Military history

CHAPTER 73

Acrimonious Postlude THE COLONIES AFTER REPEAL

1766

CELEBRATIONS ASIDE, the repeal of the Stamp Act brought little visible change to the colonies. During the winter and spring of 1766 the Sons of Liberty had served notice on judges and customsmen to and had done their best to see that merchants observed the nonimportation agreements but otherwise carried on as usual. Since business had been so bad anyway, the ships swinging idly at anchor and the unemployed sailors hunting for work marked the period of boycott as one different in degree, not in kind, from the preceding months. Beyond brief increases in local demand for alcohol and firecrackers, then, the news of repeal impinged little on economic life, and nonimportation ended without creating a surge in business activity. While official letters from Secretary Conway nourished hopes for the future by explaining that the ministry intended to liberalize trade within the empire, the merchants’ outlook remained dismal. The period of nonimportation had been too brief to clear shelves and warehouses glutted with British imports. With heavy debts to discharge and dull markets for their merchandise, most colonial traders continued to do what they had done before the crisis: dodge their creditors, press their debtors, and pray for better times.1 The most significant alterations to follow repeal therefore came not in the form of improved economic conditions, but rather in the exaggeration of internal political tensions. The provinces that showed the trend toward rancor and internal division most dramatically were the three that had led the way in protests and violence: Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia.

Open your Courts and let Justice prevail Open your Offices and let not Trade fail

IN MASSACHUSETTS, the signs that the crisis would leave a bitter legacy appeared before the word of repeal arrived and became unmistakable thereafter. The political balance in the Bay Colony had weighed in favor of the court party since William Shirley’s administration, though ever more delicately so after the writs of assistance controversy. The Stamp Act changed that forever by giving the country party the leverage it needed to dislodge the court’s majorities in the assembly and council. Rough as previous confrontations had been, none equaled the campaign that preceded the spring elections of 1766. Country politicians accused Thomas Hutchinson and Francis Bernard of conspiring with Grenville to destroy colonial rights and published a list of thirty-two members of the House of Representatives who had been “contrivers, promoters, and executioners of the Stamp Act.” For the first time in the history of the Bay Colony, an attempt to organize a province-wide political campaign actually worked. Nineteen of the thirty-two targeted members lost to candidates aligned with the country party, which immediately used its majority in the House of Representatives to choose James Otis as speaker and Samuel Adams as clerk, and to purge the Governor’s Council of Hutchinson and his allies, replacing them with country party stalwarts. “Thus the Triumph of Otis and his Party [is] compleat,” observed John Adams, in Boston to attend the Election Day ceremonies. “But what changes are yet to come? Will not the other Party soon be uppermost?”2

Governor Bernard did his best to tip the balance back into his favor by vetoing Otis as speaker and refusing to assent to the election of six councillors (including Otis’s father) whom he identified with the country party. But despite his vetoes and a “most nitrous, sulphureous Speech” to justify them, he would never make the court party uppermost again. The country party majority in the House of Representatives named one of Otis’s most prominent followers, Thomas Cushing, as speaker and got on with the business of opposition. Thereafter the country party behaved with greater discipline than any political bloc in Massachusetts in a quarter century; and that in turn opened a new era of frustration for a governor who had been a reasonably effective, if fussy, servant of the Crown.3

Bernard’s troubles began in earnest the very next day, when he received official notice of the repeal of the Stamp Act and with it Secretary Conway’s directive to secure compensation for the victims of the previous year’s riots—which was to say, principally, Thomas Hutchinson. The governor still had not regained control of his temper when he informed the House of Representatives that Parliament expected it to compensate “the late sufferers by the madness of the people,” using language so intemperate as to accuse the legislators of treasonous intentions. The new leaders of the House, determined to teach Bernard a lesson in majoritarian politics, refused to cooperate. Only at the end of the year— after delaying the governor’s salary grant to the last minute and including an amnesty for all rioters in the act that authorized compensation for Hutchinson—did the representatives conclude that Bernard had been sufficiently chastised. 4

Christmas Eve found Bernard sunk in gloom, writing a letter to the Southern secretary and complaining that “the demagogues who have got the lead, are determined to bring all real power into the hands of the people.” If they succeeded, he would be “reduced to the standard of a Rhode Island governor.” He did not intend to let that happen, he wrote; but for all his resolute words, Bernard also knew that he could no longer influence Bay Colony politics as he had when Thomas Hutchinson had commanded a legislative majority in his service. He probably did not understand the extent to which his troubles were of his own making.5

Besides preventing the half-dozen most offensive new councillors from taking their seats, Bernard had stripped those members of the House of Representatives whom he identified with the country party of the offices in the militia that he controlled as commander in chief. By summarily depriving local notables of the commissions that symbolized their status, he made permanent enemies of dozens of moderates—men Hutchinson had been cultivating, in some cases, for years. In 1758, for example, Hutchinson had seen to it that Artemas Ward, a freshman representative from Shrewsbury with military ambitions, got the lieutenant colonelcy he wanted. As Hutchinson later recalled, “I thought I could bring [him] over [to the court party] by giving him a commission in the Provincial forces.” For that same reason, he supported Ward’s appointment as colonel of a Worcester County militia regiment the following year. During the Stamp Act crisis, Ward had tried to remain aloof; but his presence on a legislative committee with Otis and Adams made the governor jump to the conclusion that Ward had become a country party man. In fact, he was merely ambivalent, but Bernard soon cured him of it. On July 7, 1766, the governor dispatched a uniformed messenger to Shrewsbury with the curt notice that he had “thought fit to supersede [Ward’s] commission of Colonel,” thereby publicly humiliating a man whom he had no reason to alienate and negating eight years of Hutchinson’s careful effort. Ward would henceforth, unsurprisingly, firmly support the country party. So, for that matter, would ex-Colonel Jerathmeel Bowers of Swansea, ex-Colonel Joseph Gerrish of Newbury, ex-Colonel Josiah Quincy of Braintree, and several other, similarly situated country gentlemen, whose loss of militia rank only confirmed their constituents’ suspicion that the governor was a petty tyrant. Otis and Adams could have found no more able recruiter for their political machine than Francis Bernard.6

To make matters worse, events of the summer convinced Bernard that the mobs and certain smuggling merchants, having tasted power the year before, were now determined to defy the laws of trade. If the scale was less massive than in 1765, Bernard worried over reports arriving from Maine in August that a Falmouth mob had besieged two customs officers with stones and clubs while a second crowd hustled away the sheriff and a third liberated contraband goods lately seized from a smuggler. Bernard was, if anything, more alarmed to find that no one would come forward when he offered a fifty-pound reward for information. Yet whatever worries he experienced on Falmouth’s account faded as Boston produced an even more outrageous incident.7

It began routinely on September 23 when an anonymous informer alerted customs officers that Daniel Malcolm, a sea captain, minor merchant, and smuggler, had stowed several casks of uncustomed wine in his cellar. The next day, armed with a writ, two customsmen and a deputy sheriff called on Captain Malcolm, who declined to grant them access to a locked storage room in his cellar. Since he declined with a pistol in each hand and a sword at his belt, the officers left to gather reinforcements. When they returned with the sheriff in tow, they found perhaps four hundred men and boys blocking the street in front of the captain’s house. The sheriff called on the crowd to disperse; the crowd waited for the sheriff to go home; the sun set; the writ expired; and Malcolm hauled out wine by the gallon to thank his supporters for their help. Soon the crowd dispersed, sloshing with the evidence. Bernard thought that James Otis was behind it all and furiously collected depositions to forward to London. The Boston town meeting (James Otis, moderator) demanded copies on grounds that unspecified parties had “Designs” to represent Boston “in a disadvantageous Light to his Majesty’s Ministers” as an excuse to ask for troops to enforce customs laws at bayonet-point. 8

The confrontation collapsed almost immediately under the weight of its own absurdity. Bernard could not prove that Malcolm had ever hidden contraband wine, and the town meeting merely sent its own version of the episode to the colony’s agent, to be used if the necessity arose. The Malcolm affair was, in this sense, just one more squall in Boston’s busy teapot. But in two other ways it was more significant. In the first place, Bernard’s conviction that Otis and his supporters wanted to subvert the laws of trade and navigation was no fantasy. In the second, both the governor and his antagonists showed themselves capable of jumping to conclusions about each other’s motives that stopped only inches short of paranoia.

Beginning in December 1765, Otis (writing as “Hampden” in the Boston Gazette) had published essays maintaining that British restrictions on colonial trade constituted an indirect but quite real tax on American commerce. Insofar as any regulation of trade restricted the merchant’s ability to dispose of his property, he argued, it infringed on his rights; insofar as any exaction—including an excise charged to the manufacturer—added to the price of any import in American markets, it was a tax; and insofar as Americans had no representation in Parliament, all such taxes were illegitimate. Nor, Otis continued, were the sums in question inconsequential: by monopolizing colonial markets and imposing overgrown customs and excise establishments on the economy, the British added as much as 50 percent to the cost of manufactures. “What American peazant before the late regulations,” Otis demanded, referring to the American Duties Act of 1764, “ever dreamt his dearly bo[ugh]t coarse coat . . . was taxed half its cost to those who live and die in the ease, luxury, and prodigality of Great Britain? Now they know.” 9

Moreover, as Bernard reported to the secretary of state, Otis now carried to new extremes his doctrine that “the distinction between inland taxes and port duties was without foundation.” Asserting that the Declaratory Act had nothing to do with taxes because it did not mention them specifically, Otis maintained that when Parliament gave up its claim to levy a direct tax on the colonists by repealing the Stamp Act, it necessarily also renounced its claim to tax them through the customs. Therefore “the merchants were great fools if they submitted any longer to the laws restraining their trade which ought to be free.” In Bernard’s view, Otis had infected the mercantile community with principles that mocked Parliament, defied the king, and justified smuggling. The Malcolm episode proved the extent of his influence.10

Bernard analyzed events in ways simultaneously cogent, flawed, and deeply revealing. There was substantial opposition among Boston’s merchants to parliamentary restrictions on trade, but Otis was by no means its author. Ever since the American Duties Act rigorized customs collections, merchants had complained that restrictions on commerce served only to hinder trade and prolong the depression; some had even justified smuggling as a reasonable response to severe and unwarranted regulation. Otis only articulated, in provocative ways, free-trading notions that merchants, not he, had originated.11 And this, in turn, pointed to the second characteristic that the affair of Malcolm’s wine cellar illuminated: the extraordinary mutual suspicions of the people involved.

By making Otis the author, not the reflector, of views widely shared among Boston’s merchants, Bernard cast his nemesis as an archconspirator and the merchants of Boston as his dupes. In fact the merchants’ views on trade and the counterproductive nature of mercantilism were becoming widespread—Adam Smith would put them, in a more sophisticated form, at the heart of The Wealth of Nations—and Boston merchants were by no means revolutionaries. 12 If Otis and the country party politicians found support among the smuggling part of the community, it was because they gave the smugglers’ views a plausible political justification, not because they seduced honest merchants into smuggling by clever arguments. But Bernard believed that Otis was the author and contriver of the merchants’ opposition, and thus could ascribe to Otis (and by extension to the entire country party) a diabolical influence that existed only in his imagination. By the same token, the country party’s rhetoric ascribed to the governor, lieutenant governor, and their supporters a set of intentions and actions that made them sworn enemies to liberty, property, and colonial rights.

Thus what began as a routine customs search spiraled out of control because Bernard believed that Otis and his minions were conspiring to subvert the laws of trade and navigation, and because Otis and his supporters thought that Bernard, Hutchinson, and their lackeys were plotting to destroy the liberties of Bostonians and rule the town by military force. That neither side was engaged in these conspiracies did not matter. The internal dynamism of conspiratorial thinking absorbed the available evidence into patterns that seemed to prove the existence of plots, subterfuge, and malevolent design.13

A SIMILARLY DISORDERED situation materialized in New York almost before the rubble of the November riots had been cleared from the streets. Thanks largely to the personality of its lieutenant governor, New York early in the crisis had been a colony even more hagridden by conspiratorial reasoning than Massachusetts Bay, but the tensions that arose at the end of 1765 did not grow directly from Cadwallader Colden’s clashes with the assembly. In fact, a new governor, Sir Henry Moore, arrived in November, blamed much of what he saw on Colden, and set out to restore peace by accommodation. It was neither Colden nor Moore, then, but General Gage, who started the trouble, and only because he was trying to do his duty. 14

Before the Stamp Act crisis, Gage had mere handfuls of troops in and near the urban centers of the old colonies: a hundred redcoats in New York City, fifty at Albany, perhaps twenty at Charleston. When the riots started, he began to march men down from Canada—a sizable relocation that, by late spring 1766 would position more than a battalion in New York City, most of a second battalion in Philadelphia, a third between them in New Jersey, and augmented detachments in Albany and Charleston. Gage intended to bring these new troops south along Lake Champlain and the Hudson, which meant that they had to be billeted along the march in New York. At the beginning of December, therefore, he sent a copy of the Quartering Act to Governor Moore and asked that the assembly appropriate the funds that the law required.

Moore found the assembly in a balky mood. Instead of appropriating money (which, the representatives maintained, would have amounted to taxation without representation because Parliament had mandated it without New York’s consent) the assembly passed resolutions. These pointed out that when troops were in barracks the Crown paid for their quartering; that barracks were available at Albany and New York; and that the assembly would consider reimbursing the army for marching expenses, but only “after the expense is incurred.” Rummaging through the Treasury accounts, the representatives discovered funds appropriated in 1762—money from taxes voted before the Quartering Act went into effect—and directed that four hundred pounds be released to purchase firewood and other necessities for troops housed at New York. Otherwise, they simply refused to comply. As Gage reported to Conway, he and Moore did their best to explain the terms of the Quartering Act to the assemblymen, only to have them “Set the Demand aside by Evasions.” Gage expected that the issue would come to a head the next spring, by which time there would be more troops in the colony than the existing barracks could accommodate. 15

When spring came, however, Gage thought that the assembly might prove more tractable, for during the winter several of the great Hudson Valley landlords, who dominated the legislature, could no longer keep order on their estates. For fifteen years these “patroons,” whose title to their “manors” dated to the period of Dutch control, had found the eastern edges of their lands increasingly infested with squatters: people from mountainous western New England who maintained they had freehold title to their farms on the basis of grants from Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Yankee claims were hard to refute, for land ownership east of the Hudson River was muddled by unextinguished Indian titles and the failure of New York and the New England provinces to fix a definitive line between themselves. With the end of the Seven Years’ War, more New Englanders than ever descended on the inviting expanses of the Hudson Valley. By 1766 thousands of Yankees lived in a stretch of territory perhaps 150 miles long and 10 miles wide, from Long Island Sound to the Hoosic River, defending themselves against the manor lords’ writs of trespass with countersuits in New England courts, but also organizing themselves into militia companies—just in case.16

The Yankees’ resistance turned violent in the winter of 1765–66. Beginning in Dutchess County, and then with the spring spreading southward into Westchester and north into Albany Counties, armed bands of squatters and disaffected tenants broke out in open rebellion, intimidating landlords, harassing justices of the peace and sheriffs, and breaking open jails that held men imprisoned for rent debts. These disorders were similar in rhetoric to the Stamp Act riots but differed in that the rural “mobs” tended to be disciplined, quasi-military bodies made up of farmers who aimed to protect their land titles, rather than the comparatively unstable urban crowds of seamen, laborers, and artisans resisting imperial authority in the name of Englishmen’s rights. Moreover, several of the patroons were among New York’s most prominent Sons of Liberty and found it deeply unsettling to hear rioters on their estates claiming to be Sons of Liberty themselves. As Captain John Montrésor wryly observed in May, when five hundred Westchester County squatters threatened to march on New York and pull down the house of John Van Cortlandt (a leading Son of Liberty in the city) unless he recognized their titles, the “Sons of Liberty [are] great opposers of the Rioters as they are of opinion no one is entitled to Riot but themselves.” 17

Against this backdrop of social unrest and rising violence, the manor lords appealed to Governor Moore, who asked Gage to restore order. The commander in chief complied, ordering the 28th Regiment into Dutchess County’s Philipse Patent in mid-June and later sending a detachment of the 46th Foot up to Albany County to be used against rioters on Livingston Manor. Gage did not sympathize with the manor lords. Far from it: “They certainly deserve any Losses they may sustain, for it is the work of their own Hands,” he wrote to Conway. “Th[e]y first Sowed the Seeds of Sedition amongst the People and taught them to rise in Opposition to the Laws.” Still, the law obliged Gage to provide troops when responsible civil authorities requested them, and he could also see potential benefits in offering military aid. First, he could show the army’s strength as he had been unable to do during the Stamp Act disturbances. Second, by protecting the property of “the Rich[est] and most Powerfull People of the Province” he might win back their allegiance. Once the regulars had restored order, how could the assembly possibly deny them quarters? Thus the commander in chief could use his troops both to brandish the stick and to dangle the carrot, and he expected results. He got them—although hardly in the form he hoped to see.18

The redcoats of the 28th and the 46th did indeed suppress the rioting, but not with ease. Major Arthur Brown led the whole effective strength of the 28th Regiment, 330 men, into what amounted to battle with the squatters on the Philipse Patent. He succeeded in rounding up sixty “Miserable, harden’d Wretches,” at a cost of three casualties, one of whom died of his wounds. When the 28th marched for New York City at the end of June, the situation was still unsettled enough that Brown left two companies behind to guard the Dutchess County jail. Captain John Clarke and his hundred men from the 46th Foot encountered even more frustration in operations against Robert Noble and his followers at “Nobletown,” on the Livingston Manor. Noble’s men confronted the regulars as guerrillas, and for nearly a month in July and August ducked in and out of refuges across the Massachusetts border, leading Clarke’s troops on a wild chase around eastern Albany County. “They advance and retire at pleasure,” the irritated captain reported, “playing a Game by no means Satisfactory.” He pulled down their houses and stationed guards on their fields, hoping to provoke retaliation or at least to catch men returning to bring in their harvests. Nothing worked.19

Finally, in mid-August, Clarke positioned his men on the eastern slope of a mountain, a quarter mile west of the town line of Egremont, Massachusetts, hoping to catch Noble’s raiders on their way into (or perhaps out of) New York. But misestimating one’s position was easy enough in a place where no one agreed on boundaries, and Clarke soon found himself facing three Massachusetts justices of the peace and a battalion of militiamen who believed that he was about to attack Egremont. No one wanted a battle, however, and Clarke—after asserting his right to execute the king’s commission—pulled his men back to what the Massachusetts men informed him was New York’s side of the mountain.20

And there, uneasily, matters rested. Now that push had come to shove, the governments of Massachusetts and Connecticut proved unwilling to back the claims of their settlers with force, and the squatters had little choice but to abandon their farms or sign leases. The army, deployed on behalf of New York landlords, had effectively destroyed the New England claims. Yet this outcome, which went well beyond Gage’s intention, also had adverse effects when the evicted Yankees published their side of the story in Boston. Within weeks, accounts of redcoats who “burnt and destroyed . . . houses, pillaged and plundered others, stove in their cyder barrels, turned their provisions out . . . into the open streets, [and] Ript open their feather beds” appeared in newspapers as far south as Virginia. That would perhaps have been bad enough; but the ministry first heard of the episode not from Gage, but from the Massachusetts agent, and reprimanded both commander in chief and governor for allowing the army to be used to settle a dispute between colonies. This “Affair,” wrote the secretary of state, “has not been transacted with the Temper and Prudence requisite on such an Occasion. . . . It is to be hoped that the Right of the Parties were very well ascertained before the Military Power was called in to the aid of the Civil, for few Exigencies can justify such a kind of Decision.” Thus Gage, making himself agreeable and his troops useful to the civil authorities of New York and hoping to make the assembly amenable to supporting the army, found himself blamed for exacerbating intercolonial tensions. But what must have astonished him most was that the New York Assembly responded to his gestures of goodwill by summarily rejecting the Quartering Act—and denying Parliament’s authority.21

It was in June, when Major Brown and the 28th Regiment were collaring squatters and dodging bullets on the Philipse Patent, that the assembly passed a set of resolutions and a bill intended to sidestep the Quartering Act. The bill, called the Barracks Act, released £3,200 from the Treasury—once more, from funds appropriated in 1762—to purchase beds, bedding, firewood, candles, and kitchen utensils for two battalions, for one year. The measure made no mention of the small beer, salt, and vinegar stipulated in the Quartering Act, or indeed of the Quartering Act itself. Governor Moore, indignant, wanted to veto it—funds already in the Treasury were presumably at his disposal anyway, and the assembly was infringing his power by restricting their use—but Gage, who needed the money sooner rather than later, argued otherwise. A bad act was better than none at all; it was possible that the other colonies would interpret it as a submission to the Quartering Act; and he still hoped that the patroons in the assembly would appreciate the army’s efforts enough to come around. So Moore unhappily assented to the Barracks Act, consoling himself with a letter to the secretary of state, warning him that the assembly would disregard every act of Parliament “not backed with a sufficient power to enforce it.”22

Governor Moore tried one last time to extend his hand in conciliation, only to have it (as he thought) bitten again. In June he supported an assembly initiative to issue £260,000 in province currency by asking the Privy Council to make an exception to the Currency Act of 1764. Word arrived in November that the Privy Council would approve the currency issue, provided that the assembly include a suspending clause in the act. The same packet also brought the secretary of state’s response to Moore’s complaints about the assembly, and in it the secretary said, in no uncertain language, that the New York Assembly would have to accept the Quartering Act as passed and obey it to the letter, or face the consequences. The governor prudently made no mention of the secretary’s instruction when he told the assembly that the Privy Council had approved the money bill, on the condition that they append a suspending clause. The legislators refused. Unless the governor agreed to sign the act without this “unusual clause,” they replied, “we are prepared to bear our distresses as well as we are able.”23

That did it. Moore—by now surely thinking the better of Cadwallader Colden—shot back with the secretary of state’s directive ordering the assembly to submit unconditionally to the Quartering Act. The assemblymen took stock of their position and then, on December 15, stood fast. The result, of course, was deadlock. For six months the assembly would refuse to comply, and before the matter would finally be settled Parliament itself would intervene in New York’s affairs.

OTHER WORRIES HAUNTED Virginia, and other tensions vexed its leaders; but here too they loomed larger in the aftermath of the Stamp Act. Before the war, the gentry of the Old Dominion had been more unified than perhaps any other ruling class in the Atlantic world, but in the aftermath of the Stamp Act crisis they split into factions that would quarrel for a decade. The source of this fissure was personal in the sense that the intemperate words and actions of a Northern Neck planter, Richard Henry Lee, first opened it. Yet Lee did no more than allege that a social fault line, long present beneath the smooth surface of the Virginia elite, originated in the moral failings of some of the province’s greatest families. His accusations of self-interestedness—of conduct unbecoming to gentlemen—created irrevocable division because they exploded, within the public arena, a long-standing but previously private mixture of indebtedness, narrowing opportunities, and self-doubt.

No less than the rest of his class, Lee found it hard to support a family in the great planters’ accustomed style. Whereas his neighbor George Washington sought to make up the difference between expenses and income by engaging in land speculation, wheat farming, and plantation manufacturing, Lee stuck with tobacco and tried to use his political clout to gain access to profitable employment. Thus while only Patrick Henry was said to excel Lee as an orator, no one in Virginia surpassed him as a seeker after public office. Lee had in fact applied for the colony’s stamp distributorship, only to be disappointed when Grenville chose Colonel George Mercer, the agent of the Ohio Company who happened to be in London at the time. The proud, passionate Lee found the loss of income hard enough to bear, but the slight of being passed over was insupportable. In the Stamp Act agitation he led the attack on Mercer, organizing demonstrations in the Northern Neck and delivering a mock funeral oration at the burning of Mercer’s effigy. The unsuspecting colonel, arriving to find that he had become the most hated man in Virginia, blamed Lee. He returned to London intent not only on pursuing the Ohio Company’s land claims, but on finding his enemy’s letter of application. In the meantime, Lee’s political career prospered remarkably, for two reasons: he had violently opposed the Stamp Act, and he had been one of the few men ever to question the integrity of Virginia’s greatest statesman, John Robinson. 24

When Robinson died in May 1766 he was secretary of the province, treasurer, and speaker of the House of Burgesses, a combination that made him the most powerful politician, as well as one of the most beloved men, in Virginia. Beloved by many, that is, but not by Richard Henry Lee, whose ceaseless quest for profit and honor put him at odds with the speaker, who disliked him and thwarted his ambitions. In December 1764, Lee had insisted that the Burgesses audit Robinson’s accounts as treasurer. The audit endorsed Robinson’s stewardship—his friends saw to that—but Lee continued to question his practices. The following May he backed Patrick Henry’s attack on Robinson’s proposal to borrow £240,000 in London to finance a new currency and to erect a loan office from which needy gentlemen might borrow; and Lee was conspicuous by his absence among the eulogists when Robinson went to his reward. All this made him seem no more than the scapegrace that Robinson’s friends said he was—until the administrators of Robinson’s estate discovered two stunning facts. First, at the time Robinson died the Old Dominion’s most prominent men owed him approximately £130,000. Second, most of this fabulous sum had accrued because, instead of burning the paper money collected in payment of taxes as the law required, Treasurer Robinson had lent it to his friends.

Affable old John Robinson had embezzled a fortune from the public accounts not principally for his own profit, but to save his fellow planters from financial embarrassment.25 Unsurprisingly, Robinson’s political allies had benefited most from his largesse, and his death exposed this group—which included Byrds, Burwells, Carters, Randolphs, and other tidewater grandees, but comparatively few from the Northern Neck and the new counties in the piedmont—not only to public censure, but to bankruptcy. The embezzled money had to be repaid to Robinson’s estate because Robinson’s estate owed it to the Treasury, which in turn was legally obligated to remove it (however belatedly) from circulation. But where were the improvident grandees in question going to find the tens of thousands of pounds that the law required as a burnt offering? And how could Virginia incinerate so much money without simultaneously lighting a funeral pyre for half of its First Families?

These questions did not particularly trouble Richard Henry Lee (who owed Robinson’s estate twelve pounds) or Patrick Henry (who owed it eleven) as they demanded a full public accounting. In December the Burgesses’ investigating committee reported not only that a hundred thousand pounds was still due the province (much in huge sums— Colonel William Byrd III alone owed fifteen thousand pounds), but that Robinson had also allowed certain sheriffs to run far into arrears in tax receipts. Robinson had served his friends at the expense of his province, and Lee and Henry seized the opportunity to show how private indebtedness and extravagance led to abuse of trust and corruption that had imperiled the solvency, the honor, of Virginia. In this direct, ungentlemanly way, Lee and Henry dealt the province’s political establishment a staggering blow, making themselves the two most influential—and feared, and hated—younger politicians in the Old Dominion.

Indeed, a wholesale repudiation of Virginia’s older leaders might have ensued, had not George Mercer’s letters begun arriving from London. Mercer had found a copy of Lee’s application for the post of stamp distributor, and now Mercer’s family lost no time in publishing the proof that only bad luck had saved the self-appointed scourge of Virginia’s corrupt elite from becoming a royally appointed scourge of every Virginian’s rights. Confronted with the evidence, Lee maintained that he had soon thought the better of his application and would not have accepted appointment, had it come his way. This rang false—Lee had condemned the Stamp Act only after he knew of Mercer’s appointment—but it gave Lee’s friends enough cover to counterattack in the Virginia Gazette, where the controversy dragged on, at the pot-and-kettle level, into 1767. Lee’s exposure also encouraged his supporters in the assembly to show restraint in settling the Robinson affair. The quality of mercy was such that in April the Burgesses voted to give the administrators of Robinson’s estate three years to settle accounts with the province. (In the end it took twenty-five.)

What happened in Virginia after the repeal of the Stamp Act ran deeper than scandal and political realignment. The gentry of the province divided, for the first time since the seventeenth century, into openly hostile camps. Even planters like George Washington, who had not taken Robinson’s money and who refused to join in the assault on those who had, could hardly avert their eyes from the fray or fail to see how it altered Virginia’s political landscape. Nor indeed could they escape a public atmosphere that grew ever more rank with animosity and distrust. Great planters had always frowned on suits for debt among themselves, but such suits now became increasingly common not only out of necessity, but as political weapons. Few could miss the threat implicit in the announcement George Mercer’s father placed in the December 25, 1766, Virginia Gazette, lecturing “his fellow planters . . . for their failure to behave like gentlemen” and serving notice that unless he received prompt payment he would “bring Suits, immediately after next April General Court, against all persons indebted” to him.26

Nor could anyone ignore the unedifying spectacle of great planters holding lotteries to raise the money they needed to pay off their debts. Several such desperate attempts to regain solvency followed the Stamp Act crisis, some directly stimulated by the need to settle the Robinson estate. Typically they involved the sale of drawing tickets, for five pounds each, entitling the lucky winners to take possession of hundreds or thousands of pounds’ worth of slaves or land, and in some cases of whole functioning plantations. Perhaps the saddest of them all was the lottery William Byrd III held to raise (he hoped) fifty thousand pounds. In the end, he complained, “I disposed of a fine estate in order to settle my affairs . . . but to my very great disappointment, I have not received a third part of the money the tickets sold for.”27 Byrd had made the mistake of selling the tickets on credit.

These developments worried the gentlemen of Virginia because they drew a frightening but perfectly reasonable inference from them. Many of the greatest planters in the province, men who had advertised their status in magnificent houses, clothes, coaches, lands, and slaves, were in fact bankrupts. A once-unified social elite, overborne by debt, had fallen into public quarrels and divided into factions. Honor, the gentleman’s most prized possession, seemed suddenly to have grown even scarcer than money. It was not clear that the lower social orders in Virginia were so deferential as to accept indefinitely the leadership of planters such as these. But what would restore the gentry’s solvency, and its credibility? If ambitious men like Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry demanded their answers in a public forum, most planters could only look sharp for whatever opportunities appeared, tighten their belts, and dream of deliverance.

Meanwhile the colony’s economic life stagnated, and politics and culture alike seemed to drift toward some unspecifiable disaster. At the end of 1766 a writer in the Virginia Gazette caught the character of the gentry’s discontents when he asserted “That this colony is in a declining State, or, I may rather say on the Brink of Destruction, I fear is too evident to the most superficial Observer, to need any arguments to prove.” 28 If the repeal of the Stamp Act removed an immediate threat to rights and property, the events that followed awakened in the minds of Virginia’s leaders fears that gnawed all the more deeply because they had no tangible object, and indeed no definable form: no form, that is, except the nightmare image of a ruling class that, having lost control of its appetites, had pawned its sacred honor.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!