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, June 24, 2015

Virginia Resolutions “of an extraordinary Nature” in Newport

Two hundred fifty years ago today, on 24 June 1765, the Newport Mercury carried an item about the Stamp Act. That wasn’t unusual—American newspapers were starting to fill with essays warning about Parliament’s new law. The Mercury story was unusual for two reasons:
  • It printed resolutions that the Virginia House of Burgesses had debated, adopted, and in one case retracted at the end of May. Under pressure from Gov. Francis Fauquier, the Virginia newspapers hadn’t reported any of that story. So the Rhode Island paper had a scoop.
  • The Rhode Island paper got the story wrong. 
The article began:
Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman in Philadelphia, to his Friend in this Town, dated last Tuesday.

“I have inclosed the Resolves of the Virginia Assembly, on debating the Stamp Act. The Governor, as soon as he heard what they were about, sent for them, and without Preamble, told them, he would dissolve them; and that Minute they were dissolved. As they are of an extraordinary Nature, thought they might not be disagreeable. They are as follows.”
Then came the six resolves.

Six? The Burgesses had approved five resolves, then pulled one back. So how did the Mercury report six? To start with, the newspaper omitted the third of the passed resolutions (“That the Taxation of the People…”). It did print the fifth, which the Burgesses passed on 30 May and then repealed on 31 May.

But the letter from Philadelphia also included two resolutions that the Virginia legislature had never passed, and apparently never officially considered. They read:
Resolved, That his Majesty’s liege People, the Inhabitants of this Colony, are not bound to yield Obedience to any Law or Ordinance whatever, designed to impose any Taxation whatsoever upon them, other than the Laws and Ordinances of the General Assembly aforesaid.

Resolved, That any Person, who shall, by speaking or writing, assert or maintain that any Person or Persons, other than the General Assembly of this Colony, have any Right or Power to impose or lay any Taxation on the People here, shall be deemed an Enemy to this his Majesty’s Colony.
Those resolutions were even more confrontational toward Parliament and its appointees and supporters than the one that got repealed.

What happened? Recall that Gov. Fauquier reported to London:
I am informed the gentlemen had two more resolutions in their pocket, but finding the difficulty they had in carrying the 5th which was by a single voice, and knowing them to be more virulent and inflammatory; they did not produce them.
But those gentlemen might have been unable to resist sending the drafts to friends in Philadelphia, who in turn passed them on to other friends in other colonies. Patrick Henry didn’t record those last two resolutions in his personal papers, as he did the previous five, so it’s unclear whether he wrote them or someone else did.

In any event, the gentleman who wrote to Newport from Philadelphia, and the people who read the Newport Mercury, apparently believed that the Virginia Burgesses had approved all six of the resolutions that appeared in the newspaper. So did the readers of the 1 July Boston Post-Boy, which reprinted the item from Newport.

And gradually the story spread across the British Empire, making people believe that Virginia, the oldest and largest of the British colonies in the New World, had taken an even firmer stand against the Stamp Act than it ever had.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Nicely analyzed/parsed as ever, John! Faithful Boston1775 readers will all end up knowing a lot more about the anatomy of the Stamp Act crisis thanks to your close interrogation of the sources!

Taylor Stoermer said...

Terrific work, John. Just a few more notes about the Stamp Act resolutions in Virginia and their impact. According to a copy of the resolves in Henry's own hand in the collections at Colonial Williamsburg, Henry wrote them in a tavern outside of Williamsburg on his way to the meeting of the House of Burgesses in May 1765. There he did introduce all seven resolves on May 29. Their strong denial of Parliament's authority to tax the colonies was not new (the assembly's 1764 resolves, written by Landon Carter, made essentially the same argument) but Henry's twist was his use of pointed language that average colonials could both understand and support—and that moderate Virginians, such as Peyton Randolph and Carter, opposed because they thought it the strenuous resolves did more harm than good to their actual political aims in London. And they were right. But Henry could not have cared less about how the resolves were received by Englishman or Americans in the City. Henry's audience was colonial Americans, the farmers, tradesmen, and merchants who would make matters move on this side of the Atlantic.

Henry's fifth resolve was the most disconcerting to Randolph and the moderates. The key passage declared that "every Attempt to vest" the power of taxation anywhere but in colonial assemblies "has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom." You're right that five of the seven resolves narrowly passed on May 30. It's important to note that the most politically problematic of those that passed—the fifth—was expunged from the House's official records the next day, after Henry's left for home, so that it could not be used as a future precedent (Thomas Jefferson himself was a witness to all this). Fauquier did describe them to his London superiors as "violent Resolutions" but dismissed them as only "the effect of heat in the few Members of the Assembly present." Fauquier was as prudent a man as one might find in any colonial capital, and knew that without Henry, the flame among the radicals would quickly burn out.

But Henry and his allies, such as Richard Henry Lee, quickly got to work in sending out the resolves to the other colonies. You nicely note what happened in Newport and its impact on the legislature there. Elsewhere, all seven were printed by the Boston Gazette (on July 1) and the Maryland Gazette (on July 7), giving the same false impression that Virginia's actions were more radical than in fact they had been. In Massachusetts Bay, Sir Francis Bernard at the time wrote that Henry's resolves sounded "an alarm bell to the disaffected."

Later, after he retired, Henry found a copy of the original among his papers and wrote his own account of the event on the obverse, along with his vision for America's future, on the obverse.