Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography, by Mary Elizabeth Virginia, Chapter 5

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography

Chapter 5
The Politician

Having joined the House of Burgesses as a young, talented, and ambitious man, Lee sought successfully to break into the existing power structure. Power, at that juncture, was lodged chiefly in the hands of planters from the James River area, led by the Speaker and Treasurer of the House, John Robinson. From 1727 to his death in 1766, Robinson, having a reputation “for sound political knowledge,” and a “benevolence which created friends and a sincerity which never lost one,” was the most puissant Virginian in government. “Whatever he agreed to was Carryed and whatever he Opposed dropt,” complained Landon Carter.1 Entering the House of Burgesses in 1727, he was elected Speaker of the House ten years later.2 Since the speakership carried no financial remunerations, by 1732 the offices of Treasurer and Speaker were combined. A lucrative position, the Treasurer, appointed by an act of the legislature, received four percent of all money passing through his office. Since the speakership was unremunerated, after 1748 the Treasurer’s salary was increased to five percent.

Never comfortable with the concentration of so much political authority in one hand, the Board of Trade attempted on several occasions to separate the offices. In their efforts they were thwarted by colonial governors who required the support of Robinson and his followers for the approval of money bills. Only Robert Dinwiddie, Lieutenant Governor between 1752 and 1758, had seriously attempted separation, chiefly because he resented Robinson’s opposition to him during the Pistole Fee Controversy in which Dinwiddie had sought to impose a fee for sealing land patents. Although in every royal colony, the governor was entitled to this fee, in Virginia it had not been collected since 1689 when the Privy Council discontinued it in that colony upon complaint of the House of Burgesses for the use of improper procedure in its implementation. Collection of the pistole fee would, of course, fall heavily on the large land speculators, thus leading Robinson to become its chief critic.3

Dinwiddie’s resentment of Robinson during the Seven Years War increased when the Governor was forced to gain the Speaker—Treasurer’s support for financing the war effort. He persisted, nevertheless, with his campaign for separation, even urging his successor, Francis Fauquier to continue to do likewise. Fauquier was, however, more politic than his predecessor, advising the Board of Trade that it would be unwise to attempt separation due to Robinson being the “darling of the Country,” having “great integrity, assiduity and ability in business.” Indeed, the two men soon became fast friends and Fauquier in return was aided by Robinson’s support, disposing him to inform the Board of trade that “I have always found him the most useful Man to me, in conducting his Majesty’s business, always ready to promote every thing I have communicated to him.” Fauquier’s handling of the matter smoothed the proceedings of government enabling him to obtain his requested wartime appropriations.4

Robinson was at the height of his power in 1758 when Richard Henry Lee traveled to Williamsburg to attend his first session of the Hose. Clearly, Lee was already prejudiced against Robinson, partially because of the privileged authority he represented, but also because of the clouded history between Robinson and the Lees. When members of the Cople Parish had petitioned the House in 1755 for dissolution of their vestry claiming that Thomas Lee had illegally retained his position on that body, Robinson in his approval had responded with “very large drafts of Rancor and Revenge,” according to Landon Carter, one of Richard Henry Lee’s closest personal friends. Furthermore, the Robinson faction in concert with Governor Gooch had acted to inhibit the Lee’s Ohio Company’s petition for a grant of land. For Robinson’s Greenbrier Company and the closely aligned Loyal Company actively were in direct competition with the Ohio Company. Rivalry over land, resentment over the posthumous treatment of his father, and the type of power that Robinson represented all were at issue when Lee entered the House.5

But there was still something else that informed and encouraged Lee’s opposition to Robinson. As early as 1754 rumors were abroad that Virginia’s treasury was in default.6 And the man who ultimately would be discovered to be culpable was Treasurer Robinson. At his death in 1766, after several investigations, it was revealed that the peculations of Fauquier’s “darling of the Country” had freed the Virginia treasury of more than £100,000. In 1758, Lee, responding to accusations that had been circulating for four years, began calling for a probe into the integrity of the treasury accounts.7 Little that was substantive emerged from this early investigation and official inquiries about Robinson’s possible malfeasances were momentarily abandoned. Lee, however, was able to savor a small victory. In 1760, the House passed a bill requiring that a committee examine treasury reports at least twice a year. Robinson’s supporters naturally interpreted this as a further heinous attack upon his character.8

All of these events were called into play when Richard Henry Lee embarked upon his first session at the House of Burgesses and launched an immediate attack on Robinson calling for the separation of the offices of Speaker and Treasurer.9 Though he may have desired the speakership for himself at a later date when the issue was again brought before the House, it seems unlikely that the new Burgess would instantaneously expect that honor. Probably, he was more concerned with undermining Robinson’s influence, the better to cut an inroad for his own political career. Unquestionably Robinson was a formidable opponent, enjoying the ear of the governor and wielding more than sufficient power to prevent Lee’s appointment to a more—indeed to any lucrative position. In any event, Lee was an ambitious man and Robinson posed a potential roadblock. Furthermore, Lee legitimately objected to the concentration of so much power in one man, fearing the corruption that could easily result from it. Nothing resulted from his early movement for separation, however, because allegations about Robinson’s peculations were the still improvable stuff of crossroads gossip, and the man was so well liked that he remained in both positions. Thus temporarily the issue was laid to rest. But it was not moribund.

Faced with severe economic problems, between 1755 and 1763, including a short run depression in tobacco production, heightened demand from planters for consumer goods, increasing population and the insolvency of the public treasury, the Virginia legislature reluctantly authorized the issuance of paper currency in order to finance a rapidly escalating frontier war.10 “There never was so poor times in Virginia,” claimed Scottish Northern Neck merchant William Allason, “Our Excha. his got beyond all bounds.”11 Reservations about the wisdom of issuing money—of which there were several—were abandoned by planters who envisioned no other swift solution to the colony’s economic problems. By the close of 1755, in fact, the colony was deep within a financial crisis.12

The drain of specie in support of the war, coupled with a disappointingly small agricultural crop, propelled the Burgesses into enacting a statute creating a loan office from which £200,000 paper currency would be issued in eight year notes. Over the next seven years, this office was to further issue approximately £440,000 as a response to wartime needs.13 However transitory, the new issuances of paper money constituted legal tender for payment of public and private debts. In the meantime, taxes were channeled into a sinking fund, so that in due time, the notes could be earmarked for destruction. An Act drafted by Lee and George Wythe, in November 1761, stipulated, indeed, that all currency would be retired by 20 October 1769 and that the paper notes were to be burned immediately upon entering the Treasury.14

So desperate was the colony’s situation, even local merchants reluctantly recognized the necessity for paper money. “We observe you attribute the Rise of Exchange to the Paper money which in our opinion is very just,” wrote Allason, “but don’t you imagine it must now fall a Pace as we are not any longer at the charge of Supporting Troops.” Reassuringly, he wrote James Dunlop in Scotland that the money to be gathered in for the payment of taxes “in order to redeem the enormous Sum that our Govert. is debt shall not be put into circulation again but be burnt,” concluding that “if faithfully done and honestly accounted for must both lower the Exchange and price of Tobacco.”15 Allason was to prove prematurely optimistic. English merchants, particularly after Virginia’s further emission of £180,000 in 1757, were more skeptical. Nor were they reassured by official promises to retire the currency in 1769.

The situation was defused somewhat in 1761 when Parliament subsidized Virginia with a grant of £200,000 for the war effort, but only a temporary respite was achieved. English merchants grew impatient and were soon demanding protection against severe fluctuations in the rate of exchange. As currency depreciated, merchants requested that the debts Virginians incurred prior to 1757 be paid in sterling. They objected to the use of paper money as legal tender, calling for the option of refusing it in payment of debts. In 1763, the House of Burgesses was convened early after receiving a memorial from British merchants for payment of debt in sterling. They reacted by appointing a committee of Charles Carter, Edmund Pendleton and George Wythe which was charged with drafting an address to the Governor in reply to the merchants’ memorial.16

Meanwhile, Richard Henry Lee used the opportunity to press for a renewed inquiry into treasury matters. Four days after the committee had been appointed to address the Governor, Lee made a shocking speech, asserting that “returns to the Treasury have been insufficient.” While £150,000 should have been collected in taxes in the past five years, according to treasury records, only £85,000 had been burnt. Since only £30,000 was in the treasury, £35,000 was circulating illegally. It was, he declared, “an enormous deficiency . . . sufficient to alarm not the merchants of Britain only, but every thinking person!” Asking, “from what cause these deficiencies have arisen?” he moved that a committee be appointed to examine the treasury accounts for the past five years, comparing results to the amount of taxes having been imposed and to discover the reasons for any discrepancy.17

Secure in his entrenched position, Robinson responded, and on the 23 May a second committee was in fact charged to investigate the treasury funds for the redemption of paper money. Along with Richard Bland and Benjamin Harrison, Robinson appointed Richard Henry Lee to the committee.18 Boxed in, as it were, and either unwilling or unable to expose fraud, Lee did not object when the committee made its report the following day—a report finding that there was still a substantial issuance of paper money outstanding but not suggesting malfeasance. The Treasury was, indeed, short £40,000 but the committee attributed this shortfall to the large arrears of several county sheriffs. On paper, at least, it appeared there was no deficiency. It was the opinion of the committee, explained spokesman Bland, that the “Funds established for the Redemption of the Treasury Notes . . . will be sufficient to effect that Purpose.” Popular perception of the issue as recorded in newspapers and correspondence was again accurately reflected by merchant William Allason who claimed that Robinson had “not been sufficiently strict with the Sheriffs & Inspectors for some years past,” resulting in depreciated money which still continued to circulate. Thus Robinson was officially exonerated, but the House did implicitly illustrate some reservations in the matter, ordering the Treasurer thereafter to produce regular accounts of the Treasury notes that were to expire in March 1765 and to exchange them as he received them for the new notes “such as are to sink,” while immediately burning the old notes. There was still, however, no one charged with overseeing Robinson’s actions on this matter.19

On 28 May the committee responsible for writing the address to Governor which—though the record is not entirely clear—may have been merged with the committee for the examination of the Treasury, rendered its report, a lengthy and forceful account of its actions including justification, for the issuance of paper money as legal tender.20 Apparently, the address to Governor Fauquier was at least partially, if not entirely, drafted by Lee.21 Paper issuances were emphatically not, as the merchants had insinuated, “to answer private purposes” but were earmarked to fund a war during which an actual invasion threatened.” To the criticism that the paper money had been made legal tender, the committee replied that since they were forcing it upon their any “it would have been very unjust to have left their Creditors at liberty to take it of them or not.” The House, therefore, was obliged to make it legal tender for all payments. In conclusion, they claimed that since present holders of the treasury notes had accepted them as legal tender, to alter their essential quality would now be “an act of great injustice to such possessors.”22

The Governor was satisfied, claiming in his speech to the House and the council immediately before proroguing them that “I must candidly acknowledge that the Taxes do appear to me to be fully sufficient to answer the ends proposed.&38221;23 A few days later Virginia’s Committee of Correspondence wrote to their agent in London that the “Merchants were well secured in their property here,” and “consequently had not ye least Foundation for a complaint.” They asked, bitterly referring to the merchants’ memorial, “would it not be in ye power of avaricious men, determined at all Events to enrich themselves,” by taking the most “injurious & oppressive Advantage of their Debtors who had not ye power of procuring Specie to discharge their Debts?”24 The Burgesses, in sum, were determined to continue their policy of issuing paper money as legal tender.

Sitting on a committee consisting exclusively of Robinson’s supporters—the “Old Guard”—Lee had not chosen to pursue his accusations of an “enormous deficiency,” thus Robinson, for the moment, had been cleared of official suspicions. And temporarily Lee’s accusations were scuttled. But it would not be the last time he was to raise the subject. Although Lee had acquiesced to the proceedings by his silence over the Treasury report and in his address to the Governor, the original text of his speech is intrinsically valuable, for it varied in one significant way from that which was adopted by the House. In this document Lee had anticipated the arguments against British intervention in America and had vigorously expressed sentiments that would be heard repeatedly, but not for another decade. “We shall always pay a proper deference to the opinions of the Bd of Trade, but we presume their resolutions are not obligatory, upon us, since we claim to ourselves . . . the right of being govern’d by Laws made with our own consent.” In the circumstances, however, the committee chose to delete this passage.25

Again, Lee had anticipated the tide of political events. For, the following year, in April 1764, the colonies received word of a new imperial plan to legislate for the colonies—the Stamp Act—the greatest challenge to that date over the right of “being govern’d by Laws made with our own consent.” During the following year, Lee would become one of the leading and most vocal opponents of the Act and would accordingly become the target of a serious attack upon his integrity. Within that context, he would indubitably demonstrate that once again, first and foremost, he was a politician.

Faced with a crippling postwar debt, England in 1764 verged on bankruptcy. It seemed completely justifiable, at least to several leading Parliamentary politicians, that the American colonies should be required to contribute to the alleviation of some of the financial burden attending maintenance of the empire. The Stamp Act, though not the first, was the most famous of a series of measures that were designed to raise revenue in the colonies. By the time it was repealed, the Act had acquired an entirely new significance for it had become representative of the issue of who—Parliament, or colonial legislatures—possessed the exclusive right to legislate for the colonies. Americans jealously guarded their privileges, particularly of initiating all money bills, which had been earned gradually over the course of the two preceding centuries. Colonial interpretation of the British constitution—a system of government based largely, as it was, upon precedent—confirmed their right to guard their earned privileges. Predictably therefore, Americans strenuously objected to this new policy of legislation initiated by the British Parliament. Markedly different in its magnitude, resistance to the Act was unlike any that was witnessed in previous colonial protestations.

By 1763, when George Grenville became Prime Minister, the decision had been made to maintain an army in the colonies that was substantially larger than had ever existed before during peacetime, for France’s decision to maintain troops in the West Indies rendered the British colonies vulnerable to attack. Encumbered by a massive war debt, the Prime Minister assiduously searched for alternative funding that could be dedicated to the maintenance of imperial soldiers. Logically, the colonies would have been expected to contribute money and materiel to their own defense. To that end, the Molasses Act of 1733, which had imposed a prohibitive 6d per gallon tax on molasses, was revised, for it had been almost entirely evaded through smuggling. But the new act—often called the Sugar Act—of 1764, halved the duty on molasses while incorporating strict provisions for enforcement. Following closely on the heels of the Sugar Act cane a new Currency Act extending the prohibitions against the issuance of paper currency to every colony not included in the 1751 Currency Act. This, of course, was aimed primarily at Virginia, for Parliamentarians blamed the colony’s distress on her planters’ extravagant appetite for English goods and were concerned by their rapidly escalating debts. Furthermore, Virginia planters had exasperated Parliament during the war by their continuous issuances of paper currency.26

Reports that plans were being formulated in Parliament for a new measure for raising revenue reached Virginia sometime after April 1764. According to Edward Montague, the colony’s agent, Grenville, though as of then without specifics in mind, had taken the sense of the House after proposing levying taxes upon the colonies, telling Members that he “hoped that the power and sovereignty of Parliament .#160;. . over raising or collecting any tax, would never be disputed.” The House of Commons “appeared so unanimous in opinion,” claimed Montague, that he was “persuaded they will not listen to any remonstrance against it.”27 This was a portent of events to come.

Carefully designed to reach virtually every American, the Stamp Act included taxes on every form of document and printed item in the colony, with the highest tax on lawyer’s licenses. Every aspect of daily business would require an embossed stamp and while it was by design never meant to be economically burdensome, the Stamp Act, had it been enforced would thus have served as a constant and galling reminder of Parliament’s legislative authority over the colonies.

Specifics of the debate regarding the Act and its passage in Parliament on 6 February 1765 reached the colonies as early as April 1765 when several newspapers, including the Pennsylvania Gazette which published the complete terms of Act from the minutes of the House of Commons, informed Americans.28 The Act was accompanied by several British pamphlets justifying Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Most were amateurish, written by poorly informed and second rate legal minds and therefore were easily dismissed. But one pamphlet, although dismissed by Lee as being “idle sophistry and a poor affectation of wit,” required more attention, for though it was, in fact, the work of Thomas Whately, a subordinate of Grenville in the Treasury, it was popularly believed to have been written by Grenville himself.29

The early reaction to the news of the Act’s passage, however, was dismay, disbelief and a curious resignation. “Poor America,” wrote Edmund Pendleton acceptingly, after being told that the intended revenue from the act would be £50,000 sterling.30 Soon, however, resistance began coalescing. And in Virginia, the Act’s foremost opponent was Richard Henry Lee. “Every mental, every corporeal faculty that America possesses, should be strained to support its falling rights,” he declared to Landon Carter on 22 June 1765.31 And Lee did as he prescribed, tenaciously fighting for its repeal.

As one of the earliest Virginian’s to question publicly the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, Lee had made his position clear in his draft of the speech to the Governor in 1763.32 Writing privately to a gentleman in London in 1764 regarding the Quartering Act and the Sugar Act, Lee once again framed a cogent, and early statement of American rights. How could men who had “almost imbibed . . . in their mother’s milk . . . the essential principles of the British constitution . . . be of opinion that the people of America were to be taxed without consulting their representatives:” Lee was appalled by the “iron hand of power” and his outrage caused him to make a dramatic prediction, startling in its force and its timing.

But after all, my dear friend, the ways of Heaven are inscrutable; and frequently, the most unlooked-for events have arisen from seemingly the most inadequate causes. Possibly this step of the mother country, though intended to oppress and keep us low, in order to secure our dependence, may be subversive of this end. Poverty and oppression, among those whose minds are filled with ideas of British liberty, may introduce a virtuous industry, with a train of generous and manly sentiments, which, when in future they become supported by numbers, may produce a fatal resentment of parental care being converted into tyrannical usurpation.33

Lee in 1764 had anticipated the American movement towards independence.

Returning for the November session of 1764 the Burgesses’ response to the Sugar Act, Quartering Act, and the pending Stamp Act was immediate and emphatic. A committee consisting of Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, Landon Carter, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, Benjamin Harrison, Archibald Cary, and John Fleming was appointed to write memorials to King, Lords, and Commons, protesting the measures of taxation.34 After several sessions of deliberations the memorials were agreed upon and a members of the committee net with the Council to gain their approval. Authorship of the memorials is in contention for the evidence is circumstantial. Richard Henry Lee II, in his Memoir, claimed his grandfather wrote both the address to the King and the Memorial to the Lords, stating that he had possession of the original manuscripts.35 Along with many documents he used in writing the Memoir, however, these are no longer extant. In a letter to the editor of the Virginia Gazette, Richard Henry Lee clearly implies that he was the first to move in the House for the memorials, however, he says, ambiguously that “They also know, what part I took in preparing these.36

Unfortunately, the authorship cannot now be determined. Landon Carter, made his own claims for his role, “having first of All in America opened the door of freedom.” But Carter, though claiming to have first proposed the measure, does not claim to have written the addresses.37 Lee’s claim to having proposed the measure is probably correct. For it was confirmed by his avowed enemy, James Mercer, in his diatribe against Lee’s actions during the stamp Act controversy. Mercer also attributed the Memorial to the King to Lee.38 In the face of better claims, it is probable that Lee at least wrote that address. Fortunately, while the identities of the authors is obscured, the documents themselves have been preserved.

These memorials share certain common themes. All humbly declare loyalty to the Ming and constitution, while forcefully stating the opinion of the Burgesses that they alone, retained the exclusive right “of being governed by such Laws respecting their internal Polity and Taxations are derived from their own Consent.” As Britons, they stressed their rights under the British constitution and their opinion that those rights had been abrogated.39

By spring, 1765 it was clear that the November petitions had been ignored by King and Parliament and news of Grenville’s Stamp Act reached the Burgesses by April of 1765 where because of the magnitude of the issue discussion was delayed. In all of the colonies there was a preliminary uncertainty as men absorbed flurries of reports and formulated plans. Only after several Burgesses had left Williamsburg nearing the end of the session was the issue of resistance formally raised in the House.

Admitted to the House only nine days before, a young Burgess from Hanover presented a series of resolutions that would immediately insure his fame. Only thirty-nine Burgesses were present on 29 and 30 of May when Patrick Henry unveiled his resolutions regarding the Stamp Act. The Journal is woefully shy of descriptions of the controversy and debate that occurred on that day. Apparently the discussion was heated and afterwards several of the conservative members of the House searched for precedent for having the resolutions, which had been passed by only one vote, expunged from the record. Fauquier in his letter to the Board of Trade described the scene as the members of Robinson’s Old Guard notably Peyton Randolph, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, and Richard Bland strenuously objected but were overpowered by the “young hot and giddy members.”40 Fauquier’s statement is misleading, for rather than rejecting their fellow Burgesses’ resistance to the Act, these members merely wished to wait until the response to their earlier petitions was known.

Events of the day can never be properly chronicled, since none of the thirty-nine members present on that day left notes and of the several visitors, only two recorded their observations. Thomas Jefferson, a young law student, though not yet a member of the House, was watching from the door and since he did not record his recollections until forty years later, they are made suspect given the lapse of time. Only the journal of an anonymous French traveler provides a record of Henry’s oratory.41 Several, perhaps seven, resolves were introduced by Henry, but only the first four, are definitely known to have been adopted, because of their inclusion in the Journal.42 Since the printer of the (arena refused to publish the Virginia Resolves, the report appearing in other colonial newspapers of their number and their contents are conflicting. And the reports, which were apparently sent elsewhere by supporters in Virginia—perhaps, even by Henry himself—portray the Resolves as being more radical than they actually were, since the most controversial of them were apparently not adopted by the House but were published in the newspapers. The Resolves firmly state the opinion of the Burgesses that the right to taxation rested only with them and the reaction to them was immediate. Probably the single most important official resistance to the Stamp Act, the Virginia Resolves were debated in other colonial legislatures and their influence on other colonies was profound.

Conspicuously absent from the May session, the first session he had missed since his initial election to the House in 1758, Lee was home in Westmoreland. As the Burgess who had previously led to the opposition against Parliamentary taxation, he did not participate in the Stamp Act debates. Events in the previous session probably contributed to his absence. For while the crisis over the Stamp Act was in full force, Virginia’s economic crisis was attaining critical proportions. With a sterling exchange rate reaching its highest level in ten years, Lee commenced a movement in December 1764 to re-investigate the Treasury accounts. The surplus of currency in circulation and the rumored mismanagement of the Treasury were widely perceived to be causes of the crisis.43 The inquisition in December was the third that Lee had instigated and Robinson and his chief supporters were infuriated, for previous inquiries sustained none of the reproaches against Robinson.44 Furthermore, in retaliation, Lee’s own motives were brought into question when he was accused of using the menace of investigation to force the separation of offices, thus clearing his own path to election as Speaker. Certainly, Fauquier believed that Lee was seeking the office and as Robinson’s principal supporter, the Governor was understandably critical of him, writing that Lee “thinks his opposing Government a likely means to seat him in it.”45 Nevertheless, a committee again comprised of Robinson’s supporters was formed and again Lee was included in its company.46

In the spring of 1765, Fauquier issued a proclamation that the notes issued in 1757 and 1758 would be redeemable the first of March. But the redemption was impossible due to insufficient funds. As Treasurer, Robinson’s explanation was that too many later emissions had already been burned under a redemption law that had been initiated by Lee. Not everyone believed the Speaker and some by then were frankly entertaining suspicions that he was embezzling public funds.47

With proof of embezzlements finally close to surfacing, several of Robinson’s supporters devised a scheme, between 17 May and 30 May 1765 to bail out the faltering Virginia economy by creating a loan office. Outlined on 25 May in the Virginia Gazette (as reported by Jefferson, for no copy for that date is extant) several key features of the plan were revealed.48 In essence, the plan called for proposals to be made to British merchants for a £240,000 sterling loan to be borrowed at an annual five percent interest rate. Proceeds from a nine-year additional tax on Virginia’s tobacco were expected to offset the interest on the loan. £100,000 of the loan was to be used to redeem all of the colony’s paper money. Resolutions along this line were sent to the Council where they generated serious controversy for that body was clearly dominated by an anti-paper money faction.49 In the House, too, there was dissension. According to Jefferson, Patrick Henry was so outraged that he exclaimed “what Sir, is it proposed then to reclaim the Spendthrift from his dissipation and extravagance, by filling his pockets with money?”50 The Council, within three days refused the bill and the loan schema was temporarily abandoned.51

Through the course of the events, Lee remained conspicuously absent from the House, failing even to serve on the committee to investigate the Treasury.52 Meanwhile, in Westmoreland, he launched an aggressive campaign against the Stamp Act, during which his defiance and his anger were concentrated upon one man, George Mercer, who had suffered the misfortune of having been appointed while in Ireland as Virginia’s stamp distributor.

George’s father, John Mercer of Stafford County, was an unusually well-educated and articulate planter and lawyer, who owned one of the colony’s largest personal libraries. Though bitterly lamenting his meager inheritance, John Mercer attested to the superior education he received as a boy in Dublin.51 Best known for his role as secretary of the Ohio Company and as the compiler of several abridgements of the laws of Virginia (1728, 1737 and 1759) he was also the likely author of a the “Dinwiddiniadae,” a collection of satirical letters mocking Governor Dinwiddie. Mercer, too, was also an early opponent of the Stamp Act and unlike other Americans his public reaction to it was immediate. Writing an alphabetical table of the stamp duties and including a scathing introduction in which he declared the Stamp Act unconstitutional, indeed, he was the first Virginian known to respond publicly. Joseph Royle, then editor of the Virginia Gazette, was ordered by Fauquier not to print the introduction in the 12 April edition as he had intended, though the table appeared without the introduction on 26 April 1765.54 This was the Mercer whose notable literary abilities in 1766 were to be directed against Richard Henry Lee, the man whose fusillades against the Stamp Act had been specifically targeted upon Mercer’s son, George.

George Mercer, a personality of high repute, grew up on his father’s Northern Neck plantation with friends in other prominent families, including the Washingtons and the Lees. He had been a distinguished military officer, having served throughout the Seven Years War when included among his accomplishments was a tenure as Washington’ aide-de-camp, Commander of Fort Loudon, and service as the Assistant Deputy Quartermaster-General for Virginia and Maryland. His signal services to the colony were rewarded by the House of Burgesses in December, 1762 when in response to his petition Mercer received £500.55 Furthermore, in June 1763, agent Edward Montague was instructed to use all his “Interest and Influence” in securing Mercer a position adequately to reward him for his wartime services to the colony.56 Montague succeeded in this quest, for Mercer was appointed to the potentially lucrative position of Stamp Distributor.

Mercer had already traveled to England in 1763, acting as a representative for the Ohio Company in its bid to protect lands that were affected by the Proclamation of 1763. On their behalf, he was expected to present a petition to the King.57 At the time the Stamp Distributorship was bestowed, 2 April 1765, Mercer was in Ireland and completely unaware of it. Later in defending himself against attacks by the people of Virginia, he would stress this fact. He would likewise claim that while he saw resolves that were reportedly issued from the House of Burgesses, he disregarded them as their authenticity was disputed, and thus, he was unaware of his fellow Virginians’ sentiments.58 Mercer knew, nevertheless, that the Virginia legislature and its agent were actively seeking an appointment for him, therefore, his absence at the time does not exclude him from culpability. It is fair to say, however, that while he was aware of the unpopularity of the measure, it is unlikely, in any event, that he could have predicted the extent of the resistance that erupted in the colonies.59

Shortly after receiving his commission, Mercer boarded the Leeds and arrived in Williamsburg on Wednesday, 30 October 1765, two days before the Act was to go into effect. News of his arrival preceded him and as he walked the streets of Williamsburg he was accosted in front of the Capitol by a large crowd, which according to Fauquier, consisted of “gentlemen of property…some of them at the head of the respective Counties,” and Scotch, English and Virginia merchants. “Few absented themselves,” reported Fauquier. The crowd demanded Mercer tell them whether he intended to resign his office. Unintimidated by their numbers, the retired Lieutenant-Colonel told them he would give them an answer at ten o’clock on Friday, the day the Act would take effect, after he had consulted with others. With the crowd in tow, Mercer then proceeded to Mrs. Campbell’s ordinary, where the Council, Speaker and Governor were awaiting him on the porch. There, some members of the crowd protested that Friday was too late for a response, demanding he answer their question the following day, Thursday. Mercer agreed and the crowd dispersed without incident after allowing the Governor and Mercer to pass through their ranks unmolested. The following day, Mercer gave them his answer—he would, indeed, resign his commission. Fauquier, however, refused to acquiesce to his resignation.60 Meantime, to prevent their destruction, Mercer placed the stamps on board the Rainbow where they remained until he returned with them to London a few weeks later.61

Meantime, Lee focused his opposition to the Act on the Distributor himself. Choosing a Westmoreland court day in September, he staged a sensational theatrical procession before a large congregation of people. A procession consisting largely of Lee’s slaves, and whites of the “lowest rank, if it could be properly said they were of any rank at all,” marched to the courthouse. Two of Lee’s slaves, armed with clubs and dressed in the livery of John Wilkes—a personal friend of Arthur’s and admired by Richard Henry—led the procession. Following them were the “main guard” of naked slaves and white “tag rag and Bobtail” carrying effigies of George Grenville and George Mercer. Am inscription on the breast of the Mercer effigy clearly identified him as the stamp agent. The procession then approached the public gallows, where again in front of the large crowd, the slaves acted as “sheriffs, constables, bailiff and hangman,” and the effigies were first hanged and then burned. In their hands they bore signs inscribed with the mottoes, “Honey is my God,” and “Slavery, I love.”62 But Lee was not finished. On 25 September, he wrote and published the “dying words” of Mercer as he was hanged in effigy. “I now die convinced of the equity of your sentence,” wrote Lee, continuing “it was the love of gold which led me astray from honour, virtue, and patriotism.”63

A few months later, in the spring of 1766 a new crisis was precipitated when a local merchant, Archibald Ritchie, announced at Richmond court house that he intended to ship a cargo of grain to the West Indies cleared with paper that had been stamped—which was something of a mystery. For when Mercer returned to London, he had taken the stamps with him, meaning that since the Act was in effect, but no stamps were in Virginia, business could not be legally attended. When justices of Westmoreland County wrote to Governor Fauquier informing him on 23 September that they would no longer perform their court duties, the Governor had little choice but to accept their decision. For although they had adopted this measure in protest, Fauquier knew that civil court business could not legally be performed without the stamps.64 Other business was also interdicted, including vital shipping which required certificates for the clearance of cargoes. Ritchie’s announcement that he knew where to get stamps and that he intended to use them caused a furor among Northern Neck opponents of the Stamp Act. People were appalled, “Even the women I believe would take arms if they were permitted,” claimed Richard Parker.65 On 9 February Richard Henry Lee wrote to Samuel Washington informing him of “Ritchie’s impudence,” in his determination to launch his cargo with stamped paper and Washington responded on the 22 February, informing Lee that he had spoken with many of his neighbors and “many are Ready at a Moments Warning to Assist in any thing Destructive to him of his Intentions.” Furthermore, he asked Lee to apprise him of the time and place so they could meet to pressure Ritchie into forgoing his plans.66

To decide on a course of action, a meeting was called for court day at a port of the Rappahannock, Leeds Town, on 27 February 1766. There, one hundred and fourteen men signed a document written by Richard Henry Lee, within which they stated their intention to associate and “bind ourselves to each other” in order to “prevent the Execution of the said Stamp Act in any Instance whatsoever.” Furthermore, they vowed to inflict “immediate danger and disgrace” to and “abandoned Wretch . . . so lost to Virtue and publick Good” as to use the stamps.”67 These men had met to discuss plans for dealing with Ritchie, but the Association itself became a model for those mounting resistance to a sequence of abhorrent measures that led eventually to the Revolution. Once again, Lee’s actions anticipated events and trends that would be unfolded in the future.

Armed with their resolutions, and with a declaration the committee intended Ritchie to sign, the men from the Association were joined with others at Hobbs Hole, where they intended to confront Ritchie, forcing him to sign under the threat of being stripped to the waist and tied to a cart, then dragged to the pillory, if he refused.68 Ritchie at first stubbornly and bravely refused to sign, though in the face of about three hundred armed men, he finally acquiesced, according to Robert Wormeley Carter who was present at the occasion, in the most “impudent way” he had ever seen.69

On 9 June 1766 a proclamation was sent to Governor Francis Fauquier announcing that Parliament, yielding to pressures from several sources, including overwhelming colonial solidarity and hostility, and realizing that enforcement could only be achieved with physical force, had repealed the Stamp Act. The measure originally designed to offset the cost of maintaining the colonies defenses had evolved into a pivotal issue over sovereignty. The colonies had won a practical victory in repeal, but it was a victory tempered by Parliament’s simultaneous passage of the Declaratory Act in which it reaffirmed its right to legislate for the colonies in all instances.

In the short term, however, repeal was interpreted as a cause for celebration in the colonies. The Burgesses appointed a three man committee, composed of Archibald Cary, Landon Carter and Richard Henry Lee, to draw up an address to the Governor confirming their allegiance and acknowledging the “tender Regard shown to the Rights and Liberties” which the King had shown them.70 The House also made plans to erect a statue honoring those Members of Parliament who had supported repeal. In Westmoreland, Lee raised subscriptions to pay for a portrait to be made of Lord Camden, which was to be hung at the county courthouse,71 while Edmund Jennings delivered a Charles Willson Peale portrait of Lord Chatham to Westmoreland. The repeal movement had repercussions in the colonies, particularly for providing lessons in cooperation and organization. In Virginia, the voters confirmed their support of repeal by returning the members that had been the most vocal opponents of the Stamp Act. And aided by the scandal that was breaking over Treasury funds, political leadership, while by no means, transformed in any revolutionary way was, however broadened. For, while membership in the House was not significantly altered, the younger, and frequently more progressive Burgesses such as Lee and Patrick Henry became incrementally more influential.

During the Stamp Act controversy, Richard Henry Lee had acted as a principal proponent of repeal. But a few months later, the man who had condemned George Mercer for his “love of gold” was ridiculed in the Virginia Gazette and accused of having applied for the position of Stamp Distributor himself. The incident permanently blemished Richard Henry’s record, for in the newspaper battle that followed, he was clearly struggling to justify his actions in response to a series of eloquent letters written by George Mercer’s father, John and his brother, James. Of Lee, the Reverend can wrote, “one of our most active, flaming and applauded sons of liberty, . . . will find it difficult hereafter to deceive any body into an opinion of his Patriotism.” For after having burnt “poor Mercer” in effigy and “raised a mob on Archy Ritchie,” Lee’s credibility, insofar as Carom was concerned, had been destroyed. Contrary to Carom’s expectations, however, Lee emerged, if not unscathed then at least absolved for his indiscretions.72 But for a time, the series of letters that were published in the gazette were scathing criticisms, memorable for impugning Lee’s motivations and his devotion to his espoused causes.

Several long letters to the Gazette attempted to “stri the wolf of the sheep’s dress” and expose Lee’s true role it the affair. As his father recapitulated George Mercer’s defense, since George had been in England for some twenty-two months before appointment as stamp distributor, he was unaware of colonial opposition to the measure. After his arrival in Williamsburg, at the insistence of the crowd that net him, he had “willingly and cheerfully resigned.” While Lee, according to Mercer, who was made fully aware of the Stamp Act by a letter he read in the Gazette on the 27 April still had the temerity to apply for the position. Even while he was helping to prepare the addresses to the King, Lords, and Commons, in November 1746, Richard Henry was accused of actively pursuing the position.73

Arthur Lee, having returned to Williamsburg to practice medicine quickly became involved in the newspaper war, penning his own letters in defense of his brother. The bitter war continued into 1767, climaxing in Arthur’s challenging James Mercer to a duel. Planning their combat at a “private place” near Williamsburg, Arthur and his second arrived at the scheduled time, waited one hour and departed, believing that Mercer had funked the challenge. Mercer evidently arrived after Lee had left, making a similar assumption regarding Lee’s absence.74 And what might have been a tragedy, ended as a sideshow farce.

Richard Henry Lee’s own defense was brief and uncharacteristically lame. “Early in November,” he claimed, he had agreed to overtures from a friend to intervene on his behalf to procure the stamp distributorship, for he was “considering this only in the light of a beneficial employment.” Yet, in November, Lee unquestionably was actively involved in writing the anti-Stamp Act memorials from the Burgesses to the King, Lords, and Commons. It is inconceivable that Lee had not seriously considered the implications of the Act, at an earlier date, particularly in light of his speech to the House in 1763, a speech in which he vehemently defended the exclusive right of legislation as residing with the colonial legislatures.75 Lee had already taken a stand that should have precluded his application for the distributorship, for even if he had not anticipated the force of colonial resistance, he would have conformed to his espoused ethical stand on the matter. Lee, however, was clearly not motivated by his principles in this instance, any more than he would be in 1770 through 1772 when he attempted to sell slaves. Yet he was consistent in the inconsistency of his behavior, for Lee was always a politician.

Lee emerged from the affair, with his reputation remarkably intact. Just as he hoped, his record in the stamp resistance was sufficient to allow his supporters to overlook his indiscretion in applying for the stamp distributorship.


1 Edmund Randolph, History of Virginia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 173–4; Landon Carter, The Diary of Landon Carter ed., Jack Greene (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965), 83.

2 William Stanard and Mary N. Stanard, The Colonial Virginia Register (Baltimore: Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co., 1965), 52; For information on Robinson see: William M. Dabney, “John Robinson: Speaker of the House of Burgesses and Treasurer of Virginia,” (M.A. thesis. University of Virginia, 1941).

3 Dinwiddie to James Abercromby, 26 Apr. 1754: Dinwiddie to Board of Trade, 10 May 1754, Dinwiddie to James Abercromby, 23 Oct. 1754, Robert A. Brock ed., The Official Records of Robert Dinwiddie (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1883–1884), I: 137–141, 160–162, 373–376; Jack Greene ed., “The Case of the Pistole Fee: The Report of a Hearing on the Pistole Fee Dispute Before the Privy Council, June 18, 1754,” VMHB 66 (1958): 399–422.

4 Jack Greene, “The Attempt to Separate the Offices of Speaker and Treasurer in Virginia, 1758–1766,” VMHB 71 (1963): 11–18; Fauquier to Board of Trade, 12 May 1761 in JHB 1758–1761, p. 294; Fauquier to Board of Trade 10 Apr. 1759. Public Record Office, Colonial Office Papers. 5/1329 ff. 303–306 quoted in Greene, “Separation,” 12.

5 JHB, 8 May; 12 May; 13 May, 1755; Landon Carter. Diary, I:121; For a more detailed history of the land companies, see: chapter 2.

6 There is ample evidence that there may have been discrepancies in treasury accounts as early as 1754. William W. Hening, The Statutes at large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia . . . (Richmond: Franklin Press, 1819), VI:373; letter of a “Freeholder” Virginia Gazette, (Purdie & Dixon) 17 Oct. 1766; Joseph A. Ernst, Money and Politics In America, 1755&38211;1775 (Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 1973), 45. see note 2.

7 “The Freeholder to the Honest Buckskin.” Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon) 17 Oct 1766.

8 Hening, Statutes, VII:253

9 Alexander White to Richard Henry Lee 1758 mss UVA.

10 Joseph A. Ernst, “Genesis of the Currency Act of 1764: Virginia Paper Money and the Protection of British Investment,” WMQ 22 (1969):44–47.

11 William Allason to his brother. 5 Oct. 1758; W. Allason to Robert Douglas. 1962; “The Letters of William Allason,” Richmond College Historical Papers 2 (1917): 122, 124.

12 Richard Bland to Thomas Adams. 1 Aug 1771. VMHB 4 (1805): 129.

13 Jack Greene, “The Currency Act of 1764 in Imperial-Colonial Relations, 1764–1776,” WMQ 18 (1961): 486.

14 JHB 13 Nov. 1761; Hening, Statutes, VII;465–66.

15 William Allason to James Dunlop. 24 Feb. 1763. “Allason Letters,” 125.

16 JHB, 1761–1763, 19 May 1763. pp. 172–173.

17 Richard Henry Lee. Speech in the House of Burgesses mss UVA.

18 1761–1763, 23 May 1763, p. 176.

19 JHB, 1761–1763, 23 May 1763, 176–177; William Allason to Alexander Walker. 21 May 1765. “Allason Letters,” 135.

20 JHB, 1761–1763, 28 May 1763, pp. 188&38211;192.

21 mss UVA.

22 JHB, 1761–1763, 28 May 1763, pp. 188–192.

23 JHB, 1761–1763, 31 May 1763, pp. 198.

24 Committee of Correspondence to Edward Montagu. 13 June 1763. in “Proceedings of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, 1759–67,” VMHB XI (1904): 345–349.

25 JHB, 1761–1763, 28 May 1763, pp. 188–192 ; Lee’s original manuscript. UVA.

26 Greene, “Currency Act,” WMQ 18 (1961): 486–488; Edmund S. Morgan and Helen M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 36–58; P. D. G. Thomas, British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763–1767 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).

27 Edward Montague to Committee of Correspondence. printed in VaGaz 3 Oct. 1766.

28 Pennsylvania Gazette, 18 Apr. 1765; Maryland Gazette 25 Apr 1765; Georgia Gazette, 2 May, 1765.

29 Morgan and Morgan, Storm Act, 99–119. for an excellent description of the various pamphlets; R. H. Lee to Landon Carter. 22 June 1765 mss Vmhb; R. H. Lee to —, 4 July 1765, Ballagh, Letters, I:910.

30 Jonathan Mayhew. Letter to printer. New York Gazette 7 Nov 1765.

31 R. H. Lee to Landon Carter. 22 June 1765. Ballagh, Letters, I:8.

32 mss UVA.

33 R. H. Lee to —, 31 May 1764. Ballagh, Letters, I:5.

34 JHB, 1761–1765, 14 Nov. 1764, 257.

35 Richard Henry Lee II, Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee . . . (Philadelphia: M. C. Carey and I. Lea, 1825), I:29–30.

36 Richard Henry Lee to the Editor of the Virginia Gazette 25 July 1766. mss UVA.

37 Landon Carter. Diary, 24 Mar. 1777, 1085; 25 July 1776, 1063; 23 Mar. 1777, 1083.

38 John Mercer to the Printer. VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon) 26 Sep. 1766.

39 JHB, 1761–1766. pp. liv–lviii.

40 Fauquier to Board of Trade. 5 Jun. 1765. JHB 1761–1766, pp. lxvii–lxviii.

41 Thomas Jefferson, “Recollections of Patrick Henry,” VMHB 34 (1910): 385–418; “Journal of a French Traveler,” AHR 26 (1920–21): 745.

42 The best account of the controversy and question regarding the resolves remains Morgan and Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis, 120–135.

43 Ernst, “The Robinson Scandal Redivivus,” VMHB 77 (1969): 151.

44 R. H. Lee II, Memoir, I:22–23.

45 Fauquier to Board of Trade. 7 Apr. 1766, XXI (1912): 163–64: Fauquier to Board of Trade. 11 May 1766. JBH, 1761–66, xvi.

46 JHB, 1761–1765, 19 Dec. 1764, p. 305.

47 Hening, Statutes, VII, 465–66: Virginia Gazette, Letter from the “Freeholder” 17 Oct. 1766.

48 Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt. 14 Aug. 1814. in “Jefferson’s Recollections,” VMHB 34 (1910): 396.

49 JHB, 1761–1765, 24 May 1765. p. 349.

50 Jefferson to Wirt. 14 Aug. 1814, “Jefferson’s Recollections,” PMHB 34 (1910): 396.

51 Ernst, “Robinson Scandal Redivivus,” 155.

52 JHB 1761–1765, 29 May 1765, p. 356.

53 John Mercer to George Mercer. 22 Dec. 1767 to 28 Jan. 1768 in Lois Mulkearn ed., George Mercer Papers, Relating to the Ohio Company of Virginia (Pittsburgh: University Press of Pittsburgh, 1954), 204–205.

54 J. A. Leo Lemay, “John Mercer and the Stamp Act in Virginia, 1764–1765,” VMHB 91 (1983): 3–38; Richard Beale Davis. comp, “The Colonial Virginia Satirist: Mid-Eighteenth Century Commentaries on Politics, Religion, and Society,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., LVII, pt. 1 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1967); John Mercer to the Printer. 26 Sep. 1766. VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon).

55 JHB 1761–66; 7 Dec., 11 Dec. 1762, pp. 136, 149.

56 Committee of Correspondence to Edward Montague. 17 June 1763. “Mercer Papers,” VMHB 60 (1952), 409–410.

57 Proctor, “Mercer,” 44.

58 “ Notes on the Stamp Act in New York and Virginia” PMHB 11 (1878) 299–301.

59 Mercer. Memorial, 11 Apr. 1766. “Mercer Papers,” VMBH 60 (1952), 412; Mercer. Examination before the House of Commons. “Mercer Papers,” 418.

60 Account of Col. George Mercer’s Arrival in Virginia and his Resignation of the Office of Stamp Distributor.” 31 Oct. 1765. PMHB 11 (1878): 299–301; Fauquier to Board of Trade. 3 Nov. 1765. JHB, 1761–1765, lxviii–lxxi; Mercer’s Examination before the House of Commons, “Mercer Papers,” VMHB 60 (1952), 420; John Mercer to the Editor. VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon), 26 Sep. 1766.

61 Mercer Memorial. 11 Apr. 1766. 60 (1952): 413; Fauquier to Board of Trade, 8 Nov. 1765. JHB 1761–1765, lxxii.

62 Account of John Mercer. 17 Oct. 1765. Maryland Gazette reprinted in VaGaz, 26 Sept. 1766 .

63 John Mercer to Printer. 12 Sept. 1766. VaGaz (Purdie L Dixon), 26 Sep 1766.

64 MdGaz. 17 Oct. 1765; Fauquier to Board of Trade. 3 Nov. 1765. JHB 1761–1765, lxxi.

65 Richard Parker to R. H. Lee. 23 Feb. 1766. mss UVA.

66 Samuel Washington to R. H. Lee. 22 Feb. 1766, mss UVA.

67 27 Feb. 1766. Westmoreland Resolutions. mss Virginia Historical Society.

68 MdGaz 27 Mar 1766.

69 Robert Wormeley Carter, “The Daybook of Robert Wormeley Carter of Sabine Hall, 1766.” VMHB 68 (1960): 306.

70 JHB 1766–1769. 6. Nov 1766, p. 13.

71 The plan was later aborted and the money was returned since Camden did not sit for the portrait. R.H.L to Edmund Jennings. 31 May 1769. R. H. Lee to Lord Camden. 1 June 1676; R. H. Lee to William Lee. 12 July 1772; R. H. Lee to William Lee. 4 July 1773. all in Ballagh, Letters, 1:36, 22, 69–70, 92.

72 Rev. John Camm to Mrs. McClurg. 24 July 1766. WMQ 2 (1894): 337–338.

73 John Mercer to Printer. 12 Sep. 1766 VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon) 26 Sep. 1766; VaGaz (Purdie S Dixon) 18 Jul, 25 Jul, Aug, 3 Oct, 1766.

74 Corbin Griffin to Purdie and Dixon. VaGaz 28 May 1767.

75 see above this chapter, and note 17.

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