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CW Journal : Autumn 02 : The Model of an American Whig

“The Model of an American Whig”

by Harold B. Gill Jr.

The public or political character of the Virginians, corresponds with their private one: they are haughty and jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint, and can scarcely bear the thought of being controuled by any superior. Many of them consider the colonies as independent states, not connected with Great Britain, otherwise than by having the same common king, and being bound to her with natural affection.

So wrote the Vicar of Greenwich, the Reverend Andrew Burnaby, of a visit from England to the Old Dominion in 1759. Many Virginians would have endorsed his assessment—Virginians like Richard Bland, attorney, scholar, historian, rhetorician, and public servant, and the first person to publicly propound the belief that the colonies were attached to England only by allegiance to the throne. The foremost authority on Virginia’s past, Bland believed the early charters granted the colony self-government and an undivided right to levy taxes on itself. Arguing his case in newspapers and pamphlets, he was an early advocate of what many came to view as federalism, or dual sovereignty.

Young Thomas Jefferson, portrayed at left by Rob Warren, turned to Richard Bland, interpreted by Don Kline, for counsel and advice. Jefferson's views on the relationship of the American colonies to England reflected Bland's.

Young Thomas Jefferson, portrayed at left by Rob Warren, turned to Richard Bland, interpreted by Don Kline, for counsel and advice. Jefferson’s views on the relationship of the American colonies to England reflected Bland’s.

The modern historian Bernard Bailyn said Bland was “one of the ablest belletrists of eighteenth-century America,” and Bailyn’s colleague Clinton Rossiter described him as “the very model of an American Whig.”

Bland was born in 1710 to Richard and Elizabeth Bland of Jordan’s Point in Prince George County. His parents died in 1720, and the boy was reared by his mother’s relatives, the Randolphs of Turkey Island. After graduating from the College of William and Mary, he was appointed a Prince George County justice of the peace and a vestryman. He studied law, apparently on his own, and qualified to practice before the General Court. In 1742 his neighbors elected him their representative in the House of Burgesses, a seat he occupied for thirty-four years.

He was a veteran of most of the eighteenth-century Virginia controversies, most the result of interference in local matters by the governor, the king, or Parliament. Like other burgesses, he maintained locally elected lawmakers alone should have charge of the colony’s internal affairs. Bland believed his first loyalty was to Virginia and his second to the British Empire.

His political philosophy anticipated the British Commonwealth of Nations, and he was in other ways ahead of his time: he championed freedom of religion and proposed some legal rights for slaves. His knowledge of legislative history and his pen put him on important committees drafting bills and resolutions. He served in all five of Virginia’s Revolutionary Conventions and on the Virginia Committee of Safety and was elected to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He won, but declined, a third term in Congress because, he said, he was “almost deprived of sight” and because of his advanced age.

Bland’s writings reflect the development, refined by study and service, of his ideas on the colonies’ relationship to the Mother Country. Besides letters to Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette, he probably wrote at least seven pamphlets. Just a fragment remains of his Modest and True State of the Case, published in 1753. Fully extant are 1764’s Letter to the Clergy of Virginia and The Colonel Dismounted, as well as An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies, published in 1766. The rest are lost. His wide-ranging reading shows in the authorities he cites: Tacitus, William Petyt, Robert Brady, John Locke, Richard Hakluyt, Edward Coke, and Samuel Squire, among others, and ancient English statutes. Bland quotes poems by Milton and Pope. Thomas Jefferson so valued Bland’s library and collection of manuscripts that he acquired them for Monticello from Bland’s estate.

Connecticut’s Silas Deane met Bland in 1775, when they sat in Congress, and described him as “a plain sensible Man, deeply studied into, and acquainted with the Antiquities of Virginia, & of this Continent in General.” In 1769, Jefferson said he was “one of the oldest, ablest, and most respected members” of the House of Burgesses and “the most learned and logical” man of his generation. Five years later, another colleague thought him “a very old experienced veteran of the Senate or the Bar—staunch and tough as Whitleather.”

On October 29, 1776, as America began to enforce by arms the political principles Bland did so much to promote, he collapsed on the Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg. He died later that day in the sixty-sixth year of his life at the home of John Tazewell, the speaker of the House of Delegates. He was buried at his family home, Jordan’s Point, in Prince George County.

Bland, represented center by Don Kline, collapsed on a Williamsburg street and died the same day. Interpreters Linwood Tyson, left, and Christen Spivey, portray passersby. The stricken man was taken to Tazewell Hall.

The fight over the Pistole Fee had brought Bland to the forefront as a champion of Virginia’s rights within the Empire. It started in 1752 when Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie required payment of a pistole—a coin valued at slightly over £1 sterling—for signing any land patent. The money was to be part of his pay. The signature of Virginia’s governors had always been required, but none had before proposed compensation.

The burgesses were outraged at this “Extraordinary Fee” and insisted the governor “acquaint us with the Authority that impowers You to demand” it. In taverns and on the streets, Virginians took up a slogan: “Liberty, Property, and No Pistole.” Dinwiddie said the pistole was his prerogative as the king’s representative and consistent with his royal instructions. Besides, he said, such a fee was charged for land patents in every other British American colony.

Bland said that if it were so, the other governors were violating the British constitution because it was a tax on the people without the consent of their elected representatives. Virginia’s burgesses believed it was “an infringement on the Rights of the People” and that no tax or fee was legal unless enacted by the General Assembly. Bland wrote: “The Rights of the Subjects are so secured by Law that they cannot be deprived of the least part of their property without their consent.” Dinwiddie said the fee was trivial, but Bland saw that the principle was not. He wrote that “the same power which imposes one Pistole may impose an Hundred, and this not in one instance only but in every case in which this Leviathan of Power shall think fit to exercise its authority.”

Dinwiddie said his fee was legal as “a Matter relative to the administration of Gov’t” and the burgesses had nothing to do with it. The burgesses appealed to the crown and sent Williamsburg’s Peyton Randolph, the colony’s attorney general, to argue their case before the Privy Council in London. Dinwiddie said the colonists were “much inflam’d . . . with republican Principles” and wondered if Virginians were becoming a threat to royal authority because they too long had been allowed to go their own way.

The Privy Council decided Dinwiddie had the power to collect the fee, but it compromised. It allowed the governor his pistole for grants of more than 100 acres, but not for grants west of the Allegheny Mountains. Most important, he was denied compensation for patents in process before April 22, 1752, when Dinwiddie first demanded the fee. That cost him more than £1,700.

The dispute was a warm-up for Richard Bland. Virginians were growing resentful of the home government’s interfering with and challenging the General Assembly’s control of domestic affairs.

In 1755 the drought ruined the colony’s tobacco crop—the backbone of the Old Dominion’s economy. Some debts, taxes, and levies were payable in tobacco, but the crop was so small, planters could not pay and asked for relief from the Assembly. The burgesses appointed Bland and his colleague Lemuel Riddick of Nansemond County to prepare a bill enabling Virginians to discharge those debts in cash. The measure, as adopted, set a rate of two pence per pound of tobacco. Intended to remedy the crisis, this Two Penny Act would be in force for ten months, by which time, the burgesses believed, the effects of the drought would have passed. But another predicament arose.

By law, the salary of Virginia’s clergy had been fixed at 16,000 pounds of tobacco per year since 1748. Because the scarcity of the crop forced prices up, their salaries would triple if they were paid in tobacco. Naturally the clergy protested against the Two Penny Act, but the law expired before any serious contention.

But in 1758 another siege of bad weather devastated Virginia’s tobacco crop. Bland said the harvest would be about 40 percent of normal, and he drafted another Two Penny bill to expire a year from the time the governor signed it. The burgesses passed the measure, and Governor Francis Fauquier, who that year succeeded Dinwiddie, reluctantly signed it.

Virginia’s laws required royal assent, and the governor’s instructions warned him not to pass bills that repealed acts the crown had approved. All such bills were to have a clause that suspended their enforcement until the king had agreed to them. Like the first Two Penny Act, this one, in effect, repealed the act setting the clergy’s salary in tobacco, an act the king had accepted. But a suspending clause would mean that it might be a year or more before the act had the royal blessing, and by then many planters would be ruined.

Tobacco prices had again tripled to six pence per pound. The clergy appealed to Fauquier to veto the bill, saying they would be denied their rightful salaries—three times more than usual. Fauquier said that it was “a temporary Law to ease the people from a Birthen which the Country thought too great for them to bear,” and a suspending clause “would have been to all Intents and purposes the same as rejecting it.”

Incensed, the clergy sent John Camm, minister of York-Hampton Parish to London to lobby for the law’s invalidation. With the aid of Thomas Sherlock, the bishop of London, Camm persuaded the Board of Trade that Fauquier had violated his instructions. The bishop suggested in a letter to the board that the Virginians intended “the diminution of the prerogative and influence of the Crown.” As one historian put it, Sherlock hinted that they had “acted treasonably.” On the board’s recommendation, the king disallowed Bland’s new Two Penny Act, and ordered Fauquier not to assent to any act that would expire in less than two years, and no act that repealed an earlier law without approval from London.

It was not a total loss for Virginia. When the Reverend James Maury sued in Hanover County Court for his back pay, the jury awarded him one penny. The case brought to prominence the young lawyer and orator Patrick Henry.

The controversy concerned more than ministers’ salaries. It centered on Virginia’s relationship with the Mother Country. Landon Carter, burgess from Richmond County, said that the bishop had “misconstrued every Thing into an Attack on the Royal Authority, and rung the Alarum-Bell of Treason.” He said that because the Two Penny Act was designed to meet an immediate crisis, it was not illegal but reflected the flexibility that every governor needed.

Richard Bland was buried at his family’s farm south of the James on Jordan’s Point. His grave is lost.

Bland wrote that the royal instructions to the governor “are nothing more than rules and orders laid down as guides and directions for the conduct of the governors. These may and certainly ought to be law to them, but never can be thought, consistently with the principles of the British constitution, to have the force and power of laws upon the people.”

The debate ended with Bland’s pamphlet The Colonel Dismounted or the Rector Vindicated in a Letter Addressed to His Reverence: Containing a Dissertation upon the Constitution of the Colony, published in Williamsburg in 1764. It was a classic satire. Richard Beale Davis wrote in his Intellectual Life in the Colonial South that Bland’s Colonel Dismounted “is the most effective and best written product of the controversy. It goes far beyond the others in its confrontation of the basic issues of the constitutionalism involved in the case.” Bland said that the colonists were Englishmen, that they did not give up their constitutional rights merely by migrating to the New World, and that no British parliament could deprive them of those rights. Two years before the Stamp Act crisis, Bland wrote that it was unconstitutional for Parliament to levy internal taxes on the colonies and that laws regulating the colonies’ internal policies required their consent. Since the colonies were not represented in the British Parliament, that body could not make laws affecting their internal affairs.

The Stamp Act Crisis gave Bland the opportunity to produce An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies. Jefferson thought the composition was “the first pamphlet on the nature of the connection with Great Britain which had any pretension to accuracy of view on that subject.”

Bland set out, in his words, “to examine, with an honest Plainness and Freedom, whether the Ministry, by imposing Taxes upon the Colonies by Authority of Parliament, have pursued a wise and salutary Plan of Government, or whether they have exerted pernicious and destructive Acts of Power.” He said the ancient laws of Britain, the “original Constitution” in the time of the Saxons, allowed all freeholders to vote for representatives to the “supreme Council of the Nation,” or Parliament. But the ancient laws revealed no precedent to determine the connection between the colonies and the mother country. All of the English colonies in North America, with the exception of Georgia and Nova Scotia, “were founded by Englishmen; who, becoming private Adventurers, established themselves, without any Expense to the Nation, in this uncultivated and almost uninhabited Country.” He said:

I have observed before that when Subjects are deprived of their civil Rights, or are dissatisfied with the place they hold in the Community, they have a natural Right to quit the Society of which they are Members, and to retire into another Country. Now when Men exercise this Right, and withdraw themselves from their Country, they recover their natural Freedom and Independence: The Jurisdiction and Sovereignty of the State they have quitted ceases; and if they unite, and by common Consent take Possession of a new Country, and form themselves into a political Society, they become a sovereign State, independent of the State from which they separated. If then the Subjects of England have a natural Right to relinquish their Country, and be retiring from it, and associating together, to form a new political Society and independent State, they must have a Right, by Compact with the Sovereign of the Nation, to remove to a new Country, and to form a civil Establishment upon the Terms of the Compact. In such a Case, the Terms of the Compact must be obligatory and binding upon the Parties; they must be the Magna Charta, the fundamental Principals of Government, to this new Society; and every Infringement of them must be wrong, and may be opposed. It will be necessary then to examine whether any such Compact was entered into between the Sovereign and those English Subjects who established themselves in America.

Bland said it was “a notorious Fact” that the colonies “were not settled by Fugitives from their native Country, but by Men who came over voluntarily, at their own Expense, and under Charters from the Crown,” charters granted by the king and not by Parliament. He noted that by the Articles of Surrender to the Commonwealth, Parliament agreed in 1652 that “Virginia shall be free from all Taxes, Customs, and Impositions whatsoever; and none shall be imposed on them without consent of the General Assembly; and that neither Forts nor Castles be erected, or Garrisons maintained, without their Consent.”

Bland recognized that with the Restoration in 1660, Virginia lost some of its freedom, but he said in An Inquiry that “the British Government itself, in every Instance of Parliamentary Legislation,” considered the colonists “as a distinct People. It has been determined by the Lords of the Privy Council that ‘Acts of Parliament made in England without naming the foreign Plantations will not bind them.’ Now, what can be the Reason of this Determination, but that the Lords of the Privy Council are of Opinion the Colonies are a distinct People from the Inhabitants of Britain, and are not represented in Parliament.”

The colonists, he said, had “as natural a Right to the liberties and Privileges of Englishmen, as if they were actually resident within the Kingdom.”

If then the People of this Colony are free born and have the Right to the Liberties and Privileges of English Subjects, they must necessarily have a legal Constitution, that is, a Legislature, composed, in Part, of the Representatives of the People, who may enact Laws for the Internal Government of the Colony, and suitable to its various Circumstances and Occasions; and without such a Representative, I am bold enough to say, no law can be made.

In The Colonel Dismounted, Bland said that “any Tax respecting our INTERNAL Polity, which may hereafter be imposed on us by Act of Parliament, is arbitrary, as depriving us of our Rights, and may be opposed.” He never explicitly advocated a complete break with the Mother Country, but as the constitutional crisis worsened, Bland joined the movement toward separation. Some historians say it was Bland who penned Virginia’s resolution for independence that Richard Henry Lee presented to the Continental Congress. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz wrote of Bland’s Inquiry, in their American Political Writing during the Founding Era, 1760–1805, “The pamphlet was . . . the earliest published defense of the colonial attitude toward taxation and laid out the argument to be adopted during the revolutionary era. Indeed, the final outcome of the pamphlet is to be found in the Declaration of Independence.”

Harold Gill, the journal’s consulting editor, contributed to the summer 2002 magazine “Taking the Cure: Colonial Spas, Springs, Baths and Fountains of Health.” Gill thanks Dr. George M. Curtis III of Indianapolis, Indiana, for his helpful suggestions on this article.