The American Revolution was fought over a fundamental issue of authority. Where does the consent of the governed lie, and who is entitled to rule? By 1775 most Virginians doubted the legitimacy of centralized power exercised from afar. It was alien to their own long experience. Constitutional quarrels, however, seldom arise from purely theoretical concerns about the distribution of power. There must be specific grievances.
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After 1763 Great Britain underestimated the economic and political maturity of the American colonies. Our national mythology would have us believe that Americans were a wilderness David facing a cosmopolitan British Goliath. True, the colonies had no organized forces of resistance—because they still identified themselves as loyal British subjects—but the colonies already had the highest standard of living in the world, higher than that of England itself. And the American colonists already had more freedom than the king's subjects in the mother country.
Nonetheless, Great Britain's attempt to compel the colonies to pay part of the cost of their defense in the Seven Years' War inaugurated a series of escalating quarrels. The colonies argued that taxes could be levied on free men only through their legislatures, by which they meant their local assemblies. The government in London argued that Parliament was the legislature of the whole empire. A pamphlet war ensued in which the respective powers of these bodies was argued. The political consensus broke down irrevocably, however, when the colonies maintained that their provincial assemblies were their only legislatures, not Parliament in London at all. They would remain nominal British subjects only if Great Britain relinquished power over them in fact. This was unacceptable to the British. After all, they reasoned, if colonies did not benefit the Mother Country, why have them at all?
Virginia declared itself independent on May 15, 1776, and three weeks later Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution of national independence at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Once enacted, a document announcing the fact to the world was deemed appropriate. Congress entrusted this work to a committee, which in turn asked Thomas Jefferson to prepare a draft. The resulting Declaration of Independence reflected the duality of the American Revolution as an anti-colonial struggle for independence and a revolution in thinking about the nature of government—a revolution in thought that arose from the circumstances of the colonies' own development since 1607.
As a propaganda document, the Declaration indicted the king rather than Parliament for the separation because it was easier to stir up hatred against an individual than an institution. But people do not remember the Declaration for its specious bill of indictment against George III as a tyrant. Rather, they remember it for making "the pursuit of happiness" by ordinary people the chief object of government, for vesting sovereignty in the people rather than in kings, and for asserting that all men were created equal, which reversed thousands of years of class presumptions. Although it meant white men, even that was revolutionary for 1776, and the new nation's founding on principles of liberty and equality eventually doomed conditions that oppressed women and blacks.
Americans quite naturally view the Revolutionary War from their own perspective, but from the British viewpoint it was their equivalent of our Vietnam War. There were British hawks and doves (though they did not use that terminology). The war's morality was questioned. Rebel leaders were reviled in some quarters and revered in others. Whig politicos who wore the buff-and-blue of Washington's army resembled our Hollywood stars praising Ho Chi Minh. There was a domino theory that Ireland and the West Indies would follow America.
And after six years of fighting, however, public opinion finally concluded that the war was unwinnable. France's joining the Americans in 1778 tipped the scales. Both countries contributed to the decisive event that changed British public opinion—the siege of Yorktown. The French fleet sealed Chesapeake Bay, preventing the British from resupply, reinforcement, or escape. Otherwise, they would have just sailed away from Washington's besieging forces. But because of this remarkable collaboration—unprecedented in the eighteenth century because of the difficulty of communicating with a fleet at sea—Lord Cornwallis's whole command surrendered. The British Prime Minister took the news "as he would have a [musket] ball in the breast" and moaned "Oh God, it is all over, it is all over."
The first president, chosen unanimously by the Electoral College, was George Washington. At his death, "Light-Horse Harry" Lee—Robert E. Lee's father—extolled him as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." As to the first, Washington lost as many battles as he won during the Revolutionary War. He was not a tactician or strategist of the first rank. But he was "first in war" because, by his personal character, he kept the Continental Army together for eight years until victory was achieved. Washington was "first in peace" because his endorsement of the Constitution helped secure its adoption and ratification (in Virginia by a vote of 89 to 79), and his tenure as the first president set the republic on a sound foundation. He was "first in the hearts of his countrymen" because he used power for the public good and relinquished it voluntarily. George III himself said that if Washington gave up the lifetime of power that was his for the taking he would be "the greatest man in the world."
Although Virginia's leaders determined the character of the infant republic more than any other people, not everything developed as these founding fathers hoped. The Revolution's egalitarian rhetoric had the largely unintended consequence of discrediting almost all ideas of dependence, hierarchy, and that deference that the Virginia gentry was accustomed to receiving since Governor Berkeley's time in the 1600s. Henceforth, money would be the principal determinant of status.
Thomas Jefferson's election as president in the "Revolution of 1800," overthrowing the conservative, centralizing Federalist party, seemed to augur well for what most Virginians favored—liberal, limited, and cheap government in a physically expanding nation. But, by the time of Jefferson's death—portentously on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day—raucous democracy was replacing genteel republicanism. Public spiritedness—Jefferson called it virtue—was giving way to narrow individualism and materialism. And the Virginia Dynasty was about to be displaced by a succession of "log cabin" presidents.
Moreover, Jefferson predicted that within twenty years every young man would be a unitarian, that is, one who perhaps believed in God but certainly not in the divinity of Jesus. To his surprise and dismay, however, evangelical Christianity swept the nation in the early 1800s and became the core culture of Virginia and the United States for the next century.
If not all of Jefferson's dreams were fulfilled, what of the hopes and aspirations of African Virginians? Jefferson did not intend his rhetoric about liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence to apply to them, but they heard it nonetheless. Like whites, they were divided by the Revolution, unsure of the path to freedom.
In November 1775 royal governor Lord Dunmore had proclaimed the freedom of any slave who would leave his master to fight for the king. Thousands did, and white Virginians were appalled. When British forces moved into Virginia in 1780, seventeen of George Washington's slaves—10 percent of the total—fled to British lines. A smaller number of blacks served with the American forces. In 1789 the Virginia legislature freed Caesar, a slave of the Tarrant family who had piloted the Patriot, a Virginia vessel on which other black seamen also served. For his services as a spy and guide, Saul Matthews was praised by such generals as baron von Steuben and Nathanael Greene.
Some blacks decided to act on their own. In 1800 and 1802 they planned rebellions but were betrayed by informers. Gabriel, a slave belonging to Thomas Prosser of Henrico County, led the revolt in 1800. On trial, one of Gabriel's co-conspirators argued that "I have nothing to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial. I have adventured my life in endeavoring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause." Gabriel had been owned by a friend of Patrick Henry, whose famous words the slave rebels intended to invert and put on a banner—"Death or Liberty." In 1831 Nat Turner organized another slave revolt, symbolically scheduled for July 4, in which between 55 and 60 whites were killed.
American women, too, hoped to gain freedom from the Revolution. During the war Hannah Lee Corbin complained that she was a victim of taxation without representation. She wanted to vote. Her brother Richard Henry Lee was sympathetic, but most Virginia men thought the idea preposterous. Only very gradually did the Revolution's expansion of the idea of freedom uplift the status of women.
One gesture was taken in the 1780s, when Virginians were granted the right to divorce, although until 1827 it required legislative action. Some free women benefitted from the concept of "republican womanhood," the idea that in the new republic "surely the Mothers of free men from whom the Infant mind receives its first and most lasting impressions should not be left to pine in ignorance." Schools for young white women blossomed all over Virginia. These were not finishing schools. Curricula included ancient and modern languages, moral and natural philosophy, science, and literature. Their goal was neither careers for women nor their participation in the public arena. They had to combat the attitude of men such as William Wirt, who held that "the ostentatious display of intellect in a young lady is revolting." Nevertheless, they did establish the social acceptability of the formally educated woman in Virginia, and once that idea was accepted, the prospects for future change were incalculable.
The Church of England in Virginia was "low church," much lower than today. To some it seemed dry and lifeless. A longing for more emotional religion than Anglicanism then offered led to increased numbers, first of Presbyterians, then of Methodists and Baptists. Although most Anglicans in Virginia supported the Revolution, the state deprived the church of tax revenue in 1776, formally disestablished it in 1786, and disendowed its lands in 1802. From near extinction it took the name Protestant Episcopal Church in 1789 and gradually revived. Thereafter, its influence always was greater than its numbers.
The principle of religious freedom affirmed in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, and the policy set forth in the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, constituted the most radical result of the American Revolution. Virginia had articulated the most sweeping support for freedom of conscience ever made by a government in the history of the world. James Madison got the statute passed, in preference to one favored by Patrick Henry and George Washington that would have distributed tax revenue among the Christian denominations. Then Madison was instrumental in getting his policy into the "First Amendment," that is, the first of ten amendments to the United States Constitution collectively known as the Bill of Rights.
In this video, VHS Manager of Educational Services Bill Obrochta examines the life of George Washington through paintings on display in the "Becoming Americans" gallery.
In this video VHS Vice President for Collections E. Lee Shepard discusses George Washington's 1749 survey.
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