The influence and role of Virginia leading up to and in the American Revolution
The American Revolution was the singularly important event of the modern history, as it marked the birth of a government which was responsible to the will of the people. The revolutionary war which lasted between the years 1765 and 1783, ended with the colonies separating from the British Empire and the new nation of Unites States of America being born. Virginia had a huge role to play in this revolutionary war, by producing some of the great revolutionary leaders and orators like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. However, the general populace of Virginia was divided among themselves on supporting the war. There were loyalists who remained loyal to the British crown, the neutrals who did not take sides, and the patriots who fought for the continental army. All these three factions of Virginia had an impact on the revolutionary war in their own way. Also, there were many profound battles that took place in Virginia during the revolution, which greatly influenced the outcome of the war. Virginia had a huge role to play in the American Revolution, both by producing great leaders and as the arena of important military battles.
Virginians in the American Revolution
Virginia‘s role in the revolution was very important, considering that it produced some of the key leaders of the revolution. Being the largest colony of the Americas, Virginia set up its Committee of Correspondence in the year 1773, which would eventually provide the basic framework for the rebel Government. This committee served as the voice of the colonies, and it had in its ranks some major leaders of the revolution such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
The committee was formed under the proposal of Richard Henry Lee, who in a letter to John Dickinson in the year 1768, stressed on the necessity to form such committees in all the colonies, which would be a union of counsel and action among the colonies. Thomas Jefferson, while talking about the origin of this committee, states that, a new set of young and energetic leaders have taken up the running of the committee, who are determined to set aside the conservative leaders and openly oppose the obnoxious measures of the English Government. Some 8000 Patriots served in these committees, and they later played the role of the leaders of the American resistance to the British forces.
Before the American Revolution, Virginia was the biggest, oldest, and the most populated colony of the Great Britain’s American colonies. It also had a great economic value because of its tobacco plantations and other natural resources. Both its colonial history and its road to independence follow a similar pattern, ordinary in some ways and extraordinary in some other ways. Virginia produced more political and military talent than any other colony. Some of the great revolutionary speeches came from the Virginian leaders like, “give me liberty or give me death” by Patrick Henry and “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states” by Richard Lee. From George Washington to George Mason, Virginian leaders not just inspired the patriotic cause, but also lead the patriots from front.
Washington was born into a gentry family of Westmoreland County, Virginia and his wealthy family owned tobacco plantations and many slaves. Washington served as a senior officer in the colonial forces, under the mentorship of William Fairfax. Washington’s first major military role was in the French and Indian War, during which he was able to secure the support of the Iroquois chief and delivered a letter to the French commander Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre. He maintained a diary which recorded the events that took place during his expedition, and it was printed and published, making him a household name in Virginia.
His military career blossomed after that, and in the year 1755 he was made the commander in chief of the Virginia regiment. He retired from the army in the year 1758 and returned to military service only during the American Revolution, in the year 1775. His stint with the British army gave him valuable insights into their strategy and strengths, which helped him immensely during the revolution. He was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and expressed his dissent towards the stamp act of 1765. His outward exhibition of political resistance came, when he introduced a proposal, drafted by George Mason, which called for boycotting the British goods as an opposition to Townshend Acts. He called the Intolerable Acts of 1774 as an invasion into the colonies’ Rights. He also chaired the meeting in which the “Fairfax Resolves” were adopted, which called for the granting of many privileges to the colonies, such as equal rights under the British constitution and control over military forces and judicial powers.’
During the revolution, Washington provided military leadership, acting as the commander in chief of the Continental Army. There was no serious competition for the post, and Washington was considered the best man to lead the army, as he had the required military experience and the leadership skills. His Southern origin was another reason for the choice, as he was expected to act as a unifying force to the army, which majorly contained Northerners. In his acceptance speech he said, “I will enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service, and for support of the glorious cause.”
True to his word, he served the continental army with dedication and skill. Due to his sound strategies and motivational capabilities, the continental army was able to keep the British at bay in many key territories. After the treaty entered with France in 1778, the army got strengthened and the final battle at Yorktown was won. After the war, Washington retired to his estate in Mount Vernon, but the country still needed Washington, the politician. He played a significant role in drafting the constitution for the newly formed USA, and became its first President. He is not just a great leader who brought fame to Virginia, but he also truly is the "Father of his country.”
Unlike Washington, Jefferson never actually fought in the war as a soldier. However, this in no way diminishes his role in the revolution. Born in Goochland County, Virginia, he was a lawyer by profession and many elite Virginians of that era were his clients. Known for his oratory skills, Jefferson went on to make one of the most eloquent political speeches of history, when he argued against the British Parliament’s authority over the colonies.
In his pamphlet titled ““A Summary View of the Rights of British America” Jefferson listed he many grievances faced by the colonies under the British rule. He wrote
“Yet this will not excuse the wanton exercise of this power which we have seen his majesty practise on the laws of the American legislatures for the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency.”
This pamphlet was published in the year 1774 and was written for the Virginia convention held during that year. He argued about the natural rights of emigration, and advocated that the Parliament has no right to control the colonies. He was selected as a delegate to the continental congress in the year 1775, and because he was a gifted writer, he was handed with the responsibility of drafting the ‘Declaration of Independence.’ His summarization of the philosophy behind the American Revolution, to this day serves as a guideline for any discussion surrounding human liberties.
His knowledge of English history and political prowess made him a key contributor to the political strategies of the patriots. He served as the wartime Governor of Virginia in the year 1779 and from 1783 to 84 served a second term in the continental congress. Jefferson saw the independence of the colonies as a breaking away from the ‘parent stock’ and the natural outcome of the colony being separated from England by the Atlantic Ocean. The Declaration of independence was one of the major achievements of Jefferson, and his famous words, “all men are created equal”, will go on to become one of the most used English sentences.
Patrick Henry is another Virginian born leader, whose oratory skills gained him notoriety. Though most of us know him to be the man who presented the give me liberty speech, there is more to this Virginian. He is not just a fiery orator who fanned the flames of the revolution but, according to Gaines, he is the embodiment of the idea of Liberty. Born at Studley, in Hanover County, Virginia, Henry began a career as a farmer and later shifted to law. During an argument in a law court, he famously said that,
“A king by disallowing acts of salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerates into a tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.”
In 1765, as a member of the House of Burgesses, he made the most inflammatory anti British speech to that day. Some historians even credit this speech, famously known as the ‘treason speech’, as one of the main catalysts of the American Revolution. Another famous speech came in the year 1775, in Richmond, Virginia. The House of Burgesses was undecided whether to indulge in military action against the British forces or not, and Henry argued in favor of military action through the now legendary words, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He sat in the congress between the years 1774 and 1775, and vehemently opposed the move of reconciliation proposed by John Callaway. He also participated in the revolution as a soldier, serving as a colonel in first Vancouver Regiment in 1775. He also established institutions like the Hampden-Sydney College and served as the first post-colonial Governor of Virginia.
Madison was a protégé of Jefferson, and like his mentor did not take part in active military service for long, because of his fragile health and very slight physical stature. Born into a wealthy plantation family in Port Conway, Virginia, Madison was well educated and highly ambitious. He served in the Virginia legislature between the year 1776 and 1779, and fought for granting constitutional rights for religious freedom. He along with Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which put an end to the state intervention in the matters of religious freedom. Though he is referred popularly as the father of the American constitution, Madison’s lingering legacy is the effort he made to pass a law, through which the government supported the freedom of conscience and allowed its citizens to choose their religion.
When Jefferson famously said, all men were born equal, he did not intend his rhetoric to apply to the Virginian slaves, but they heard him nonetheless. The blacks of Virginia were divided on their opinion about revolution, ranging from support to opposition and in some cases indifference. The tip of the balance was titled, when Lord Dunmore proclaimed in the year 1775 that any slave, who would leave his master and join the British forces to fight for the king, would be emancipated. Many of them deflected to join Dunmore and the Patriots were appalled.
“And I hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty's Troops”
Within a month of Dunmore’s proclamation, close to 300 blacks joined his Ethiopian Regiment. Though no more than 800 joined Dunmore eventually, his proclamation inspired thousand of Blacks to join the British Army. Washington, on the other hand, was ambivalent on his willingness to recruit Blacks. However, in 1777-78 the continental army lost many soldiers due to disease and war, which led to Washington approving the enlistment of Black soldiers. The patriots turned the table and freed the slaves of the loyalists. However, in the end, only few Blacks managed to escape and immigrated to colonies like Sierra Leone, while most were sold back into slavery.
Important Political Events and Battles of Virginia
Virginia did not just produce the most prominent leaders of the revolution, but it also witnessed some significant battles and events that changed the course of the revolution. Starting with declaring independence to the Yorktown battle, some of the profound moments of the revolution, took place in the vast stretches of Virginia.
The Virginia conventions
There were a series of five conventions that took place in Virginia during the revolution. While the first one was organized by the colonial Governor Dunmore, the other four conventions marked a series of steps in worsening relationships between the rebels and loyalists. Initially, most of the Virginians approached the mounting conflict with the British Empire, as disgruntled yet loyal subjects of the Crown. As the disagreements intensified, and harsh taxes and laws were imposed, the support for the Crown started dwindling. After the Boston Tea party incident, the Colonial Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses, as he sensed the growing dissent among its members. In 1775, in an attempt to deprive the Virginia military of its ammunition, Dunmore ordered Lieutenant Henry Colins, to remove the stock of gunpowder from the Virginia military base and load it into the British warships.
Dunmore took refuge on a British warship in the year 1775, and the convention of Virginia organized by the patriots assumed the duty of governing the Virginia colony. The fifth convention, which was organized in the year 1776, declared independence from Britain. George Mason authored the Declaration of Rights, which proclaimed the inherent rights of men and this document would later influence the drafting of Declaration of Independence. The residents of Williamsburg flew the flag of the continental army, and the convention instructed its delegates in Philadelphia to follow suit and announce its independence. This ultimately paved the way for the announcement of the declaration of independence of America.
Battle of Great Bridge
The battle of Great Bridge is considered one of the defining incidents of the revolution. The early part of 1775, saw escalation of tension between the royal Governor and the Virginian rebels. Governor Dunmore shifted his base to Norfolk and with the help of the Royal navy tried to regain control over Virginia. To help Dunmore, the Royal governor of Boston sent a small unit of 14th regiment to his aid, and with the help of this unit Dunmore conducted occasional raids on the areas around Norfolk. His announcement of emancipating the Blacks further heightened the conflict and increased the number of recruits for the Royal army.
The Ethiopian Regiment of Dunmore began fortifying areas around a strategic area of Great Bridge. The area was located at the head of the Elizabeth River and formed a natural defense point. The blockade built, which they called the Fort Murray, was guarded by 40 -80 men of the Ethiopian regiment. The continental army after learning this development sent its troops to Great Bridge and they arrived on December 2, 1775 and on December 9 the battle took place. After a futile effort from the loyalist army Dunmore’s efforts to fortify Great Bridge failed, and the patriots won the battle.
The battle did not last for even half an hour and there was no causalities among the patriot army and only one their soldiers were wounded. Thus, the danger posed by Dunmore was effectively negated, and this provided an important tactical win for the American forces. This victory forced British into defensive in the important territory of Virginia, and Dunmore was forced to leave Virginia within seven months of the battle.
Victory at Yorktown
The siege of Yorktown begun in September 1781, and is the last major battle fought during the American Revolutionary war. The first shots of the war was fired in 1775 in Lexington and at North Bridge, and sustaining an army for six years, which ran low in resources like ammunition, food and money, in itself was an achievement by the Americans. In the year 1780, the much needed boost came to the American troops, when 5,500 French soldiers commanded by Comte de Rochambeau arrived at Rhode Island, to support the American cause.
At this time, the British army was offering resistance in two fronts- in North under the command of General Clinton and South under the command of General Lord Cornwallis. Washington tricked Clinton into believing that he was planning an attack on North, by making his soldiers construct army camps with big brick ovens, which were visible from New York, and by preparing false papers of a battle plan against Clinton and making it fall into the British hands. Then just leaving a small unit near New York, Washington and Rochambeau marched south towards Cornwallis’ troops.
Cornwallis was stationed in Yorktown, in Virginia, to build fortifications for a deep water port as per the order of Clinton. A French fleet under the command of Admiral de Grasse caused major damage to the British ships on September 5, in a naval engagement known as the Battle of the Chesapeake. On September 29, Washington’s army closed on Yorktown and the morning of October 17, Cornwallis’ army surrendered. A peace treaty was signed on October 19, and the battle was won. Eventually, the war will end in 1783, after signing the treaty of Paris, but the Battle of Yorktown essentially sealed the fate of the loyalists’ cause in the revolutionary war.
Thus, as the home of Washington, Jefferson and Henry, Virginia played a central role in the American Revolution that lasted for eight long years between 1775 and 1783. One of the 13 original colonies, Virginia was the first major settlement of the English colonists, and ironically a battle in Virginia marked the independence of the colonies from the British Empire. After independence too, Virginians played a significant role in the running of the newly formed republic. Virginia was famously dubbed the ‘mother of presidents’, as it produced many presidents of the newly formed USA like, Washington (1789-1797), Jefferson (1801-1809), Madison (1809-1817) and Moore (1817 – 1825). Virginia’s contribution to the revolution was pivotal, with its leaders motivating and enlightening the Americans about their right to liberty and leading them with their political and military prowess.
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