J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What the Rev. William Stith Truly Said

The Summer 2013 issue of Colonial Williamsburg contains an article titled, “Life, Liberty, and No Pistole,” by Susan Berg. It begins:
Twenty-three years before Virginia patriot Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” the Reverend Mr. William Stith of Williamsburg raised a glass and toasted “Life and liberty, and no pistole.” That sparked a protest against Lieutenant-Governor Robert Dinwiddie that spread throughout the colony and across the Atlantic to the upper levels of English government.
Unfortunately, the article renders Stith’s toast inaccurately. It didn’t actually start out like Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which the article quotes at the end. Stith’s words were “Liberty and property and no pistole.”

In this political dispute from 1753, Lt. Gov. Dinwiddie had imposed a one-pistole (16s.8d.) fee on new land patents. Naturally, Virginians who speculated in land disliked this. The House of Burgesses, which included a lot of land speculators, also disliked it on principle since Dinwiddie hadn’t gone through them; in essence, this was “taxation without representation” before that phrase was coined.

Stith, the new president of the College of William and Mary, became a leading voice against the fee. In 1940 the William & Mary Quarterly published his 21 Apr 1753 letter to the bishop of London in which he admitted:
Once in a publick Company, where that Subject had been much debated, being called upon for my Toast, I gave Liberty & Property and no Pistole; and I believe, I might afterward drink it six or eight times at my own Table. However, the thing took; and I have been told, that it has been since frequently drunk in various Parts of the Country.
A 1954 footnote in the same journal reported that a man named John Blair had also written to the bishop accusing Stith of making “the same toast,” but a 1958 issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography said Blair accused Stith of toasting, “Liberty & No Pistole.”

Percy Scott Flippin had quoted the same 1753 letter from Stith in his monograph “The Royal Government of Virginia,” published in Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law in 1919. But I mention that mostly because I just don’t have enough opportunities to write “Percy Scott Flippin.”

No period source quotes Stith as saying, “Life and liberty…” As of this writing, Google finds only three domains on the web which render his words that way. Two are run by Colonial Williamsburg and point back to this article. The third is a 2009 homework assignment from a California school.

Most of the article about Stith concerns his work as a minister, teacher, and historian. He does appear to have been a significant figure in the history of Virginia. The pistole-fee dispute was also a forerunner of the larger issues that led to the break between colonies and Crown. It’s a shame the article’s title and opening are based on a mistake.

1 comment:

Sassy Countess said...

This is great information! I'll be using this post as a source for my master's thesis. :D