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Chapter 29

CHEERFUL LIFE AT MOUNT VERNON--WASHINGTON AND GEORGE MASON--CORRESPONDENCE CONCERNING THE NON-IMPORTATION AGREEMENT--FEELING TOWARD ENGLAND--OPENING OF THE LEGISLATIVE SESSION--SEMI-REGAL STATE OF LORD BOTETOURT--HIGH-TONED PROCEEDINGS OF THE HOUSE--SYMPATHY WITH NEW ENGLAND--DISSOLVED BY LORD BOTETOURT--WASHINGTON AND THE ARTICLES OF ASSOCIATION.


Throughout these public agitations, Washington endeavored to preserve his equanimity. Removed from the heated throngs of cities, his diary denotes a cheerful and healthful life at Mount Vernon, devoted to those rural occupations in which he delighted, and varied occasionally by his favorite field sports. Sometimes he is duck-shooting on the Potomac. Repeatedly we find note of his being out at sunrise with the hounds, in company with old Lord Fairfax, Bryan Fairfax, and others; and ending the day's sport by a dinner at Mount Vernon, or Belvoir.

Still he was too true a patriot not to sympathize in the struggle for colonial rights which now agitated the whole country, and we find him gradually carried more and more into the current of political affairs.

A letter written on the 5th of April, 1769, to his friend, George Mason, shows the important stand he was disposed to take. In the previous year, the merchants and traders of Boston, Salem, Connecticut, and New York, had agreed to suspend for a time the importation of all articles subject to taxation. Similar resolutions had recently been adopted by the merchants of Philadelphia. Washington's letter is emphatic in support of the measure. "At a time," writes he, "when our lordly masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less, than the deprivation of American freedom, it seems highly necessary that something should be done to avert the stroke, and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our ancestors. But the manner of doing it, to answer the purpose effectually, is the point in question. That no man should scruple, or hesitate a moment in defence of so valuable a blessing, is clearly my opinion; yet arms should be the last resource--the dernier ressort. We have already, it is said, proved the inefficacy of addresses to the throne, and remonstrances to Parliament. How far their attention to our rights and interests is to be awakened, or alarmed, by starving their trade and manufactures, remains to be tried.

"The northern colonies, it appears, are endeavoring to adopt this scheme. In my opinion, it is a good one, and must be attended with salutary effects, provided it can be carried pretty generally into execution. ... That there will be a difficulty attending it every where from clashing interests, and selfish, designing men, ever attentive to their own gain, and watchful of every turn that can assist their lucrative views, cannot be denied, and in the tobacco colonies, where the trade is so diffused, and in a manner wholly conducted by factors for their principals at home, these difficulties are certainly enhanced, but I think not insurmountably increased, if the gentlemen in their several counties will be at some pains to explain matters to the people, and stimulate them to cordial agreements to purchase none but certain enumerated articles out of any of the stores, after a definite period, and neither import, nor purchase any themselves. ... I can see but one class of people, the merchants excepted, who will not, or ought not, to wish well to the scheme,--namely, they who live genteelly and hospitably on clear estates. Such as these, were they not to consider the valuable object in view, and the good of others, might think it hard to be curtailed in their living and enjoyments."

This was precisely the class to which Washington belonged; but he was ready and willing to make the sacrifices required. "I think the scheme a good one," added he, "and that it ought to be tried here, with such alterations as our circumstances render absolutely necessary."

Mason, in his reply, concurred with him in opinion. "Our all is at stake," said he, "and the little conveniences and comforts of life, when set in competition with our liberty, ought to be rejected, not with reluctance, but with pleasure. Yet it is plain that, in the tobacco colonies, we cannot at present confine our importations within such narrow bounds as the northern colonies. A plan of this kind, to be practicable, must be adapted to our circumstances; for, if not steadily executed, it had better have remained unattempted. We may retrench all manner of superfluities, finery of all descriptions, and confine ourselves to linens, woollens, &c., not exceeding a certain price. It is amazing how much this practice, if adopted in all the colonies, would lessen the American imports, and distress the various trades and manufactures of Great Britain. This would awaken their attention. They would see, they would feel, the oppressions we groan under, and exert themselves to procure us redress. This, once obtained, we should no longer discontinue our importations, confining ourselves still not to import any article that should hereafter be taxed by act of Parliament for raising a revenue in America; for, however singular I may be in the opinion, I am thoroughly convinced, that, justice and harmony happily restored, it is not the interest of these colonies to refuse British manufactures. Our supplying our mother country with gross materials, and taking her manufactures in return, is the true chain of connection between us. These are the bands which, if not broken by oppression, must long hold us together, by maintaining a constant reciprocation of interests."

The latter part of the above quotation shows the spirit which actuated Washington and the friends of his confidence; as yet there was no thought nor desire of alienation from the mother country, but only a fixed determination to be placed on an equality of rights and privileges with her other children.

A single word in the passage cited from Washington's letter, evinces the chord which still vibrated in the American bosom: he incidentally speaks of England as home. It was the familiar term with which she was usually indicated by those of English descent; and the writer of these pages remembers when the endearing phrase still lingered on Anglo-American lips even after the Revolution. How easy would it have been before that era for the mother country to have rallied back the affections of her colonial children, by a proper attention to their complaints! They asked for nothing but what they were entitled to, and what she had taught them to prize as their dearest inheritance. The spirit of liberty which they manifested had been derived from her own precept and example.

The result of the correspondence between Washington and Mason was the draft by the latter of a plan of association, the members of which were to pledge themselves not to import or use any articles of British merchandise or manufacture subject to duty. This paper Washington was to submit to the consideration of the House of Burgesses, at the approaching session in the month of May.

The Legislature of Virginia opened on this occasion with a brilliant pageant. While military force was arrayed to overawe the republican Puritans of the east, it was thought to dazzle the aristocratical descendants of the cavaliers by the reflex of regal splendor. Lord Botetourt, one of the king's lords of the bedchamber, had recently come out as governor of the province. Junius described him as "a cringing, bowing, fawning, sword-bearing courtier." Horace Walpole predicted that he would turn the heads of the Virginians in one way or other. "If his graces do not captivate them he will enrage them to fury; for I take all his douceur to be enamelled on iron."

[Footnote: Grenville papers, iv., note to p. 330.]

The words of political satirists and court wits, however, are always to be taken with great distrust. However his lordship may have bowed in presence of royalty, he elsewhere conducted himself with dignity, and won general favor by his endearing manners. He certainly showed promptness of spirit in his reply to the king on being informed of his appointment. "When will you be ready to go?" asked George III. "To-night, sir."

He had come out, however, with a wrong idea of the Americans. They had been represented to him as factious, immoral, and prone to sedition; but vain and luxurious, and easily captivated by parade and splendor. The latter foibles were aimed at in his appointment and fitting out. It was supposed that his titled rank would have its effect. Then to prepare him for occasions of ceremony, a coach of state was presented to him by the king. He was allowed, moreover, the quantity of plate usually given to ambassadors, whereupon the joke was circulated that he was going "plenipo to the Cherokees."

[Footnote: Whately to Geo. Grenville. Grenville papers.]

His opening of the session was in the style of the royal opening of Parliament. He proceeded in due parade from his dwelling to the capitol, in his state coach, drawn by six milk-white horses. Having delivered his speech according to royal form, he returned home with the same pomp and circumstance.

The time had gone by, however, for such display to have the anticipated effect. The Virginian legislators penetrated the intention of this pompous ceremonial, and regarded it with a depreciating smile. Sterner matters occupied their thoughts; they had come prepared to battle for their rights, and their proceedings soon showed Lord Botetourt how much he had mistaken them. Spirited resolutions were passed, denouncing the recent act of Parliament imposing taxes; the power to do which, on the inhabitants of this colony, "was legally and constitutionally vested in the House of Burgesses, with consent of the council and of the king, or of his governor, for the time being." Copies of these resolutions were ordered to be forwarded by the speaker to the Legislatures of the other colonies, with a request for their concurrence.

Other proceedings of the Burgesses showed their sympathy with their fellow-patriots of New England. A joint address of both Houses of Parliament had recently been made to the king, assuring him of their support in any further measures for the due execution of the laws in Massachusetts, and beseeching him that all persons charged with treason, or misprision of treason, committed within that colony since the 30th of December, 1767, might be sent to Great Britain for trial.

As Massachusetts had no General Assembly at this time, having been dissolved by government, the Legislature of Virginia generously took up the cause. An address to the king was resolved on, stating, that all trials for treason, or misprision of treason, or for any crime whatever committed by any person residing in a colony, ought to be in and before his majesty's courts within said colony; and beseeching the king to avert from his loyal subjects those dangers and miseries which would ensue from seizing and carrying beyond sea any person residing in America suspected of any crime whatever, thereby depriving them of the inestimable privilege of being tried by a jury from the vicinage, as well as the liberty of producing witnesses on such trial.

Disdaining any further application to Parliament, the House ordered the speaker to transmit this address to the colonies' agent in England, with directions to cause it to be presented to the king, and afterwards to be printed and published in the English papers.

Lord Botetourt was astonished and dismayed when he heard of these high-toned proceedings. Repairing to the capitol on the following day at noon, he summoned the speaker and members to the council chamber, and addressed them in the following words: "Mr. Speaker, and gentlemen of the House of Burgesses, I have heard of your resolves, and augur ill of their effects. You have made it my duty to dissolve you, and you are dissolved accordingly."

The spirit conjured up by the late decrees of Parliament was not so easily allayed. The Burgesses adjourned to a private house. Peyton Randolph, their late speaker, was elected moderator. Washington now brought forward a draft of the articles of association, concerted between him and George Mason. They formed the groundwork of an instrument signed by all present, pledging themselves neither to import, nor use any goods, merchandise, or manufactures taxed by Parliament to raise a revenue in America. This instrument was sent throughout the country for signature, and the scheme of non-importation, hitherto confined to a few northern colonies, was soon universally adopted. For his own part, Washington adhered to it rigorously throughout the year. The articles proscribed by it were never to be seen in his house, and his agent in London was enjoined to ship nothing for him while subject to taxation.

The popular ferment in Virginia was gradually allayed by the amiable and conciliatory conduct of Lord Botetourt. His lordship soon became aware of the erroneous notions with which he had entered upon office. His semi-royal equipage and state were laid aside. He examined into public grievances; became a strenuous advocate for the repeal of taxes; and, authorized by his despatches from the ministry, assured the public that such repeal would speedily take place. His assurance was received with implicit faith, and for a while Virginia was quieted.


Washington Irving