Virginia’s Singular Path to its Revolutionary War Policy System

Virginia’s “Drift to Independence and Revolutionary War” was different from other colonies in important ways: (1) The Proclamation Act impacted Virginia directly–and activated debate, and considerable frustration–playing an important role in fragmenting the Virginia oligopoly; (2) The western counties of Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley (and North Carolina), by 1760 home to tens of thousands of diverse ethnic migrants–and first generation immigrants–poorly integrated into Virginia core policy system and outside its dominant economic base, was a tinderbox of volatile emotions and aspirations; and (3) a “perfect storm” of events assailed the Virginia policy system, one after another in a short period of time (Stamp Act, a major financial scandal, economic recession and fiscal collapse of the state, death of a popular and effective royal governor-replacement with one ill-fit for Virginia’s colonial legacy, Townsend Act and the Regulator War)–all within five years or so. The change-dynamics unleashed by this sequence of events produced several key consequences which in aggregate caused Virginia to arrive early among the thirteen colonies to the view that meaningful independence from England was desirable if not necessary, and to Virginia’s considerable role as one of two major colony advocates that pushed the thirteen colonies along the path to the Declaration of Independence and the War that almost inevitably followed.

Already described have been the reaction of the large population of immigrant migrants nested in the foothills of the Appalachians, the Shenandoah Valley, and in the North Carolina western Piedmont–and trans-Appalachian “Watauga” North Carolina/Tennessee settlements. Of necessity that description also injected wars with various Native American tribes, and the values and aspirations, the migrant American Dream that created the populist tinderbox that preceded the American Revolution, itself a populist manifestation. We have also spent time previous to the western migrant discussion to also describe the weakened economic position of the Virginia oligopoly. Entrenched in its dominance of Virginia’s core policy system, the colony-level political institutions (Council of State and House of Burgesses) had forged, for the most part a tension-filled by productive relationship with the royal governor after the 1740’s.

By 1750, however, tobacco economics had deteriorated, debt was accumulated by the Virginia plantation elites, and the commercial policies of the British threatened to perpetuate and almost institutionalize Virginia’s elites dependence of British export and debt-financing. Indirectly, the Virginia elites core goal, the institutionalization of their manor economy and policy system was under considerable pressure. The land development alternative was in huge fashion in several segments of the Virginia elite–as a supplemental income to the Tidewater plantation, and as an entrepreneurial alternative to plantation agriculture. Young George Washington was arguably the leader in the latter wing-but he had powerful allies, especially Lord Fairfax, Virginia’s largest landowner.

In this module we will describe the sequence of events between 1765 and 1771 (or so) that delivered hammer blows to the pillars of Virginia’s colonial policy system. By 1771 Virginia was well on its way to a negotiated independence with Great Britain, arguably more advanced than any other colony. Also very distinctive to Virginia was the oligopoly’s leadership of the independence movement, a leadership that was able to capture the participation of the non-elite masses in the core coastal and Piedmont policy system. In eastern Virginia, therefore, the movement to independence of itself did not threaten the hold of the elite over the policy system. What did threaten that hold was the huge fragmentation of the Virginia oligopoly that occurred in the time period described by this module. The fragmentation wreaked havoc on the political institutions of the Tidewater policy system–arguably even more than the havoc found in Massachusetts in the same time period.

Lost in the fixation on the colonies is that in the decade between 1763 and 1774, four British governments revolved through Westminster doors. Each government picked up the mistakes of preceding governments, and changed policy inconsistently (save a shared refusal to concede Parliament’s right to make policy for the American colonies). The British weren’t trying to be consistently stupid; rather British politics were themselves in transition and somewhat polarized, presided over by a King George III who in later years was consumed with mental illness and emotional instability, symptoms of which were evident even in this period. All this prevented, inhibited certainly, a sustained and intelligent response to the American challenge. There was a lot going on and its most obvious symptom was the inability to revolve the Proclamation Act’s successor legislation. The Americans also had some limitations that are lost to American history textbooks. Americans at that time were unknowingly demanding a “British Commonwealth”. And the Americans themselves did not grasp fully what the transfer of power from the King to Parliament really meant or involved. Confusingly they wanted a stronger King and a weaker Parliament–rowing against the tide of British politics. There was blame for bad policy on both sides.

First, to hit was the 1765 Stamp Act–which, due to logistics and communication, actually impacted in 1766.The Stamp Act was approved by Parliament in 1765. Essentially the Stamp Act levied a “tax-fee” levied on many critical and widespread commercial and governmental interactions. The reaction to it was so intense, it was substantially terminated within two years.

It was the match that triggered the explosion of popular opinion in support of political resistance and set in down the road to some form of political independence (a push for representation in Parliament or exclusively empowering colonial (state) legislatures with the power to levy taxes on each colony–the thrust of “no taxation without representation”–was the 1765 Stamp Act.  Without any doubt, that stamp “tax” mobilized across all thirteen colonies the non-elites, into a series of anomic demonstrations, followed by the formation of an organized resistance, the “Sons of Liberty” movement. The Sons were found in every major urban center in each colony, but also evidenced a strong hinterland activism as well. There is reasonable evidence that Scots-Irish, many of which were recent arrivals driven from Great Britain to American (Pennsylvania) shores, were heavily “invested” in the anomic demonstrations. Money, trade and propertied elites were conflicted, several ethnic groups (Scottish Highlanders in North Carolina for example) remained tolerant and prone to continued British rule, and a solid “Loyalist” counter coalition would also develop. With the emergence of a populist movement, one sees evidence of a bi-polarization of politics perhaps inevitably resulting. Events would necessarily have to take their course before resolution, such as it was, happened.


Reaction to the State Financial Scandal, the 1765 Stamp Act and 1767 Townsend Acts

the Robinson Scandal–In 1766, in addition to the approval of the Stamp Act, a long-lingering fiscal crisis (post 1763) and tobacco recession exploded when the death of the Burgesses Speaker (and also the colony’s Treasurer) revealed that he had illegally, if with good intentions, allowed Virginia paper currency be used for payment of tobacco tax (instead of hard British currency). The net effect was to save a goodly number of Tidewater plantations from being forced into bankruptcy. Following up on that he diverted a considerable sum from the Treasury (in excess of 100,000 pounds), and lent it to his friends–it was never clear whether these loans would have been returned to the Treasury because Speaker Robinson died before payment was due.

At the time, Robinson was well-respected, obviously powerful, planter, and one of the wealthiest–a blue-blood of the Tidewater aristocracy. His estate was seized, sold and proceeds were applied to partially pay off the loan debt–which itself generated considerable controversy. The list of borrowers was not revealed at the time (and it was so well hidden it was only revealed two centuries later). They Byrd family it turns out was heavily into the loan portfolio. Rumor in any case fleshed out the loan recipients and it was a who’s who of the Tidewater aristocracy. In a political culture that prized personal honor and duty, this scandal drove a wedge into the integrity and self-regard of the oligopoly. The head of the Byrd family would commit suicide. The financial scandal created not only a fiscal crisis, but a near-fatal rupture in its political culture.

As alluded to earlier, it also was a shock to younger family members to be so dishonored by the actions of their elders. Moreover, the Virginia scandal easily became intertwined with early British politics which divided along lines of “court or country” partisans that as early forms of political parties formed became underlying currents that divided Tories from Whigs in the then-contemporary British politics . The Virginia generations that included plantation owners such as Washington, Mason and the Lees, as well as the decade younger Jefferson, Madison and Marshall applied court and country politics, made relevant in this scandal, differently, as the scandal was so damaging it invited all who witnessed it to reach their own explanation of how a scandal so profound could have occurred in the honorable Tidewater Virginia.

Like Watergate in the 1970’s, the younger generation that witnessed it would develop different perceptions of the American Presidency, and the corruption of power exposed by the Watergate scandal [999]. Virginia’s Robinson Scandal, in my opinion, played an important role in the evolution of the Virginia Tidewater political culture–and through the Virginia elites so impactful in the formation of the Early Republic, its Constitution, and the Washington Administration, the first Administration in the Early Republic–also impact our national history and inescapably, with its concern for finance and economics, our economic development history. At the time, the discredit of the older generation, meant younger individuals assumed the offices of power in the Council and Burgess-for example forty-five year old Peyton Randolph was appointed Burgesses Speaker destined to head the Virginia delegations to the Continental Congresses–and Presidency of the Second-he died in 1775). It is Peyton Randolph who will lead the Burgesses during the Conventions period (next module), and accordingly establish Virginia’s Revolutionary War policy system.

The noticeable trend that emerged in the following decade was a younger cohort displaced their fathers and older brothers in the Virginia policy system. “Youngsters” such as Patrick Henry. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison rose quickly in this period, to take a place alongside their older “brothers” like Washington, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and Rudolph’s (Peyton and Edmund). Both cohorts were not clones by any means of their fathers–although the gap between the older brothers and their fathers was less pronounced.

the Stamp Act–The financial crisis that followed the French and Indian war not only strained tobacco revenues but the overall economic base. Taxes were down significantly and one of the first efforts to economize colony-level finances was to cut the appropriation to Anglican ministers. A controversial reaction ensued as the Parsons fought back and that in turn triggered a response that in this Enlightenment Age could be called separation of church from state. Called the Parson’s Cause. Patrick Henry, a very young lawyer, presented arguments against the King (Board of Trade) who had overruled a tax instituted by the Burgesses on the clergy. In the name of his early version of popular sovereignty he also argued the clergy that benefited from the King’s veto of the law were “enemies of the community”. “Henry was seized by the courthouse crowd and carried on their shoulders around the courtyard. He had become a popular hero overnight … Henry discovered in the courtroom as the case was tried that he possessed a degree of eloquence rare in any age”. Henry’s populist theme rocketed him to celebrity stardom–and in that year 1764 he was retained by 164 new clients [0].

When a Burgess seat became vacant in Louisa county in 1765, Henry was immediately elected to serve out the term of the previous delegate.


Patrick Henry a rising, Scotch-Irish Ascendancy star, had just sat in his Burgesses seat for the first time on May 20th, when the ship carrying the British tax stamps arrived in Richmond on May 28. The Burgesses session had already approved an instruction to its agent (lobbyist) in London to oppose the Act. The Act inflamed the merchant of New York City and Boston, and they took immediate action in the immediate aftermath of the Stamp Act–Virginia’s reaction, while oppositional, was accordingly more restrained. As the Burgesses session wound down, many Burgesses delegates left for home. At this point Henry arrived. He was outraged at the Stamp Act and that outrage was congruent to his previous career as a lawyer, common folk agitator, and opponent of causes that disrupted the existing establishment. In launching his opposition to the Stamp Act, he in effect took his anti-establishment stand and transformed it to an anti-colonial assertion the Act, without approval from any colonial legislature was invalid, if not illegal.

While most Burgesses delegates had already left Williamsburg, Henry proposed five resolutions, the last of which (the fifth) asserted that “the General Assembly (House of Burgesses) of this Colony have the only, and sole exclusive Right and Power to lay Taxes and Impositions upon the Inhabitants of this Colony, and that every attempt to vest such Power in any Persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly … has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom. [Responding to shouts of Treason from the few remaining Burgesses delegates, Henry retorted] Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus, Charles the First had his Cromwell, and George the Third … [implying assassination, delegates interrupted with more cries of Treason–to which Henry continued] may profit by their example. If this be treason make the most of it[1].

While it is not clear if the Fifth Resolution was formally approved, after the conclusion of its 1765 session Burgesses returned, debated, approved, and rejected a series of resolutions proposed by a new first-term Burgesses member. Whatever the Burgesses in fact did, Governor Fauquier rescinded it and refused to publish it. Newspapers in both the United States and Britain got ahold of the resolutions, however, and published them. In an instant Patrick Henry and the House of Burgesses became household names in the anti-Stamp Act debate. This is a bit ironic, as Virginia, because its Burgesses was not in session, failed to send delegates to the Stamp Act Congress, promoted by the Massachusetts legislature, and held  (October 1765) in New York City. As they no doubt would later have said, “Whatever”.

From that point on, Patrick Henry, the eventual five-term Virginia post-Revolutionary War governor, delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress began his political career. From that point on, both the Tidewater oligopoly and the House of Burgesses battled the Stamp Act–and the succession of British Royal Governors that subsequently followed. The struggle did not take long to materialize. His Majesty’s stamp distributor, protected by Governor Fauquier, was met at the pier by “gentlemen of property in the colony” who convinced him to stop distribution of the stamps “and do nothing contrary to the wishes of the General Assembly“.  When the Stamp Act was repealed and replaced by the Townshend Act in 1767, the “Virginia Assembly, following the example set by Massachusetts, sent formal protests to the King and Parliament[2].

Sons of Liberty–In any event, led by New York’s Isaac Sears, the Sons organization became a clearinghouse of anti-Stamp Act political resistance. Sending the 1765 version of a Twitter tweet, the Sons organization  communicated the activities of its members across the entire Atlantic coast. Who participated in the initial Sons Movement is a matter of interest; in the North, activist merchants and a professional middle class were typically the leaders, and they made determined efforts to enlist (and “manage”) the anomic responses of the “Mob”, which in our terms are the pre-capitalist urban and hinterland lumpen-proletariat. The Sons-led resistance, rudimentary initially, expanded over the subsequent years to form a core activist resistance to unrestrained British colonial rule, an active opposition to the royal colonial governor, and inevitably somewhat a rival to the colony legislature. Seemingly, set back on its heels when Parliament rescinded most the the 1765 Act with the Townsend Act in 1767, the Sons returned under different rubrics as subsequent British Acts fueled a sustained resistance. Members of the Sons movement in turn influenced, and then were elected to city councils, and  by the 1770’s, colonial legislatures.

While the Sons’ formal organization mostly disbanded after the repeal of the Stamp Act, subsequent American resistance groups/organizations embraced their tradition, style of mobilization, inherited their leadership, and often referred to themselves as Sons of Liberty. That is what is most important about the Sons of Liberty Movement. Successful, its articulation of mass and elite demands through social-political-economic mobilization organizations became an accepted form of organization–and it would be inherited and adopted by advocates of our future Community Development approach. Strained as it may seem, Sam Adams, certainly Thomas Young, were colonial era community developers–an assertion which will be developed in our Massachusetts chapter.

This newly organized group, called the ‘Sons of Liberty’ rarely, if ever, went beyond trends … already apparent before it appeared. Yet by institutionalizing the colonists’ new commitment to resistance … and, by implementing it with a new type of organization, the Sons of Liberty durably established a pattern for future opposition to Britain. Equally important the Sons of Liberty demonstrated how limited in scope the agitation of 1765-6 was, how devoted even the most determined Stamp Act opponents were to the fabric of established government … how fundamentally the American assumptions and beliefs would have to change before resistance could become revolution [3].

The Virginia Sons first “organized” late in 1765, and mostly early 1766. Since Southern colonies were not integrated into New York’s Isaac Sears’  correspondence union, the first southern Sons met for the first time in Leedstown Virginia (Westmoreland County) in the Northern Neck on February 27, 1766. Organized and led by planter-Burgesses member Richard Henry Lee, it created a Westmoreland County association composed of 125 signers, including two of Washington’s younger brothers and a host of the area’s most affluent, Tidewater planters and elites–and nearly all of the leading families. On March 31st, Norfolk Virginia came together and formed a committee to establish links and communication with Sons of Liberty in other British colonies. Members of that grouping were current members of the local-county government as well as businessmen/artisans–and necessarily of some wealth and status [4].

Of the two the entry of Richard Henry Lee proved most critical. A future delegate to the Continental Congress, signor of the Declaration of Independence, President of the Articles of Confederation, and future U.S. Senator came from Berkeley era royalist Cavalier family stock. He died early in 1792, but is very much considered a “Founding Father”. His prestigious leadership of Virginia’s first Son of Liberty-like organization is of great importance to our history.

Lee initiated the Westmoreland Association of 1766, an organization of 114 militant opponents of the Stamp Act, whose numbers included representatives of prominent families together with scores of obscure persons, each of whom pledged ‘to obtain as many signers of the Association as he possibly can’. Then on February 28, the day after the Association was formed, its members served as the nucleus of a 400-man crowd that forced Archibald Ritchie, a local Scottish merchant who had announced his willingness to clear vessels on stamped paper, to express remorse for his rash words, and renounce any intention to uphold the Stamp Act.. Lee and his closest political associates in the Northern Neck, including Richard Parker and Samuel [and John Augustine] Washington organized the affair [5]

The commitment and leadership of a key royalist-Cavalier family in the Northern Neck in the first months of organized resistance to the Stamp Act is vivid testimony that Virginia elites not only came early into the movement that led to the Revolution and political independence, but they led it–and extended their resistance to include non-elites. Anti-British resistance in Virginia from 1766 was led “and managed” by dominant elements of the old Dominion’s oligopoly and not driven in the main by anomic of autonomous groups motivated by their own goals and internal dynamics.

Accordingly, Virginia’s pre-Revolutionary War path to independence and the Early Republic from its very start differed substantially from the path followed by Pennsylvania–at least in terms of leadership and constituency. Whatever else Virginia was resisting, it was not destined to lead to the overthrow of Tidewater plantation elites. There would be no French Revolution in Virginia. While the Virginia Patriot movement, of course, included non-elites, non-elites were not able to turn the revolution to attain their ends until 1776 when the slimmest of opportunities opened up.


Virginia’s Reaction to the Townshend Act--Of interest to this history is the reaction to the Townsend Act injected economic development as a major element in the drive to independence and Revolution. It was that Act and the establishment of Non-Importation Associations across the thirteen colonies that sustained the drive to independence through 1773. As we shall later see, this raised the primacy of manufacturing as key to both economic development and the future American economic base–but it also stimulated the evolution of American shipping, whaling, fishing and trade sectors which were critical to the maritime economies of coastal port cities through the 1840’s.

The Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 was opposed because the new duties it levied on tea, lead, paper, and painters colors were also considered taxes and because the revenue raised in the act would be used to pay the salaries of provincial judges [and governors] and other royal officials who had previously been dependent upon provincial assemblies for their livelihoods. Writs of assistance were moreover sanctioned by the Townshend Act, and these were considered another violation of English liberty because they gave customs officials broad authority to search for contraband on mere suspicion of wrongdoing [6].

By levying a customs duty instead of a stamp tax which was paid by everyone at point of consumption, the Townshend Act hit merchants and shippers first, before it touched the consuming non elites. To physically clear a ship, the merchant had to first pay the duty–and if the merchant attempt to smuggle the taxable goods into the port, his ship and cargo could be seized, confiscated or even destroyed–and he could be arrested. If a merchant paid the duty, the goods were then available for domestic purchase and consumption–presumably with the duty cost embedded into the price. That is why six years later Boston “Indians” climbed on board three ships and tossed tea into Boston’s harbor before duty could be paid and tea sold by willing merchants. Importing of taxable goods was the action that involved the merchants first, divided them into those willing to pay and those unwilling, and then to resist the sale and consumption of taxable goods that made it into the domestic economy.

Resistance to the Townshend Act soon acquired the moniker ‘non importation’ when the merchants formed Non-Importation Associations in response to the first ships that carried dutiable goods. Groups, often calling themselves Sons of Liberty formed to support the actions of the Non Importation Associations. The core idea was to stop merchants from paying the duty in the first place, and then to organize resistance to those merchants and vendors who sold goods that had paid duty. In effect this was an economic boycott of dutiable goods. Cesar Chavez would have understood this tactic very well. “The lists of goods proscribed for importation … varied from colony to colony, and in the South [non-importation] agreements tended to emphasize non consumption more than non importation[7].

Non importation had actually began in the last stages of resistance to the Stamp Act, but non-importation associations formed in particular response to the first arrival of dutiable goods especially in New England and New York, and became more aggressive and pervasive after it was clear in 1769 that Britain would not compromise or back away as they had with the Stamp Act. Accordingly, there was a regional distinction in who led and primarily composed the membership of the non importation association. In the North, merchants predominated–almost exclusively–while in the South–where commercial transactions were matters that were handled by individual plantation owners and their factors in London, not in a commercial port–plantation owners, many of whom were members of the House of Burgesses, and local public officials as well became members. Virginia’s first non importation association was formed on May 18 1769 in Williamsburg (the colony capitol) by merchants and members of the House of Burgesses. The House itself in November endorsed the organization and its actions–making Virginia the first state-wide non importation association.

Upon the death of Fauquier (1768) who had been in bad health previously, the new Governor Botetourt (1768-70) confronted a House of Burgesses that refused to concede that it alone possessed the right to tax colony residents thus continuing to contest the administration of the Townshend Act. Botetourt in turn terminated the Burgesses term–in response to which many Burgesses, much as the French Parliament did years later, proceeded immediately to the next-door Raleigh Tavern, elected Peyton Reynolds as its moderator, and formulated and wrote a formal “non-importation, non-consumption agreement” which unenforceable as it was committed Virginia to resist the Act. Unfortunately, for the Rump Burgesses, many did not follow its lead, and stamps were sold to many merchants and plantation owners–the latter being mostly loyalist Scots, such as Richard Henry Lee accosted in his Westmoreland County incident. By this point the Loyalist. the Tories were also mobilized, and actively-passively resisting the growing surge of the Patriot movement. Eventually in 1770, after Botetourt died, replaced by Governor Dunsmore (1771), the Townshend Act was repealed, leaving in place only a tax on tea–which to no one’s surprise did little to stop the non-importation  boycotts and consumption of tea. In the same year, 1770, the Boston Massacre occurred which stoked tensions still further.

The Council of State, closely associated with the financial scandal of the late 1760’s and early 1770’s, was discredited and demoralized. Along with it were elder leaders and the more traditional-royalist Virginia oligopoly were disproportionately caught up in the scandal and many populated the Loyalist cause–an exodus from Virginia also commence. A younger generation rose in the vacuum. The generational dynamic alone constituted catalyzed, intended or not, Virginia’s leadership into the inter-colony movement, and provided the younger generation an opportunity for leadership in the formation of a new nation.

the Drift to Independence Becomes a Plunge: 1770-1775 Outline of Events

In 1772 a British Customs schooner (in the act of chasing a tea smuggling Rhode Island ship) ran aground. Under threat of capture by the British authorities, the ship was burned by a Patriot raiding party linked to the Sons of Liberty. It leader, a future founder of Brandeis College and the Providence Bank and a noted slave trader, John Brown–uncle of the Civil War John Brown. The defendants were threatened with trial in England for treason (which did not materialize) The incident once again reignited the resistance and  it prompted the colonies, including Virginia,  joined together to form the Committees of Correspondence–the clearinghouse for Patriot colonies and their legislatures to resist British further colonial taxation. At this point, the colonial legislatures, not the Sons or any other patriot organization, became the focal point of American resistance movement.

By 1773, radicalization had manifestly occurred, certainly in Boston and Philadelphia. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 followed, in reaction to which Parliament issued a series of Acts, collectively called the Intolerable Acts (including the Quebec Act). The 1774 British Intolerable Acts, in my opinion, seemed the point of no return. State colonial legislatures and city councils using the “Committees of Correspondence” kept each informed as to their anti-British activities. The dialogue and constant noise of each colonies anomic and formal legislation prodded each colony along on its quite individual path. The Intolerable Acts ultimately proved to be the trigger that generated the First Continental Congress (September, 1774) in Philadelphia–a meeting in which the Virginia Rump Burgesses played a major role in organizing.

As argued by Professor T. H. Breen [8], it was the Coercive Acts “to turn sporadic discontent into resistance. Britain’s punitive measures … attacked the principles of self-governance that the colonists so prized–by restricting the frequency of town meetings, giving the crown the right to make appointments that had once belonged to colonial assemblies, and limiting the authority of colonial courts … Local communities took charge in Massachusetts as British authority there collapsed; similar groups elsewhere directed efforts to send relief to New England and began seizing control over government [this is what happened in Virginia and the “rump” Burgesses Conferences, see below]. … These were the first steps toward ‘popular mobilization’.

Needless to say, all these goings on prompted an irate Governor Dunsmore to again adjourn the House of Burgesses (as Botetourt had done in 1768). The  Burgesses, equally predictably, proceeded across the street to the Raleigh Tavern, transformed itself into the First Virginia Convention and elected Peyton Randolph its Speaker once again. Quickly, they passed a resolution sent through its Committee on Correspondence requesting the other twelve Patriot legislatures to convene for the first time in Philadelphia as a Continental Congress. They then elected the delegates to be sent to the Continental Congress in the event it convened (besides Randolph were: Washington, Reynolds, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendleton, Benjamin Harrison (father of a future President), and Richard Bland). They further commissioned Thomas Jefferson to draft “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” as a guide to the delegates. In a last act, the First Convention selected the delegates for a Second Convention.

The invitation was accepted by the other twelve colonies and the First Continental Congress met in September 1774–it elected Peyton Randolph as its Moderator (he moderated the Second as well). These Burgesses members participating in the Rump First Convention also approved resolutions which left no doubt that, at least for them, the line had been crossed and that the united colonies should directly enter into negotiations with Parliament to secure the rights of colonial assemblies to tax and to assert autonomy of the colony legislatures from the Governor and Parliament.

From that point on, more or less total independence from Great Britain became the cutting edge of Patriot demands. Lexington and Concord (April 1775) marked the escalation of the resistance to armed opposition to the British Army–and led to the formation of a de facto Continental Army massed outside of Boston.  Closed for the second time in 1774, the House of Burgesses convened itself in Richmond beyond the authority of the Governor, commencing a two-year limbo of two competing governments. In that limbo, four “conventions” were held and conducted by a rump Patriot government that incrementally determined that American independence from Britain was imperative, that the Continental Congress in Philadelphia should be employed to do so and do so with substantial Virginia participation and resources, and by late 1775, that Virginia itself to separate from Britain and form its own sovereign “state” government–which it did after writing a state constitution in a Fifth Convention.


It was at the Second Convention, held in March 1775, at Richmond where the Governor could not shut them down, that Patrick Henry made his historic speech and spoke his famous quote “As for me, give me Liberty or Give me Death”. By this time the Convention was a parallel Patriot government to that controlled by the Royal Governor. During 1775, as the “nation” became a nation and moved down the road to independence and war, two further Conventions raised troops, appointed military and political leadership and sent resources to the Patriot Continental Army now commanded by General George Washington. Equally inflammatory, they instructed the Virginia delegates to the Second Continental Congress to vote for, and sign, what is today is called “the Declaration of Independence”–then in the process of being written and approved. They may have been the first delegates formally authorized by any colony to declare independence of the colonies–an act that was fraught with overtones of actual war.

Fought tooth and nail by Governor Dunsmore, the rudimentary “Convention” government  over these months effectively seized control over much of Virginia, chasing the Governor onto a ship which ran the colony off the coast of Newport. Dunsmore, attempting to reestablish his authority on land, invaded and burned down Newport, almost totally, but in the end he returned to his ship, harassed by Patriot forces. At the end of its Third Convention, June 20, 1775, the delegates set a date for a Fourth Convention in December, and formally declared the end of the House of Burgesses which was then replaced by the Convention. The Fourth Convention (December 1775), among other decisions, called for a Fifth Convention elected by delegates from the counties of Virginia whose purpose was to formally create a new Patriot government. The Fifth Convention (July 1776) met with the latter formally declaring Virginia as an independent “State” (actually a Commonwealth), drafted and approved a Constitution (see the next module), adopted Jefferson’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, and elected as the Commonwealth’s first Governor, Patrick Henry.

The Fifth Convention, therefore, was the body that formally created the first Virginia Revolutionary War Policy System. It should be noted the first four Conventions were in fact “rump”, not elected nor representative of the various factions and parties resident in Virginia at the time.

The last Convention resulted in the development of a constitution principally by George Mason, and its quick approval. That Constitution set up the formal Revolutionary War Policy System which persisted to 1830.


Thoughts and Comments--What is also lost to us now is “the Suddenness” of the Revolution. The expression, a remark made by John Adams, reveals what was most shocking to those who lived through the decade before the Revolution. Gordon Wood expands upon Adams: “the ‘Suddenness’ of the change from monarchy to republicanism was ‘astonishing”. ‘Idolatry to Monarchy, and servility to Aristocratical ‘Pride’ said John Adams in the summer of 1776, ‘was never so totally eradicated from so many Minds in so short a time'” [9]. Political cultures don’t change overnight. What Adams was describing is precisely what I, and many others felt, when we woke up one morning and the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Empire were gone.

I must confess to much of the same reaction as I researched this chapter.

In addition, lost in all the noise of “liberty” and ‘freedom loving Americans”, not to mention simple Facebook/bumper sticker phrases-like “no taxation without representation”, is the absence of any effective British authority in America. Other than the slender rod of royal colonial governors, it was apparent that American colonial policy systems had gone “native” rather abruptly–as had much of the colonial elite. As they struggled with royal governors and British edicts, American colonial legislatures acted, and no doubt believed, they were the true source of their colony’s sovereignty. Americans were already Americans–save for the need for Britain to defend them against the French and Indians. With that gone they shifted to challenge British global mercantilism–foreign trade relationships, from which taxation of colonies was imposed.They without irony Tossed cheaper, but taxed British East Indies tea, from British East Indies ships so that Bostonians could buy more expensive, but untaxed, American-smuggled tea from American-owned ships.

British authority over domestic colonial life and policy-making had already dissolved to the point there was little to challenge. Loyalists had nothing to work with in pushing back. The inconceivable was that British authority over the American colonies had eroded to such a degree that the simple victory and rise of a British Empire after the French and Indian War created a vacuum into which American republican–and federal–democracy poured, almost spontaneously, with malice and little if any forethought. American republicanism was an almost automatic response to the vacuum of British authority.

American republicanism not surprisingly contained a great deal of what was already evident in American colonial legislatures and their electoral franchises. That will be very evident in the next module where these legislatures created the state constitutions that formed the basis for each state’s revolutionary war policy system. An off shoot of the Continental Congress was the establishment, but not successful approval, of the Articles of Confederation–the weak national government that conducted the war effort of the thirteen sovereign states.

the American Revolution was not Conservative–it was “Radical”

The American Revolution was a “real” revolution–just like the French Revolution twelve years later–but it was a real revolution for a mid-18th century, pre-capitalist, essentially late medieval or early modern economy, society and political order–that existed across a three thousand mile ocean in an distant, isolated forest wilderness/New World far away from the bastions of European civilization whose history and institutions had established very deep roots, and whose overthrow required different forms of revolution (like chopping off a king’s head). New world political and economic and social orders were fragile, and colonial political and economic institutions never were able, didn’t really try to achieve, the control over the populace, their economic activities, and social patterns which established European elites had created centuries before. Indeed, much of the population inflow into the New World was by people fleeing these controls, escaping from persecutions, warfare, and economic disruptions that resulted from these elite-dominated policy systems. Part of the challenge in this book is to make it apparent to the reader that American economic development is so distinctive from that of other nations is precisely because we are the non-Europe–and the policy systems that produced our ED strategies, approaches and programs were radically different, despite much seeming overlap, from their mother country, and Europe.

It is not my job to play early American historian, and enter into the various historian paradigms which have infested our understanding of our history. Those paradigms have been given many names, lots of them with “neo” and “revisionist” prefixes. Entering into that world is beyond the scope of this book’s job description, and it is way above my pay grade, and page limits. So the reader will have to be content with this brief, believe me it is brief, discussion of the “radical” nature of the American Revolution, and the “radical” policy systems that it created. For this I am indebted to Gordon Wood, whose conception of the nature of the American Revolution which has been absorbed by the roots of our little American economic development twig that has just sprouted into visible existence in 1776 [10].

Wood observes that at first glance, the American Revolution, compared to the French Revolution does not “look like” a real revolution. It looks more like a political revolution, and it seems more anti-colonial war of independence than a social, political, and economic revolution. It certainly is pre-Marxist, and if it is class-based the classes involved do not resemble our current notions of socio-economic classes. It is also pre-capitalist; it is with some irony we observe the Industrial Revolution is credited as formally beginning in 1750, less than a generation from the Stamp Act, and the great tome, the Bible, of capitalism (the Wealth of Nations) was written in 1776 also. Obviously, that critically important work could not have impacted American state constitutions for the simple fact they were mostly written and approved before being available to our constitution-writers.

But capitalism was evolving by this time, and Adam Smith did more subtly affect our original state constitution writers through his earlier, 1759 celebrity-making breakthrough work, the “Theory of Moral Sentiments“. In that work, Smith elaborated not on the structure and benefits of capitalism, but how this rising economic system ought to relate to the larger society. Ethics, the general good and welfare of society, and the impact of capitalist behaviors on those it affected. He developed and stressed notions of “Virtue” and individual character (emphasizing self-command, for example) that departed from the more egalitarian Rousseau or the more fundamental apolitical libertarianism of Early Republic Germans and Scots-Irish cultures. He was concerned with how religion, morals and values, and culture and to the extent that capitalist structures and behavior would necessarily relate, even assume responsibility, for what we would today call externalities.

All of this and of course more entered into Revolutionary war era definitions of limited government, and the degree of autonomy possessed by the private sector. A subtle but powerful force, the delayed expression of the First Great Awakening added a new dimension to the evolving relationship of the private to the public sector. The almost non-existent line between the two—a hallmark of the colonial Tidewater political culture—imploded under attack by a generational cohort touched by the teachings and responsibilities to the community and the welfare.

Virginia, perhaps more than most states was unduly, certainly uniquely, affected by a political scandal that rocked the heart of its plantation elite culture, the Robinson scandal (1768)–a functional equivalent to Watergate in my generation. That scandal not only directly challenged the almost invisible line between public action and the private gain of the plantation elite, but it also exposed the deterioration in tobacco plantation economics that was eating away at its viability. The scandal further served as a wedge between generations, and separated the liberal elements of the young generation from its older traditional fathers and elder brothers.

In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, Virginia’s tobacco export economy suffered. Tobacco fields were playing out, exhausted, while much of Virginia’s plantation elites continued to maintain their expensive cavalier gentlemen lifestyles. As land development companies, the alternative source of income, fell on hard times struggling against British opposition and the 1763 Proclamation Line, a sizable portion of the Tidewater elite drifted into near, or actual bankruptcy. British taxes and a tight fiscal policy, limited currency liquidity dramatically, and even elites were hard pressed to pay taxes with the required British hard money specie.

Governor Robinson, a Virginia-born and loyal Crown official, tried to finesse this fiscal gap and private sector fiscal crisis by using public funds (over 100,000 pounds—a huge sum) and making loans to his fellow distressed plantation elites so they could pay their taxes. The loan recipients was a who’s who of Tidewater families. Hidden from the public, the matter came to a head when Robinson died in 1768, and Edmund Pendleton the new governor took over. The list of the loan recipients was never made public (until two centuries later), but what was known was that the Virginia colony was bankrupt, effectively in default.

Behind the curtains, however, the plantation elite knew what had happened, and in the critical post-Stamp and Townshend Act years, the irresponsibility of Robinson and the older plantation elites in addition to the Enlightenment tendencies of its younger generations fragmented the Tidewater/Piedmont plantation elites like never before. The disillusionment of what came to be known as “court politics”, the lack of personal integrity of cavalier elites, inspired what was called at the time “disinterestedness” from a younger generation, who increasing saw merit in the Whig approach to government—limited government with checks by political factions representative of its electoral constituency, which held legitimate interest of its own vis.-a-vis. the Crown and its court.

If I do not bring attention to it, and this is the first introduction into that conversation, colonial American governance blurred private with public in ways we cannot fathom today. We scream conflicts of interest, private monopolies, nepotism, awarding of contracts to a favored few, and economic organizations that infused public and private interests in a way that it seems to invite corruption, and restrictions on property as entry into political life institutionalized economic (and social) inequality formally and legally. Economic development in colonial America and in the early years of the Early Republic especially simply does not fit into our “modern” notions and expectations.

As we shall discover, industrial capitalism did not assume forms with which we can identify, for seventy-five years or more in the future. The little twig of American economic development has roots that predate capitalism, modern industrialization, and those roots will grow and flourish without the benefit of modern urbanization for the better part of a half-century. What’s more they will expand into a wilderness so hostile a conquest, and it was a conquest that the twig would be scarred for life. Wood nicely suggests we ought to factor these time lines and realities into our expectations as to what a “real” radical revolution could look like.

If we measure radicalism by the amount of social change that actually took place–by transformations in the relationships that bound people to each other–than the American Revolution was not conservative at all; on the contrary it was as radical and as revolutionary as any in history. … The social distinctions and economic deprivations that we today think of as the consequences of class divisions, business exploitation, or various isms–capitalism, racism, etc.–were in the eighteenth century usually thought to be caused by the abuses of government. Social honors, social distinctions, perquisites of office, business contracts, privileges and monopolies, even excessive property and wealth of various sorts–al social evils and social deprivations– in fact seemed to flow from connections to government, in the end from connections to monarchical authority. So when Anglo-American radicals talked in what seemed to be only political terms–purifying a corrupt [English] constitution, eliminating courtiers [a person involved with a royal court], fighting off crown power [they called it tyranny], and most importantly becoming republicans–they nevertheless had a decidedly social [and economic as well] social message  [11].

Wood is correct that under the guise of revolting against English tyranny attacks were made to change political forms, but changing those political forms meant simultaneous social and economic changes as well. English colonial American blurred the social, economic, and political into a way of life. In Virginia we have discovered there was a state religion, the Anglican Church, and we shall in the next chapter discover Massachusetts imposed religious strictures as well; they were not uncommon. Property and “Virtue” assumed what would be class distinction today.

It was the first half-century of American economic development history during which they were substantially revolutionized and changed into forms that we can now recognize and achieve some degree of comfort with. That process of revolution occurred during the period of time that overlap with the revolutionary war policy systems. Moreover, as we shall discover, that period overlapped with the rise of manufacturing, finance, and transportation innovation, the jelling of what will be called industrial capitalism, and urbanization of what we call “Big Cities”–and all that will not occur in the same way to the same degree nationally. Each state, even city and county, was left to forge its own past away from its colonial heritage into the really new world that emerged by the mid-nineteenth century.

That divergent path of states and cities on the road to modernization and an American democratic republic became a permanent hallmark of American economic development. The political change we talk about in our constitution-writing was the framework in which social–and legal–change would be hammered out for the next seventy-five years.  Economic development strategies and programs, the priority economic development received in the policy agenda hierarchy all were hugely affected. Not least of all by any means, is that American economic development wasted little time in developing a bi-modal approach to economic development. By 1800 we will be able to start seriously tracing the evolution of two distinct, now warring, and approaches to economic development: Mainstream and Community Economic Development.

The populist-elite battle that waged during these fifty to seventy-five years shaped, misshaped and defined the notion of what is an American public-private partnership–which is a cornerstone organizational EDO form, without which one can question if economic development can be done at all in a capitalist economy. Last, but not least, during those years the cornerstone was laid for most of the cities we know today that lie east of the Mississippi River. It was the economic development of the Early Republic that built those cities, and to add insult to injury, it was Early Republic economic development that “built” the Cotton (or if you prefer Black) Belt that installed two rival competing zero-sum regional economic bases around which two very zero-sum ways of life had developed. The heritage of that alone still pervades our Contemporary World.

By the time the Revolution had run its course in the early nineteenth century, American society had been radically and thoroughly transformed. One class did not overthrow another; the poor did not supplant the rich. But social relationships–the way people were connected one to another–were changed and decisively so. By the early years of the nineteenth century, the Revolution had created a society fundamentally different from the colonial society of the eighteenth century. It was in fact a new society unlike any that had ever existed anywhere in the world. … That revolution did more than legally create the United States; it transformed American society. … Yet scarcely fifty years later these insignificant borderland provinces had become a giant almost continent-wide republic of nearly ten million egalitarian-minded bustling citizens who had not only thrust themselves into the vanguard of history, but had fundamentally altered their society and their social relationships [12].



[999]To many of the younger generation this scandal, caused by its use of modern forms of public finance, hard currency, banks and debt, and professional fiscal practices embodied into a “Treasury” bureau, was yet another example of modernity corrupting the traditional values and practices of a way-of-life that served as the legitimacy for a landed aristocracy. In England these modern bureaucratic institutions and professions (found in the King’s court and Parliament) were identified with the Whig Party, and the traditional conservative landed aristocracy (the countryside) with the Tory. The line of thinking was that these modern financial institutions corrupted those who used them, and were easily manipulated for self-interest and partisan ends. This application of English cultural politics into the minds of a younger Virginian, Enlightenment-inclined, often English-educated (and Thomas Jefferson, George Mason) produced a lasting impact that will figure prominently in later versions of American politics–with serious and long-lasting effect on the practice of American economic development. There are several commentators who have employed court versus country as a useful concept to explore events in our history–several will be cited as we apply court and country to these events. In this instance, I have relied on Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick, the Age of Federalism: the Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 13-29. See also, David Hackett-Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 410-8, pp. 823-28/

[0] Virginius Dabney, Virginia: the New Dominion (University Press of Virginia, 1983), p. 112

[1] Virginius Dabney, Virginia: the New Dominion (University Press of Virginia, 1983), pp. 113-4

[2] Virginius Dabney, Virginia: the New Dominion, pp. 117-18

[3] Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution (W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), pp. 77-8

[4] Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution, pp. 298-301

[5] Pauline Maier, the Old Revolutionaries, p. 178

[6] Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution, p. 113

[7] Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution, p. 115

[8] As reported in review by William Anthony Hay, “the Gentle Art of Breaking Away, Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2019, p. A15 of T. H. Breen, the Will of the People (Belknap/Harvard, 2019)

[9] Gordon S. Wood, the Radicalism of the American Revolution (Vintage, 1991), p. 169

[10] Gordon S. Wood, the Radicalism of the American Revolution (Vintage Books, 1991)

[11] Gordon S. Wood, the Radicalism of the American Revolution, p. 5

[12] Gordon S. Wood, the Radicalism of the American Revolution, p. 6