Carter and the Pistole Fee Dispute,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, XIV (January, 1957) 66–69. The events can also be traced in JHB, VIII, 121–251.

87. Testimony before the Privy Council cited in Griffity, p. 29.

88. Richard Bland, A Fragment on the Pistole Fee, cited in Griffith, p. 31.

89. See discussion below, pp. 71–73, 101–7.

90. As a few examples of many possible see JHB, VII, 6, 156; VIII, 143–44; LJC, II, 967.

91. [Landon Carter], A Letter to a Gentleman in London, from Virginia (Williamsburg: William Hunter, 1759), p. 27. This pamphlet has been attributed to Peyton Randolph and is thus identified in Charles Evans, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America from the Genesis of Printing in 1639 Down to and Including the Year 1820 (Chicago: Blakely Press, 1903–1959), III, 239. Carter’s authorship is established by Greene in “Landon Carter and the Pistole Fee Dispute,” pp. 66–69.

92. Richard Bland, A Letter to the Clergy of Virginia (Williamsburg: William Hunter, 1760), p. 9.

93. Richard Henry Lee to James Abercrombie, 27 August 1762, RHL, Letters, I, 1–2.

94. Richard Ambler to his sons, 20 May 1749, in Lucille Griffith (ed.), “English Education for Virginia Youth,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, LXIX (January, 1961), 16.

95. JHB, VII, 79.

96. JHB, VII, 6.

97. When tobacco was delivered to government warehouses it was inspected and receipts issued for the amount and quality of tobacco contained in each hogshead. These notes were legal tender within the county of issue and partially filled the need for local currency.

98. Curtis P. Nettels, “British Mercantilism and the Economic Development of the Thirteen Colonies,” The Reinterpretation of the American Revolution 1763–1789, Jack P. Greene, editor (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 76–86. Richard Henry Lee commented, “Among the various difficulties that press our Country, I know of none greater than the want of Ships and Seamen,” RHL, Letters, I, 223.

99. Disallowance of the Twopenny Acts is an excellent example. See discussion below, pp. 101–7.

100. Compare below, pp. 91–92.

101. Four wars occurred in the American territories which were, in effect, French and Indian wars: King William’s War, 1689–1697 (referred to in Europe as the War of the League of Augsburg); Queen Anne’s War, 1703–1713 (called the war of the Spanish Succession in Europe); King George’s War, 1743–1748 (called by Europeans the War of Austrian Succession); and the French and Indian War, 1754–1763 (referred to in Europe as the Seven Years War). Though the last declaration of war was not until 1756, fighting actually began in summer of 1754 with the battle of Fort Necessity.

102. Morton, II, 675–77, 685–86, 705, 726; Greene, Quest, pp. 121–22; Joseph A. Ernst, “Genesis of the Currency Act of 1764: Virginia Paper Money and the Protection of British Investments,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, XXII (January, 1965), 34–47; E. James Ferguson, “Currency Finance: An Interpretation of Colonial Monetary Practices,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, X (April, 1953), 160–61.

103. The growing sense of power and prestige in the colonial assemblies illustrates, Greene, Quest, pp. 1–48; Jack P. Greene, “Role of the Lower Houses of Assembly in Eighteenth-Century Politics,” Reinterpretation of the American Revolution, pp. 86–109.

104. Greene, Quest, pp. 130–32.

105. Labaree, Royal Government in America, pp. 247–68. Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Coming of the Revolution 1763–1775 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), p. 41, indicates that only slightly more than four percent of Virginia laws were disallowed and that most went into effect when passed. He adds, however, that the “average length of time required before a law could be finally disposed of was some three years and five months.”

106. The work on revising the laws is reported in JHB, VII, 209–407.

107. Labaree, p. 261, cites the date of the Board report to the King; the Governor’s report to the Assembly is in JHB, VIII, 78; the date of the King’s proclamation is included in the representation, LJC, II, 1082–87.

108. The bill was ordered, prepared, presented, passed in both houses and received the Governor’s assent all in one day, JHB, VIII, 80–82.

109. The list of disallowed laws and the Assembly’s arguments regarding the need for them to be allowed to stand is in the representation.

110. LJC, II, 1083.

111. Thomas Barrow, Trade and Empire: The British Customs Service in Colonial America 1660–1775 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 1–3.

112. Gipson, Coming of the Revolution, p. 25; Main, Social Structure, pp. 163, 194; Oliver M. Dickerson, The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (New York: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1963), pp. 31–62;.

113. Max Savelle, A History of Colonial America, rev. Robert Middlekauff (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1964) pp. 437–39; Tate, “Coming of the Revolution,” pp. 334–35; Dickerson, pp. 48–49.

114. That was the claim of the Assembly in their petition of protest to the King, Public Record Office, Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 1330, pp. 51–53.

115. Some observers, though not all of them disinterested, disagreed that the clergy had exhausted all local appeals. Bland and the Burgesses claimed that the clergy had not appealed to the House and would have been afforded some relief had they done so, ibid. The Reverend Burnaby agreed, WIlson, Burnaby’s Travels, pp. 49–52.

116. [Landon Carter], A Letter to the Right Reverend Father in God the Lord Bishop of London (Williamsburg: William Hunter, 1759); ——, The Rector Detected: Being a Just Defence of the Two-Penny Act (Williamsburg: Joseph Royle, 1764); Richard Bland, A Letter to the Clergy of Virginia (Williamsburg: William Hunter, 1760; ——, “The Colonel Dismounted,” Pamphlets of the American Revolution, I, 302–54; John Camm, A Single and Distinct View of the Act, Vulgarly Entitled, Two-Penny Act (Annapolis: Jonas Green, 1763); —— A Review of the Rector Detected: Or the Colonel Reconnoitered (Williamsburg: Joseph Royle, 1764).

117. Richard Henry Lee, a very new Burgess at the time, was involved in the Assembly reactions to Camm and the disallowances, though he did not yet take a leadership role.

118. Barrow, pp. 113–16.

119. Morton, Colonial Virginia, II, 633.

120. Pitt to the House of Commons, 14 January 1766, in Chauncey A. Goodrich (ed.), Select British Eloquence (New York: Bobbs Merrill Company, Inc., 1963), p. 105.

121. Burke to the House of Commons, 9 April 1774, Ibid., p. 263.

122. Bernard Bailyn, The Origins of American Politics (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), pp. 66–91; Thomas C. Barrow, “Background to the Grenville Program, 1757–1763,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, XXII (January, 1965), 93–104; Barrow, Trade and Empire, p. 255.


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