All America Looks Up to Virginia;” Virginia and the Declaration of Independence

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Outbreak of hostilities On April 19, 1775 two small engagements took place between British regulars and American militia outside of Boston, Massachusetts. The skirmishes at Lexington and Concord are remembered as the beginning of military hostilities in American Revolution. Some 450 miles to the south, in Williamsburg, Virginia, a third episode had occurred earlier that night, when the colony’s royal governor, John Murray, Lord Dunmore, ordered British marines to seize the colony’s gunpowder supply from the town’s arsenal. This action was the governor’s response to the Second Virginia Convention’s vote to organize the colony’s militia.

It was not a coincidence that fighting at Lexington and Concord and the seizure of powder by Virginia’s royal governor occurred on the same night. Both actions aimed to seize gunpowder and weapons from the growing liberal or “radical” factions in the two colonies. On April 24 news of the fighting in Massachusetts reached Philadelphia. When word of the hostilities reached Virginia, many became enraged that British authorities had deliberately tried to use shows of force to intimidate radicals in the two most radical colonies. “This accident has cut off our last hope of reconciliation,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “and a frenzy of revenge seems to have seized all ranks of people. …This may perhaps be intended to intimidate us into acquiescence; but the effect has been most unfortunately otherwise.”


Second Continental Congress (May-June 1775) On May 8 news of an American military disaster at Quebec, Canada reached the delegates waiting for the Second Continental Congress to begin. American forces had attacked Quebec in a blinding snowstorm on the last night of the year, just before enlistments of most of the men were to end. However, the attack had been defeated when British defenders received word from a deserter of the impending attack. The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10 to face a resistance movement already in motion. Virginia’s Peyton Randolph was again elected president, and after handling several necessary organizational details, Congress went into secret session “to take into consideration the State of America.” The discussion centered on recent events in Massachusetts and Canada: how should congress respond to military events? Thousands of New England militiamen had responded to the British incursion into the Massachusetts countryside, but there was no effective command structure and the colony could not manage the logistical issues involved in supporting the growing force outside Boston. On June 2 Massachusetts requested that Congress assume control of its militia, and the following day a resolution was passed which allowed Congress to take control of the “army.”

Eight Virginians - Benjamin Harrison, George Washington, George Wythe, Carter Braxton, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Thomas Jefferson - soon found themselves at the storm center of the explosive debate engulfing their province and the rest of the American colonies. They were entering a war against the most powerful nation in the world without having established their own nation. The colonies had no government, no army, no allies, and no justification to the world for seeking a place as an independent nation. Virginia and its delegation in Philadelphia would play major roles in addressing the obstacles to independence.

Benjamin Harrison Born on Berkeley plantation, Charles City County, in 1726, Harrison came from one of the most prominent and wealthy families in Virginia. He was educated at The College of William & Mary where he studied classics. Harrison entered the House of Burgesses in 1749 at age twenty-three. He opposed the Proclamation of 1763 and was placed on the committee that drew up Virginia’s formal protest to it.

Harrison was a huge man, six foot three inches tall, and weighing somewhere between 250-300 pounds. He was brother-in-law to George Washington and cousin to Peyton Randolph and Richard Henry Lee. He excelled in committee work, was quick verbally, and stood firm after reaching a decision. Harrison preferred not to speak or write publicly, but he could do so adequately when pressured. He was adept in debate, but also knew how to use humor to diffuse a tense situation. Like fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee, Harrison believed that religion was essential to society.

Originally a moderate in his political views, Harrison had at one time feared the consequences of democratic “mob rule.” In 1774 he had been confident that things could still be worked out with Britain, but the following year his stance shifted when he became more fully apprised of the deteriorating political situation. Understanding the necessity of maintaining a unified front in the dispute with Britain, Harrison actively supported the American Revolution before leaving Congress. He was chairman of the Committee of the Whole at the Second Continental Congress, presiding over its most secret debates, including the debate on independence. He also served on numerous committees dealing with naval, military, and foreign affairs. Harrison was chairman of the Board of War, chairman of the Committee of Foreign Affairs until a bureau with a secretary was established, chairman of the committee on Marine Affairs (which included regulation of the navy) and chairman of the Canada expedition committee. He was also part of a committee that travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss supplies for the Continental Army; he was sent by Congress to meet with Maryland authorities to discuss a plan for defending the Chesapeake Bay; he also travelled to New York to help plan the defense of New York City and select sites for forts on the East and Hudson Rivers.

Benjamin Harrison was especially active in the debate on the Articles of Confederation. John Adams later noted that Harrison’s contributions and “many pleasantries” steadied many rough sessions in Congress.

George Washington Born in 1732, Washington attended local schools in Westmoreland County and as a very young man engaged in land surveying. Tall, red-haired, and blue-eyed, Washington was a superb rider and excellent dancer. Quiet, self-assured, with restrained physique, he looked younger than he actually was. Washington never sought popularity.

In 1752 he was appointed major in the Virginia militia. In November 1753 he was dispatched by Governor Robert Dinwiddie to carry messages to the French in the Ohio Valley. The following year Washington was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and served in the French and Indian War. In July 1755 he escaped unscathed from General Edward Braddock’s disastrous defeat in western Pennsylvania. During the war he commanded the 1st Virginia Regiment and managed the defense of the colony’s frontier before retiring from active service in December 1758. That same year Washington entered the House of Burgesses.

In 1769 Washington displayed a radical outlook for the first time, taking the lead in calling for Virginia to close its ports. He visited his neighbor George Mason and developed plans for a boycott. Washington understood the importance of presenting a unified front to Parliament. A member of the First and Second Continental Congresses, he would be named commander-in-chief of the American army June 15, 1775, a position he would hold until the end of the Revolution.

George Wythe Privately instructed by his mother and educated at the College of William & Mary, George Wythe began practicing law in Virginia in 1746. He entered the House of Burgesses in 1758 at the age of thirty-two. Wythe possessed a strong sense of history. He studied the classics until he was fifty, and in later years would be remembered as “the walking library.” Courteous and witty with his friends, Wythe was not an eloquent speaker. His most forceful weapons were his clear logical mind and his comprehensive knowledge of law. Wythe was considered one of the best lawyers in the colony. In the courtroom he was open and direct, but could be sarcastic when the situation warranted it. In 1758, 1763, and 1773 he served as legal counsel for George Washington in the latter’s real estate ventures.

Learning of Parliament’s plan to tax the colonies, Wythe showed revolutionary leanings early on. He was one of the first men in Virginia to express the idea of separate nationhood within the British empire. He was one of the first delegates in the Second Continental Congress to call for the establishment of an American navy. He became very good friends with John Adams and Sam Adams. From the beginning there was no equivocating with Georg Wythe: he saw independence as the only desirable course of action. His role in pushing for independence is vastly underestimated. Along with John Adams and Richard Henry Lee, Wythe was one of the most outspoken advocates of independence at the Second Continental Congress.

Carter Braxton Born at Newington plantation on the Mattaponi River near King and Queen County Courthouse in 1736, Braxton graduated from The College of William & Mary and went on to attend Cambridge University, England, for three years. Entering the House of Burgesses in 1761, Braxton became an important figure in King William County politics. One of the richest men in Virginia, his political life was influenced and overshadowed by business interests.

Named delegate to fill the vacancy in Philadelphia caused by the death of Peyton Randolph in October 1775, Braxton would sit in the Second Continental Congress from February to August 1776. While in Philadelphia his plantation home burned to the ground, and Braxton was forced to move his family to West Point at the confluence of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers. Braxton was the most conservative member of Virginia’s delegation and the most reluctant signer of the Declaration of Independence. He suffered severe financial losses during the war and ended his life in poverty, his fortune affected by questionable business decisions.

Richard Henry Lee Born in 1732 at Stratford Hall plantation in Westmoreland County, Richard Henry Lee received private education at Wakefield Academy, England for seven years. Upon his return to Virginia he became a successful planter and politician. In 1757 he was chosen justice of the peace for Westmoreland County and the following year became a Virginia burgess. Lee was one of the colony’s first revolutionaries, openly speaking of independence as early as the mid 1760s.

Over six feet in height and graceful in his movements, Lee was by nature confrontational. He seemed bred for political life and was a lightning rod for controversy. He possessed a musical voice, good cadence, and was very polished. He tended to lean forward whenever he spoke and was always brief and to the point. Lee was considered second only to Patrick Henry in his oratorical skills. In public Lee kept his hand wrapped in black silk handkerchief to hide the loss of two fingers from a swan hunting accident and used the handkerchief to gesture when he rose to speak. “His mind,” remembered Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush, “was like a sword too large for its scabbard.”

In May 1773 Richard Henry Lee proposed that intercolonial committees of correspondence be established. Later as a member of the First and Second Continental Congress, Lee prepared some of the most important papers of the Revolutionary era. In 1775 he authored an address to the people of Great Britain which carried America’s final petition to George III. On June 7, 1776 after redrafting and condensing instructions from the Fifth Virginia Convention, Lee presented the motion for independence to the Second Continental Congress. He would later sign the Declaration. In October 1777 Lee authored the first national Thanksgiving Day proclamation issued by an American Congress.

Thomas Nelson, Jr. of Yorktown was the son of one of the richest merchants in Virginia. Educated at a private school near London and later Trinity College, Cambridge University in England, Nelson returned to Virginia in 1761 and entered the family’s business. In 1764 Nelson become justice of the peace for York County and entered the House of Burgesses.

In 1774 Nelson was chosen by the voters of York County represent them at the First Virginia Convention. He was a member of the Virginia conventions in 1775 where he undertook the establishment of the Virginia Militia. Nelson strongly Patrick Henry’s resolution to arm, declaring that he would do everything he could to support the measure. He worked closely with Henry and continued to be outspoken in his desire for independence from Britain. The following year he helped create the Virginia militia and was commissioned as its initial commander.

Nelson was later elected to represent Virginia at the Second Continental Congress. There he worked on committees that oversaw the treasury and drew up the Articles of Confederation. In 1777 Nelson began experiencing health problems and was forced to retire from active public life. He later resumed his military career, serving as General of the Lower Virginia Militia when British forces initiated an aggressive military campaign against the southern colonies. He would go on to command the state’s military forces until his resignation for ill health after the decisive Yorktown campaign in 1781.

Francis Lightfoot Lee was the least political member of a wealthy, often aggressive family. Born in 1734 at Stratford Hall plantation in Westmoreland, “Frank” Lee was the younger brother of Richard Henry Lee. He was educated at home by a family tutor. He was a lifelong avid reader and thinker with particular interests in science and literature. But he disliked politics, insisting that it was “damned dirty work.”

In 1765 Francis Lightfoot Lee joined his brother and Patrick Henry in public opposition to the Stamp Act. As a member of the House of Burgesses and the Virginia Conventions, he joined other liberals/radicals in writing letters urging colonial unity against Great Britain. Lee was not flamboyant or boisterous but a “steady” gentleman. “I thought he possessed a more accurate and correct mind than his brother, Richard,” remembered a member of the Continental Congress. “I never knew him wrong eventually upon question. He often opposed his brother’s vote, but never actively spoke on the floor of Congress.”

A good listener he preferred backroom strategy rather than the larger, more public forum of public debate. He never suffered anxiety about the course he would take in the decision for independence. “Let us, my dear friend,” he wrote an acquaintance, “do the best we can for the good of our country, and leave the rest to fate.” Lee served on military and marine committees in the Continental Congress and signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.

Thomas Jefferson Tall, freckled, sandy-haired, with prominent cheekbones and chin, Jefferson possessed an education that rivaled the finest in Europe. Born at Shadwell in present-day Albemarle County, he attended a preparatory school and later graduated from William & Mary where he studied law. He practiced law for eight years but preferred politics and public life. In 1764 Jefferson inherited a 1900 acre estate, became a vestryman and justice of the peace in Albemarle County. In 1769 he was elected to the House of Burgesses at the age of twenty-six and named to Virginia’s first committee of correspondence. In 1775 while a member of the Second Virginia Convention in Richmond, Thomas Jefferson was selected an alternate to the Second Continental Congress.


George Washington commissioned to command the Continental Army (June 19, 1775) Washington’s role in the French and Indian War made him the most well-known military figure in the colonies in 1775. His five years of service in the French and Indian War (1755-1763) along the Pennsylvania-Maryland-Virginia frontier garnered Washington a military reputation. Between 1753 and 1758, Washington acquired military skills as an aide to Major General Edward Braddock and later as colonel of Virginia forces participating in British military operations. Washington further developed an understanding of logistics, tactics, and strategy, when he was promoted to overall commander of Virginia’s colonial forces by Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie and assigned the impossible task of defending a 250-300 mile long frontier against Indian depredations.

At first Washington held out hope for reconciliation with Britain but rapidly lost faith. It was Washington who had presented the initial proposal in 1769 to institute a colony-wide boycott of British goods. He became more outspoken after Virginia’s governor Dunmore began shutting down the House of Burgesses. Washington called Parliament’s plan to tax the colonies a “Tyrannical System…a regular Plan at the expense of Law & Justice, to overthrow our Constitutional Rights & Liberties.” He was a member of the twenty-five man group that met at Peyton Randolph’s house in Williamsburg and formulated plans for a colony-wide boycott. In June 1774 he wrote to his friend and neighbor William Fairfax: “Does it not appear as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness, that there is a regular, systematic plan formed to fix the right and practice of taxation upon us?”

As the clouds of war gathered, those few with knowledge of military affairs assumed a greater role in Congress, and Washington found himself serving on four congressional committees. His initial committee assignment was for the development of a plan for the defense of the colony of New York. A second was charged with figuring out how much it would cost to defend Massachusetts. A third was assigned the task of finding money to purchase gunpowder. Washington chaired a fourth committee to come up with plans for securing ammunition and military stores. In committee work Washington demonstrated good judgment and a firm understanding of military affairs. “His great experience,” wrote John Adams “is of much service to us.”

It was clear that Washington sought an important role in the upcoming confrontation with Britain. Before leaving Philadelphia the previous year, he had placed an order for Thomas Webb’s, A Military Treatise on the Appointments of the Army.

When he returned to Philadelphia in 1775 Washington brought with him his Virginia militia colonel’s uniform. On May 29 he conspicuously wore it in Congress. On Wednesday June 14, after a long drawn out discussion, John Adams nominated Washington to command American military forces gathering near Boston. Initially there was some opposition to Washington’s nomination. One member of the Virginia delegation, Edmund Pendleton, pointed out that naming Washington commander of the American army would commit Virginia to a radical course, and possibly a war for independence.

On June 15 Washington was “unanimously” chosen commander-in-chief of American forces. “You shall take every method in your power,” Congress instructed him on June 19, “consistent with your prudence, to destroy or make prisoners of all persons who are now, or who hereafter appear in arms against the good people of the United States.” Politics were behind the appointment and Washington was fully aware of this. New England radicals knew full well that the southern colonies would follow Virginia’s lead.

Washington also understood the difficulty of the task ahead of him. In his acceptance remarks the following day, he made it clear that he did not believe himself equal to the task. On June 18 Washington wrote his wife Martha: “It was utterly out of my power to refuse this appointment, without exposing my character to censures, and would have reflected dishonor upon myself…” In accepting command of the Continental Army, Washington became the first American to pledge himself to the revolutionary cause, more than a year before Congress declared independence.

Other Virginians played significant roles in the Continental Congress in 1775. On September 26 Richard Henry Lee offered a proposal that Congress adopt a non-importation agreement against England. In mid-October Benjamin Harrison and two other congressmen held secret discussions with General Washington in New York to discuss strategy for defense and to develop plans for supplying the Continental Army. Thomas Jefferson was assigned to committees dealing with currency, congressional business, and the handling disputes and petitions. George Wythe, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Nelson were engaged in the task fitting out American ships for war.


Third Virginia Convention (July 17-August 26, 1775) In mid-June Governor Dunmore fled Williamsburg for the security of a British warship on the York River. Dunmore could not be induced to return, and it became clear that there could be no reconciliation between him and the House of Burgesses. On July 17 the Third Virginia Convention assembled in Richmond and again chose Peyton Randolph to preside over deliberations. With Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson out of the colony, Edmund Pendleton played the lead role at the Convention.

The convention denounced the actions that Governor Dunmore had taken against Virginia, including disbanding the assembly and mobilizing troops. At this point the convention became the governing force of Virginia: the delegates enacted legislation and established a Committee of Safety to oversee military activities.

An ordinance was passed for the election of delegates to return to Philadelphia and for the election of men to serve on committees. Armed resistance now appeared to be the Virginia’s lone recourse, and the Convention moved quickly to assume the reins of the colony’s government. It voted to place Virginia in a more thorough state of defense and ordered that two regiments of regular troops be raised. It created a Committee of Safety with broad executive powers, including authority to purchase arms and munitions of war. It also divided Virginia into sixteen military districts. The Convention then proceeded to select a replacement for George Washington, whose seat in the Second Continental Congress had been vacated on June 19 when he accepted command of the Continental Army.

On August 5 the Convention elected Richard Bland, Peyton Randolph, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, George Wythe, and Thomas Nelson, Jr. to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress. Nelson, however, had recently accepted command of the new 2nd Virginia Regiment and notified the Convention that he could not in good conscience resign his military appointment so soon after receiving it. This created an open seat in the delegation, and the question of who would fill it sparked a political showdown between the liberals and conservatives.

The liberals turned their attention to George Mason. Mason, who had no interest in traveling to Philadelphia for an extended period of time, spoke of his gout and his wife’s illness in declining the nomination. He then threw his support to Francis Lightfoot Lee, the younger brother of Richard Henry Lee. The conservatives countered with Carter Braxton, a staunch supporter of the James River clique. Braxton, like many in the conservative old guard, favored reconciliation with Britain. Each side realized that victory in the Lee-Braxton contest would give it control of Virginia’s congressional delegation to the Second Continental Congress, and neither could forecast the outcome.

It was a razor thin victory for the liberals whose man Francis Lightfoot Lee defeated Carter Braxton by a single vote. This was a critical setback for the conservatives and marked a major shift in political momentum in Virginia. When the Congress reconvened in Philadelphia, the colony’s new seven-man delegation would take with it four “independency” men – Wythe, Jefferson, and the two Lees.

At least seven plans for a new government were submitted to the Virginia Committee of Safety during the summer of 1775. Included were proposals from George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Carter Braxton. Jefferson’s plan arrived too late from Philadelphia to receive consideration.

Braxton’s blueprint Address to the Convention of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia…By a Native of the Colony was by far the most conservative and controversial plan. It proposed a lower house of representatives, an upper house or council that would serve for life and a chief executive chosen by the house. Braxton’s plan called for the creation of a powerful council or upper house to avoid “the tumult of a democracy.” The governor would remain in office during as long as he adhered to the law, and he would have appointment power for most of Virginia’s political offices. Braxton’s form of government envisioned a Virginia constitution modeled after Great Britain’s. It would maintain the power of the privileged class and would limit the effects of a democratic republic, which Braxton saw as “mere creations of warm imaginations.”

The plan was unpopular and brought Braxton ridicule and condemnation from the radical side. He endured a rash onslaught of personal attacks and public criticism. In a letter to Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry lambasted Braxton’s plan, denouncing it as “weak, shallow, evasive, and an affront and disgrace to the country.” One newspaper anonymously labeled it simply “A Government Scheme.”

The most popular proposal was a collaborative effort by Richard Henry Lee and John Adams. They had been discussing the possibility of independence since November 1775. For Lee the key question to be answered dealt with a form of government that could most readily be adopted by a colony in an emergency. Adams pointed out to Lee that Virginia had already answered this question by establishing Conventions and a Committee of Safety that took over for royal government when it ceased to function in the colony. Adams also told Lee that it would take minimal effort to convert these emergency governments into permanent political institutions. Lee was impressed with Adams’s line of reasoning and asked his friend to write out his suggestions. In April 1776 this plan, entitled Thoughts on Government, appeared in print. It was well received in Virginia because it allowed for a declaration of independence and the preservation of the form of government to which they were accustomed. It provided for a bicameral legislature and an independent executive and judiciary.


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