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Early Revolutionary History of Virginia, 1773-1774

Early Revolutionary History of Virginia, 1773-1774

By James Mercer Garnett, published in 1892


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It has been often made a reproach to Virginians that they have neglected the history of their own State and people, and I fear it is a reproach but too wcll deserved. They have been content to make history and to let others write it, and as a consequence much of it has been left unwritten, and the records have perished irretrievably. The investigator of any particular point in the history of Virginia is hampered by the lack of original materials, and must often take his evidence at second or third hand. This defect is, however, gradually being remedied, as far as it is now possible to remedy it. The publications of this Society during the past ten years, and the work done by its learned President, its Secretary, and the chairman of its Committee of Arrangements,[1] the publication at intervals for the past sixteen years of the “Calendar of Virginia State Papers,” and the recent valuable work on “The Genesis of the United States,” by a member of this Society,[2] show that there is historical activity in the State, and that we are waking up to the importance of bringing the records of the past to the attention of the present generation, and of interesting the people of this day in the deeds of their ancestors. Pride of ancestry has sometimes been made an occasion for cheap witticism at the expense of Virginians by those who have never felt the force of the ennobling influence of the past, but perish the day when the son forgets his father, when the Virginia boy fails to feel an inspiration for his own life from a reflection upon the conduct of his grandsires, who were making history in the days that tried men’s souls!

The object of the present paper is to notice briefly-of necessity briefly in the limited time assigned to it-some points of Virginia history in the days just preceding the Declaration of Independence–events occurring on the threshold of the Revolution, which prepared the way for that Declaration. It is a diflicult matter to assign a beginning to the Revolution. Mr. Mellen Chamberlain, in his chapter on “The Revolution Impending” (chap. I, Vol. VI, of Justin Winsor’s ” Narrative and Critical History of America”), says “The year 1763 is usually regarded as the beginning of the American Revolution, because in that year the English ministry determined to raise a revenue from the colonies.” Others take as a starting-point the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, and the consequent action of the colonies. But while there is much of interest to the student of Virginia history from the passage of Patrick Henry’s celebrated resolutions to the actual outbreak of war, all tending to show the jealousy felt by the House of Burgesses of the rights and liberties of the colonies, the events to be considered in this paper concern chiefly the formation and work of the Committees of Correspondence, the first step looking toward united action on the part of the colonies, and in this step Virginia unquestion ably took the lead. It used to be said, even by Virginia writers, that Massachusetts was entitled to equal honor with Virginia in originating the Committees of Correspondence.[3]

But this statement was due to confounding two different things, the origination of local Committees of Correspondence within a colony, and the ongination of Committees of Correspondence between the colonies themselves. It is not denied that Massachusetts first suggested and first put into practice the formation of Committees of Correspondence between her own towns, and this suggestion was due to the active brain of Samuel Adams. At a meeting of the inhabitants of Boston, held on November 2, 1772, Samuel Adams moved “that a Committee of Correspondence be appointed, to consist of twenty-one persons, to state the rights of the colonists, and of this province in particular, as men, as Christians, and as subjects, to communicate and publish the same to the several towns in this province and to the world as the sense of this town, with the infringement and violations thereof that have been, or from time to time may be, made; also requesting of each town a free communication of their sentiments on this subject.”[4] Mr. Bancroft adds : “The end in view was a general confederacy against the authority of Parliament ; the towns of the province were to begin, the Assembly to confirm their doings, and invite the other colonies to join.” But this last sentence is Bancroft’s, not Adams’s. Adams says nothing about “the other colonies,” but expressly says “each town,” showing that the resolution was limited in its application to that colony alone. “The motion was readily adopted,” and by January, 1773, eighty towns or more had chosen their committees. Mr. Bancroft says (History of United States, VI, 445): “Samuel Adams was planning how to effect a union of all the colonies in Congress. When the Assembly met [January 6, 1773] the speaker transmitted the proceedings of the town of Boston for organizing the provincial Committees of Correspondence [i. e. on November 2, 1772] to Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia.” Here was the point of contact between Massachusetts and Virginia. The suggestion of this instrumentality was made, and it was to bear fruit in the action of the Virginia House of Burgesses, as we shall see. The importance of the action of Virginia is fully realized by Mr. Bancroft, for he says further in his chapter entitled “Virginia Consolidates Union “(VI, 454): “The people on their part drew from their institution of Committees of Correspondence throughout the province the hope of a union of all the colonies.” * * * “Whether that great idea should become a reality depended on Virginia,” and after giving an account of the passage by the House of Burgesses of the resolutions of March 12, 1773, he adds (VI, 455) : “Their resolves were sent to every colony, with a request that each would appoint its committee to manner Virginia laid the foundation of our Union. Massachusetts organized a province ; Virginia promoted a confederacy.” Here then are the respective shares in this matter allotted to each by the Massachusetts historian himself and Virginia has no cause to complain.

The action of Virginia is also fully recognized by Mr. Mellen Chamberlain, who says (Winsor’s” History of the United States,” VI, 56): “Massachusetts, which had led in most of the revolutionary movements, did not take the lead in establishing committees of correspondence between the colonies. That honor belongs to Virginia; and its chief cause was the action of the If commissioners in the Gaspee case. It paved the way for the union of the colonies after the general Congress which was convened at Philadelphia the next year”; and in an editorial note on this chapter, Mr. Winsor adds (VI, 90): “The vote passed by Virginia, March 12, 1773, was the immediate cause of intercolonial activity.” The position of Virginia, then, in the matter of the formation of the Committees of Correspondence seems sufficiently established, but the above account has been given as preliminary to a more careful consideration of these celebrated resolutions and their effect upon the other colonies. We are greatly aided in this investigation by the recent publication (in Vol. VIII, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 1890) of the Letters and Proceedings of the Committees of Correspondence and Inquiry of Virginia and the other Colonies from March 12, 1773, to May 5, 1775.” The letters received by the Virginia committee are here published for the first time, as far as I am aware, but Mr. Winsor, in an editorial note as above (VI, 90) tells us that Frothingham, in his “Rise of the Republic of the United States,” Boston, 1872, a work that I have not seen, “determines the time of appointing such a committee by each colony.” This time is readily ascertained from the record itself.

An account of the introduction and passage of the resolutions for the formation of Committees of Correspondence is given by Mr. Wirt in his ” Life of Patrick Henry” (third edition, p.87), and by Professor George Tucker in his ” Life of Jefferson” (I, p. 51), followed by Charles Campbell in his ” History of Virginia,” who designates Richard Henry Lee as the author of the plan,[5] and by Randall in his ” Life of Jefferson” (I, p. 78). Doubtless Lee was stimulated by the reception a few weeks before of the Massachusetts resolution, and with far-seeing eye realized what a powerful influence for united action might be exerted by the extension of these committees to the several colonies. We are told by Professor Tucker, following Jefferson’s “Memoir,” that Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Dabney Carr, Thomas Jefferson, and two or three others, whose names have not unfortunately come down to posterity, used to meet at the Raleigh tavern to consult on the measures proper to be pursued ; that they drew up the resolutions; and Mr. Jefferson mentions in his “Memoir” that the consuIting members proposed to him to move these resolutions in the House the next day, but that he declined the honor in favor of his brother-in law, Dabney Carr, a new member, to whom he wished to afford so good an Opportunity to make his talents known. The resolutions were accordingly moved by Dabney Carr, a member from Louisa (not Charlotte, as Mr. Bancroft has it) on March 12, 1773, in an eloquerit speech, on which Mr. Wirt comments. They were supported by Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, and were unanimously adopted.

I regret very much that I have been unable to procure access to the Journal of the House of Burgesses of 1773 (which sat but eleven days–March 4-15), but these resolutions are printed in Burk’s “History of Virginia” (III, 372-3), Wirt’s “Life of Patrick Henry” (third edition, pp.87, 88), and very recently in the “Calendar of Virginia State Papers” (Vl II, p. I). They will also be found in Mr. W. W. Henry’s “Life of Patrick Henry” (I, 159). Although presumably well known to the members of this Society, they are of such importance in the early revolutionary history of Virginia that they deserve to be quoted in full. They read as follows:

“Whereas the minds of his Majesty’s faithful subjects in this colony have been much disturbed by various rumors and reports of proceedings tending to deprive them of their ancient, legal, and constitutional Rights ; and whereas the affairs of this Colony are frequently connected with those of Great Britain, as well as of [Wirt and the Cal. omit ‘of’] the neighboring colonies, which renders a communication of Sentiments necessary ; in order, therefore, to remove the uneasiness [Burk says ‘ uneasinesses’] and to quiet the minds of the people, as well as for the [Cal. omits ‘the’] other good purposes above mentioned “Be it Resolved, That a standing committee ot correspondence and inquiry be appointed, to consist of eleven persons, to-wit: the honorable Peyton Randolph, Esquire, Robert Carter Nicholas, Richard Bland, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Edtpund Pendleton, Patrick Henry, Dudley Digges, Dabney Carr, Archibald Cary, and Thomas Jefferson, Esquires, any six of whom to be a committee, whose business it shall be to obtain the most early and authentic intelligence of all [Burk omits ‘all’] such Acts and Resolutions of the British Parliament or proceedings of administration as may relate to or affect the British Coloni’es in America; and to keep up and maintain a correspondence and communication with our sister Colonies respecting those [Burr says ‘these’] important considerations and the result of such their proceedings from time to time to lay before this [Burk says ‘the’] House.

“Resolved, That it be an instruction to the said committee that they do without delay inform themselves particularly of the principles and uthority on which was constituted a court of enquiry, said to have been lately held in Rhode Island, with powers to transport persons accused of offepces committed in America to places beyond the seas to be tried.

“Resolved, That the Speaker [Burk and Wirt add ‘of this House’] do transmit to the Speakers of the different Assemblies of the British Colonies on this [Wirt says ‘the’] Continent copies of the said Resolutions, and desire that they will lay them before their respective Assemblies and request them to appoint some person or persons of their respective bodies to communicate from time to time with the said committee.”

Mr. Wirt says (p.89) that the mover of these resolutions, Dabney Carr. “although he had not yet reached the meridian of life, was considered by far the most formidable rival in forensic eloquence that Mr. Henry had ever yet had to encounter.” Unfortunately for the colony, he died on the ifith of May following, not two months later, in the thirtieth year of his age, cut off-in the beginning of his public career. Mr. Bancroft well says (VI, 455) his name “must not perish from the memory of his countrymen.”

The Committee met on the next day, March 13th, all present except Edmund Pendleton and Patrick Henry; appointed John Tazewell clerk, and Peyton Randolph, Robert Carter Nicholas, and Dudley Digges a select committee, who, as is shown by the record, conducted all the correspondence of the committee. They directed the select committee to take steps to carry out the second resolution, to procure copies of certain acts of Parliament and Journals of the House of Commons (which were procured later through a certain Mr. John Norton, of London), and to transmit to the Speakers of the other Assemblies on the Continent copies of an act of the Virginia-Assembly making it a felony to forge the paper currency of the other colonies, like action being desired from the other assemblies, for it seems from a subsequent letter that this Colony had “sustained the greatest injury by having their paper currency forged-the supposed principal auth9r of this mischief being an inhabitant of North Carolina.”

The second resolution requires, perhaps, a few words of explanation. Some months before, on June Jo, 1772, a revenue vessel, the “Gaspee,” which had been making illegal seizures of goods and much harassing the people of Providence, R. I., having run aground in a chase, was boarded and burnt by the incensed citizens. A royal commission sat at Newport from January 4th to 22d, 1773, to consider the affair, and at the end of its deliberations required the Governor of Rhode Island to arrest the offenders and send them to England for trial. He laid the matter before the Assembly, who referred it to the discretion of the Chief Justice, Stephen Hopkins. He boldly re- fused, “for the purpose of transportation for trial, either to apprehend any person by his own order or to suffer any executive officers of the colony to do it;” and thus the matter ended, as no armed force was used.[6]

This transportation of accused persons beyond seas for trial was, then, what excited the Virginia House of Burgesses, and this was not the first occasion on which like action had been taken, for on May 11, 1769, they had passed unanimously certain noted resolutions (given in Burk, III, 343-4, and in Henry, I, 138-9), one of which declared “that the seizing any person or persons residing in this colony, suspected of any crime whatsoever committed therein, and sending such person or persons to places beyond the seas to be tried, is highly derogatory of the rights of British subjects, as thereby the inestimable privilege of being tried by a jury from their vicinage, as well as the liberty of summoning and producing witnesses in such trial, will be taken away from the party accused.”

The result of the passage of those resolutions was the dissolution of that Assembly by Lord Botetourt. Let us now notice the effect of the resoutions just read, which had been duly trans- mitted to the other colonies by the Select Committee on March 19, 1773. The first letter received was from the Speaker of the General Assembly of New York, dated April 14, who states that he will lay the resolutions before the Assembly when it convenes, but he does not imagine that this wilt be before the latter end of this or the beginning of next year. On March 1, 1774, nearly a year later, the Speaker transmits the New York resolutions of January 20, appointing a Committee of Correspondence of thirteen, in the very words of the Virginia resolution, as is the case with the other Assemblies. He adds: “I am also directed to return their thanks to the Burgesses of the ancient colony and Dominion of Virginia for their early attention to the Rights and Liberties of America.”[7] The first Assembly to respond to the initiative of Virginia was that of Rhode Island, which appointed its committee of seven on May 7th, and the resolutions were transmitted by the Speaker on May 15th, who says “The House, thoroughly convinced that a firm union of the colonies is absolutely necessary for the preservation of their ancient, legal and constitutional rights [the very words of the Virginia preamble], and that the measures proposed by your House of Burgesses will greatly promote so desirable an end, came nemine contradicente into the resolutions of which I have the honor to enclose you a copy.”

The House of Representatives of Connecticut appointed its committee of nine on May 21st, but the resolutions were not transmitted by the Speaker until June 24th, who refers to the “Resolutions of the patriotic House of Burgesses of the Colony of Virginia,” which are quoted in full in the copy of the clerk extracted from the Journals.

New Hampshire and Massachusetts appointed their committees on the same day, May 27th, the former consisting of seven, and the latter of fifteen persons. The Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, under date of May 27th, has their “unanimous direction to present their thanks to and assure your Hon’able House that in every constitutional plan for securing the Rights of British America and removing the present infringements thereon, our sister colonies may rely we sincerely join, having no wish for ourselves of an exclusive nature in those matters, ever looking on the whole as embarked in the same common Bottom, and so represented it in our address to Lord Dartmouth at our first meeting after his appointment for American Affairs.”

The Massachusetts House, after a suitable preamble, places as its very first resolution:

“Resolved, That this House have a very grateful sense of the obligations they are under to the House of Burgesses in Virginia for the vigilance, firmness and wisdom which they have discovered at all times in support of the Rights and Liberties of the American Colonies, and do heartily concur with them in their said judicious and spirited Resolves.”

This does not look as if those Massachusetts men had any idea that they had been forestalled in the inception of any plan of intercolonial correspondence that they had already conceived, and if historians had had these resolutions before them, there would never have been any doubt as to which colony moved first in this matter. The Speaker of the Massachusetts House, under date of June 3d, says “The wisdom of the measures proposed in those Resolves and the great and good effects that may reasonably be expected to flow from them, not only to the Colonies, but to the parent State, were so obvious that the House immediately adopted them and appointed a Committee to keep up and maintain a free communication with Virginia and the rest of the Sister Colonies.”

That the colonies did not, however, look upon this measure as leading to independence of Great Britain is here shown, and it is shown also by the words of.the Speaker of the New Hampshire House, who says: “The House have appointed a committee for the proposed purpose of communication, and flatter ourselves that some means may yet be hit on for restoring the mutual confidence once subsisting between Great Britain and the American provinces.

It will be observed that the four New England colonies, whose Assemblies were already in session, were the first to respond to the Virginia resolutions.

The Speaker of the Georgia House, on June 5th, acknowledges the receipt of the Resolutions, and states that he will “take care to lay [them] before our House of Representatives.” But Georgia did not appoint her committee of six until September 1oth, accompanying this resolution with one of thanks to the Speaker and House of Burgesses of Virginia “for communicating their Intentions firm1y to support the rights and privileges of his Majesty’s faithful and loyal subjects in America.”

On July 8th South Carolina appointed a committee of nine, and also thanked the House of Burgesses of Virginia “for communicating the said Resolutions to this House, as well as for their steady attention to the general interests of America.” The Speaker, in transmitting these resolutions the next day, adds, “by which your province have so nobly and uniformly distinguished itself in the great cause of liberty.”

On August 10th the Select Committee of Correspondence of Connecticut refers to the previous letter of the Speaker, of June 24th, transmitting a copy of the Resolutions of the Connecticut House, “by which you will see the House of Representatives of this Colony have fully adopted the measures proposed by your patriotic House of Burgesses, and with pleasure follow the lead given, an example set by the fathers of the people in the ancient, free and loyal Colony of Virginia.” Here is another New England testimony to the source from which “the lead” proceeded, and to the estimation in which Virginia was held by the other colonies.

The Speaker of the Pennsylvania House acknowledges, on September 25th, the receipt of the resolutions sent On March 19th, and states that the Assembly considers it “highly expedient and necessary a correspondence should be maintained between the Assemblies of their several Colonies; but as the present Assembly must in a few days be dissolved by virtue of the charter of the province, and any measures they might adopt at this time rendered by dissolution ineffectual, they have earnestly recommended the subject matter of the letter and resolves of the House of Burgessess of Virginia to the consideration of the succeeding Assembly.” This looks like “dodging the question,” and it does not appear that “the succeeding Assembly” ever appointed a Committee of Correspondence, for the next record we have from Pennsylvania is dated May 20, 1774, and recounts the appointment, “at a Meeting of a Number of respectable Inhabi tants of the city of Philadelphia,” of a Committee of Correspondence of eighteen members, which committee is “instructed to apply to the Governor to call the Assembly of the Province.”

This action, however, was in consequence of the receipt of intelligence of the Boston Port Bill, and not in response to the Virginia resolutions of the preceding year.

On October 15th the Maryland House appoints its Committee of Correspondence of eleven persons, but this action is not communicated by the Speaker until December 6th. He states, however, that he had laid the Virginia resolutions before the House in June last, and that “they then had them under consideration, but before any Resolutions were entered into an unexpected. prorogation took place,” and they did not meet again until October.

Under date of October 21st there is an important letter from the Massachusetts Committee, discussing the general situation and advocating a strenuous effort for the restoration of the rights and liberties of the colonies. ‘[hey say expressly : “We are far from desiring the connection between Great Britain and America should be broken. Esto perpetua is our most ardent wish, but upon the terms only of equal liberty. If we cannot establish an agreement upon these terms, let us leave it to another and wiser generation.” They refer, in conclusion, to the British ministry’s “allowing the East India Company, with a view to pacifying them, to ship their Teas to America,” and urge that “each Colony should take effectual methods to prevent this measure from having its desired effect.”

Delaware appoints its committee of five on October 25th, and includes in the resolutions one reading as follows:

“Resolved, That this House have a very grateful sense of the obligations they are under to the House of Burgesses in Virginia for the vigilance, firmness and wisdom which they have discovered at all times in support of the Rights and Liberties of the American Colonies, and do heartily concur with them in their said judicious and spirited Resolves.”

It will be noticed that this is an exact copy of the Massachusetts resolution of thanks to Virginia, Delaware having already received the resolutions of Rhode Island and of Massachusetts.

There is a letter of November 4th from the Connedicut Committee also referring to the action of the ministry in permitting teas to be sent by the East India Company, and expressing “the most uneasy apprehensions for the consequences.”

They conclude: “It is with the greatest satisfaction we see the seasonable and beneficial example set by vour honorable and patriotic House of Burgesses already followed by almost all the Houses of Assembly on the Continent, and doubt not that it will be universal soon. The union of the Colonies is of the last importance, and we conceive a regular correspondence the most certain means to effect so salutary a design.”

The Speaker of the House and the Committee of Correspondence of Georgia both write on November 20th, transmitting the resolutions of September ioth, already mentioned above. It is surprising to see how long a time often elapses between the passage of resolutions and their transmission by the Speaker or the Committee of Correspondence.

North Carolina appoints a committee of nine on December 8th, and the Speaker transmits the resolutions on December 26th, the first one of which deserves partial quotation.–

“This House resolve-

“That the vigilance which the honorable House of Burgesses of Virginia have displayed in attending to every encroachment upon the Rights and Liberties of America, and the wisdom and vigour with which they have always opposed such encroachments are worthy the imitation and merit the gratitude of all their sister colonies, and in no instance more particularly than in the measure proposed for appointing corresponding committees in every colony by which such harmony and communication will be established amung them.”

Thus colony after colony extols and follows the action of Virginia.

The letter of March 1, 1774, from the Speaker of the New York House of Representatives, transmitting their resolutions of January 20th, which is the next one in chronological order, has been already noticed.

The Conneclicul Committee writes on March 8th in reply to the letter of the Virginia Committee of January 6th concerning wrifs of assistance, which contained an elaborate argument against granting such general writs as were demanded by his Majesty’s commissioners. This argument the Connecticut Committee pronounces “at once ingenious and conclusive.” They cannot refrain from again referring to the appointment of committees of correspondence, as follows:

We consider with pleasure the step taken by your worthy House of Burgesses in appointing a committee to keep up a regular correspondence with your sister Colonies, now adopted by nearly all on the Continent, as a basis on which the most lasting and beneficial Union may be formed and supported.” They are “anxiously expecting the account how the returned Tea is received, and what measures the present session of parliament will adopt respecting that and other American concerns.” A P.S. significantly adds : “A quantity of Tea arrived at Boston and met the fate of the former, the particulars of which will be with you before this.”

In respect to the appointment of these committees of correspondence, the last action is that of New Jersey, which colony appoints itscommittee of nine on February 8,1774, and “returns the thanks of the House to the Burgesses of Virginia for their early attention to the Liberties of America.” These resolutions are transmitted by the committee on March 14th, so that within a year from the passage of the Virginia resolutions all the other colonies, except Pennsylvania, had appointed committees of correspondence.

These several quotations from the records of the Committee of Correspondence have been given with a view to showing the effect produced on the different colonies by the action of Virginia, which resulted in the establishment of an official means of communication between the colonies, and led to the meeting of the first Congress, concerning which Mr. Jefferson says in his “Memoir” (Randall’s Life, p.78), in giving an account of the appointment of the Virginia Committee: “We were all sensible * * * that their first measure would probably be to propose a meeting of deputies from every colony at some central place, who should be charged with the initiation of the measures which should be taken by all.” This was to come, though not quite so soon as Mr. Jefferson conceived.

We have a glimpse of the effect produced in England by the action of the Virginia House of Burgesses in a MS. letter of William Lee to his brother, Richard Henry Lee, dated London, January I, 1774, which is briefly referred to by Charles Campbell (History of Virginia, p.570). This letter is among the Lee papers in the Library of the University of Virginia, and while chiefly on private business, it alludes to “politics” near the close, and contains the following sentence from which Mr. Campbell’s extract is taken: “Every real patriot in this country admires the spirit that has already appeared among you, and the last resolves of the Virginia Assembly have struck a greater panic into the ministers than anything that has passed since the Stamp Act.” Here is testimony from England to the importance of this Virginia move, for it was felt that the colonies would now unite in defence of their rights and liberties.

I regret that lack of time will not permit me to consider in detail the measures leading to the first Congress of all the colonies, but they must be briefly noticed. The throwing overboard of the tea in Boston harbor on December 16, 1773, led to the Boston Port Bill of March 3!, 1774, which was to take effect on June 1st. Information of this was received early in May, and caused a meeting of the inhabitants of Boston on May i3th, which recommended to the other colonies a non-importation and non-exportation agreement “till the Act for blocking up the harbour be repealed.” This resolution was transmitted the same day by Samuel Adams to Peyton Randolph for Virginia, and a copy was sent also to each of the other colonies. In the letter of Samuel Adams there is no allusion to a Congress. Resolutions of sympathy with Boston were passed by the inhabitants of Philadelphia on May 20th, and a Committee of Correspondence was appointed for that city. The next day (21st) this Philadelphia committee sent a letter to Boston, and a copy of it to each of the other colonies, in which the following sentence occurs:

By what means this truly desirable circumstance of a reconciliation and future harmony with our mother country on Constitutional principles may be obtained is indeed a weighty question, whether by the method you have suggested of a non-importation and a non-exportation agreement, or by a General Congress of Deputies from the different Colonies to state what we conceive to be our Rights, and make a claim or petition of them to his Majesty in firm but decent and dutiful terms, so as that we may know by what line to conduct ourselves in future, are now the great points to be determined,” and they favor the latter method, i. e., a Congress, first.[8]

Whence came this suggestion of a Congress? Mr. Bancroft says that the committee of the “Sons of Liberty” of New York “proposed-and they were the first to propose-‘a general Congress,'” but he does not give their letter. His statement is (History of the United States, Vol. VII, pp. 40, 41): “Their summons to the country had already gone forth when, on the evening ol the i6th of May, they convoked the inhabitants of their city.” The Philadelphia letter of the 21st of May, states that they had read at their meeting of the 20th “a letter from the committee of correspondence of New York.” Doubtless this contained the proposition mentioned by Mr. Bancroft, for he states further (VI I, 43) that from the letter from the New York Sons of Liberty had been received in Philadelphia” before this meeting. There is among the Lee papers in the Library of the University of Virginia a copy of a letter from the New York committee of correspondence to the Boston committee, dated May 23, 1774, marked “For Virginia,” and signed “By order of the Committee of Correspondence. The foregoing is a true copy. Isaac Sears “-in which letter occurs the following sentence: “Upon these reasons we conclude that a Congress of Deputies from the Colonies in general is of the utmost moment that it ought to be assembled without Delay and some unanimous Resolutions formed in this fatal Emergency, not only respecting your deplorable circumstances, but for the security of our common Rights.” This shows that the idea of a Congress had already occurred to the New York Committee. There is no copy of this letter in the ” Calendar of Virginia State Papers,” and it is reasonable to suppose that this very letter among the Lee papers should have been on the files of the Virginia committee. Meantime, what was going on in Virginia? The Assembly met on May 5, 1774. On the 6th the Committee of Correspondence ordered the letters which had been received from the different colonies “to be laid before the House of Burgesses now sitting,” and on the 25th it took similar action with respect to the letter from the New Jersey committee, the last one received. But news had now been received of the Boston Port Bill, and on the 24th the Assembly passed its noted preamble and resolution (given in full in Wirt’s ” Life of Patrick Henry,” p.95, and also in Henry’s ” Life of Patrick Henry,” I, 177) appointing June 1st as “a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer,” in con- sequence of which action the Assembly was dissolved by Lord Dunmore, “on the following day,” say Wirt and Campbell, but Burk gives on the margin the date as May 27th,[9] although this must apply to the association formed next day. Burk says (III, 378): “On the following day the members met by agreement at the long room in the Raleigh tavern” (Wirt, followed by Campbell, says “immediately”), entered into their agreement against the use of tea, and recommended to the Committee ofCorrespondence (380) “that they communicate with their several corresponding committees on the expediency of appointing deputies from the several colonies of British America, to meet in general congress at such place annually as shall be thought most convenient; there to deliberate on those general measures which the united interests of America may from time to time require.” Mr. Wirt quotes in full this “Association, signed by eighty-nine members of the late House of Burgesses” (as also does Mr. Henry, 1,179-181), and appends the date, May 27, 1774. The record of the Committee of Correspondence shows that it met on the following day, Saturday, May 28th, all present except Patrick Henry and Archibald Cary, and “Ordered that letters be prepared to the several Committees of Correspondence on the Continent, requesting their sentiments on the appointment of Deputies from the several Colonies to meet annually in general Congress.” Such a letter was immediately prepared for Maryland, and a copy for each of the other colonies, and it was ordered “that said letters be sent by this day’s post.” This shows that the committee was not slow to fulfill the recommendation of the late House of Burgesses, but it also appears that Virginia was not theftrst, as is stated by Campbell (p.573), to propose a general Congress, for the suggestion occurs in the letters of both the New York and Philadelphia Committees, although the Virginia House of Burgesses was ignorant of this suggestion when it made the proposition. While this suggestion was made by the New York and Philadelphia Committees of Correspondence, in Virginia it was made by an organized legislative body, presided over by the Speaker, though it had just been dissolved by the Governor.

But Virginia went a step further. On the next day, Sunday, May 29th, a letter was received from Maryland, of the 25th, enclosing the Philadelphia letter of the 21st and the Boston letter of the I3th, whereupon, in the words of the Virginia committee’s letter of the 31st to North Carolina, the Moderator “immediately convened as many members of our late House of Burgesses as could be got together upon so short a notice, and we yesterday took this important business under our most serious consideration ; the result of our deliberations will best appear from the inclosed, which is submitted to your Judgment.” (Cal. VIII, ii).

What was “the inclosed” here referred to? The original paper and signatures may be seen framed occupying a conspicuous position in the Virginia State Library, and a copy of it will be found on p.52, Vol. VIII of the “Calendar of Virginia State Papers.” It is the action taken on Monday, May 30, 1774, ” At a meeting of twenty-five of the late Representatives legally assembled by the moderator,” at which “it was agreed that letters be wrote to all our sister Colonies,” acknowledging the receipt of the letters above-mentioned, informing them of the unexpected dissolution of the Virginia Assembly, and stating that it was their opinion “that the colony of Virginia will concur with the other Colonies in such measures as shall be judged most effectual for the preservation of the common Rights and Liberty of British America;” “that an association against Importations will probably be entered into as soon as the late Representatives can be collected, and perhaps against Exportations also after a certain time;” and “that we are sending Dispatches to call together the late Representatives to meet at Williamsburg on the 1st day [of] August next, to conclude finally on these important Questions.” This last sentence was the most important part of this paper. Governor Dunmore, on June 17th, summoned the Assembly to meet on August uth (Cooke’s “Virginia,” p. 420), but these twenty-five members of the late House of Burgesses – anticipated him, and here was the summons for that first Virginia Convention, which met on August I, 1774, appointed delegates to the General Congress, with full instructions for their action (see Wirt, pp. 101-105, and Henry, I, pp. 198-202), adopted a non importation agreement after November 1st next, and a non-exportation one also after August 10, 1775, “unless American grievances are redressed” before that time, and empowered the moderator to convene the delegates “on any future occasion that might, in his opinion, require it.” It was thus the prelude to the Virginia Conventions of March, July and December, 1775, and May, 1776, which last severed all connection with Great Britain and adopted an independent government for Virginia-the first permanent written constitution ever adopted on this Continent.[10] Among these twenty-five names we find those of Peyton Randolph, Robert Carter Nicholas, Edmund Pendleton, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Paul Carrington and James Mercer all of whom later occupied high official positions. Three of these men-Edmund Pendleton, Paul Carrington and James Mercer-were appointed by the Convention of July, 1775, on the Committee of Safety of eleven members, that governed Virginia during the recess of the conventions from that time- until July, 1776, when Patrick Henry was inaugurated as the first Governor, and all three of them were afterwards judges of the Court of Appeals of the State.[11]

The Committee of Correspondence on the next day, May 31st, enclosed this action of the twenty-five members of the late House of Burgesses to North Carolina, with a request for transmission to South Carolina and Georgia, and also to Maryland, with a similar request for transmission to Philadelphia and Boston-for in this way the torch was borne from hand to hand in the several colonies.

The letter of Maryland contains the following sentence “We could wish to have known the sentiments of New York. We found a letter from the Committee of Correspondence in that province mentioned in the Philadelphia letter, but no copy of it inclosed nor the purport of it mentioned.” This, too, shows that the Virginia Committee was still ignorant that the New York Committee had proposed a general Congress, the letter containing that proposition not having been received.

This notice of the records of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence must now close, just on the eve of that day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, appointed by the House of Burgesses, Wednesday, June 1, 1774, on which day George Mason directed that his elder children should attend church in mourning a strong evidence of the deep feeling throughout the colony.[12]

I cannot refrain, however, from quoting, in conclusion, a few brief sentences from a letter of the Philadelphia committee (without date, but dated by the editor of volume VIII of the Calendar of Virginia State Papers “June 13, 1774”), as it shows plainly the esteem in which Virginia w’as held “All America,” says the secretary of the Committee, “look up to Virginia to take the lead on the present occasion. Our united efforts are now necessary to ward off the impending blow levelled at our lives, liberty and property.” * * * “Some colony must step forth and appoint the time and place [i. e., for the Congress]. None is so fit as Virginia. You are ancient. You are respected. You are animated in the cause.”

It is a source of pride to the sons of Virginia to know that she did not fail to respond to this call, and to know further that she has never failed to respond in a becoming manner when her rights and liberties were threatened.

University of Virginia.


  1. W. W. Henry, R. A. Brock, and L. G. Tyler.
  2. Alexander Brown.
  3. See Wirt’s “Life of Patrick Henry,” third edition, 1818, note to p. 87, with which compare Tucker’s “Life of Jefferson,” Vol.1, pp. 52-55, and reference there given to “Marshall’s Life of Washington;” also compare Randall’s “Life of Jefferson,” Vol I, pp. 78-80.
  4. Bancroft’s History of the United States, original edition, 1854, Vol. VI, p.429.
  5. John Esten Cooke says (Magazine of American History for May, 1884) that “as far back as 1768 Lee had advocated the scheme of a Committee of Correspondence.” This suggestion of R. H Lee’s was made in a letter of July 25, 1768, to John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, which letter is given in Lee’s “Life of R. H. Lee,” and this was, I presume, Cooke’s authority for his statement. See R. H. Lee’s “Life of Richard Henry Lee,” V”l. I, pp.64, 65, and Campbell, p.579.
  6. See Bancroft, VI, 417-419 and 450, 451, and Winsor, VI, 53.
  7. See Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. VIII, pp.15, ff., for all these letters.
  8. See Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. VIII, P.48.
  9. Professor M. C. Tyler and Mr. Henry give the date more exactly as May 26th (Tyler’s “Life of Patrick Henry,” p.86 ; Henry’s “Life of Patrick Henry” I, 178.
  10. Of this Convention of 1774 Mr. Randall says (Life of Jefferson, I, 58): “This Convention was the first assembly of popular representatives of Virginia-twenty-four-which convened without the express authority of law, and by virtue of the inherent rights of the people.”
  11. As showing the relations existing between these three men, it maybe mentioned that Edmund Pendleton was nominated for President of the Convention of December, 1775, by Paul Carrington, and the motion was seconded by James Mercer (Journal of the Conventions of -1775 and 1776, p.59). Edmund Pendleton was also nominated by Paul Carrington for President of the Convention of 1788. The late Hugh Blair Grigsbv, in his “Virginia Convention of 1788,” says of judge Pen-dleton (I, 66): “Not a few of the members could recall him as with a buoyant and graceful step he walked from the floor of the Convention of December, 1775, and of May, 1776, to the chair, escorted in the former body by Paul Carrington and James Mercer, and in the latter by the venerable Richard Bland and the inflexible Archibald Cary.”

    Sketches of Judge Pendleton and Judge Carrington will be found in Grigsby’s work above-mentioned, and in his “Virginia Convention of 1776.” A brief sketch of Judge Mercer may be appended here, as no notice of his life has ever appeared in print except a few lines prefixed to Vol. IV (p. xx) of Call’s Reports, which contains brief sketches of the judges of the Court of Appeals.

    JAMES MERCER was the son of John Mercer, of Marlboro’, Stafford County. Va., a lawyer and author of Mercer’s “Abridgment of the Laws of Virginia,” and Catherine Mason, daughter of Colonel George Mason, of Stafford county, Va., and aunt of George Mason, noted as the author of the Virginia Constitution of 1776, and otherwise. James Mercer was born February i6, 1736, and was educated at William and Mary College.

    He was a captain in the French and Indian War, and in command of Fort Loudoun at Winchester in 1756. He represented Hampshire county in the House of Burgesses in 1765, and was frequently a member of that body. He also represented that county in the Virginia Conventions of 1774, 1775 and 1776. He was elected by the Convention of July, 1775, a member of the Committee of Safety of eleven that governed Virginia as the chief executive authority during the recess of the Conventions until July, 1776, when Patrick Henry was inaugurated as the first Governor under the Constitution. He was a member of the Continental Congress in 1779-’80, and in 1779 was chosen a judge of the General Court. In 1789 he was made a judge of the Court of Appeals of five judges. He died in Richmond while attending the Court of Appeals, October 31, 1793, and was buried in the churchyard of St. John’s Church, but the exact spot was not marked and is now unknown. His residence was in Fredericksburg, Va., and he was president of the Board of Trustees of the Fredericksburg Academy. A letter from him to Richard Henry Lee, who was also a member of this Board, relating to the Academy, is still preserved among the Lee papers in the Library of the University of Virginia. He married Mary Eleanor Dick, daughter of Charles Dick, of Fredericksburg, and was the father of Charles Fenton Mercer, who represented the Loudoun district in Congress ftom 1817 to 1840. His only daughter, Mary Eleanor Dick Mercer, married her cousin, James Mercer Garnett, of Elmwood, Essex county, Virginia, M. C., 1805 to 1809. Portraits of James Mercer and of his father, John Mercer, are still preserved at Elmwood. Judge Mercer drew the will of Mary Washington, still preserved in the records of the corporation court of Fredericksburg, and was one of the witnesses to her signature.

  12. Mason’s letter to Martin Cockburn, quoted in Bishop Meade’s “Old Churches and Families of Virginia,” 1, 174, and elsewhere.