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Authors: Alfred W. Blumrosen

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Moreover, while seeming to be specific, the resolution does not identify the “proceedings” that gave rise to the disturbing reports, thus permitting readers to include any British action that offended them. Southerners could understand that Lord Mansfield’s decision in Somerset’s case was included; northerners would understand that taxation and the quartering of troops were included. All were instances where Britain usurped or threatened to take the colonists’ “ancient, legal, and constitutional rights” and their property.

(2) And whereas, the affairs of this colony are frequently connected with those of Great Britain as well as of the neighboring colonies, which renders a communication of sentiments necessary; in order therefore to remove the uneasiness and to quiet the minds of the people as well as for the other good purposes above mentioned.

This paragraph contains the proposition that so upset the British Board of Trade. It asserts that common interests of the colonies require intercolonial communication of sentiments. Sentiments may lead to action. This paragraph incorporates the purposes set out in paragraph one. It also contravenes Britain’s policy of dealing separately with each colony. No wonder the Board of Trade called it “a measure of a most dangerous tendency and effect.”

(3) Be it resolved, that a standing committee of correspondence and inquiry be appointed to consist of eleven persons, to wit, the Honorable Peyton Randolph, Esquire, Robert Carter Nicholas, Richard Bland, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton, Patrick Henry, Dudley Digges, Dabney Carr, Archibald Cary, and Thomas Jefferson, esquires, any six of whom to be a committee, whose business it shall be to obtain the most early and authentic intelligence of all such acts and resolutions of the British Parliament or proceedings of administration as may relate to or affect the British colonies in America, and to keep up and maintain a correspondence and communication with our sister colonies, respecting these important considerations; and the result of such their proceedings, from time to time, to lay before this House.

These three paragraphs are carefully constructed to build upon one another. Paragraph two incorporates paragraph one, by express reference. Paragraph three refers to both paragraphs one and two. Together they make a coherent whole. Paragraph three told both the British and the other colonies that this document expressed the judgment of the political leadership of Virginia, including both the senior and younger members of the House of Burgesses.

They were united in the decision to discuss with the other colonies “acts of Parliament” and “proceedings of administration” which included all British actions which irritated the colonies—including both limiting slavery and imposing taxes. These were to be considered concerns of all the colonies and to be addressed jointly, regardless of Britain’s hopes to keep the colonies separate from one another. It also makes clear that the committees would mobilize public opinion. The actions of the committees were not directed only to the political elites in both the colonies and in Britain, but to the citizens of the colonies as well. The resolution provided a model for extralegal committees of correspondence that the other colonies could— and did—follow.
3

(4) Resolved, that it be an instruction to the said committee that they do, without delay, inform themselves particularly of the principles and authority on which was constituted a court of enquiry, said to have been lately held in Rhode Island, with powers to transmit persons accused of offenses committed in America to places beyond the seas to be tried.

This paragraph refers to an incident that occurred in June, 1772, involving the
Gaspee
, a British antismuggler ship, assigned to Rhode Island in March of 1772. Rhode Island was a notorious home for smugglers engaged in evading British customs regulations. British navy lieutenant William Dudingston had managed to alienate the colonists while stationed in Philadelphia, his previous post, but outdid himself when he arrived in Rhode Island. He routinely stopped ships and helped himself to food and other supplies. His actions generated many complaints from citizens. He ignored Governor Joseph Wanton’s demand to present his commission and discuss these complaints.

Finally, he seized the
Fortune
, a ship owned by the family of Thomas Green, a wealthy merchant, and sent it to Boston, instead of nearby Providence, for a trial on smuggling charges. Merchants John and Nicholas Brown and Thomas Green signed a complaint against Dudingston for violating regulations that required such ships to stay within the colony where it was seized and for abusing the citizens.

On June 9, 1772, Dudingston tried to intercept the
Hannah
, a small ship sailing up Narragansett Bay from Newport to Providence. Captain Benjamin Lindsey took evasive action and the
Gaspee
chased him through shallow waters until it ran aground on Namquid Point at mid-afternoon, nearly at low tide. Captain Lindsey knew that Dudingston would be stuck for twelve hours.

Lindsey rushed to Providence and told John Brown what had happened. Brown immediately organized a flotilla of eight longboats and sent Daniel Pearce to march with a drum down Main Street calling out the news, and asking people to come to Sabin’s Tavern where an attack on the
Gaspee
was organized by Brown with his captain Abraham Whipple. At ten p.m., sixty-five volunteers rowed on muffled oars from Fenner’s Wharf toward the
Gaspee
.

Their surprise was nearly complete. They were under the
Gaspee
’s eight big guns before they were noticed, at about 12:45 a.m. When Dudingston challenged them, someone shot him in the arm; the bullet lodged in his left groin. The Rhode Islanders overwhelmed the crew of twenty-six men and took all of them to shore, returned to the
Gaspee,
and burned her to the waterline.

By the next day, the story was all over Providence, Newport, and Bristol, including the tale of how Justin Jacobs paraded through Providence wearing Dudingston’s gold-braided officer’s hat. The local government instituted a pro forma investigation that revealed nothing. Amnesia struck all of Rhode Island. The horrified British created a royal commission to identify the culprits and charge them with treason, which could be tried in England. The chief justices of Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, along with a judge of the Vice Admiralty Court for New England and Rhode Island’s Governor Wanton made up the commission.

The commission decided that they would turn over anyone they captured to Rhode Island authorities, instead of sending them to London. This was done by January 4, 1773, but was not widely publicized. The investigation— scarcely worthy of Sherlock Holmes—failed to identify anyone. It concluded that the attack had been “spontaneous” and not planned in advance as the British thought, and that Dudingston, by his “intemperate, if not a reprehensible, zeal to aid the revenue service” had contributed to the outcome. Dudingston was promoted to rear admiral after the affair was over and the cloud of amnesia over Rhode Island blew away.
4

Some historians of the twentieth century have brushed off the
Gaspee
incident as an excuse for the Virginia Resolution rather than its cause. Historian Charles Andrews concludes that: “Even the disturbance caused by the burning of the British revenue vessel
Gaspee
in Narragansett Bay near Providence in 1772 did not seriously derange the existing tranquility.”
5
The best evidence for this position is that there was no follow-up to the committee of correspondence request for information about the
Gaspee
affair. Apparently, the committee members violated their instructions. They never “informed themselves” of the basis for the creation of a court of inquiry to investigate the
Gaspee
incident. Evidently, once the
Gaspee
had been mentioned as evidence of British misbehavior, the committee of correspondence lost interest.
Gaspee
served its purpose as a propaganda ploy, not a serious concern worth pursuing.

The records of the Virginia committee of correspondence contain no communications concerning the
Gaspee
affair at all. There is no report that the
Gaspee
incident was examined by anyone. There are no reports that the royal commission had decided to turn over any culprits to Rhode Island authorities, rather than transporting them to England. Nor is there a report that no one was caught or transported.

Paragraph four of the Virginia Resolution appears to be an unnecessary afterthought to the Virginia Resolution, because the
Gaspee
incident was one of those “rumours and reports” already identified in paragraph one. But paragraph four did send one important and clear signal to the northern colonists. It demonstrated that the Virginians took northerners problems with the British seriously and were ready to make common cause with them.

While the records of the Virginia committee of correspondence contain nothing about the
Gaspee
affair, they are full of communications congratulating Virginia for its resolution, and planning for a meeting of a Continental Congress. Even though the resolution was condemned by the British government, it received stunning support throughout the colonies. Many more resolutions were adopted by other colonies in praise and support for Virginia’s leadership.

Massachusetts, May 27, 1773:
“This House have a very grateful sense of the obligations they are under to the House of Burgesses in Virginia for the vigilance, firmness, and wisdom which they have discovered at all times in support of the rights and liberties of the American colonies, and do heartily concur with them in their said judicious and spirited resolves.”

South Carolina, July 9, 1773:
“We are firmly persuaded of the utility of the measure so seasonably proposed by the colony of Virginia and, we hope, universally adopted by the other colonies, and hope thereby to cultivate and strengthen that harmony and union among all the English colonies on the continent.”

Delaware, October 25, 1773:
“This House have a very grateful sense of the obligation they are under to the House of Burgesses in Virginia, for the vigilance, firmness, and wisdom which they have discovered at all times in support of the rights and liberties of the American colonies, and do heartily concur with them in their said judicious and spirited resolves.”

Georgia, September 10, 1773:
“The thanks of this House be transmitted to the...members of the House of Burgesses of Virginia…for communicating their intentions firmly to support the right and privileges of his Majesty’s faithful subjects.”

Philadelphia meeting, noted by Charles Thompson, June 13, 1774:
“All America looks up to Virginia to take the lead on the present occasion. Our united efforts are now necessary to ward off the impending blow leveled at our lives, liberty and property.... Some colony must step forth and appoint the time and place. None is so fit as Virginia. You are ancient. You are respected. You are animated in the cause.”

Similar support came from six other colonies and cities including Connecticut, November 4, 1773, New York City, January 20, 1774, New Jersey, February 3, 1774, New York, March 1, 1774, Alexandria, Virginia, May 29, 1774, and North Carolina, June 24, 1774.
6

The published records of the Virginia committee of correspondence make clear that the resolution was understood by virtually all the colonies as calling for a congress of the colonies for the purpose of countering the offending British actions. This support meant that the leadership in the other colonies was ready, once Virginia acted, to “cross the Rubicon,” and risk British displeasure that could ripen into charges of treason, by publicly supporting the Virginian’s resolution. Thus the “younger members” of the House of Burgesses learned not only that their senior members were ready to move forward, but that the other colonies were ready to join the march.

After March, 1773, when the House of Burgesses resolution was adopted, British actions that were designed to save the East India Company from bankruptcy encouraged the colonies to unite. In the spring of 1773, Parliament approved a plan to unload seventeen shiploads of East India Company tea in the colonies. The tea scheme was a bail-out for the East India Company that sat with half a million surplus pounds of tea. The plan authorized the Company to make direct sales of cheaper tea to colonists, without the Company paying taxes, thus threatening to disrupt the Colonies’ substantial smuggling trade with the Dutch and undercutting the profit of colonial merchants. British favorites among the colonists would be chosen to distribute the cheap tea. This effort was opposed by both merchants and colonists who saw another tax in the making through the creation of a monopoly.
7

The British plan radicalized the hitherto conservative New York merchants and provided an opportunity for the southern colonies to emphasize their opposition to this parliamentary intrusion into colonial affairs without mentioning slavery. The ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston repelled the tea shipments in different ways.
8
The colorful actions in Boston in December, 1773, where three shiploads of tea were dumped into the harbor by colonists lightly disguised as Mohawk Indians, became known as the Boston Tea Party.
9
Its fame eclipsed the fact that the colonists refused to allow the tea to be landed anywhere in the colonies.
10
This was the first time that Americans had taken parallel action to deny British commerce physical access to American ports.

The colonists did not need a committee of correspondence to tell them that the tea should be stopped. The existence of the committees, however, with their implied promise of joint action, may have encouraged the boldness that the colonists demonstrated in rejecting the tea. The unity of colonial action disturbed the British as much as the disruption of the tea scheme itself. British colonial policy had sought to retain direct relations with each colony in hopes that the colonies would not become accustomed to acting in concert and would continue to relate to Britain as the source of styles, education, culture, and political guidance.

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