As England’s oldest overseas possession, Virginia was where British rule in North America began. But it was also where it ended, and more intriguingly, Loyalists remained insignificant there throughout the Revolution. Given the colony’s close ties with Britain, as well as its proud title “The Old Dominion”, it seems strange at first glance. This anomaly occurred, however, as Virginian elites quickly filled in the power vacuum left by the sudden downfall of British governance. Ineffective leadership, the royal governor’s abrupt exile, and the Patriots’ rapid consolidation of control made it extremely difficult for Loyalists to form themselves into a substantial entity.
The most important element of the Revolution in Virginia was that it was the establishment – not the middle and lower classes – that led the revolutionary movement against British rule. Prominent members of Virginia’s landed gentry had a strong sense of independence, and they dreaded British encroachment on their local privileges and sovereignty. Initially loyal to the Crown, Virginian elites eventually split with Britain over conflicts about western lands, private debts, and public finances.
Hoping to attain more land to increase cash crop yields, Virginians were strong supporters of western expansion. They desired to take control of the territories which are now Kentucky and Ohio. But London’s imperial policy impeded their ambitions. The Proclamation of 1763 banned westward settlement beyond the Proclamation Line. Yet, demands for land kept growing in Virginia, and by 1774, colonists claimed the remaining holdings east of the Line. Governor James Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, prematurely promised to grant patents to Virginian settlers but had to rescind his offer when he realized that he was not empowered to do so. Washington’s letter of protest to Dunmore, written on November 2nd, 1773, shows how Virginians, “having undoubted reason to believe that, … [lands on the Ohio]… appertain to Virginia, and that patents will be granted for them” felt compelled to demand the governor to “remove every restraint [from London he] was under before” so as to “promote [the colonists’] just rights.” Dunmore, however, did not reverse his stance. This exacerbated negative sentiments towards Britain and the governor himself.
Virginian elites’ growing debt to British merchants further bred discontent as they felt that their creditors were increasingly compromising their liberties. It was customary in Virginia for landed gentlemen to help other planters recover their honor and financial standing by expressing friendship in the form of loans. They, therefore, expected that a creditor would not dishonor a debtor’s name by publicly or tenaciously demanding payments. Unfortunately for the planters, starting from the 1750s, British merchants began to ask them for repayments. Debts had skyrocketed due to the planters’ extravagant spending while tobacco-sales profits decreased, making repayments virtually impossible. This threatened the elites’ sense of independence and increased their hostilities towards Britain.
Public finances were also in shambles, leading to discontent as they worsened the elites’ monetary situation. To fund and support the Seven Years’ War, the Virginia Assembly had printed paper money from 1754 to 1763, totaling up to £539,962. In 1767, £206,757 remained in circulation, which then decreased to £103,000 by 1771, and to £54,391 by 1773. Such a tight monetary policy created a deflationary pressure that strained the elites who were mostly debtors. Finally, the John Robinson scandal of 1766 added to the anxious climate as legislators discovered that Robinson – Virginia’s former treasurer and speaker – had embezzled almost £250,000 in state funds for private lending.
With economic pressures pushing Virginia’s planters into desperation, taxation and events in Massachusetts were enough to push them to take the lead in challenging Britain’s policies and eventually the Crown’s authority. Virginian records show that organized opposition to British governance led by local elites existed long before independence, and this opposition enthusiastically and even violently suppressed Loyalist elements. Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman who settled in Virginia in 1774, wrote in his diary on October 19th of that year that “Committees are appointed to inspect into Characters and Conduct of every tradesman” and that some of those who traded with the British “have been tarred and feathered” or “had their property burnt and destroyed.” Other sources also support Cresswell’s account. William Aitchison of Norfolk warned his brother-in-law James Parker to be on guard against the tar mob, for “there was a complaint lodged w. the Committee against [Parker] for some words spoken…. and, had [he] been upon the spot, there is little doubt but [he] would have been as roughly handled as any of [the tarred Loyalists].” Cresswell was also appalled by the fact that “the King is openly cursed, and his authority set at defiance…[with] everything ripe for rebellion” in Alexandria.
In such difficult circumstances, when the colony’s very establishment was instigating rebellion, Virginia’s Loyalist population faced the misfortune of an absence of effective leadership . Lord Dunmore was arrogant and indiscreet, and his policies alienated the colony’s conservatives from Loyalists’ cause. When the Assembly proceeded to issue resolutions expressing sympathies to the closing of the port of Boston in June 1774, he dissolved the Assembly to which the Burgesses responded by meeting at Raleigh Tavern. There they proposed a shocking step, calling upon other colonies to form a congress and to meet annually. Subsequently, Virginia’s elite aggressively pushed for the the colonies to unite against the metropole, “The Fairfax Resolves”, drafted by George Mason and sponsored by Washington, urging “that every little jarring interest and dispute which hath ever happened between the Colonies, should be buried in eternal oblivion.”
Records related to the Fairfax Resolves also show that the elites’ suppression of Loyalist sentiments, mentioned previously, was involved in the issuance of anti-British statements and resolutions like this. Bryan Fairfax, a Loyalist of Alexandria, wrote on August 5th, 1774, that there were many who “secretly [objected] to some of the Resolves but could not speak his mind… because they thought it would be no purpose.” This indicates that the Resolves’ opponents were intimidated to silence and submission, especially given that Mason and Washington were both highly esteemed and influential enough to instill fear into the hearts of their fellow planters.
Dunmore failed to respond to these developments and he only lost more control as he attempted further action. On April 20th, 1775, he deployed sailors to seize gunpowder from the public magazine. This emboldened the colonists, who then almost marched on to his palace in Williamsburg to seize him before stopping few blocks away from it. Shortly thereafter, Dunmore caused further controversy by writing to Dr. William Pasteur, the Mayor of Williamsburg, that if any injury were offered to himself or his affairs, he would “proclaim liberty to the slaves and reduce Williamsburg to ashes.” Dunmore declared Patrick Henry an outlaw for raising a militia although he had no actual power to execute his threats against Henry and his conspirators, thus making the governor’s impotence more apparent than ever.
Dunmore’s hapless response to the creeping deterioration of governmental authority abruptly and unexpectedly ended a month later, dismantling any possible grounds for future Loyalist movements in Virginia. On May 12th, the governor called for a meeting of the Assembly set for June 1st to discuss the Prime Minister’s proposals. However, a week after the Burgesses had assembled they received the news that Dunmore had fled to HMS Fowey on the night of June 8th, fearing seizure of his person upon hearing the news of Lexington and Concord. After his flight, the governor refused to meet the Burgesses on land and to be present at the Assembly’s formal adjournment exercises, effectively ending the King’s authority in Virginia in all but name. It was the first case in British North America in which the authority of the royal governor completely broke down.
Dunmore’s flight was instrumental in curbing the consolidation of Loyalist forces in Virginia. His sudden escape left Virginia with a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the Patriot establishment and the House of Burgesses. This effectively pushed Loyalists out of Virginia’s power structure, denying them any foundation upon which they could build enough influence to resist the revolutionaries. This incident sealed the fate of Loyalism in the colony as the Patriots quickly took command of Virginia. On June 20th, the House of Burgesses adjourned, never to meet again. Then in July, the Third Virginia Convention assembled, with proceedings legitimized by popular opinion and the consent of the governed. This naturally affirmed that Virginia would be governed by its residents and not by the Crown and his representatives. The convention emplaced the government of Virginia in the hands of the Committee of Safety. The common denominator of this group was their prominence and wealth within Virginian society and with the absence of the royal governor, no power could subjugate them and prevent the dissolution of the Crown’s authority.
The Loyalists’ woes, though, did not stop there. Soon after his exile, Dunmore set up his headquarters in Portsmouth harbor and raided the Eastern shore throughout late 1775 and early 1776. He also issued a proclamation, which declared that all slaves who joined His Majesty’s forces would be free, terrifying the slave-owning elites and the white population in general, making them feel “compelled to independency” by such provocations. To respond to these threats from Dunmore and to strengthen their control, the Patriot government began to seek out more effective ways to eliminate the Loyalist opposition.
Two ways the Patriots sought to diminish the Loyalists were through physical and political means which had already been prevalent. It is known that Thomas Jefferson, as Governor of Virginia in 1779, suggested that in cases which evidences were not enough to constitute convictions of treason, convictions for the misprision of treason might be obtained. Not many records of Virginian Loyalists exist to provide specific information regarding the scope and degree of physical and political abuses after Dunmore’s exile and the Declaration of Independence. The evidence, however, implies that these acts were very effective in suppressing Loyalist movements and correspondence.
Cresswell’s journal is one example that exhibits signs of organized scrutiny and punishments on Virginian Loyalists subsequent to the pre-1776 tar and feathering. In October 1776, Cresswell found himself in more stringent situation with “the Committee of [Alexandria unwilling to permit him] to depart [the] Colony as they looked upon [him] to be a Spy.” He was spared from going to jail thanks to the support of his Patriot acquaintance Mr. Kirk, but found his “[dependence] on him for bread and liberty [to be] worse than Egyptian bondage.” The strains of the revolutionary persecutions become more apparent in his journal as it moves into 1777, during which he “had [his] chest searched for treasonable papers.” Nothing was found to be treasonous against the Revolution in his papers and Cresswell wrote in relief that, had anything been discovered, he would have faced “an imprisonment of five years, or the fine of twenty thousand pounds… of punishment.” This particular piece of information is invaluable as it demonstrates that the suppression of Loyalist Tories by the Patriot government was prevalent, and also delineates the possible punishments that could fall on convicted Loyalists.
Loyalists were also suppressed through economic means, which had more long-lasting effects both during and after the Revolution. In a letter to Richard Henry Lee on June 4th, 1779, George Mason made assessments of Virginia’s resolution to distinguish between “Citizens & Enemies” in order to confiscate estates. Mason saw “immediately selling the real & personal Estates of all alien Enemies & lodging the Money in [the Virginian] Treasury… [were] all the Means [they had] in Power to prevent the further Depreciation of [Virginia’s] Money” and this addresses clearly that the Patriot government was keen on using the confiscated Loyalist estates and property to fund the operative costs of government and the Revolution. Moreover, Patriot troops would occasionally destroy Loyalist property entirely without confiscation, the best example being the Patriot sacking of Norfolk on January 1st, 1776. Over 863 houses, valued at £110,807 and personal property valued at £8,000 in Norfolk were destroyed by the Patriot troops as revenge for the city’s loyalty to Dunmore. The seizures and demolitions of Loyalist properties later accumulated into tens of millions of Loyalist claims for compensation after the Treaty of Paris. Lord Fairfax’s seized property alone was valued at £98,000.
To these desperate circumstances, Dunmore did nothing to aid the suffering Loyalists, leaving them to suffer from extreme deprivation. His incompetence in handling the colony’s elites and abandoning the Loyalist population through his precipitous escape to Fowey provided an ideal breeding ground for revolutionary sentiments after the rapid takeover of the colony by disaffected establishment. The unique aspect of Loyalism in Virginia was forged by a quick transition of power and persistent persecution of pro-British sentiments.
By Spencer Park, Staff Writer