Virginia’s Policy System post-1776–1784: An Outline


If contemporary readers were to read in detail what life and politics were like in the American states during the war of Independence, I suspect they would be surprised. To a certain extent if the war didn’t take a physical presence in your “home base” life went on, if you ignored taxes, the draft, and the complete collapse of foreign trade on which most Americans were dependent for their basis goods and necessaries. American manufacturing of the period was by no means sufficient to our needs, and smuggling probably ensured that the rich got their fair share of what did wander in from abroad. If the war did touch your community directly–it was profoundly disruptive. Virginia as mentioned previously was a a “battlefield state” and subject to intermittent British raids from the coast into the hinterland–sacking the capital twice. The last year and half of the Revolutionary War, the post-178o Southern Campaign, was obviously waged in the South with Virginia as it chief logistical point. The final battle, Yorktown, was fought in Virginia.  So the War started in Boston and ended in southern coastal Virginia. In between the only major coastal port city that did not come under the control of the British at one point or another was Baltimore. The Articles government took advantage of this and in varying time periods Baltimore and Annapolis served as the capital city. Virginia, however, was another matter entirely.

The War Itself

From the onset, the same rivers that allowed Virginia planters to export abroad from their plantation piers, allowed British frigates to threaten individual plantations with bombardment and to land marines. Nobody was safe. In 1781, for example, the HMS Savage raided and bombarded a number of Potomac River plantations looking for food, Patriots, and economic disruption. When the Savage got to Mount Vernon, Washington’s property master (Mr. Lund, a relative) witnessed nineteen of Washington’s slaves escape to the ship, and subsequently he received a demand from the ship’s captain to pay a ransom fee for not bombarding the plantation. Lund decided the better part of valor was to pay the ransom–which he did, and the HMS Savage went on its merrie way. Thinking  Washington would be happy to have his wife, family and plantation not burnt down. Lund wrote Washington proudly retelling the tale. Was he wrong; Washington got back to him with his version of a “strong letter to follow” that “burned Lund’s butt”: “It would have been less painful circumstance to me to have heard that in consequence of your non-compliance with [the British ultimatum] they had burnt my house and laid the plantation in ruins” [1]. Portsmouth–Norfolk was entirely burnt in 1775-6, and that destruction took whatever little momentum the city had in becoming a major port city, permitting Baltimore and Charleston to take up the slack without serious competition from Virginia.

The British offered slaves the opportunity to escape, as well as their freedom if they joined the British cause. Many blacks did just that. Jefferson estimated that in one year alone, 1778, 30,000 Virginia slaves took the British up on their offer–Jefferson BTW was not happy. He estimated that in one year’s British raiding, one-fifth of the state’s black population escaped [2]. The British raiding never really stopped, with periodic raids from Benedict Arnold to the equally evil Banastre Tarleton, the British raided inland, attacking and capturing Richmond twice. A British blocakade closed down most of Virginia’s tobacco export. Early on the British attacked and took over Charleston. In the western counties, disruption was also severe–this was true of the southern states in general. British and Indians constantly raided the Patriot-inclined settlements, and Loyalist Scots Highlanders mobilized a strong loyalist militia units that enveloped the south’s western frontier in what amounted to a brutal civil war. .

In August 1780 the Battle of Camden crushed the southern Patriot army under Washington’s rival General Gates, and all seemed lost. At this critical point, western county Patriot militia, led by two generals (Sevier and Shelby), who each would become state governors of their respective states (Tennessee and Kentucky), crushed the Loyalist forces at the Battle of Kings Mountain (Oct, 1780). In some ways this little known victory marked the turning point in the the South and prompted the British to double down with their 1780 Southern Campaign, George Cornwallis arrived on the scene with a large British army transferred from New York City.

In Virginia’s core Tidewater and Piedmont, rich and powerful Loyalists actively and passively resisted Virginia’s Patriot government. Respected and powerful oligarch families (Byrds, John Randolph–brother of Peyton, and the Northern Neck’s Thomas Lord Fairfax, for example). Since the state’s tax collection and payment system started at the plantation level, the effect on Virginia’s fiscal situation was devastating. Many loyalist plantation owners simply abandoned their plantations, and emigrated to London or Canada. This tore a hole in Virginia’s heretofore monolithic oligarchy. Some Loyalist oligarchs, like Fairfax stayed (protected by Washington) and watched from the sidelines–observed by their Patriot neighbors. When they time came, with the Virginia Land Act of 1779, their lands were confiscated in what amounted to vigilante justice. Throughout the Tidewater there were persistent and surprisingly serious draft riots and actual insurrections erupted. Virginia’s draftees and volunteer mostly went off to fight with Washington’s Continental Army, leaving Virginia itself almost defenseless. This explains much of why the British were able to raid the state for so long without being checked by Patriot resistance. Washington in the meanwhile kept the Continental Army massed against the British forces in Philadelphia and New York City.

As mentioned previously Virginia entered the war on the threshold of fiscal insolvency–and the depression in tobacco export that followed obviously caused a virtual economic collapse. Taking advantage of their relative freedom a euphemism for Janis Joplin’s “freedom is a word for nothing left to lose” from the Patriot government, Tidewater and Piedmont sharecroppers literally headed for the western hills and depopulated the core areas of the Tidewater and Piedmont. Dabney describes these descendents of the Tidewater indentured servants as “impoverished wretches“whose hopes for a great future in a revolution painted for them by no less than the populist rhetoric of Patrick Henry “the Tongue of the Revolution”, left their “hovels” and headed in numbers to the western frontier [3]. Perhaps the most celebrated of these Piedmont emigres was George Rogers Clark who headed off to the wilds of Kentucky from where he launched his invasion (1778-9) of the Ohio Valley to Indiana. That invasion broke the resistance of the British and Indians on the Ohio and finally brought some respite to the brutalized western periphery.

the Policy System “Responds”

The Virginia state policy system in response to all this “opportunity” to excel, expectedly got off to a rough start indeed. Patrick Henry was elected for three straight one-year terms as governor. Sitting in the governor’s chair he discovered he did not possess authority to mobilize whatever few militia he could find to resist a British raid on Richmond, the state capital, and other major raids.  When not in session, his so-called advisory council was nowhere around. As we learned in the previous chapter, Virginia had one of the weakest governor’s office in the entire of North America–that was one reason Henry was elected in the first place; it was thought at the time that the office was a great place to locate the unliked mouthy populist radical precisely because it was so weak–Henry himself called the office a “mere phantom” [4]. Arguably, his greatest achievement as governor was his 1777 marriage to Martha Washington’s second cousin. When his first  wife passed away, he soon remarried Martha’s cousin and between the two wives fathered a total of seventeen children–prompting a later joke that Patrick Henry, not Washington, should be considered as the “Father of his Country”. On top of this, the Virginia state government had little to no governmental capacity of its own, and it was required to work through its counties–rural counties which were by no means robust. By 1779, thirty Virginia counties were essentially in defaul, and unable to transfer state taxes to the state level.

Henry spent most of his time trying to raise money, taxes, soldiers for Virginia and the Patriot Cause–and to implement the politically correct revolutionary war policy of Non-Importation (and exportation) of British goods. Creating throughout the state a series of local organizations, cleverly called “Associations of Non-Importation”, a sort of local reign of terror was levied to ensure compliance among the citizenry. Drinking tea, for example, was a noted violation. It did gives the bored Sons of Liberty who stayed behind a noble cause, however. Much attention of the Associations was turned on the hated (and Loyalist) Scottish export factors who were to arrested and expelled–an activity not noted for the economic growth it produced. I am hesitant to identify Associations therefore as  an EDO. One does not think of Madame DeFarge like characters as economic developers. Some of the alleged Non-Importation violators were hanged, and after several years, by 1778-9, these fine folk began to seize Loyalist plantation, confiscating their property, and expelling them from the area under the pretext of implementing the 1779 Land Act.

To put some order and legality to this vigilantism, the 1779 Land Act was approved, legalizing the seizures and regulating the disposal of the property–it was not to be the moral high tide of this revolutionary war policy system. Closer to land redistribution later practiced during the French Revolution in the Tidewater and Piedmont. the Land Act of 1779 in western counties, Kentucky especially, systemized land sales and land titles. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the strictures of the Act were impossible to implement in the wilderness counties where the rule of law and courts were yet to be established. So hated by Kentucky County residents the Land Act was almost without question the most important trigger for a movement that began in 1781 to secede from Virginia, and then when that fizzled out, to merely demand to be an independent state.

By the time the Act was passed, Patrick Henry had been termed out of the governorship, and was followed into the governorship by no other than Thomas Jefferson, who would serve two terms. To be fair, I suppose I have to try, Jefferson during his term pressed hard for several notable pieces of legislation. Previously, as delegate-committee chair in the General Assembly, the lower house, Jefferson passed some 135 bills which in aggregate reformed and updated British laws to conform to a democratic and republican state.  Somewhat successful, was Jefferson’s codification of Virginia’s legal system and a considerable reform of its criminal justice system. In 1776 he submitted several bills to “break up” the aristocracy. Primogeniture was abolished (although by that time it was out of fashion). He also officially moved the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond, and his plans for the relocation involved laying out the city’s public district, and selecting architectural style of its public buildings. Done well amidst the turbulence this city-building appropriately earned him a noted reputation, a reputation which Washington tapped into when the latter built Washington D.C. Jefferson also in his period of governorship attempted passage of several historic pieces of legislation. In 1779 his statute for Religious Freedom, intended to separate church and state by removing the Anglican Church as Virginia’s state religion, was blocked by Tidewater planters still dominant in the state legislature. The bill finally was finally approved in 1786. Lastly, a bill to create a Virginia  public education system, K12 thru Higher Education, the General Diffusion of Knowledge Act, was similarly unsuccessful in 1779, but in a later Pyrrhic victory was gutted and then approved in 1799. K12 education was not instituted in Virginia until after the Civil War.

Jefferson’s second term ended simultaneously with in a disastrous British raid on Richmond that Jefferson handled badly. Compounding that, he nearly bungled his escape from the capital getting out literally in the nick of time, and then further embarrassed himself by not stopping until he got to Monticello, where he stayed until his term expired. This may have been the most embarrassing episode in his illustrious career. Although eligible for a third term as governor, he chose not to run, and the Legislature, after an investigation, moved onto a new governor.

In 1780, Virginia had its own Valley Forge as the British throughout the year increased their belligerence in Virginia. In that year, the new traitor, Benedict Arnold led a raid  with 1600 men, past Portsmouth, up the James River and seized the virtually defenseless state capitol, destroying what little existed in the village. Jefferson barely escaped, along with the Legislature, and, probably compounded his military powerlessness with a less than robust effort to defend the place, and a rather leisurely withdrawal. Arnold then went into winter quarters in Portsmouth, and from then on elements of the British army increasingly moved into Virginia to begin the famous British “Southern Campaign”, that in October, 1781 culminated in the Battle of Yorktown–by that time  the Legislature had abandoned Richmond, moved to Charlottesville just in time for the evil Colonel Banastre Tarleton to seize the place, capturing several legislators (including a legislator from Kentucky County, Daniel Boone whom he pardoned). Moving further inland to Staunton, the Legislature effectively ceased functioning.


As we have previously described, he held an office that was devoid of autonomous political power. Checked on all sides, even in the seeming vital arena of fighting the war to defend itself, governors Henry and Jefferson were without levers to fabricate any agenda, stymied by their several political enemies, and left alone to somehow run a state-level policy system with a handful of clerks and militia. The war period, however, left Virginia in considerable shambles, economically and politically. By the time something approaching normalcy arrived around 1783, it was still fairly turbulent, with a depopulated Tidewater, its plantation economy in tatters, its tobacco export infrastructure demolished and expelled–and its markets not especially open to sale of its product. The Virginia oligarchy, fragmented beyond anything it had ever experienced, was pretty much dominated by its Patriot, Revolutionary War “wing”/younger generation–infused with a few noted and very vocal populists such as Henry. The western county of Kentucky was trying to go its way to independent statehood, and the horde of ethnic migrants on its periphery were on move west, stirring up an equivalent horde of resistant Native Americans–again the state was depopulating at both geographic ends. Coping with all this was, of course, the state’s super-legislature, with the active involvement of an extremely weak governor. The impact of revolution and the turbulence of the last seven years had “liberalized” the Virginia franchise a bit, new counties had been created, and malapportionment–still severe–had lessen a bit. Still badly outnumbered in the legislature, the western counties were at least able to vocalize a position and mount some opposition.


The propensity of Virginia Tidewater aristocrats/oligarchs to obsess with land economics, discounting economic diversification, and as fully committed as ever to reinvigorating its plantation-manor way of life reasserted itself. The ambiguity of now being involved in a national confederation, independent from Britain, and surrounded by hostile and none-too-happy European and Native American powers was, however, not something they could ignore. Despite an almost innate unwillingness to invest in projects and enterprises of a non-agricultural nature–in fact arguably exhibiting a reluctance toward anything department from agricultural-related entrepreneurial activity, these traditional Tidewater elites had to cope with the return of a “New George” Washington, a national celebrity, and probably Virginia’s wealthiest oligarchy, who had access to a network of Northern Neck landowners, still dominated by the receptive Fairfax family.

Armed with a national and area-wide economic development agenda, Washington wasted little time in pressing state legislators and the Governor to take action. That is the tale we shall tell in the next module. But within five or six years, the Articles Confederation gave way to a new Constitution, engineered by a group of like-minded elites who called themselves the Federalists, and were headed, if by anyone, Washington and his  ally, James Madison. Madison embraced Washington’s western settlement and national defense paradigm, and he was his most effective ally in its implementation–but–and an important but–he was less Washington’s protege, than Jefferson’s, and Madison’s vision of what the western future entailed departed noticeably from Washington’s. By 1792, Jefferson and Washington were drifting apart, and Washington, President now was preoccupied with national affairs and events, Madison and his Virginia allies gravitated into Thomas Jefferson’s political orbit (until late 1789 Jefferson was Ambassador to France). Virginia’s politics and its policy system became, in many ways, the ground zero for the breakup of the Federalists and the formation of Jefferson/Madison’s Democratic-Republican Tribe. Washington had envisioned that Virginia would open up the West and receive the economic benefits that flowed from western settlement, but Jefferson and Madison had a different view regarding the nature of those economic and political benefits. In a nutshell the below paragraphs will provide some insight of how Washington’s economic development paradigm. left in Jefferson-Madison’s hands, would evolve.


Founder of our first two American political Tribes: the Federalists and the Democrat Republics. In this evolution Virginia’s Patriot plantation elites in effect formed a new business plan which (1) provided them the resources to continue their way of life and hegemonic political oligarchy over Virginia, while (2) leading the expansion of Virginia (and then America) into its interior where Virginia elites could sell to the American yeoman (and hardscrabble) farmer plots of land, create new small-scale urban centers, and after the 1770’s, establish an Enlightenment-inspired American Republic, a beacon of liberty–a sort of “farm on a hill” for the average American household. That was quite a transition–it took over fifty years to get there. But it is that vision that Madison carried into his drafting of the Early Republic Constitution. As advanced by Dr. Drew McCoy in the Elusive Republic, Madison’s was one of two the two visions that underscored that constitution.

Madison’s initial post-war vision of a republican America was quite similar in general outline to {Benjamin} Franklin’s, for above all Madison thought in terms of developing across space rather than through time. Westward expansion was central to Madison’s outlook, but equally important were his commitments to the principles of commercial liberalism [we call it capitalism] and to the promise of a new commercial order. The dynamics of the Virginian’s vision were straightforward. If Americans could continue to resort to virgin lands while opening adequate foreign markets for their produce, the United States would remain a nation of industrious farmers who marketed their surpluses abroad and ‘purchase’ manufactures they desired in return. Household industry would be relied upon to supply the coarser manufacturers that were necessary to prevent a dangerously unfavorable balance of trade. Madison believed this brand of social development proper because it comported with natural law. America could remain young and virtuous, while offering a haven for the landless poor of Europe [5].

Madison in 1789 had no few illusions that this vision and its strategies were inevitable. The key was to tie them to a commercial nexus that could get their goods to market and which could provide them their necessities and luxuries. Without that commercial access the yeoman would, he felt, degenerate into isolated subsistence farming, which by necessity in turn would tilt them to becoming an industrial proletariat as they had in England. Around this fear evolved a concern for what was then called “internal improvement”–we give the high-falutin title of developmental transportation infrastructure (DTIS). In his view, internal improvements brought civilization and stability to the frontier–which will make possible their becoming “useful members of society and good subjects”. Madison interior mission overlapped into foreign policy. His vision extended to the Mississippi River whose open access was not only key, but essential, to achieving his goals of export, commercialization, and yeoman agriculture economic base. At that time Spain mostly lie in the way; a great deal of the lands were still in the hands of European powers. Herein we seed seeds of future dissension in the North, and the acquisition of land to the Mississippi [6].

Madison (to Jefferson) wrote in 1784 in the midst of his Port Bill and his Patowmack legislative leadership detailing the larger economic development goals of his land development-agricultural/commercial/household manufacturing economic base.

The vacant land of the U.S. lying on the waters of the Mississippi is perhaps equal to extent to the land actually settled [in 1784]. If no check by given to emigrations [land development] … they will probably keep pace with the increase in people … For in 20 to 25 years … our imported manufacturers will be doubled…. supposed the use of the Mississippi [is] denied to us … manufacturers on this [American] side of the Atlantic … will be obliged by the want of vent [export] for the produce of [their] soil and the [concomitant] purchase of foreign manufacturers, to manufacturer in great numbers for themselves [7].

Madison reveals an economic strategy that commences with land development to the Mississippi River, settlement, and the establishment of an economic base anchored by yeoman agriculture (the end user of land development, i.e. homesteading), who domestic necessities are manufactured by American manufacturers, and the remainder by European export paid for by the export of the production of yeoman agriculture. America would feed, perhaps not the world, but Europe. In this vision we see the culmination/unification of Washington’s interior settlement through land development and internal improvements, with Jefferson’s vision of a dominant yeoman agriculture and the way of life it spawned.

This is the vision and economic strategy that Madison would see threatened when he became President in 1809, and a version of that would be held by his successor, Henry Clay and western Democrat-Republicans–a vision that in the latter’s case sought war (1812) as a necessary step in its attainment. For the perspective of the internal configuration of America’s economic base, we see agriculture evolving into a dominant yeoman agriculture, but with plantation economies/societies persisting so long as they can remain viable. Encouragement of domestic manufacturers are necessary  for key sectors in order to reduce undesirable dependence on European/British trade, but utilizing an unspoken comparative advantage relying on the European for advanced and luxury goods. The glue that held it together was export-finance and commercial trade–which required port cities and a maritime cluster. If this vision allows Charles Beard to roll less intensely in his grave, I know not–but it does assert that an economic vision such as this did enter into and if nothing else trigger the Annapolis Convention in 1787. No claim in made or believed, that this particular vision of Madison was dominant nor that other visions entered into the Constitution, and the affairs of the Early Republic.

If so, this is an economic, political and societal vision of the Virginia Tidewater elite, on the eve of the writing of the American Constitution. It is not the vision that is usually attributed to the Tidewater elite by past scholars of Tidewater political culture, a vision more reflective of the early 18th century Tidewater elite, than its late 17th century cadre of Founding Fathers.




[2] Virginius Dabney, Virginia: the New Dominion (University Press of Virginia, 1971), p.141-2

[3] Virginius Dabney, Virginia: the New Dominion, pp. 141-2

[4] Virginius Dabney, Virginia: the New Dominion, p. 139

[5] Drew R. McCoy, the Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (W. W. Noron & co., 1980), pp. 121-2

[6] Drew R. McCoy, the Elusive Republic, p. 1223

[7] Letter to Jefferson, Aug 30, 1784, Robert A. Rutland et al., eds, the Papers of James Madison (Chicago, 1962, Vol VIII, pp. 107-8 McCoy, p. 124