THE easy triumph of the Revolution in Virginia was primarily due to thorough organization. The sentiment of the colony was, beyond doubt, overwhelmingly patriotic, but it is conceivable that a considerable loyalist, or neutral, faction might have existed if public opinion had been less forcefully translated into action. The county committees, composed of prominent and experienced men working with a perfectly definite aim, crushed disaffection in the beginning with a ruthless efficiency that left British sympathizers no alternative but exile or quiet submission.
Local committees of correspondence sprang up in Virginia in 1774. Late in the year, in conformity with the recommendation of Congress, county committees were organized to carry into effect the Continental Association, that boycott designed to force the English government to terms by loss of trade. The earliest of these local committees arose in the eastern counties, showing that no class was so eager to support Congress as the large landowners. Reluctant as they were a year later to go to war, they were now foremost in the boycott, because to their minds it was legal and entirely consistent with attachment to the crown. These tidewater planters, men trained in politics and affairs, inaugurated the committee system and the commercial resistance to Britain and thus inadvertently led the colony into the very thing they dreaded. The local committees played an important part in the life of the community from the very start. Their authority, if not legal, was yielded by general consent and was extensive in scope. They were chosen by the freeholders of the counties assembled at the court-houses, virtually in the same way that the Burgesses were elected; and these mass meetings seem to have passed off usually without incident much more like the routine pollings for members of the assembly than incipient rebellion. The committees, consisting for the most part of prominent and trusted men, stood for law and order even though they themselves were untrammeled by ordinary legal restraints. The selections generally represented spontaneous popular choice, but sometimes they were arranged after practical political methods with which the present generation is only too familiar. Thus, some of the people of Chesterfield in August, 1775, complained to the convention that the county committee had been elected by a mere handful of voters, who did not clearly understand its importance, and that as a consequence several unworthy members had been chosen. They therefore requested another election.<a href="#1" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 1
Legislative Petitions. Chesterfield (A4078)."> Similarly, in Hanover the complaint arose that tellers of the ballots at the election took it upon themselves to exclude persons actually elected in favor of others not receiving a majority.<a href="#2" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 2
Journal of the May Convention of 1776, 24."> Usually in the eastern counties men of the conservative faction that had so long ruled Virginia predominated in the committees. This was fortunate for the Revolution. Begun under the auspices of the upper classes, the body of the people came into it as a matter of course, and with few misgivings. Furthermore, the local rulers were able to employ ostracism - at first their only weapon - with far greater restraint and success than men without position could possibly have done. In their hands it proved a formidable instrument in the early stages of the Revolution for suppressing faint-hearted royalists and bringing about at least a show of harmony.
The committees began their work with great energy and admirable system. Counties were divided into districts and each district was assigned to a subcommittee of the county committee. Owing to the care for detail observed, practically the whole population of the colony was subjected to an espionage, which, though it employed no regular spies, was exceedingly efficient. Not only violations of the Continental Association, but disaffection of any kind, even careless words, met with prompt investigation. The only alternative for the offender, besides submission, was exile; for exile naturally followed as the result of the odium cast on those openly published as hostile. In the vacation of regular tribunals, closed by the Revolution, the committees not only exercised the functions of a court of wide jurisdiction, but enjoyed executive powers as well. Since they ordinarily included a considerable proportion of justices of the peace, the suspension of courts had very little effect on good order. Seldom has a great political revolution been attended with less violence than the close of the British administration in Virginia and the opening of the republican era.
The first case of disaffection acted on by a committee, so far as known, was not a prosecution for a violation of the Continental Association, but for an expression of opinion. On November 8, 1774, the Westmoreland Committee, including some of the most prominent persons in the colony, sat in judgment on David Wardrobe, a Scotch school-teacher, who had written home rather indiscreetly about local conditions. Through inadvertence or a misunderstanding, the letter was published, and was now laid before the committee as a contribution to the columns of a Glasgow newspaper. Wardrobe had charged the planters with taking the lead in one of those effigy-burnings so dear to the heart of the eighteenth century, and had described the common people as showing no enthusiasm for the roasting of Lord North. There was sufficient truth in the charge to exasperate the committee, which summoned the school-teacher to appear before it. He admitted that the letter was partly his, whereupon the committee, preserving that euphemistic form so characteristic of the leaders of the Revolution, "expressed a desire" that the vestry of Cople Parish should deprive Wardrobe of the use of the vestry-house as a schoolroom and that parents should withdraw their children from his school. Wardrobe was further ordered to write a retraction of his letter and to appear again before the committee at a later date. He wrote the apology, but not in terms satisfactory to the committee, and failed to make his appearance at the appointed time; so that the gazettes presently recommended that the poor pedagogue be "regarded as a wicked enemy of America and be treated as such."<a href="#3" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 3
American Archives, i, 970.">
Another early case was that of Paul Thilman, a notice concerning which, dated November 12, 1774, was published in the Virginia Gazette. unpleasant results likely to attend a free expression of opinion, even in a private letter. The committees, so prompt to punish unkind criticism of Revolutionary methods, were of course not behindhand in enforcing the boycott provisions of the Continental Association. The slightest violation of any of the articles brought an immediate summons to the offender to appear before the committee and explain his conduct. Those summoned seldom failed to come and defend themselves as in a court of law, for failure to appear or to show proper contrition meant being published in the newspapers as "inimical to the liberties of America" - a serious penalty. The great majority of people acquiesced in the repressive methods of the committees, or at least complied outwardly with their demands. Country gentlemen enforced the Association; but its burdens fell chiefly on the merchants, a small but fairly prosperous class beginning to be of some importance in the colony. The latter could not be expected to show any great enthusiasm for a measure so ruinous to them as the Association; yet they were powerless to resist in the face of the numbers and organization of the planters, who were bent on worsting the English government by means of a commercial war and at any cost. The great majority of Virginia merchants were attached to Great Britain, no less by interest than by their Scottish birth and training. They had come to America to make their fortunes, and had settled in Norfolk, or in some of the other small towns scattered through the colony, or ran stores at cross-roads and endured the condescension of the planters, who looked on trade much as did their squire brethren in old England. These traders faced with a natural lack of ardor the prospect of indefinite suspension of business and probable ruin. The political thinkers were the planters. Living a life of comparative leisure and educated chiefly in the direction of law and politics, they drew from the pages of Locke and Sidney theories of republicanism and precedents for revolutionary activity. This all-powerful agricultural interest was able to overawe the merchants, who were quite as hostile to the Revolution as the commercial classes in the Northern colonies, but had no large towns like Philadelphia or New York to serve as centers of influence.
The attempts of merchants to evade or resist the Association were promptly punished, as the scanty notices in the gazettes grimly show. It was practically impossible to escape the minute inspection of the subcommittees, which were kept well informed of the conduct and sentiments of every individual in their bailiwicks. Nor did they hesitate at the most intrusive pryings in order to enforce the Association. To prevent any advance in the price of goods a cardinal sin in the Association catechism - the committeemen rode from store to store examining ledgers: increase in prices or refusal to open books they punished by warning people to have no further dealings with the offenders. Thus in Caroline, on December 16, 1774, the subcommittees appointed to inspect merchants' books reported that some of the merchants had willingly shown their accounts and had been found to observe the Association, while others had refused to allow their books to be seen and were suspected of disobedience. The county committee then warned the people, "as they would avoid being considered the Enemies to American Liberty, not to have any Dealings with these merchants until they shall give the Satisfaction required."<a href="#4" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 4
Virginia Gazette, January 14, 1775."> Under this threat the obstinate merchants allowed their books to be examined and were found to have obeyed the Association.<a href="#5" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 5
Ibid., February 4, 1775."> In Charlotte a merchant who refused to open his books for examination was punished by having his customers warned against him. Tea, of course, was anathema, both to the Association and to patriotic citizens. In Northampton the committee assigned Littleton Savage to receive such tea as remained in the county, which the people surrendered to the amount of four hundred pounds. Some gentlemen, in their enthusiasm, brought their tea to the court-house, requesting that it be publicly burned, "in which reasonable request," the narrator states, "they were instantly gratified."<a href="#6" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 6
A great and often involuntary violation of the Association was the reception of goods after the date fixed as the limit for importation. There were many such cases. In Henrico, Robert Pleasants informed the committee that he had received imported goods after the time expiration, whereupon the committee ordered that his goods, together with other lots, be sold as directed by the Association.<a href="#7" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 7
Ibid., February 11, 1775."> The same thing happened at Hampton, where George Graham delivered up goods recently come to him.<a href="#8" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 8
Ibid., January 28, 1775."> Goods were also sold in Norfolk. Indeed, in the early part of 1775 the Association seems to have been faithfully enforced in the last-named place and to have so continued as long as the local committee exercised supervision. In deference to the strong patriotic feeling Captain Howard Esten, about to put to sea, applied for a certificate that he had taken nothing on board his ship except a ballast of lumber.<a href="#9" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 9
Virginia Gazette, January 14, 1775."> Sales of condemned goods seldom brought more than cost and often less, but occasionally they yielded a profit, which was devoted to the Boston sufferers. The profit on the sale in January, 1775, of Andrew Woodrow's imports into King George amounted to £19 14s.<a href="#10" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 10
Ibid., January 28, 1775."> The case of Dr. Alexander Gordon, of Norfolk, attracted much attention. He had received a consignment of medicines that he refused to turn over to the local committee for sale, insisting on keeping it for himself. The Norfolk Committee consequently advertised him as a violator of the Association. It meted out even more severe condemnation to John Brown, a Norfolk merchant, who - strange namesake of him of Ossawatomie - violated the Association most flagrantly by importing slaves and concealing their arrival. Upon the discovery of this importation Brown denied having given the order for the purchase, a statement subsequently proved false by his letter-book. The committee then declared that he had "willfully and perversely violated the Continental Association."<a href="#11" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 11
Ibid., March 25, 1775."> Captain Sampson, of the snow Elizabeth, was likewise advertised for violating the non-importation regulation. He had brought in a cargo of salt, and the Association required that cargoes should be carried back whence they came: instead, the captain attempted to carry away a shipload of lumber, and, on being summoned by the committee, appealed for protection to a British warship in the harbor. The committee immediately denounced him as an enemy to American liberty.<a href="#12" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 12
Ibid., April 15, 1775."> Exportation was watched as carefully as importation.
The Nansemond committee in August, 1775, tried two merchants of Suffolk, Donaldson and Hamilton, on the charge of shipping provisions to Boston contrary to a nonexportation resolution of the New York Committee of Correspondence which had been acceded to by several other provinces. The merchants proved that their shipment was intended for Antigua, but that the brig carrying it had been taken into Boston Harbor by a British cruiser. The same men were tried on a second charge of shipping butter and hemp to Boston in April, 1775, and again acquitted, as they showed that the New York importation resolution bad not been passed at that date.<a href="#13" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 13
Virginia Gazette, August 26, 1775."> Prices of commodities were also watched with jealous eyes. In Surry a complaint was lodged against Robert Kennan for selling salt, a necessity difficult to obtain, at an advanced price. Upon Kennan's acknowledgment of his fault the committee recommended people not to deal with him.<a href="#14" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 14
Ibid., August 88, 1775.">
Merciless as the committees were in enforcing the Association, it does not appear that they were often unjust. On the contrary, they sometimes acted in defense of the accused whom they believed innocent. The case of John Parsons was not singular: he was a shipbuilder, and was reputed to have landed and stored goods at Urbanna in Middlesex. The Middlesex Committee on examination found the tale to be false and published a statement in the gazettes exonerating Parsons.<a href="#15" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 15
Ibid., June 19, 1775.">
If the offenses taken cognizance of by the county committees had been limited to those set forth in the Continental Association, little more could be said in criticism of these bodies than that they discharged their duties somewhat overzealously. Even this criticism would have to be qualified, for revolution by its very nature cannot tolerate differences of opinion: it means the victory of a part of the population over another part - a triumph of organization no less than of arms. The local committees in Virginia, as well as in other colonies where political dissent was potentially dangerous from a military point of view, were driven to suppress loyalist opinion. Committees summoned offenders for intemperate speeches and punished them as ruthlessly as for actual violations of the Association, which in time came to be regarded as a law rather than a boycott. Examinations of persons for political opinions occurred in all parts of the colony, proving that there were everywhere people attached to Great Britain. Social position and wealth - in all other ways a very great power in Virginia - failed usually to protect such offenders, who long before the Declaration of Independence were regarded as traitors. The first test of Revolutionary politics hinges on the Continental Association. It was not enough to obey that promulgation; strict patriotism demanded a willingness to sign it and the use of respectful language regarding its often vexatious demands. Austin Brockenbrough, who hastily put his name to the Association and afterwards repented at leisure, was summoned for the offense of attempting to prejudice people against it. Losing his temper, he defied the committee and was ordered to appear before it next court day. When he failed to come, he was published as an enemy.<a href="#16" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 16
American Archives, i, 337."> In Middlesex, Thomas Haddon was advertised as "inimical"for refusing to sign the Association and casting reflections on it.<a href="#17" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 17
American Archives, i, 668."> John Saunders, a law student, who was either aloof in spirit or a victim of a legal conscience, refused to sign patriotic resolutions drawn up by the Princess Anne meeting of July, 1774, called to choose delegates to the August convention. Later, when the Virginia Association was read to the people, he again refused to conform. As a last test, the Continental Association was tendered him, and this he likewise declined, alleging "that the way of procedure was illegal." This led the county committee to appoint a delegation to wait on Saunders and urge him to retract his statement: on account of his youth, the committee averred, it "desired to deal gently with him." Asked if his words had not been inadvertently spoken, he replied that they had not. A friend then persuaded the obstinate loyalist to put his name to the Association, but he immediately added a big "No"; and the committee, worn out, branded him as a public enemy. Benjamin Dingly Gray, another nonassociator, and Mitchell Phillips, a militia captain who had exerted his influence to prevent men from signing the Association, shared his fate.<a href="#18" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 18
Ibid., i, 76."> Allan Love, brought before the Brunswick Committee on the charge of "uttering injurious and reproachful expressions," was acquitted. The Pittsylvania Committee, in May, 1776, summoned one John Pigg before it on the complaint that he had drunk tea and exclaimed against the measures of Congress. Pigg did not come and was declared "a traitor to his country and inimical to American liberty."<a href="#19" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 19
Virginia Gazette, June 1, 1775.">
The clergy of the Anglican establishment generally sympathized with the colonists, but were vexed somewhat by dread of rebellion against the head of the Church. Occasionally they came into conflict with Revolutionary sentiment. The most noted case was that of John Agnew, minister of; Suffolk Parish, Nansemond, who treated his congregation to a sermon from that text so dear to constituted authority, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." Caesars."<a href="#20" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 20
Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1776, and J. B. Dunn's History of Nansemond County."> He was expelled in consequence by his parishioners, who doubtless remembered that Caesar had his Brutus - and very properly, according to Patrick Henry. The Nansemond Committee published Agnew as "inimical" and his conduct was judged so serious as to be referred to the Committee of Safety, which ordered him to provide security for his good behavior. Not being able to do this in any other way, the minister offered to turn over his land and slaves, an offer the committee accepted with a benediction: "Tis hoped all remembrance of his former conduct be forgotten, and that his future will be such as to recommend him to ye enjoyment of peace and harmony with the society." Somewhat different was the case of John Wingate, an Orange minister, who suffered from a tyrannical use of the inquisitorial power of the county committee. Wingate had in his possession certain pamphlets reflecting on Congress, which the committee, "desirous to manifest their contempt and resentment of such writings and their authors," requested him to surrender. He refused on the ground that the pamphlets did not belong to him. The committee promised to make good the loss to the owner and burned them.<a href="#21" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 21
Virginia Gazette, April 15, 1775."> Passing beyond expressions of opinion, committees attempted to regulate the lives of people to an extraordinary degree, and even went to the point of trying to enforce literally the article of the Association forbidding gambling. What is stranger still, a community given up to horseracing and passionately devoted to card-playing, actually endured this puritanical interference in private affairs. Committees published a number of men for gambling, but inclined graciously to pardon those who expressed contrition. The committees not only regulated the opinions of their respective counties, but cooperated with other bodies in cases involving several jurisdictions. Such cooperation was made necessary by the absence in the spring and summer of 1775 of any regularly constituted officials with general powers; the local committees were the only acting official bodies. By mutual understanding committees confined themselves strictly to their own territories and carefully observed the rights of other localities. The Norfolk Committee, in May, 17'75, communicated to the Prince George Committee the facts in the case of James Marsden, charged with bringing in a puncheon of linen after the expiration of the time allowed for importation and with furnishing ship-captain Fazakerly with pork by order of Captain Charles Alexander. The last-named person appeared before the Prince George Committee and apologized for his conduct. He confessed he had brought in the linen and pork inadvertently, claiming he had given the order on Marsden to pay Fazakerly conditionally on the convention's consent to the exportation of food. This examination was sent to the Norfolk Committee, which referred the case back to Prince George on jurisdictional grounds. The Prince George Committee then decided that Alexander had violated the Association and declared him an enemy.<a href="#22" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 22
Virginia Gazette, October 28, 1775."> In the same way the Essex organization, in April, 1776, considered a case of importation that had already been tried by the Gloucester Committee, and, accepting the latter's verdict, published, the offenders, John and George Fowler, as enemies of America.<a href="#23" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 23
Ibid., June 14, 1776.">
Local committees in December, 1774, and the early part of 1775, acted wholly on their own responsibility, with no other guide or authority than the Continental Association. The king's governor still lived in his official residence in Williamsburg and still went through the form of conducting the administration with the aid of his council. The assembly, which alone could have directed the committees, had not sat for some time and Dunmore showed no hurry to summon it. Apparently he shared the view of James II that revolutions can be impeded by legal obstacles. James II had thrown the Great Seal into the Thames: Dunmore refused to call the assembly. The county committees consequently enjoyed unlimited authority in their districts. Dunmore, much alarmed, wrote to Lord Dartmouth that the committees overhauled merchants' accounts and even went so far as to swear the men of the independent military companies to take all orders from them. The Norfolk Committee, in May, 1775, published an indignant denial of the charge of inquisition, but Dunmore had told nothing but the truth. The committees did take it upon themselves to investigate everything and they were backed by armed force. The militia system, fallen into decay since the French-and-Indian War, was replaced by volunteer companies of minute-men, the first of which seems to have been raised in Prince William. Several of them were organized before the end of 1774, and by the summer of 1775 thirty or more existed.<a href="#24" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 24
Lingley, 106-07."> This force was in complete sympathy with the local committees and if necessary would have used arms in their support: a number of these companies mustered to march to Williamsburg at the time of Dunmore's theft of the powder. Modeled on the old militia system, the minute-men no more disturbed the sedate character typical of the Revolution in Virginia than did the committees composed of justices and other unmelodramatic revolutionists.
It has been observed that the county and borough committees in their first months of activity worked as entirely independent bodies, though with a harmonious purpose. The convention of March, 1775, took the first step towards the formation of a new government by recommending the adoption of a military organization based on the unobserved militia law of 1738.<a href="#25" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 25
Ibid., 129."> It also somewhat hastened the crisis by practically closing the courts; but the colony continued under the rule of committees until August 17, 1775, when the convention elected a Revolutionary executive, the Committee of Safety. This body, under the powers granted by the convention and assumed by itself, became the central authority, occupying much the same place for the whole colony that the committees did for the counties. It gave orders to committees and armed forces and settled questions that were referred to it from the local bodies. The latter were glad to shift responsibility to a higher tribunal and rendered implicit obedience to its decisions. Under the control of the Committee of Safety, the county committees grew even more pertinacious and effective in rooting out and suppressing disaffection and still more drastic in their methods. Sternness was probably inevitable. The actual break with England had come and was attended by a sudden change in the attitude of many people, who were zealous enough in opposing Parliamentary taxation, but shrank from a military struggle. The convention, by a necessary war measure, now offended this element. The trading interest in Virginia centered largely at Norfolk, Hampton, and Suffolk. Hitherto it had patiently and loyally borne the hardships of nonimportation, partly solaced by the privilege of exporting Virginia products to British markets. The merchants, mostly Scotchmen, at first displayed genuine sympathy for the American cause, and the Norfolk Committee was behind none in activity in enforcing the Association. But when war actually broke out in 1775 the views of many of these men changed. While believing that the colonies had grievances, they preferred to swallow them rather than to come into open conflict with Great Britain. To add further to their embarrassment, the convention, on July 24, 1775, struck a heavy blow at commerce. By the terms of the Continental Association exportation to Great Britain and her dependencies was to cease on September 10, 1775, unless the British government acceded to colonial demands. The Virginia merchants, with this limit in view, had made extensive contracts for products, chiefly provisions. To their consternation the convention ordered that no provisions be sent out of the colony after August 5, 1775, that no quantities of necessaries be stored in towns near navigable waters, and that all contracts for exportation be considered null and void. The local committees were commissioned to carry this order into effect.<a href="#26" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 26
Journal of the July Convention of 1775, 6.">
In view of the fact that war had begun and battles were being fought in the North, this procedure was eminently wise. It was rank folly to supply the enemy with food or to store it in quantity within easy reach of his cruisers. At the same time the prohibition put a quietus on the colony's expiring trade and moved the Norfolk merchants to protest. Their petition, which was read in convention on August 1, 1775, recited their extensive contracts with planters for grain and the number of foreign ships chartered to carry it - all based on the limit, September 10, 1775, expressly set forth in the Continental Association. The convention, in stopping exportation, had acted with great haste, and "without allowing time or opportunity for the trading interest of the colony to know that such a measure was in agitation, much less to lay their objections before this Convention." Large quantities of grain and provisions would be thrown on their hands and their vessels, on arrival, must remain idle. Furthermore, the embargo gave a trade advantage to other colonies which had not stopped exportation. The appeal ended with these frank words: "If provincial Conventions undertake the regulation of continental concerns and that during a Session of the Congress itself, the only choice we have left us is to lament the violation of public faith and order, and flattered as we have been into deceitful expectations, to sit down the melancholy spectators of our own destruction."<a href="#27" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 27
Legislative Petitions. Norfolk (134186)."> Twenty-eight firms signed this document, and it doubtless expressed the sentiments of others too cautious to sign. In addition to this, the committee of Norfolk Borough instructed those of its members who were also delegates in the convention to secure a reconsideration of the prohibitory resolution. The committee, arguing that the prohibition allowed no time for business adjustment, warned the convention that it was "under some apprehension that so cheerful an obedience will not be paid to this distressing injunction, as our constituents are ever desirous to pay to all the decisions of that honorable body; and that we humbly request that the said Resolution will be repeald, at least so far as to give time for vessels that are now loading to take in their cargoes."<a href="#28" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 28
Miscellaneous Papers of the Committee of Safety and the Convention of 1775."> The convention sternly rebuked the petitioners. It declared that the merchants' petition reflected on the convention and tended to destroy the confidence of the people of the colony in their representatives; that the resolution had not been passed in haste, and that the merchants of Norfolk and Portsmouth could not expect measures of vital concern to the colony to be suspended until they had been consulted.
The committee of Northampton County had also pleaded against the stoppage of imports, although its language was less expostulatory and it limited its requests to a modification of the resolution. The Northampton people, according to the committee, had made contracts to deliver large quantities of maize, and reasonably wished exportation to the West Indies to continue.<a href="#29" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 29
Legislative Petitions.Northampton (134853)."> This petition and that of the Norfolk Committee, in contradistinction to that of the merchants, were approved as "decent and respectful," and, in deference to them, the convention allowed exportation of maize of the last year's crop to continue until September 10, provided security was given the county committees not to ship the grain north.<a href="#30" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 30
Journal of the July Convention of 1775, 10.">
This dispute, apparently disposed of by the convention, marks the beginning of the detachment of the mercantile interest from the colonial cause. For the remainder of the Revolution the Norfolk region never showed anything of its early patriotism and spirit of cooperation with the rest of the colony. It was a defection that might have been fraught with serious consequences but for the incompetence and tactlessness of the man in whose hands fate had placed the charge of British authority.
Through the early part of the Revolution the convention exercised supreme power. When not in session it was represented by the Committee of Safety, which acted as the executive. Among the latter's functions was that of court of appeals for the county committees, though the convention remained as a kind of final tribunal in exceptional cases. Spurred on by the Committee of Safety, the county committees worked with even greater vigor and efficiency than before. With the beginning of war the inquisitorial methods necessarily became more severe in the passage from the economic to the military stage of resistance, and disaffection was suppressed by law in place of merely being banned by public opinion. In the lower counties especially, the danger of Dunmore's presence led the committees to employ means that at other times would have seemed unworthy. Not only were speeches of disaffected persons regarded as sufficient grounds for trial, but mails were tampered with in the search for evidence. Walter Hatton, of Accomac, was brought before the county committee for writing a seditious letter, and, at his own request, was sent on to the Committee of Safety for examination. On his tendering an apology for the letter, the committee dropped the case against him.<a href="#31" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 31
Virginia Gazette, February 26, 1776."> In this letter Hatton had made the following statement:
It is now, and has been for some time past, an established rule to break open all letters either going from or directed to any officer in the service of the Crown. It was with difficulty, I will assure you, that now I am able to transmit them, as my going from Accomac to this place [Norfolk] was opposed by upwards of 300 people of the county, who will not allow any vessel to come to this place, for fear of supplying the ships of war, and other troops, with provision; and I will assure you, that I am doubtful whether I may not be obliged to take a shelter on some of the ships, or at least on this side the bay, during the confused usurpation of power that an officer of the customs, if only he acts with spirit, or as his duty and oath bind him, that he will immediately fall under the lash of the damn'd committees, et cet., who on such occasions will show them as little mercy as they themselves may expect in the future world.
The Caroline Committee seized suspected letters sent from Port Royal,<a href="#32" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 32
Ibid., March 1, 1776."> and the Nansemond Committee, not even sparing women, summoned Betsey Hunter, on November 22, 1775, to answer the charge of having written letters to her brother in Norfolk informing him of military preparations at Suffolk and Smithfield. The woman denied that she had intended to give intelligence, but the committee decided otherwise and published her, along with Mary and Martha Wilkinson, who were privy to the letters, as "enemies to America." The Accomac Committee tried Captain Custis Kellam for using improper language concerning the people of Boston, but let him off on his apologizing.<a href="#33" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 33
Virginia Gazette, March 1, 1776."> So close was the scrutiny to which everybody was subjected and so injurious the suspicion of disaffection, that we find one Watkins, of Halifax, publishing a statement in the newspapers that he had gone on board Dunmore's ship solely on private business and had resisted the governor's efforts to seduce him from the patriot cause.<a href="#34" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 34
Ibid., March 22 1776."> Such an incident was sufficiently absurd, but surely the climax of revolutionary effervescence was reached in the case of Richard Harrison, of Petersburg, who was haled before his committee for the high crime and misdemeanor of feasting bountifully on May 17, 1776, which had been proclaimed a solemn fast day. Harrison expressed his regret and declared he had forgotten it was a fast: he, and five others who had dined with him, were thereupon forgiven.<a href="#35" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 35
Ibid., June 7, 1776.">
Towards the end of 1775 and in the early months of 1776, the committees along the Chesapeake shore in the neighborhood of Hampton attempted to blockade Norfolk and adopted measures strangely like those used by local committees in the French Revolution. Persons going to and from Norfolk were required to show passes, failing which they were liable to be locked up in jail or sent to Williamsburg as suspected loyalists. Passports were required of all travelers through the tidewater region. "It is not now possible," wrote an Englishman from Portsmouth, on November 10, 1775, "for any of our Country men to travel the country, without a pass from the Committees or Commanding officers, which none of them can procure."<a href="#36" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 36
Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1776."> Another Tory tells of a trip he made to Hampton, where he was kept a prisoner by the local committee all night and examined in the morning.
The punishment of holding convicted loyalists up to public condemnation in the gazettes, at one time exceedingly efficient, was superseded in December, 1775, by an ordinance of convention "establishing a mode of punishment for the enemies of America in this colony."<a href="#37" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 37
Hening's Statutes, ix, 101."> This ordinance provided that all white men who had been in arms against the colony and failed to surrender themselves in two months, or any who might thereafter assist the enemy, should be imprisoned at the discretion of the Committee of Safety, which was also empowered to seize their estates and apply the income to the public service. Slaves taken in arms against the colony or voluntarily attending the enemy were threatened with the dire punishment of being sold in the West Indies, or otherwise disposed of for the benefit of the colony. The Continental Association was continued in force and strengthened by a clause forfeiting imported goods and the ships employed. An admiralty court of three judges was established to carry these forfeitures into effect; and the Committee of Safety received directions to name five members of each local committee as commissioners to conduct jury trials of offenders against the Association. The Committee of Safety constituted the appellate court, and further was given the pardoning power.
In May, 1776, the convention increased the penalties for Toryism to forfeiture of estate and indefinite imprisonment, although a part of the sequestrated property was to be applied to the support of the families of the owners.<a href="#38" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 38
Hening's Statutes, ix, 130."> The convention also adopted, on May 27, 1776, a test oath to be offered by local committees to all suspects. This oath bound the subscriber to aid the government of Virginia in the war, not to assist the enemy in any way, and to reveal conspiracies and plots. Refusal to take this oath was punished by seizure of arms and ammunition.<a href="#39" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 39
Journal of the May Convention of 1776, 26."> Following the establishment of the test, the Halifax Committee, on June 20, 1776, offered the oath to six men, who refused to take it and were waited on for their arms.<a href="#40" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 40
Virginia Gazette, July 5, 1776."> A number of Fredericksburg merchants and other disaffected persons were ordered disarmed at the same time.<a href="#41" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 41
Ibid., August 23, 1776."> In Northumberland several men rejected the oath and suffered disarmament,<a href="#42" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 42
Ibid. September 27, 1776."> and in Pittsylvania seven or eight persons declined the test. The Caroline Committee offered the oath to James Miller and a dozen other suspects, who refused and were advertised as inimical.
There is no doubt [the committee said] but these monsters of ingratitude will be pleased with this notification of their attachment to the jurisdiction of Great Britain, serving to recommend them as fit instruments to enslave their American benefactors; and consequently proper objects of royal munificence; a large portion of which, perhaps, will fall to the man whose name stands foremost in this black list, as a reward for his disapprobation of and opposition to publick measures, sufficiently manifest, we think, in his refusing to qualify as a justice of the peace, in not complying with a requisition of Convention to contribute to the purchase of arms and ammunition, and in not voting at elections of delegates and committees.<a href="#43" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 43
Virginia Gazette, December 6, 1776.">
This bitter arraignment shows how the irritation of patriots against the disaffected was growing with the progress of the war. The man who heads the "black list" is denounced for refusing to accept office, failing to contribute to the fund for supplies, and absenting himself from elections. No overt act of any sort is charged against him. At Falmouth the King George Committee disarmed a few non-jurors.
So much for examples. The same process must have been repeated in nearly every trading community in Virginia, although the records have not come down to us. In each case a little group of men, suspected of lukewarmness or hostility towards the patriot cause, but usually not assertive in expressing opinions, was brought to the surface as "inimical" by the net of the test oath. Few open enemies of the Revolution remained in Virginia after the spring of 1776. Most of them had left in 1775, despairing of the royal cause or fearing to be involved in the struggle; the gazettes of that year are full of the "Intend-for-England" of merchants appealing for the settlement of debts. Later, in 1776, when the patriot party passed from suppression of disaffection to refusal to tolerate dissent, the remainder of the trading class went into exile. A few who persisted in lingering were forcibly expelled.
The merchants and planters of British sympathies who left Virginia in 1775 and 1776 probably may be counted by hundreds. They were men of character and property, and in many instances of considerable education, and altogether formed the most energetic element in the colony. Their loss was irreparable; and it was many years before Virginia again possessed an active and enterprising commercial class. This was part of the price paid for the Revolution and was inevitable. In a revolutionary state no room existed for serious difference of political opinion; there was the alternative of submission or exile. The commercial Tories, scattered far and wide through an agrarian population, remained helpless in the face of the patriot majority; in Norfolk alone they dared strike a blow for the king. If there had been towns of any size in Virginia, with royal forces to occupy them, or if there had been at Norfolk a fifth part of the army Howe wasted in idleness at Boston in the winter of 1775-76, the history of the Revolution in Virginia and of the Revolution in general might have been different. But the home government, apparently interested only in the Boston situation, allowed its partisans in Virginia to be crushed or driven into exile without an effort to defend them, thus enabling the planters thoroughly to organize the colony for the Revolution and to render the most essential aid to the insurgent army in the North. Arnold, with a small command, did incalculable damage in Virginia in 1781; and Cornwallis, in his invasion, seriously, if ephemerally, affected the sentiment of eastern Virginia. Two or three regiments under a capable officer might have accomplished far more in the closing days of 1775, when the large latent opposition to the Revolution would have grown into a Tory party if the king had shown his ability to protect his own. In the absence of protection, the disaffected were forced either to leave Virginia or to become lukewarm revolutionists, giving a perfunctory support to the patriot cause. The patriot party, composed of the great majority of planters and the piedmont and western farmers and hunters and led by men trained in administration, allowed the loyalists no chance to concentrate at any point. The means employed to accomplish this end were the local committees, which exercised an almost despotic power from December, 1774, to the summer of 1776. They acted with an intelligence and thoroughness that modern political organization cannot surpass, and they succeeded so well in their task that surface observers are tempted to believe that in Virginia alone of the colonies British sentiment hardly existed. This is a mistake. The truth is that the committees did not allow British sentiment a chance to develop, and hardly even to exist.<a href="#44" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 44
One committee journal, that of Cumberland, is extant, though mutilated, in the Virginia State Library.">
It will be observed from the foregoing account that the Revolution was hardly a popular movement in its inception. The body of the people were not greatly aroused, when, in the last weeks of 1774, the committees began their work of enforcing the observance of the Continental Association. That boycott was distinctly the weapon of the planters, and the cooperation of the other classes of the community in the regulating proceedings of the committees was secondary.
The poor people of eastern Virginia - small farmers and others began to take fire in the spring of 1775 as the result of Patrick Henry's activities. To them, unlike the planter class, the Revolution meant something more than resistance to England; it awakened feelings of antagonism to the order of society itself - feelings which have always existed among men, but which largely remained inarticulate until the coming of the French philosophers of the eighteenth century. The poor in Virginia usually enjoyed a fair abundance of food, but they were housed in hovels and were utterly illiterate and to a large extent sunk in brutal dissipation. With resistance to the authority of England in progress and with the new French idea of equality in the air, it is not surprising that the poorer classes began to hope for a rise in their condition and a larger share in the government. Their participation in the Revolution marks the end of the first act in the great revolt, which had been distinguished by the labors of the committees directed wholly to the conservative end of abating British encroachments on colonial liberty.