Richard Henry Lee, Rhetoric and Rebellion
Resisting the Stamp Tax
When the Virginians' fight against the Stamp Act ended in 1766, no doubt remained regarding Richard Henry Lee's role in Virginia society. He had matured as a political leader. The English government again had conveniently provided his vehicle. The battle began in 1764 when throughout the year Virginians had heard rumors that the English Parliament intended to pass a stamp tax for America similar to the tax already in effect in England. Confirmation of the rumors did not arrive, however, until November during a session of the Assembly. Predictably, the Burgesses reacted; predictably, Lee was among their leading spokesmen.
Convening in committee of the whole for considering the state of the colony on November 13, 1764, the Burgesses directed that the letters to and from the Virginia agent be laid before them along with a circular letter from the Massachusetts Bay House of Representatives.1 Lee, seeking a strong reaction against the proposed tax, moved for the Burgesses to follow a time-honored procedure, send an address of protest.2 This time, however, he did not want the memorial he proposed sent to the King as was traditional. He moved for an address to the House of Commons. Choice of the Commons to receive the message reflected Lee's awareness that since all revenue bills originated there, only the Commons could prevent enactment of the Stamp tax.
When the Burgesses finished their debate and the committee rose November 14, the House agreed to resolutions calling for addresses to the King, Lords and Commons regarding the plan to tax the colonies. Lee probably did not propose the other addresses even though in 1766 he intimated that he had. Defending himself against a charge of insincerity in opposition to the Stamp Act, Lee wrote that he would “with confidence appeal” to the men with whom he served in the Assembly. He claimed, “they know who first moved in the House of Burgesses for the address to his Majesty, for the memorial to the Lords, and the remonstrance to the house of Commons.”3 Lee's accuser took issue with his claim: “though R. H. Lee may have made the first motion for the address to the Commons, yet I do deny he first proposed the address to his Majesty and memorial to the Lords, for I well remember the late Speaker proposed them when in a Committee of the whole House.”4 No one at the time rose to confirm either position, but Lee's claim that he moved for all three papers seems doubtful. Lee probably suggested the address to the Commons in committee of the whole and someone else, perhaps John Robinson, moved for addressing the King and Lords also. The other Burgesses saw utility in protesting to all parts of the government and ordered a committee to prepare all three.5
Lee asked that four basic arguments against the tax be included in the memorial to the “honorable House of Commons”: every British subject has the inherent right to be taxed only by consent of his own representatives; removing this right from British Americans violates the constitution and thus creates danger to Great Britain itself; Virginia cannot bear further taxation now, still being under the nearly half a million of debts incurred during the late war and in a very depressed condition because of low tobacco prices; increased taxation will force the colonies to manufacture their own fabrics, and thus decrease their dependence upon Britain which now exists through mutual benefit.
As the resolution emerged from committee of the whole, its language was altered and the arguments rearranged, but the substance of the propositions differed only in one respect. That, however, was an important difference. The Burgesses now accepted the idea eliminated two years earlier from the committee draft of the paper money address. The Burgesses instructed their drafting committee to state that colonists' rights as Britons would be violated if Britain imposed taxes upon them and also if laws for the colonies' “internal Government” were “imposed by any Power but what is delegated to their Representatives, chosen by themselves.”6 Lee objected to possible taxation; the House resolved to insist also on its own right of internal legislation.
One of the changes in language made during the debate on Lee's resolution eventually accrued significant implications. Lee had moved that the memorial should state “with decent firmness” the injuries caused by the proposed tax. After revisions in committee of the whole, the resolution stated that the address should “assert with decent Freedom [and] . . . remonstrate” against the proposed laws.7 “Remonstrate” was converted to a descriptive noun for this address by the time the Assembly completed the papers.
The resolutions calling for the address to the King and memorial to the Lords differed slightly from the one ordering the memorial to the Commons. The House ordered that the address to the King emphasize the rights and existing tax burdens of Virginians, but did not mention either the threat to stop buying or to begin manufacturing. The resolution for the memorial to the Lords included also the suggestion that increased taxation “must diminish that Consumption” which currently increased England's wealth. Only in the address to the Commons did the House order its committee to include the threat that the new taxes might divert “the Inhabitants . . . to manufacture” goods previously purchased “from the Mother Country.”
Lee had accomplished his first goal. The House agreed to the need for petitioning the British government in opposition to the proposed taxes, and Lee was appointed second to the committee instructed to prepare the addresses. He still faced many debates in the House and in conference committee to insure that the statements were made with “decent firmness.”
The committee required two weeks to prepare the addresses for presentation on November 30. The House then laid the papers on the table for members' perusal until December 13 when it referred all three to committee of the whole. After debate the committee voted amendments to the memorials to the Lords and Commons, but accepted the address to the King as prepared. The following day, after approving the address and amended memorials, Randolph, Lee, Wythe, Pendleton and Fleming were appointed as managers for the House at a conference with the Council. Managers for the Council reported that the Council accepted the address to the King, but having considered the memorials, desired several amendments to both. The House agreed to the suggested amendments “with an amendment” of its own. Back to conference went the committee members. Finally both houses accepted the amended papers and ordered them transcribed and transmitted to the Virginia agent for presentation to their intended receivers in England.
Even after amending, the address to the Commons still utilized all the arguments of Lee's motion with no deletions and only one substantive addition, which had occurred during the first debate in the House of Burgesses. Governor Fauquier wrote that the memorials took very long to prepare because of strenuous endeavors to "mollify" strong statements desired by the young and hot-headed members.8 The mollification apparently either consisted largely of stylistic changes or it was unsuccessful, since no substantive changes occurred in the ideas expressed. The matters of style and diction were important to the Assembly, however. Clearly anxious to have these papers exactly phrased to state their sentiments, members spent considerable time in choosing the precise language. The final papers, therefore, expressed as exactly as could be agreed upon the sense of the whole Assembly in 1764, in addition to indicating the individual views of the man who originally proposed them.
The statement to the King was brief, a recognition, probably, that in matters involving taxation, he had little power beyond recommending policies to his ministers. The Virginians adopted an humble stance, assuring the King—as always—of their “inviolable Attachment” to the Crown, demonstrated by their ready willingness to comply with his requisitions during the past war. They implored “Permission to approach the Throne” and entreated his protection in the “Enjoyment of their ancient and inestimable Right” of governing their own “internal Polity and Taxation,” with the restriction only of the “Approbation of their Sovereign or his Substitute.” Thus, they claimed, although in humble language, full legislative authority regarding internal affairs and taxes with only the restraint of veto by Crown authority. In effect, they claimed power to initiate all internal or tax legislation, and to reject any legislation in these matters initiated in England, just as they had rejected the requests for troop supplies in 1762 and 1764. That the Assembly had previously ignored these and others among the Crown's recommendations constituted one reason Parliament was now initiating the taxation legislation. In response the Virginians insisted on maintaining the previously existing power relationships.
The memorial to the Lords addressed them as the “fixed and hereditary Guardians of British Liberty,” no doubt reflecting the common British attitude that the aristocracy in defending its own rights defended those of all Britons. The memorialists also laid claim to the title of “Briton” since they had descended from Britons “who left their native Country to extend its Territory and Dominion.” Despite the euphemistic description of the original settlers' motives, the intent of the assertion was clear: our being here, said the Virginians, is beneficial to you in Great Britain. This idea was seldom omitted from Americans' statements during their controversies with the British government. The memorial went beyond the arguments of rights with which the petition to the King had ended. To the Lords, Virginians pointed out their inability to pay additional taxes. The persisting war debt, the low price of tobacco, the total absence of specie, and the recent trade restrictions were conditions which “if Taxes are accumulated upon them” would make Virginians' lives “truly deplorable.” The memorial did not contain a threat to quit buying as did the original resolution and the remonstrance to the Commons. That it did not demonstrates an interesting analysis of the House of Lords by the Virginians. Apparently they believed the Lords could be moved by constitutional arguments and sympathy for the oppressed, but not by pecuniary considerations. Perhaps also they omitted the suggestion of interrupted trade as an improper attitude to express toward the Lords. Threats are seldom made to superiors. To threaten implies that at least a degree of equality is sensed.
Significantly, no such hesitancy appeared in the arguments directed to the Commons. Inclusion of those defiant threats regarding trade illustrated a vastly different attitude. Gone was any sign of humility. The address to the Commons certainly fulfilled Lee's desire that the injuries be stated “with decent firmness,” though members of the Commons might have quarreled about the decency. No humble introduction graced the remonstrance as had prefaced the other two statements. This paper began matter-of-factly by noting the Declaratory Resolution of March 17, which had indicated an intent to assess stamp duties in America. The Virginians feared the resolution then declined might well be renewed; therefore, “The Council and Burgesses of Virginia, met in General Assembly,” spoke firmly, in decided contrast with their statements to the King and Lords. They judged “it their indispensable Duty . . . to remonstrate against such a Measure.” When addressing the King, the Virginians had more than once referred to themselves as his “dutiful and loyal Subjects,” and begged leave to assure him of their “firm and inviolable attachment.” To the Lords they spoke with “humble Confidence” of their hope that an “Application to your Lordships . . . will not be thought improper.” They flattered themselves that the Lords would “not look upon them as Objects so unworthy [of] your Attention” as to regard the application sent with “Impropriety.” They noted they could think of no reason why the Assembly was no longer to be “trusted with the Property of their People” since the Virginians would be best acquainted with “the least burthensome Mode of taxing (with great Deference to the superior Wisdom of Parliament).”
No similar expressions of humility appeared in the address to the Commons. If Burgesses believed members of that chamber to be of “superior Wisdom” the remonstrance certainly did not show it. The remonstrance stated rights of colonists in a much more straightforward manner than the other two addresses. Not in the introduction, nor anywhere else in this address, did the Virginians attempt to placate or appease in order to persuade. They asserted that the proposed taxation would be “inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the Constitution” and believed it their “indispensable Duty” to speak out against the measure so that no cession of rights could be “inferred from their Silence.” Most significantly, the Virginians had no compunctions about threatening the Commons. They reminded the Commons that the “Plantation Trade . . . if not too much discouraged” could prove to be “an inexhaustible Source of Treasure to the Nation.” Since Americans were “mostly, if not wholly, employed in Agriculture,” they would continually consume the manufactures and exports from Britain unless this “happy Intercourse of reciprocal Benefits . . . [is] interrupted.” If the unwise and unconstitutional tax interrupted the relationship, however, perhaps the Americans “reduced to extreme Poverty, should be compelled to manufacture those Articles they have been hitherto furnished with” from Britain.
By their manner of addressing the Commons, the Virginians indicated they considered themselves equal to that body, though they did not expressly articulate the feeling. They were determined the Commons would gain no power of taxation over them, and from this very early state of the revolutionary controversy tried to make their determination clear.
As a persuasive effort this address must be judged a failure. Not only did the Commons refuse to accept it, but any Englishman who read it in the files or in the newspapers would have been so angered by the tone that the argument of “rights” would have been summarily dismissed, as it was throughout the next decade whenever Americans advanced it.9 No more persuasive was the argument that Virginians were already excessively taxed. The government of Britain had more debts than Virginia, and the English people paid higher taxes than the Americans and knew it.10 Finally, the implied threat to trade was not yet real to Englishmen. They perceived little danger at the time the remonstrance was presented. Though the address did not contain much argument to demonstrate the danger, it probably made little difference in the persuasive effect of the paper. The trade had to be interrupted before the threat could be persuasive.
Though they failed as persuasive instruments, the addresses had great importance to Lee. He learned from the exercise in persuading Parliament. His future persuasive efforts benefited from the lessons of the Stamp Act controversy. Also significant is that the four propositions of Lee's motion originating the remonstrance included all the basic arguments employed by Virginians during the Stamp Act dispute. The essential argument of the Stamp tax protest to the Commons differed little from that of the 1763 paper money address to the Governor; it in turn closely resembled the Assembly statement in response to the Twopenny Act disallowances. Each paper recorded a reaction by the Virginia House to a different threat to its position. Each paper defended the freedom of the local assembly to legislate largely as members desired regarding matters defined by them as local.
The striking development reflected in the papers of 1764 was the change in attitude. Especially the address to the Commons had the character, not of a persuasive appeal, but of a position statement. Few Virginians realized it at the time, but the rigid tone of the remonstrance indicated a belief nowhere yet articulated, but tacitly accepted: the local officials in fact, if not in theory, governed Virginia. During the eighteenth century, power of the colonials had grown sufficiently that imperial authorities might interfere with local control, but they could not supplant it.
Richard Henry Lee was among those unaware of the relatively increased strength of the Virginia legislators. In describing the Virginia constitution to his brother Arthur in 1766, he complained of excessive English control over Virginia affairs.11 He was wrong; power of the Crown in Virginia was much less than Richard Henry Lee believed. The Virginia governor barely had the power to prevent Virginians from controlling their own affairs and, if he conscientiously tried to govern well, he dared not use that power freely. He could not require from the legislators an action they did not wish to take; therefore, he had no real power to direct Virginia affairs.12 Lee probably failed to perceive the position of the local legislature because it was less powerful than he wished it to be. Since he knew the Governor could not force action upon the Assembly, it was the executive's power to occasionally prevent actions by the House and Council to which he objected. His strictures imply that, ultimately, he would not have been content with less than complete legislative autonomy.
Even though the Governor could not force the Assembly to pass a requisition, the new imperial threat of the Stamp tax might have such an effect. If Parliament could legislate for them whenever Americans refused to enact laws it requested, the power of the colonials might effectively be limited. Naturally, therefore, preventing enforcement of the Stamp Act in America became paramount to Lee and the other Virginia leaders.
Lee pursued two alternatives: the people must be so alarmed about the consequences of a stamp tax that they would resist its enforcement; and the distributor must be forced to resign, for without stamps the tax could not be enforced. Lee employed especially vigorous measures since George Mercer, a respected war hero from a large and influential family, had accepted the appointment as stamp distributor for Virginia.
Accordingly, vigorous measures to alarm the people began on Westmoreland Court Day, September 23, 1765.13 The Mercers held Lee responsible for what happened there, and he never denied it. Effigies of George Grenville and George Mercer were publicly tried, condemned to death, loaded on a cart, and carried to the gallows, there to be hanged. Mercer's figure was adorned with a sign, “Money is my God” and the crowd was read a fiction purporting to be his “last Words and dying Speech”:
Sincerity becomes a man who is on the verge of Eternity, however Crafty he may have been in the former Part of his Life. I hope, therefore, that I shall gain your Credit, when I assure you, that I now die convinced of the Equity of your Sentence, and the Justice of my Punishment. For it is true that with Parricidal Hands, I have endeavored to fasten Chains of Slavery on this my native Country; although like the tenderest and best of Mothers, she had long fostered and powerfully supported me. But it was the inordinate Love of Gold which led me away from Honour, Virtue and Patriotism.14
No known evidence suggests that Lee had a personal vendetta against Mercer. Therefore, the viciousness of this attack must reflect his perception of the difficulty of discrediting the tax since it had been approved by the heretofore popular Mercer.
As a rhetorical document, the “confession” admits motivations that Lee no doubt believed would be rejected by the crowd, a gathering composed of all classes of Northern Neck residents. This short speech, then, represents Lee's analysis of the values held by his neighbors. First, any action perceived as an attempt to enslave them would certainly be considered reprehensible. Virginians had only too vivid a knowledge of the condition of existence with which he suggested they were threatened. Slaves were the lowest creatures in Virginia society; their state was truly deplorable and freemen knew it. In contrast, even the poor and middle classes of Virginia were freer of personal and behavioral restrictions than they or their ancestors had been in the old world. Their opportunities to rise economically and gain the security and liberty of action that came with owning property were also greater in the new land. Most had memories of the semi-feudal land-holding arrangements that still persisted in Europe and England. But they did not need to remember the old world. The abundance of slaves in their own society stood as vivid reminders of the abjectness of life without liberty. Secondly, parricide would have been considered a high crime in a society in which the primary social institution was family. Next, Mercer was made to apologize for acting to harm his “native Country.” This, Lee knew, would be understood as Virginia and his neighbors would believe it censurable to be guilty of damaging the interests of Virginia.
At this came time Lee also moved to enlist the local elite in opposition to the tax. He had served as justice of the Westmoreland Court for more than ten years, and he doubtless influenced that Court's decision reported to the Governor and Council in the fall of 1765. The Westmoreland justices announced that “Compelled, by the strongest Motives of Honour and Virtue,” they would close their court after the effective date of the Stamp Act. They were compelled to the action since to fulfill their oath of office would then require them to enforce the Stamp Act, and “by doing so, to become Instrumental in the Destruction of Our Country's mort essential Rights and Liberties.”15 Justices of other counties acted similarly.16 The ominous reference to “Our Country” showed the gentry just as receptive to the principle of loyalty to Virginia as the poor and middle classes. Britain commanded the primary loyalty of few Virginians. Both the Mercer action and the justice's decision were duly reported, probably by Lee, to the newspapers. He wished the actions of his near neighbors, which he found so heartening, to be examples to all colonials he could reach.
Lee assessed his countrymen well. The events when Mercer arrived in Williamsburg with the stamps show that Lee was riding a crest of public opinion. Fate seemed on Virginia's side. Mercer's arrival, just days prior to the effective date of the act, coincided with the opening of General Court. Williamsburg was overflowing with men of all ranks who had business to press before the court.17 No direct evidence remains, but contemporary opinion placed Lee among the great throng who gathered with unfriendly greetings for the stamp distributor. Of the crowd Governor Fauquier wrote, “This concourse of people I should call a mob, did I not know that it was chiefly if not altogether composed of gentlemen of property in the Colony, some of them at the head of their respective Counties.”18 Angrily insisting that Mercer resign, the men convinced both Mercer and the Governor they would stop at nothing to prevent enforcement of the Stamp Act. Mercer refused to be forced into resigning, but agreed not to distribute stamps until authorized to do so by the Virginia Assembly.
Whether present at the Williamsburg confrontation or not, Lee approved the crowd's action. He soon demonstrated his own willingness to take extreme measures when a new threat arose in the Northern Neck. A merchant, Archibald Ritchie, reportedly declared at Court Day in Richmond County that he would clear a ship and use stamped paper to do it.19 Lee immediately perceived the threat. Once stamps were used the dam would be broken. To prevent enforcement of the Act might no longer be possible. Such a threat must be punished, not merely prevented in order that it might not recur. No simple retraction by Ritchie would satisfy Lee. He set about preparing punishment, again insuring support by the local elite. Ritchie, hearing of the plans, had a change of heart, and Lee was so informed, but continued with his plans.20 Ritchie was to be a public example, to demonstrate the fate awaiting any who attempted to use stamps.
The narrative of Ritchie's treatment relies on contemporary newspaper reports almost certainly initiated by Lee as rhetorical instruments. Two letters and a manuscript among his papers give additional insight regarding his attitudes.21 Richard Parker, discussing with Lee the preparations for the coming confrontation, mentioned that Ritchie no longer intended to use the stamps. Parker spoke of an “Anonymous letter,” citing from it a line, “that fear haunts him in his Dreams and in the day he thinks himself not safe.” A polemic, reported by Lee's grandson biographer as an address published to the “Good people of Virginia,” includes a similar line, “let us so act with this Man that fear may haunt him in his dreams, and that, in the day he may find no safety.” This paper, in manuscript among the Lee papers, Lee probably prepared for printing as a pamphlet or broadside and circulated in the Northern Neck as an open letter.22 Parker's comment and letter indicate that Lee worked with his friends in northern Virginia very much as with the Burgesses. Together he, Parker and probably others, revised an address prepared by Lee for circulation among the people of northern Virginia and planned the series of events culminating with the Westmoreland Association.
The substance of Lee's arguments addressed to residents of the Northern Neck differed little from those in the Assembly's remonstrance to the Commons, though his language and attitude differed vastly. When addressing the Virginians, Lee's diction was simple and his style direct. Most of his language would have been understood even by relatively uneducated readers or listeners. He did not speak of descendants and posterity; he said when your fathers settled this country “they had a right and did enjoy the same Liberties with the rest of their Fellow subjects in England.” Explaining why the danger of taxes levied in England exceeded that of taxes levied in Williamsburg, he said, “Now one of the best rights that Englishmen enjoy is that their property, their living shall not be taken from them, nor no part of it, unless it is by the consent of those Members or Burgesses that they choose.” He explained that Burgesses and not members of Parliament should legislate for Virginia because they were not only as capable as Parliament, but “chosen by the people; and live among them . . . if they lay a Tax upon the Country, these Burgesses must pay their proportionate part.” Furthermore, “if they do wrong and lay Taxes without reason the People can turn them out at a new Election.” In contrast the remonstrance expressed the same idea as sustaining “a Proportion of the Burthen laid on them” and “the Representatives themselves must be affected by every Tax imposed on the People.” Speaking to the people of Virginia, Lee was specific about the cost of the Stamp Act; it would amount to “at least fifty thousand pounds sterling every year.” Since so vast a sum was inconceivable to most of his readers, Lee described its effects concretely as “A sum twice as much as all the Taxes laid by our own Assembly have ever yet amounted to.” Moreover, he said this great sum would be increased every year because the more paid by Virginians, the less paid in England.
Lee's address reflected and used the diverging interests of Virginia and England. He applauded those “honest Countrymen” in Williamsburg who in October had prevented the execution of this “cruel” act in Virginia. Mercer, he added, had resigned his office as had collectors in all other colonies, “the people everywhere abhorring the S. Act.” Since “good” people all opposed the use of stamps, Lee asked, “ought you not to punish Archibald Ritchie of Hobb's Hole in the severest manner if he should do what he has had the matchless impudence to declare publicly at Richmond Court that he will do.” Lee suggested that if Ritchie were allowed to set this example, other merchants would follow and then the use of stamps that would “destroy our Liberty,” would “creep into our Courts [of] Justice, and from thence, into every branch of business.” He ended with exhortation. Let no “Pretence” begin execution of the Stamp Act which would make “slaves” of you and your children; “let every one among us look upon Ritchie as the greatest enemy of their Country, and who should as such be punished.”
Use of specific words is especially notable in Lee's address to his fellow Virginians. He constantly stressed the danger to “good” and “honest” people who would be stripped of their liberty, “brave and freeborn men” threatened with the “destruction” of being enslaved. Even in his private letters Lee invariably employed the spectre of slavery. He seldom omitted the slavery image from his rhetoric as the years passed. A feeling that grew more widespread among Americans during the revolutionary conflict was reflected in Lee's contrast of “good” men with those who would destroy them. In the colonies the belief that “Virtue,” being corrupted in Britain, could perhaps be preserved on American soil flourished by 1775.23 Lee suggested it in 1766. His arguments designed for British consumption always carefully distinguished between wicked and corrupt ministers and the “virtuous” English people. No such distinction appeared when he addressed his Virginia neighbors. To them, he said, “our fellow subjects in England” would raise taxes every year. Lee's use of “our Country,” already noted, presents another notable contrast with his papers designed for English readers. The term clearly referred to a different land for each group. Nor did Lee ever address Virginians as Englishmen or Britons. He apparently believed his Virginia neighbors no longer thought of themselves primarily as Englishmen. Their first loyalty was to Virginia.
The address reflected an accurate analysis of the feelings of the “good” people of northern Virginia. The action urged by Lee in the address, as Parker had written, proved popular. Four days after Parker's letter discussing the plans, the name of Richard Henry Lee headed a list of 115 men who signed the Westmoreland Resolves on February 27, 1766.24 Violence transfused every line of this paper. The signatures belonged to bold men who agreed to support each other “at every Hazard” as they openly defied an English law. Yet this declaration was no revolutionary manifesto. The Associators dedicated themselves to preserving the “free and happy constitution of Government under which they have hitherto lived.” The preamble noted that the signers were “roused by danger, and alarmed at attempts, foreign and domestic, to reduce the people of this Country to a state of abject and detestable slavery.” Motivated by their fear of “slavery” the Associators determined to resist. The first three articles of the Association demonstrated the constitutional nature of the resistance. Lee and his neighbors, as were all the “Patriots” in the coming decade, were anxious to demonstrate the lawful nature of their acts. Firmly they stated allegiance to their “lawful Sovereign.” Equally firm was their determination to preserve the laws, “as far as is consistent with Preservation of our Constitutional Rights and Liberty.” Vehemently they condemned any “dangerous Enemy of this Community,” any “abandoned Wretch [who] shall be so lost to Virtue, and public Good, as wickedly to contribute to the Introduction or Fixture of the Stamp-Act in this Colony.”
The last three articles of the Association named the steps agreed upon to assure execution of the first three. If any Associator knew of any person “so conducting himself, as to favour the Introduction of the Stamp-Act,” he would immediately notify as many of the others as possible. The men notified would then gather “as near the Scene of Action as may be.” The Resolves left unstated the action to follow. The response would presumably be decided at the meeting so that each act would determine its own consequences. Finally, the Associators agreed to stand by each other “at the utmost Risque of our Lives and Fortunes,” if any “Attempt shall be made on the Liberty, or Property” of any one of them for any action taken in “Consequence of this Agreement.”
The Maryland Gazette of March 27, 1766, reported events following the Association. Immediately upon signing the Resolves, the Associators prepared a declaration for presentation to Ritchie. He had two alternatives: sign their statement on his oath; or be “stripped naked to his Waist, tied to the Tail of a Cart, and drawn to the public Pillory, where he should be fixed for one Hour.” If he still remained unpersuaded, the group planned to reconvene to decide what further action “should seem expedient to the Friends of Liberty.” On the 28th of February two or three hundred men joined the Associators and ail proceeded to Ritchie's house with the declaration.25 Ritchie protested at first, but the sight of armed men lining both sides of the street in front of his house soon changed his mind. He read to them their statement and signed.
Lee knew that Ritchie had already agreed not to use stamps prior to forming the Association, so in continuing to promote it, he sought more than the persuasion of only one man. The Association was to be a means of preventing Stamp Act enforcement and Ritchie an example of the effectiveness of the Association; thereby warning others who might entertain thoughts of using stamps.
The Virginia papers did not report the account of the February 28th confrontation of Ritchie at Hobbs Hole until May 16. Lee's delay in securing publicity in Williamsburg relates to his role in bringing a more cooperative printer to Virginia. The Maryland Gazette, published by Jonas Green and William Rind, had cooperated regularly with Lee and other “Patriots” in reporting events of Stamp Act resistance.26 The publishers obviously sympathized with the colonials. The front page of their final edition prior to the effective date of the Stamp Act carried a banner headline “Expiring.”27 The publisher attributed the “death” of his paper to English attempts to enslave the colonies. The attitude of Green and Rind differed from that of Joseph Royle, publisher of the Virginia Gazette. That paper seemed too subservient to the royal government to satisfy Lee and his colleagues who opposed the Stamp Act.
Determined to provide for themselves a newspaper voice in Williamsburg, they induced Rind to set up a paper there. When Jonas Green resumed publication of the Maryland paper on January 30, 1766, William Rind no longer assisted. The “hot Burgesses” had succeeded. Rind's first issue of a second Virginia Gazette contained on its front page Lee's account of the punishment of Archibald Ritchie. Though the evidence regarding Lee's role in bringing Rind to Virginia is largely circumstantial, no doubt exists that Richard Henry Lee was among the “hot Burgesses” who also succeeded in appointing Virginia's new resident to be their public printer, thus fulfilling the promise which brought him to Williamsburg.28
Lee's part in bringing Rind to Williamsburg illustrates how strongly he felt the need for a means to communicate with all parts of the large colony. During the war, he lamented the absence of newspapers in Virginia.29 Apparently he was just as sure in 1766 that a properly responsive newspaper voice was needed.
Though Virginians did not yet know it, the immediate object of Lee's Westmoreland Resolves had been gained before their publication. The detested act was repealed March 4, 1766. No stamps had been used in the colony, and the repeal resulted partially from the concerted opposition of Americans.30 But for Richard Henry Lee the Stamp Act chapter was not yet closed. In July 1766 the Mercer family severely attacked Lee for his conduct in opposing the Stamp Act. Especially were they incensed at Lee's role in the effigy burning at Westmoreland Court.
They charged Lee with being a hypocrite. In letters to both Gazettes published July 18, George Mercer's brother, James, asserted that Lee had not opposed the Act until after learning that his own application to be appointed stamp distributor had failed. The article, signed “An Enemy to Hypocrisy” touched off a heated newspaper debate regarding Lee's motives. The vehemence with which the two Sides assailed each other demonstrates the heights to which colonists' passions were raised by Stamp Act conflict. The initial Mercer letter was perhaps even more bitter than had been Lee's attack on Mercer in September.
Lee responded to the attack in a restrained, dignified tone.31 Though his answer explained little of his motives in attacking Mercer it demonstrated his astuteness as a persuader. The reply, which was immediate, contained no hint that its author lacked confidence or sincerity. If the Mercer attack wounded Lee, he revealed no clue. He referred to his accusers only twice. He requested that the editor publish his reply, “To remove the painful consideration, that one worthy person should be induced by misrepresentation to think ill of me.” He candidly admitted writing a hasty and ill-considered letter of application, but said he left the “impartial Reader to determine, with what truth and propriety it has been asserted” that he had not opposed the Act until his application was rejected. Almost as hastily as he had applied for the post, he asserted, he had abandoned the prospect of employment as collector after reflecting on the nature of the law. “I considered, that to err is certainly the portion of humanity,” he wrote. He asked his friends to remember that he had receded from the error, and reminded them that “it was the business of an honest Man to recede from error as soon as he discovered it.” He said he would leave judgment to the many who had served with him in the House and knew of his part in preparing the 1764 addresses opposing the Act. Further, he reminded readers, he had demonstrated his sincerity by consistent opposition ever since that time.
Though assessing Lee's motives remains as difficult as it was for his contemporaries, no doubt remains of his rhetorical ability. In this reply he calculated well. Where the Mercers were excessive in both length and invective, Lee countered with brevity and dignity. He assumed the attitude of a man to whom the charge could do no harm because he had clone no wrong. Two or three other articles defending Lee appeared in the Gazette.32 They were not long, not weighty, not signed. As defense they primarily employed wit and sarcasm. That Lee wrote and sent any of these letters is doubtful. None remain among his papers. Nor did the Mercers seem to think Lee prepared them. They spoke of him as a man surrounded by a crowd of willing tools to do his dirty work. They probably observed accurately. Lee seldom worked alone. He probably wrote only the letter he signed, but he doubtless had either seen the other articles or discussed them with their authors. The total campaign in his defense would not have been conducted without reference to him for advice. The pieces written to defend Lee contrasted well with the heavy, bitter tone of the Mercers' letters. The total effect was to suggest that the Mercers were indulging in excessive sound and fury over a relatively trivial matter.
Lee's own letter, the only publication replying to the substantive issues raised by the Mercers, contained important omissions. It did not report where he had been during the May 1765 session of the Assembly. It did not tell why he had not written to England rescinding his application. He must have known that his application would support the English belief that the Act would be acceptable in America. He must have been aware that the application for posts as distributors or collectors by leading men in the colonies would be construed as support for the Act. Lee left these issues unanswered. Nonetheless, once a man has said I was wrong and I admit it, little else can be demanded but an apology. Knowledge that an apology to Mercer would never be forthcoming from the proud, self-righteous Lee, rant and rave as they would, probably increased the Mercers' fury. Once Lee had admitted his error in applying for the post, however, the continuing invective by the Mercers probably merely evoked sympathy for him.
The total failure of the Virginians' addresses sent to England contrasts vividly with Lee's record as a persuader at home. Though Parliament repealed the Stamp Act Virginians did not achieve the aims of their rhetorical efforts. Lee and most of his American counterparts sought primarily to convince the English that the American position was justifiable and constitutionally correct, a conviction they did not secure. Parliament repealed the Act partly because of a conviction that it was ill-timed and unenforceable, but largely because of the complicated political situation in England.33 Most English opponents of taxation who were celebrated in the colonies as friends of American liberty opposed taxation on the grounds of wisdom and practicability, not because they agreed with Americans that the Parliament had no right to tax them. For example, Pitt was widely believed by Americans to agree with their position because of his famous speech containing the declaration that “this kingdom has no right to lay a tax upon the colonies.”34 He was referring, however, to what he called “internal taxes.” External taxes, primarily import duties, Pitt believed to be quite constitutional. In the came speech he made clear that he supported the legislative superiority of Parliament. Twice he spoke of Parliament's legislative power over the colonies as sovereign and supreme.35 He accepted the premise that Parliament would be fully constitutional in laying any external taxes it chose. Since many Americans, Lee and the Virginia Assembly among them, did not make the distinction that an internal levy was a tax white an external levy was not, even Pitt did not totally agree with the Americans.36 Most other Englishmen evinced far less agreement. The Declaratory resolution, asserting unequivocally Parliament's right to tax the colonies, passed the House of Commons before repeal of the Stamp Act without a division and with only five or six voices dissenting.37
Significantly, however, the Virginians and the other colonists believed their own actions largely responsible for repeal of the hated act. The Burgesses, for instance, at the opening of the first session of Assembly following repeal, directed Archibald Cary, Landon Carter and Richard Henry Lee to reply to the Governor's speech. They were to say, among other things, that the Burgesses were “truly sensible of the tender Regard shown to the Rights and Liberties of his British Subjects in America, by his Majesty and the Parliament” who repealed the Stamp Act.38 Lee, in a private letter to his brother, expressed the same misunderstanding of the motivation of both the King and Parliament. He spoke glowingly of “those great and good men” who had opposed “with matchless eloquence the Parliamentary right of imposing internal taxes on America.”39
Neither the philosophical position nor the precarious political position of Chatham and the new ministry was understood in Virginia. Virginians' beliefs were singular oversimplifications, yet critically important. This crisis demonstrated that Virginia leaders had virtually acquired a position of de facto self-government, subject only to the annoyances of a King's veto. More significantly, it demonstrated that these leaders were fully possessed of the will and confidence to defend their position. Most significantly, however, they believed their actions had succeeded in such a defense. That belief was certain to condition their behavior in ensuing years.
During these two years, Richard Henry Lee achieved an eminent position among Virginia leaders. He shared with other Virginians the belief that the Stamp Act seriously threatened their society as well as their local government. He demonstrated willingness to take extreme actions to oppose the danger and shared the widespread American opinion that their actions had succeeded in destroying the threat. He thus placed himself naturally in the vanguard of those who would appose each new threat to the established leadership of Virginia.
Separating the Offices of Speaker and Treasurer
Lee's activities during the Stamp Act crisis demonstrated the degree to which his leadership had matured. His speeches, letters and actions accorded with the spirit and principles enunciated by Virginians of all stations. Lee's ability to sense the mood of his fellows, his total acceptance of their point of view, and his willingness to take drastic action in pursuing their goals, catapulted him to the first rank of leaders within the House.40 The position of leadership, which he maintained for a decade, makes particularly instructive a study of Lee's part in the November 1766 separation of the offices of Speaker of the House of Burgesses and Treasurer of the colony. Coming as it did, in the immediate aftermath of the Stamp Act crisis and following his eight years as a Burgess, this contest highlights Lee and his colleagues of the Assembly at a critical time. His maneuvers in the contest reflect his political philosophy and the speech he prepared for the debate on separation of the offices enunciated his beliefs about government, especially when the speech is compared with a letter written four days after the close of the assembly41 These papers reveal the ideas that served as Lee's philosophical foundation, not only in the current contest, but also in the even more bitter battles with the home government to come.
Lee spoke on the specific occasion of a House debate regarding separation of the offices of Speaker and Treasurer, but the total situation involved other issues, especially the continuing problems of regulating the paper money. That John Robinson had held the combined offices since 1738 had helped him acquire great power. His political influence doubtless contributed to the perfunctory nature of the regular examinations of the Treasury during his recent tenure. Not until after his death did all the legislators learn that Robinson had used his offices to act as economic benefactor to some of them. With that knowledge widespread, separation probably became inevitable.42 An extended newspaper debate preceded the act, giving the impression of great controversy, but the long debate occurred partly because of the repeated postponements of the Assembly session.43
Establishing the date when Robinson began misusing the Treasury is difficult. Several historians, following tradition and circumstantial evidence, have concluded that Lee suspected Robinson as early as 1763, when the paper money issue was before the House.44 Perhaps he did; he implied a suspicion when he questioned what should be done if the money only “supposed” to be in the Treasury were not really there. Lee's suspicions in 1763 do not prove Robinson's guilt, however. The Treasury deficiencies to which Lee referred in 1763 could have accrued in other ways. The examination committees between 1756 and 1765, for instance, reported substantial deficiencies in the amounts remitted by sheriffs.45 Beyond that data, undoubtedly given them by Robinson, the committees probably merely scrutinized his ledgers. Apparently no one, not even Lee, insisted on counting and certifying that the redeemed notes were actually burned. Some historians have suggested that Robinson and his friends attempted to convert and thus hide the Treasury deficit through a loan office plan they offered in May 1765. The loan office plan, however, has also reasonably been explained as an effort to extricate the colony from the problems caused by the lack of circulating money.46
Whether or not Robinson was guilty of misusing his office prior to 1765, attention of most Virginians focused on stamp taxes, not Treasury notes throughout that year. When the Speaker died in 1766, however, the problems surfaced. As long as Robinson was alive, Governor Fauquier had resisted instructions from the Crown to secure separation of the offices of Speaker and Treasurer and the House had never considered the matter. Now, however, with the powerful and popular Robinson gone and the possibility of scandal very real, separation became debatable.47
The popularity of separation increased because of the numbers of candidates for the offices. Lee was one of at least three who desired to succeed Robinson as Speaker, and at least one other person sought the Treasury. Fauquier wrote of Lee's ambitions for the Speakership; and Richard Bland, who sought the office himself, also believed Lee wanted it.48 In a letter to Lee, Bland indicated his good will in the contest, also soliciting Lee's support in separating the two offices no matter who won the election.
For reasons no evidence remains to make clear, Lee dropped the contest. Perhaps he decided that contesting Bland would merely divide the votes in opposition to Peyton Randolph. Another possible motivation, more characteristic of Lee, was that he concluded he had no chance to be elected. Rather than lose, he probably chose not to try. Lee certainly knew that even though he had gained much notice and esteem during the Stamp Act controversy, he had neither the experience nor the popularity of Peyton Randolph. Lee usually judged his ability to win elections well. Characteristically he avoided those in which his chances were slim. Whatever his motivations, Lee rose on November 6, 1766, to nominate Richard Bland for Speaker, describing him as a “Gentleman who had given undeniable Proofs of his Abilities and Fitness for that Office.”49 Unfortunately the journal does not report the margin of Randolph's victory.
With the Speaker selected, the House turned immediately to the Treasury problems, typically, appointing a committee.50 However this new group who were to inquire into the state of the Treasury did not receive the routine instructions given past examination committees. These men were directed to “state an Account of the Treasury Notes . . . [issued since 1754] with the Amount of the Notes which have been burnt, and those remaining in the Hands of the Treasurer.” Further, the committee was to give “an Account of the annual Produce of the several Taxes, Duties, and Impositions,” and report “the Balances that appear to be due from the several Collectors.” Finally, the Burgesses asked for “an Account of the Money paid to the several publick Creditors.”
For the first time since 1758, an essentially new committee examined the Treasury.51 Even though all members of the 1765 committee were still Burgesses, the only men from the previous Treasury examination committees reappointed were Lee, Bland and Archibald Cary. Cary was the only member of the new committee who believed he owed substantial amounts to the Robinson estate.52 Benjamin Harrison, Lewis Burwell and Edmund Pendleton, not reappointed, knew they owed substantial amounts, as did many other members of the Assembly at the time. That they also believed they owed the Treasury through the estate is likely, though not demonstrable. Pendleton, administrator of Robinson's estate, almost certainly disqualified him-self from committee membership; perhaps Burwell and Harrison did also.53 Though the method of selecting the new committee is not clear, rank and expertise were certainly influential in the choice of men for this important task.54 Thus, it is significant that Bland, Landon Carter, Lee and Cary were first named on the committee. Involved in their selection was seniority and previous committee membership, but it also indicated the other Burgesses respected their ability.
The committee delayed its report for more than a month, waiting until Pendleton completed his task of tallying the estate's indebtedness to the Treasury.55 Nearly eighteen months had passed since the Governor abruptly prorogued the House in May 1765, and members anticipated a lengthy session in November 1766. Much routine business of the colony demanded their attention and the members proceeded first to preliminary matters. They appointed standing committees, distributed petitions and examination of election returns to the proper committees and formulated the reply to the Governor's speech.56 Finally, on the 12th, they prepared to confront the issue of separation. That day the House resolved itself into committee of the whole for considering the “State of the Colony.” Upon rising, the committee reported the simple resolution that the offices of Speaker and Treasurer “shall not be united in the same person.” In a rare act, the clerk recorded the vote: 68 ayes, 29 Noes.57 The contest may have been heated, but at the end it was not close.
Historians have read much political machination into the scanty records reporting these election and separation contests and doubtless much occurred. However those who have tried to neatly categorize the politicians according to issues, classifying men as radical or conservative according to who and what they supported, have attempted to impose a pattern on these events, which does not emerge from the evidence. To conclude that conservatives lost the contest ignores the fact that separation carried out the royal instruction. Since it did the radicals should have opposed separation, yet they did not. Moreover, Randolph won the Speakership before the vote on separation was taken, supposedly defeating Bland with the support of the conservative “old-line tidewater aristocracy.”58 If the conservatives could muster the votes to elect Randolph, it is difficult to conclude that they lost the contest regarding separation 66 to 29.
A more reasonable interpretation of these events is that the contest involved personal rivalry. Greene concluded that though planters “in the Northern Neck under the leadership of the Lees and another group in the James and York River section under the Randolphs and Robinsons” engaged in some rivalry over western lands, there were neither political parties nor permanent factions in the House of Burgesses.59 Rivalry over land plausibly explains Lee's choice of Bland for Speaker. That Randolph was able and respected is a reason-able explanation of his victory. He was of a respected family, had been Attorney-General and a Burgess since 1748. He had served the Burgesses well in the Pistole Fee dispute, his personal popularity continuing until his death in 1775.60 Existence of a conservative clique anxious to preserve its power is not necessary to explain Randolph's election victory.
Though perhaps a factor in the choice of Speaker, the rivalry between cliques does not seem to explain the vote regarding separation. The decision was clear, no matter what manner of maneuvering kept reports of the controversy out of the record.61 Considering the margin of victory, the House probably would have supported separation whether Lee or any other single individual had spoken in support of it. But Lee's arguments on the winning side, echoed by or echoing those of Bland and Robert Carter Nicholas, serve to illustrate the beliefs of the Burgesses. That most Virginia leaders believed in the philosophy of government expressed by Lee is a proposition which reasonably explains the separation vote.
A partial copy and a badly mutilated draft of a speech relating to the issues of the contest over separation remain among the Lee papers.62 Neither of the manuscripts is complete, but both can be studied usefully, for they represent attempts by Lee to frame his thoughts in preparation for the debate on November 12. Since the final part is missing from the good copy and the final two pages of the draft are almost totally illegible, it is difficult to determine with exactness the resolutions that Lee proposed. Clearly he offered more than one and therefore sought more than the simple statement reported by the Committee of the Whole. One item, however, certainly in accordance with his wishes was a salary for the Speaker. The House voted an annual stipend of 500 pounds.63
Discovering the basic argument of this speech is simpler than determining its purpose and effect. Lee's fundamental inquiry was, how may governments best achieve the ends for which they are intended? He began by defining the end of government then turned to the more difficult question of how to achieve the end. He briefly defined the purpose of government, seemingly confident of agreement. He believed it “obvious Sir to all those who have reflected on this Subject that Government was originally instituted for the greater happiness and benefit of Mankind.”
The means of achieving this end he apparently believed required careful analysis, for he devoted the remaining two-thirds of his speech to it. Those lawgivers who “most adhered to just principles and the Constitution of Nature” followed a basic policy of framing government so as to leave men in the full possession of power to do good while taking from them the privilege of doing wrong. Lee had some difficulty deciding how to express this concept. In one draft he wrote, these framers “so wisely [tempered] liberty with restraints as to leave men in full possession of every power to do good while [removing only] the privilege of doing wrong.” In the second draft he first wrote the same expression, changing men to “Mankind” but then apparently changed his mind and reversed restraint with liberty. The change must reflect his analysis of history, for his next several sentences extolled this “glorious Liberty . . . which Nations in all ages have so warmly contended for.” Before turning to historical analysis, he emphasized that much study by “the wisest heads and the best hearts” and much contention had been required before the governors adhered to “just principles” and “tempered” restraint.
Becoming more specific, he explained how to temper restraint. “The powers of Government, and those Posts or Places by which these powers are executed . . .” should be divided so that no “one Man [acquired] . . . too great influence, too much power.” “The corruption of human Nature” created the need for the division of powers, for men who possess the power, have “seldom wanted the inclination to destroy the liberties of Mankind.” Thus, governments must be formed to “trust as little to the integrity of human nature” as possible.
Lee's view of human nature and of government differs in no essential respect from that typical of eighteenth-century Americans.64 He saw power and liberty as opposites; power constantly striving to destroy liberty. Since liberty was necessary to happiness, governments had to be contrived so that the power naturally available to governmental office holders was limited.
A simple statement of this philosophy did not suffice. Lee did not wish “to assert too generally.” Typically, he gave specific evidence, introducing it by saying, “I shall instance some particulars, and of the many proofs I am able to produce in support of this argument.” Greece and Rome provided the first examples.65 First citing Athens and Sparta, he then turned to the Roman government indicating that at the outset it too was founded “to secure the state from the dangerous attempts of the Great and Wealthy,” the powers of government being placed in two councils. He discussed the Roman government quite specifically, probably to emphasize ensuing events. “This short summary of antient policy” followed by those “who had liberty in view” he contrasted with Rome under a later policy. When Caesar succeeded in having himself “declared perpetual [Senator] . . . the liberty of Rome was totally annihilated and the [hand] of Despotism [usurped] fair freedoms sceptre.” Moving from "antiquity to modern" times, Lee noted that the policy he admired currently prevailed in Holland and England. England he thought most useful to his purpose, “being our present country.” In England “the powers of Government, the places . . . [of Honor, wealth] and power [were] most artfully and minutely divided—there the different forms of Monarchy Aristocracy and Democracy” finely blended. Discussing the English pattern as he had the Roman, he moved from the general statement to the specific example. He described the abolition of the offices of “Ld high [Sheriff], Ld high Constable, Ld high Admiral, [and] Ld high Treasurer.” History taught that “the two first places” were abolished, he said, “because they carried with them a power so great as to render them dangerous.” Lee believed that even though “history had not expressly” indicated it, the same principles motivated replacement of the other two offices with commissions.
Lee concluded with a long, one-sentence summary and then offered resolutions. The summary was a concise statement of his philosophy. “If then, wise and good men in all ages” found it necessary “for the security of liberty to divide places of power and profit,” and if any departure from “their maxim” injured or destroyed freedom, “why should Virginia quit the path of wisdom and seal her own ru[in as] far as she can do it, by uniting in one person the only two gr[eat]” offices she had?
Lee did not emphasize the ideal nature of the English government merely as a rhetorical ploy. His personal letters demonstrate that he strongly believed in the English arrangement. On December 20, 1766, immediately after returning home from the session of Assembly in which the separation debate occurred, he responded to a letter from his brother Arthur.66 Arthur had asked for information about Virginia, and Richard Henry replied, giving “as accurate an idea of the constitution of this Country” as he could. He used almost exactly the same words in his letter to Arthur as he had in the speech. He declared that “our Forefathers in framing the Constitution of this Country had in view the excellent pattern furnished by the Mother Country,” and he described it as the “happily poised english constitution.”
Clearly Lee accepted a basic tenet of the enlightenment, that separation of powers was needed. His letter to Arthur emphasized the importance of separating powerful offices.67 Moreover, Lee shared the common British opinion that the English government reflected the ideal pattern. He contrasted Virginia's government with the English, finding Virginia's defective. The essential shortcoming, Lee believed, was that the colony only superficially resembled the parent state. In truth, he said, Virginia had checked the Crown not at all. Both Governor and Council, appointed by the Crown, held their places “by the precarious tenure of pleasure only.” Therefore, Virginians lacked the security provided in Britain by the independence of the House of Lords. In addition, the Crown excessively controlled the judiciary. He noted that the “same persons who compose our Council during pleasure” were “Judges of our General Courts,” an “injudicious combination.” Finally, he exclaimed, “how must your surprise increase” when you learn that even the “democratic part of our legislature is totally in the power of the Crown.” He referred to the Governor's power to call, or refuse to call, or to dismiss the Assembly whenever he wished.
Perhaps he was thinking of the Governor's refusal to call the Assembly at the time of the Stamp Act controversy. Lee did not refer to it in this letter, but it must have been galling to the proud Virginian to have his “Country” unrepresented at the Stamp Act Congress. The Governor had prevented it by refusing to call the Assembly again in 1765 after he had abruptly dismissed it following the House approval of Patrick Henry's resolutions. Because of the Governor's action, the Virginians could not respond to the Massachusetts Bay Circular Letter of June 8 calling the Congress.
To remedy the defect, seen by Virginians long before the conflict over the Stamp Act, the Assembly had passed a law in 1762 modeled after “an Act of Parliament adopted in England after the Revoliition.”68 Lee chaired the committee that framed this bill setting specific limits on the Governor. The act required that a new Assembly be elected every seven years and that an Assembly must be called at least once every three years.69 Lee believed this law important, thinking it necessary to correct what he deemed a serious imbalance, but it passed with a suspending clause and four years later, “had never had the royal approbation.”
The law never received the Crown's approval but Lee still hoped for it in 1766.70 He told Arthur that he hoped the new ministry, “who so lately evinced their generous and noble attachment to American Freedom,” would secure approval for the languishing bill. His disillusionment when he learned of a September 1767 instruction doubtless contributed to his hardened attitude toward the English government late in the decade. This instruction directed governors in the royal colonies to refuse assent to any laws altering membership, changes in qualifications of electors or duration of Assemblies.71 The instruction intended to prevent the precise changes in Virginia government that Lee desired.
Lee's concern for the Assembly bill demonstrated his belief that unchecked power always tried to arrogate more and more authority to itself. The proposed law required less frequent elections and Assembly sessions than had actually occurred in Virginia's recent history. During the entire eighteenth century no elections had been separated by more than seven years, and only once had a seven-year period elapsed. Nor had more than three years passed between sessions since 1710. Though in some years no sessions of the Assembly were called, often two or three meetings occurred during a year, so that since 1700 sixty-three sessions of the Assembly had been held.72 Clearly, Lee's bill was designed to guard against a potential danger. The Governor's arbitrary power had actually been used much more benevolently than the proposed law would have required. Equally benevolent had been the use of the Crown's power to dismiss the members of the Council.
Employing historical analysis, Lee explained to Arthur how the Virginia government came to be so “exceptionally contrived.” Yet, he said, in spite of the problems of their government, he was proud of his “Countrymen,” who had “been remarkable for loyalty and firm attachment to their Sovereign.” These comments, made to his brother, must be accepted as sincere expressions. Lee had no reason to indulge in either bombast or affectation when addressing his brother. His pride in the loyalty of Virginians to their King illustrated the developing dichotomy in Virginians' affections. In 1766 Lee saw no reason why his pride in his "Country" and his “Countrymen” should conflict with his loyalty to the institutions of the “happily poised english constitution.” He very soon understood the conflict.
1. The narrative of preparation of the addresses is based on J. P. Kennedy and H. R. McIlwaine (eds.), Journals of the House of Burgesses (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1907), X, 254–304, hereafter cited as JHB. The text of the addresses as finally approved is pp. 302–4.
2. Paul P. Hoffman (ed.), The Lee Family Papers 1742–1795 (Microfilm Publications; Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library, 1966), I, hereafter cited as Lee Papers. Lee probably introduced this resolution November 13 or 14.
3. Richard Henry Lee, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, ed. James C. Ballagh (New York: The Macmillan Company, 912), I, 17, hereafter cited as RHL, Letters.
4. Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), October 3, 1766. Mercer's reference is apparently to John Robinson.
5. The committee appointed to draw the addresses was Peyton Randolph, Lee, Landon Carter, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, Benjamin Harrison, Archibald Cary and John Fleming. Richard Bland was added to the committee a week later, JHB, X, 264.
6. JHB, X, 256–57.
8. Francis Fauquier to Board of Trade, 24 December 1764, JHB, X, lviii.
9. Michael G. Kammen, A Rope of Sand: The Colonial Agents, British Politics, and the American Revolution (New York: Cornell University Press, 1968), pp. 112–15.
10. Lawrence H. Gipson, The British Empire Before the American Revolution: The Triumphant Empire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), X, 5–6, 109–10; ——, The Coming of the Revolution 1763–1775 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), pp. 141–42.
11. RHL, Letters, I, 18–22.
12. Jack P. Greene, The Quest for Power: The Lower Houses of Assembly in the Southern Royal Colonies 1689–1776 (Chapel Hill: the University or North Carolina Press, 1963), pp. 6–7, 9.
13. An earlier effigy burning was reported in the Maryland Gazette, September 12, 1765. Lee may have been involved in the first incident. An unsigned letter in Purdie and Dixon's Virginia Gazette, July 25, 1766, asserted that he was responsible for it. The Maryland Gazette for October 17, 1765, reported the events of September 23rd.
14. Maryland Gazette, October 17, 1765.
16. Francis Fauquier to Board of Trade, 3 November 1765, JHB, X, lxvii–lxix; John C. Matthews, “Two Men on a Tax,” The Old Dominion: Essays for Thomas Perkins Abernethy, Darrett B. Ruthman, editor (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia, 1964), p. 101; Kate Mason Rowland, The Life of George Mason 1725–1792 (New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1892), I, 124–25.
17. Williamsburg's permanent residents amounted to fewer than 1,000, but three to four thousand were often in town during the General Court, Lucille B. Griffith, Virginia House of Burgesses 1750–1774 (Northport, Ala.: Colonial Press, 1963), p. 3.
18. The narrative of Mercer's reception and his reaction is based on Governor Fauquier's letter cited above, JHB, X, lxvii–lxix; and on the newspaper report in the Virginia Gazette (Joseph Royle) October 25, 1765.
19. Matthews, “Two Men on a Tax,” p. 104.
20. Richard Parker to Richard Henry Lee, 23 February 1766, Lee Papers, I; Richard Henry Lee to Landon Carter, 24 February 1766, RHL, Letters, I, 14–15.
21. Ibid.; “To the Good People of Virginia,” Lee Papers, II, incorrectly dated 1776. This manuscript, with minor variations, is in Richard Henry Lee II, Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee and His Correspondence (Philadelphia: H. C. Carey & I. Lea, 1825), I, 37–39, hereafter cited as Lee Memoir. Parts of the surviving manuscript are illegible, leading to the speculation that perhaps two different papers or drafts are extant. Parker referred to the anonymous letter saying, “Would you think it? The word we were at so much pains to find out I mean (Timeously) was what led the Colo to fix on you as the Author he having received a letter lately from you with that word in it.” The word timeously is not in the printed address nor in the legible portions of the manuscript, nor are the two lines cited identical. The anonymous letter may, therefore, have been different from the surviving manuscript, or the surviving manuscript may have been a draft of the letter as it was finally circulated. Most important, however, is that either one or both were joint productions. Lee had obviously worked with Parker and probably others in writing.
22. Possibly the address was not published. No printed copy is extant; the text included in Lee Memoir, I, 37–39, is possibly based entirely on the surviving manuscript; and circular letters in manuscript were not unheard of at the time. Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), September 12, 1766, includes a reference to one.
23. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1967), pp. 55–143, traces in American pamphlet literature the development of the conspiracy belief.
24. 24The citations from the Association are from the version published May 16, 1766, in Rind's Virginia Gazette, except the first sentence of the preamble, which was omitted in the newspaper report. The first sentence is found in most printed copies of the Westmoreland Resolves, and is here cited from a draft of the Association in Lee's handwriting in the American Philosophical Society, Papers of Richard Henry and Arthur Lee.
25. The newspaper report, probably personally carried to Maryland by Lee, claimed that four hundred men confronted Ritchie, RHL, Letters, I, 15.
26. Maryland Gazette, July 4, 1765, includes a version of Patrick Henry's resolutions as presented to the House in May. Thus, even the three strong statements that the Burgesses rejected were reported widely as the official position of the Virginia House of Burgesses. The effigy hanging of George Mercer printed by the Maryland Gazette, September 12, 1765, did not appear in the Virginia paper. The September 24th proceedings at Westmoreland Court and the resignation of Westmoreland County justices were both reported by the Maryland Gazette, October 17, 1765. Many other activities of the Patriots appeared in this paper throughout the fall, including an article, October 17, prefaced by a note from its author complaining that the Virginia Gazette had refused to print it.
27. October 10, 1765.
28. Francis Fauquier to Board of Trade, 7 April 1766, Public Record Office, Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 1333, pp. 76–77. The number of “hot Burgesses,” or of those who were sympathizers, must have been larger than Fauquier implied. When the vote was taken to appoint the new public printer, Rind received 53 votes, four votes more than the total cast for all three of his rivals, JHB, XI, 18.
29. RHL, Letters, II, 225.
30. See below, pp. 162–64.
31. Lee's reply was published in the Virginia Gazette (William Rind), August 8, 1766. It was dated July 25, immediately after Mercer's first letter appeared. The citations here are from RHL, Letters, I, 16–18.
32. Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), August 22, 1766. Other articles were included in papers since lost. John Mercer's letter in Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), September 25, 1766, refers to articles in the papers dated August 29 and an undated supplement; neither is extant.
33. Kammen, pp. 117–24; Gipson, Empire, X, 371–409; Edmund S. and Helen Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis (revised edition; New York: Collier Books, 1962), 327–65; Thomas C. Barrow, Trade and Empire: The British Customs Service in Colonial America 1660–1775 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 210–16; provide the basis for assessing the political basis of Stamp Act repeal.
34. Pitt to the House of Commons, 14 January 1766, Chauncey A. Goodrich (ed.), Select British Eloquence (New York: Bobbs Merrill Company, Inc., 1963), p. 104.
35. Ibid., p. 104–6.
36. Gipson, Empire, X, 239–40, cites two letters of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence and compares them to the phrase approved by the Assembly, “internal Polity and Taxation.” He concluded the word internal was intended to modify taxation as well as polity, and therefore that even the Assembly made the distinction between internal and external levies, considering one a tax and the other not. Doubtless for some Virginians the distinction was acceptable in 1764. Equally clearly, for others it was not. Contrast the phrase from the address to the King which Gipson cites with the following from the remonstrance to the Commons: “it is essential to British Liberty that Laws imposing Taxes on the People ought not to be made without the Consent of Representatives chosen by themselves.” The same address later states, “if it were proper for the Parliament to impose Taxes on the Colonies at all . . . the Exercise of that Power at this Time would be ruinous to Virginia,” JHB, X, 303–4. Lee appears to be among the group which made no distinction since his original resolution for the address to the Commons objected to all taxation.
37. Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Third, ed. G. F. Russell Barker (4 vols.; Lonon: Lawrence and Bullen, 1894), II, 200.
38. JHB, XI, 13.
39. RHL, Letters, I, 21.
40. Greene, Quest, p. 47.
41. Lee Papers, I; Richard Henry Lee to Arthur Lee, 20 December 1766, RHL, Letters, I, 18–22.
42. The imperial authorities had desired that the Governor secure the separation of the offices since 1758, Greene, Quest, p. 246–47.
43. JHB, XI, 5–9, reports the five prorogations of the session originally scheduled for fall 1765.
44. Joseph A. Ernst, “The Robinson Scandai Redivivus: Money, Debts, and Politics in Revolutionary Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, LXXVII (April,1969) 149–50; ——, “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) 64–65; Oliver P. Chitwood, Richard Henry Lee: Statesman of the Revolution (Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1967), pp. 23–24; JHB, XI, xii-xiii.
45. JHB, VIII, 488. A remedy for the problem was part of a 1757 bill “for granting in aid to his Majesty and for better protection and defence of this colony,” William Waller Hening (ed.), The Statutes 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: University Press of Virginia, 1969) VII, 263. Another was in a 1759 bill “for raising a Public levy,” Hening, VII, 395–96. This latter bill was so clearly related to the issue of sheriffs' arrears that it named eight counties specifically and listed the amounts due from each.
46. The House plan, among other things, provided for sinking the currently outstanding paper money by borrowing 240,000 pounds to be redeemed over ten years, JHB, X, 350. The bill did not receive Council approval, but Richard Bland, who was not indebted to Robinson, considered offering a similar plan in 1766, Richard Bland to Richard Henry Lee, 22 May 1766, Lee Papers, I. Bland's suggestion makes doubtful the conclusion that the earlier proposal merely aimed to cover for Robinson.
47. After May, few issues of the Virginia Gazette in 1766 were without articles dealing with the controversy. The debate is traced in Carl Bridenbaugh, “Violence and Virtue in Virginia, 1766,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, LXXVI (January–December, 1964) 3–29; Ernst, “The Robinson Scandal,” pp. 157–65.
48. Francis Fauquier to Board of Trade, 7 April 1766, P.R.O., C.O. 5/1333, pp. 76–77; Richard Bland to Richard Henry Lee, 22 May 1766, Lee Papers, I.
49. JHB, XI, 11.
50. JHB, XI, 14.
51. New members were Landon Carter, John Fleming, Patrick Henry, John Blair, Paul Carrington, George Wythe, Thomas Tabb and Francis Lightfoot Lee, Ibid.
52. Carter contested the amount that Pendleton reported he owed, Mays, p. 360.
53. Pendleton was added to the committee when he returned after his accounting of Robinson's estate, JHB, XI, 30.
54. Greene, Quest, p. 464; Jack P. Greene, “Foundations of Political Power in the Virginia House of Burgesses 1720–1776,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, XVI (October,1959), 485–86; S. M. Pargellis, “The Procedure of the Virginia House of Burgesses,” William and Mary Quarterly, second series, VII (April,1927), 80; VII (July, 17), 143–46; James M. Leake, The Virginia Committee System and the American Revolution (Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historicl and Political Science, Vol. XXXV. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1917), pp. 40–41, 46.
55. Pendleton received leave to be absent from the House immediately after the Treasury examination committee was appointed, JHB, XI, 14. Mays suggests this leave was to give Pendleton time to arrange the affairs of Robinson's estate sufficiently that the amount actually owed the Treasury could be determined, pp. 186–87; the Journal records support his conclusion, JHB, XI, 65–66.
56. JHB, XI, 14–23.
57. JHB, XI, 24.
58. Ernst, “The Robinson Scandal,” p. 167.
59. Greene, Quest, p. 30, citing D. A. Williams, “Political Alignments in Colonial Virginia, 1698–1750” (unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Northwestern University, 1959), Douglas S. Freeman, George Washington: A Biography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), III, 171.
60. Note, for example, Richard Henry Lee to George Washington, 22 October 1775, RHL, Letters, I, 152–54. Lee mourned the death of “our good old Speaker” saying, “Thus has American liberty lost a powerful Advocate and human nature a sincere friend.”
61. The Governor wrote that this entire session had been “conducted with great Heat . . . tho' they have been so prudent as to have nothing appear in their Journals,” Francis Fauquier to the Earl of Shelburne, 27 April 1767, cited in Mays, pp. 250–51.
62. Lee Papers, I.
63. Hening, VIII, 210. It is not possible to determine from the mutilated fragment of Lee's manuscript whether or not he suggested a specific amount.
64. Bailyn, Ideological Origins, pp. 55–93.
65. The legible portion of the manuscript ends at this point of the speech. From the draft, barely discernible outlines of Lee's thoughts can be deduced.
66. RHL, Letters, I, 18–22.
67. He quoted a long paragraph in French from Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Law for Arthur, Ibid., p. 20.
68. Ibid., p. 21.
69. Hening, VII, 517–30. Other members of the committee which prepared the bill were Edmund Pendleton and Richard Bland, JHB, X, 96–97.
70. Gipson, Empire, X, 139-42.
71. Greene, Quest, p. 381.
72. JHB, III–X, reporting the years 1700 through 1765.
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