The harmonious relationship between England and the American Colonies began to unravel at the end of the French and Indian War (1754 -1463). England had accrued tremendous debt, and the English Parliament decided since most of the cost was protecting the American colonies, they should play more of a part
in addressing their own defense.
For years the King had assigned English governors to the colonies, but much of the “taxation” levied was in the form of custom duties. Any effort to raise monies for the collective good of each colony was the direct duty of the individual governing body of that colony. For instance, here in Virginia, the governing body was the House of Burgesses and, by consent of the governed, levied taxes that were to be used locally. England realized the great benefit from the goods produced in the colonies such as tobacco, sugar, indigo, cotton and timbers for shipbuilding, and profits were such that there had been no tax imposed directly on the colonies by Parliament. But times were different and some in England thought the colonies should pay their fair share of the cost of their defense.
The colonists thought of themselves as Englishmen, and as such they had
certain rights as defined by English law, first written and agreed upon in 1215 in the Magna Carta. Although redefined many times over the next four centuries, the original agreement between King John and the Barons of Runnymede guaranteed “life, liberty and pursuit of fortune” and “trial by a jury of their peers” for the common man. Sadly, the evolution of the common man took about three centuries. This ancient document was the basis of liberties both in England and the colonies and influenced the founding fathers in their actions leading up to the beginning of the United States in 1776.
The attempt to levy taxes in the colonies was met with fervent disapproval here in Eastern Virginia, the Northern Neck and the Rappahannock River Valley as a whole. The Stamp Act, which had been passed by the English Parliament in 1765, decreed that all legal documents must be printed on paper which was affixed with a stamp of the Crown. This paper was sold by official distributors. If the documents were printed on unstamped paper, they must be brought to the distributor for the official stamp to be affixed. These taxes were especially egregious because they had to be paid in English notes worth substantially more than Colonial money. Deeds, shipping manifests, bills of lading, newspapers, almanacs, commercial advertisements, and even packaging for playing cards and dice would be subject to the stamped paper. Violators of this act would be tried in British admiralty courts, depriving colonists of a trial by a jury of their peers, another “right “of Englishmen. Coastal areas were especially concerned as most of their commerce would require documentation, and this must be on stamped paper.
Later in 1765, even as Patrick Henry led the debate in the Virginia House of Burgess against the Stamp Act with the cry of “no taxation without representation”, Archibald Ritchie, a Scottish merchant in Tappahannock, known then as Hobbs His Hole, announced plans he intended to purchase and use the controversial paper. Ritchie was one of the most successful merchant/shippers in the Rappahannock River Valley, owning assorted businesses and a fleet of ships, some leased and others owned. These ships constantly sailed between Virginia, New England, the Caribbean Islands and European ports carrying exports and returning with imports. Each vessel was required to carry a bill of laden as well as other documentation on voyages each way that must be printed or written on the stamped paper. Ritchie’s announcement of his intent did not sit well with fellow planters along the river, as they had boycotted any purchase of the paper. The stage was being set for Rappahannock River Valley planters and merchants to exercise their “rights as Englishmen”.
Thomas Ludwell Lee, a wealthy planter in Stafford County sent out a summon to fellow planters and merchants along the Rappahannock River to convene in the river port of Leedstown, Virginia on the 27th of February, 1766. Leedstown was a bustling shipping port serving both sides of the Rappahannock. Hotels, stores, a freight office and deep water to accommodate heavily laden sailing vessels lined the area. It was to become the first place associated with the independence movement.
And so they came, one hundred and fifteen strong from Middlesex, Essex, Caroline, Spotsylvania, Stafford, Prince
William, Fredericksburg, King George, Westmoreland,
Northumberland, Richmond and Lancaster Counties. They
met to draft a statement to Parliament identifying their concerns and extreme anger at this unjust tax. For many who had family and strong commercial ties to England, this was a difficult time. However, if the rights of Englishmen were infringed in the colonies, the freedom which had been enjoyed for many years would be in jeopardy. They met in Old Bray’s Church and crafted a document informing Parliament of their concerns and pledging not to accept the act as law. This was a daring step in 1766. These men knew very well this resolve might be seen as treason, but they believed as British citizens they had the right to a trial by a jury of their peers, not by admiralty court. The document was prepared by Richard Henry Lee with the most major concern being belief that there was an effort to “reduce the people of this country to a state of abject and detestable slavery by destroying that free and happy condition of government which they have hitherto lived.” First, they pledged their loyalty to each other, to God and to the country…and to King George the Third…”as far as is consistent with the preservation of our Constitutional rights and liberty”.
Secondly, because colonists had “Birthright” privilege as British subjects, they would be tried by their peers and any taxes levied would be from a Parliament in which they had representation.
Thirdly, they noted that the Stamp Act “absolutely directs the property of the people to be taken from them without their consent…it deprives the British American Subject of his right to trial by jury…we do determine, at every hazard, paying no regard to danger or death, we will exert every faculty to prevent the execution of the said Stamp Act in the Colony of Virginia.”
Fourthly, a clear statement that others would notify as many as possible if anyone agreed to an act of defiance of their countryman, and they would convene at a location near the offense.
Fifthly, each associate would try to
get as many signers to the document
Lastly, it was noted that if “any attempt shall be made on the liberty or property of any associate for any action or thing to be done in consequence of this agreement, we do most solemnly bind ourselves by the sacred engagements above entered into, at the risk of lives and fortunes, to restore such associate to his liberty and protect him…and his property”.
In the dim light of the old church, they all signed what would become known as the Leedstown Resolves. James Monroe’s father, three of George Washington’s brothers and brothers Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee ( both signers of the Declaration of Independence) were but some of the notable signatures. They also wrote a letter to Archibald Ritchie warning, “If any abandoned Wretch, shall be so lost to Virtue and public Good as to wickedly contribute to the Stamp Act in this Colony, we will with the utmost expedition, convince all such Profligates that immediate Danger and Disgrace shall attend their prostitute Purpose.” The next day the association went down river to Hobbs His Hole to confront Ritchie about his transgressions.
Word travelled quickly as to their purpose. By the time they arrived in Hobbs Hole, over 400 men armed with swords and guns and calling themselves the Sons of Liberty confronted Ritchie at his home. After reading the letter to Ritchie, he relented and signed a letter of apology to his neighbors and pledged never to use the dreaded stamped paper in the future. Ritchie later became a loyal and fervent supporter of his neighbors in the events leading up to the American Revolution.
All along the East Coast, other acts of discord occurred. As England decided to bolster their presence in the colonies to enforce the new taxes, more discontent built. In 1770, a street fight in Boston erupted between a large gathering of patriots throwing snowballs, sticks and stones at a squad of British soldiers. Gunfire ensued leaving five colonists dead. The Boston Massacre, as it was known, was the first contact where men had actually been killed by the British. The Boston Tea Party (December 16 1773) occurred when The Sons of Liberty, dressed as Indians, fell upon British ships anchored in the Boston Harbor because they had not been allowed to dock and offload the cargo of tea. The tea was captured by the “Indians” and unceremoniously thrown into the harbor. These and other escalating events throughout New England and the other colonies brought things to a point of no return.
Ten years later, some believe fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson used the Leedstown Resolves as a template when he penned The Declaration of Independence. That document was subsequently ratified by the newly formed Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
In the now sleepy farming community of Leedstown, seeds of revolution were initially sown. At huge personal risk, these Virginians decided to make a statement that the colonies were not to be taken for granted. This spark grew into an inferno, a crucible so to speak, which molded the new United States of America. People with integrity and courage made a stand against tyranny. That grit, determination and commitment is still strong in our country. We can only hope that what these men did on the banks of the Rappahannock River in 1766 will not be lost to our future generations.