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Chapter 34

WASHINGTON CHAIRMAN OF A POLITICAL MEETING--CORRESPONDENCE WITH BRYAN FAIRFAX--PATRIOTIC RESOLUTIONS--WASHINGTON'S OPINIONS ON PUBLIC AFFAIRS--NON-IMPORTATION SCHEME--CONVENTION AT WILLIAMSBURG--WASHINGTON APPOINTED A DELEGATE TO THE GENERAL CONGRESS--LETTER FROM BRYAN FAIRFAX--PERPLEXITIES OF GENERAL GAGE AT BOSTON.


Shortly after Washington's return to Mount Vernon, in the latter part of June, he presided as moderator at a meeting of the inhabitants of Fairfax County, wherein, after the recent acts of Parliament had been discussed, a committee was appointed, with himself as chairman, to draw up resolutions expressive of the sentiments of the present meeting, and to report the same at a general meeting of the county, to be held in the court-house on the 18th of July.

The course that public measures were taking shocked the loyal feelings of Washington's valued friend, Bryan Fairfax, of Tarlston Hall, a younger brother of George William, who was absent in England. He was a man of liberal sentiments, but attached to the ancient rule; and, in a letter to Washington, advised a petition to the throne, which would give Parliament an opportunity to repeal the offensive acts.

"I would heartily join you in your political sentiments," writes Washington in reply, "as far as relates to a humble and dutiful petition to the throne, provided there was the most distant hope of success. But have we not tried this already? Have we not addressed the lords, and remonstrated to the commons? And to what end? Does it not appear as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness that there is a regular, systematic plan to fix the right and practice of taxation upon us? ... Is not the attack upon the liberty and property of the people of Boston, before restitution of the loss to the India Company was demanded, a plain and self-evident proof of what they are aiming at? Do not the subsequent bills for depriving the Massachusetts Bay of its charter, and for transporting offenders to other colonies or to Great Britain for trial, where it is impossible, from the nature of things, that justice can be obtained, convince us that the administration is determined to stick at nothing to carry its point? Ought we not, then, to put our virtue and fortitude to the severest tests?"

The committee met according to appointment, with Washington as chairman. The resolutions framed at the meeting insisted, as usual, on the right of self-government, and the principle that taxation and representation were in their nature inseparable. That the various acts of Parliament for raising revenue; taking away trials by jury; ordering that persons might be tried in a different country from that in which the cause of accusation originated; closing the port of Boston; abrogating the charter of Massachusetts Bay, &c., &c.,--were all part of a premeditated design and system to introduce arbitrary government into the colonies. That the sudden and repeated dissolutions of Assemblies whenever they presumed to examine the illegality of ministerial mandates, or deliberated on the violated rights of their constituents, were part of the same system, and calculated and intended to drive the people of the colonies to a state of desperation, and to dissolve the compact by which their ancestors bound themselves and their posterity to remain dependent on the British crown. The resolutions, furthermore, recommended the most perfect union and co-operation among the colonies; solemn covenants with respect to non-importation and non-intercourse, and a renunciation of all dealings with any colony, town, or province, that should refuse to agree to the plan adopted by the General Congress.

They also recommended a dutiful petition and remonstrance from the Congress to the king, asserting their constitutional rights and privileges; lamenting the necessity of entering into measures that might be displeasing; declaring their attachment to his person, family, and government, and their desire to continue in dependence upon Great Britain; beseeching him not to reduce his faithful subjects of America to desperation, and to reflect, that from our sovereign there can be but one appeal.

These resolutions are the more worthy of note, as expressive of the opinions and feelings of Washington at this eventful time, if not being entirely dictated by him. The last sentence is of awful import, suggesting the possibility of being driven to an appeal to arms.

Bryan Fairfax, who was aware of their purport, addressed a long letter to Washington, on the 17th of July, the day preceding that in which they were to be reported by the committee, stating his objections to several of them, and requesting that his letter might be publicly read. The letter was not received until after the committee had gone to the court-house on the 18th, with the resolutions revised, corrected, and ready to be reported. Washington glanced over the letter hastily, and handed it round to several of the gentlemen present. They, with one exception, advised that it should not be publicly read, as it was not likely to make any converts, and was repugnant, as some thought, to every principle they were contending for. Washington forbore, therefore, to give it any further publicity.

The resolutions reported by the committee were adopted, and Washington was chosen a delegate to represent the county at the General Convention of the province, to be held at Williamsburg on the 1st of August. After the meeting had adjourned, he felt doubtful whether Fairfax might not be dissatisfied that his letter had not been read, as he requested, to the county at large; he wrote to him, therefore, explaining the circumstances which prevented it; at the same time replying to some of the objections which Fairfax had made to certain of the resolutions. He reiterated his belief that an appeal would be ineffectual. "What is it we are contending against?" asked he; "Is it against paying the duty of threepence per pound on tea because burdensome? No, it is the right only, that we have all along disputed; and to this end, we have already petitioned his majesty in as humble and dutiful a manner as subjects could do. Nay, more, we applied to the House of Lords and House of Commons in their different legislative capacities, setting forth that, as Englishmen, we could not be deprived of this essential and valuable part of our constitution. ...

"The conduct of the Boston people could not justify the rigor of their measures, unless there had been a requisition of payment, and refusal of it; nor did that conduct require an act to deprive the government of Massachusetts Bay of their charter, or to exempt offenders from trial in the places where offences were committed, as there was not, nor could there be, a single instance produced to manifest the necessity of it. Are not all these things evident proofs of a fixed and uniform plan to tax us? If we want further proofs, do not all the debates in the House of Commons serve to confirm this? And has not General Gage's conduct since his arrival, in stopping the address of his council, and publishing a proclamation, more becoming a Turkish bashaw than an English governor, declaring it treason to associate in any manner by which the commerce of Great Britain is to be affected,--has not this exhibited an unexampled testimony of the most despotic system of tyranny that ever was practised in a free government?"

The popular measure on which Washington laid the greatest stress as a means of obtaining redress from government, was the non-importation scheme; "for I am convinced," said he, "as much as of my existence, that there is no relief for us but in their distress; and I think--at least I hope--that there is public virtue enough left among us to deny ourselves every thing but the bare necessaries of life to accomplish this end." At the same time, he forcibly condemned a suggestion that remittances to England should be withheld. "While we are accusing others of injustice," said he, "we should be just ourselves; and how this can be whilst we owe a considerable debt, and refuse payment of it to Great Britain is to me inconceivable: nothing but the last extremity can justify it."

On the 1st of August, the convention of representatives from all parts of Virginia assembled at Williamsburg. Washington appeared on behalf of Fairfax County, and presented the resolutions, already cited, as the sense of his constituents. He is said, by one who was present, to have spoken in support of them in a strain of uncommon eloquence, which shows how his latent ardor had been excited on the occasion, as eloquence was not in general among his attributes. It is evident, however, that he was roused to an unusual pitch of enthusiasm, for he is said to have declared that he was ready to raise one thousand men, subsist them at his own expense, and march at their head to the relief of Boston.

[Footnote: See information given to the elder Adams, by Mr. Lynch of South Carolina.--Adams's Diary.]

The Convention was six days in session. Resolutions, in the same spirit with those passed in Fairfax County, were adopted, and Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Pendleton, were appointed delegates, to represent the people of Virginia in the General Congress.

Shortly after Washington's return from Williamsburg, he received a reply from Bryan Fairfax, to his last letter. Fairfax, who was really a man of liberal views, seemed anxious to vindicate himself from any suspicions of the contrary. In adverting to the partial suppression of his letter by some of the gentlemen of the committee: "I am uneasy to find," writes he, "that any one should look upon the letter sent down as repugnant to the principles we are contending for; and, therefore, when you have leisure, I shall take it as a favor if you will let me know wherein it was thought so. I beg leave to look upon you as a friend, and it is a great relief to unbosom one's thoughts to a friend. Besides, the information, and the correction of my errors, which I may obtain from a correspondence, are great inducements to it. For I am convinced that no man in the colony wishes its prosperity more, would go greater lengths to serve it, or is, at the same time, a better subject to the crown. Pray excuse these compliments, they may be tolerable from a friend."

[Footnote: Sparks. Washington's Writings, vol. ii., p. 329.]

The hurry of various occupations prevented Washington, in his reply, from entering into any further discussion of the popular theme. "I can only in general add," said he, "that an innate spirit of freedom first told me that the measures which the administration have for some time been, and now are violently pursuing, are opposed to every principle of natural justice; whilst much abler heads than my own have fully convinced me, that they are not only repugnant to natural right, but subversive of the laws and constitution of Great Britain itself. ... I shall conclude with remarking that, if you disavow the right of Parliament to tax us, unrepresented as we are, we only differ in the mode of opposition, and this difference principally arises from your belief that they (the Parliament I mean), want a decent opportunity to repeal the acts; whilst I am fully convinced that there has been a regular systematic plan to enforce them, and that nothing but unanimity and firmness in the colonies, which they did not expect, can prevent it. By the best advices from Boston, it seems that General Gage is exceedingly disconcerted at the quiet and steady conduct of the people of the Massachusetts Bay, and at the measures pursuing by the other governments. I dare say he expected to force those oppressed people into compliance, or irritate them to acts of violence before this, for a more colorable pretence of ruling that, and the other colonies, with a high hand."

Washington had formed a correct opinion of the position of General Gage. From the time of taking command at Boston, he had been perplexed how to manage its inhabitants. Had they been hot-headed, impulsive, and prone to paroxysm, his task would have been comparatively easy; but it was the cool, shrewd common sense, by which all their movements were regulated, that confounded him.

High-handed measures had failed of the anticipated effect. Their harbor had been thronged with ships; their town with troops. The port bill had put an end to commerce; wharves were deserted, warehouses closed; streets grass-grown and silent. The rich were growing poor, and the poor were without employ; yet the spirit of the people was unbroken. There was no uproar, however; no riots; every thing was awfully systematic and according to rule. Town meetings were held, in which public rights and public measures were eloquently discussed by John Adams, Josiah Quincy, and other eminent men. Over these meetings Samuel Adams presided as moderator; a man clear in judgment, calm in conduct, inflexible in resolution; deeply grounded in civil and political history, and infallible on all points of constitutional law.

Alarmed at the powerful influence of these assemblages, government issued an act prohibiting them after the 1st of August. The act was evaded by convoking the meetings before that day, and keeping them alive indefinitely. Gage was at a loss how to act. It would not do to disperse these assemblages by force of arms; for, the people who composed them mingled the soldier with the polemic; and, like their prototypes, the covenanters of yore, if prone to argue, were as ready to fight. So the meetings continued to be held portinaciously. Faneuil Hall was at times unable to hold them, and they swarmed from that revolutionary hive into old South Church. The liberty tree became a rallying place for any popular movement, and a flag hoisted on it was saluted by all processions as the emblem of the popular cause.

Opposition to the new plan of government assumed a more violent aspect at the extremity of the province, and was abetted by Connecticut. "It is very high," writes Gage, (August 27th,) "in Berkshire County, and makes way rapidly to the rest. At Worcester they threaten resistance, purchase arms, provide powder, cast balls, and threaten to attack any troops who may oppose them. I apprehend I shall soon have to march a body of troops into that township."

The time appointed for the meeting of the General Congress at Philadelphia was now at hand. Delegates had already gone on from Massachusetts. "It is not possible to guess," writes Gage, "what a body composed of such heterogeneous matter will determine; but the members from hence, I am assured, will promote the most haughty and insolent resolves; for their plan has ever been, by threats and high-sounding sedition, to terrify and intimidate."


Washington Irving