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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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Virginia Takes an Even Less Firm Stand Against the Stamp Act

None of Virginia’s established political leaders liked the Stamp Act. Gov. Francis Fauquier (shown here) had advised his superiors in London against it. John Robinson, speaker of the House of Burgesses, and Peyton Randolph, attorney general, had both protested the possibility.

But once Parliament did pass the Stamp Act in early 1765, those politicians felt that Virginia should be careful about defying it. Certainly more careful than rookie lawmaker Patrick Henry was in the debates on 29-30 May 1765.

Despite that powerful opposition, which also included the highly respected lawyer George Wythe, Henry won over the “young hot and giddy” members of the house. On 30 May 1765 they passed five bold resolutions insisting that only a Virginia legislature could tax Virginians. The fifth went so far as to say that a law like the Stamp Act “has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.”

Then Henry headed home, as most of the other burgesses already had. Gov. Fauquier and the other establishment figures seized the opportunity. The governor explained to London:
On Friday the 31st there having happened a small alteration in the House there was an attempt to strike all the Resolutions off the Journals. The 5th which was thought the most offensive was accordingly struck off, but it did not succeed as to the other four.
A letter printed in the London Gazetteer joked that “Resolves were passed one day, and erased the next.” Indeed, the official record of the House of Burgesses for 1765 doesn’t acknowledge the fifth of Henry’s resolutions. And none of the resolutions, even those that remained on the record, appeared in any of the Virginia Gazette newspapers then being published in the capital.

On 1 June, Gov. Fauquier dissolved the legislature to keep things under control. The House of Burgesses wouldn’t convene again for over a year.

The governor knew that opponents of the Stamp Act were fervent, but he hoped they had been contained. His report to London added:
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.
Those resolutions would eventually come out. I’ll get to them later this year.

It’s notable that Randolph and Wythe, who argued strenuously against all five resolutions, later became leading supporters of the Patriot movement. (Robinson and Fauquier died within three years.) They weren’t ready to be radical in 1765, but eventually Patrick Henry’s arguments became the norm.

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