Southern Colonies > Colony & Dominion of Virginia

Colony & Dominion of Virginia


In 1716 an expedition of Governor Alexander Spotswood over the mountains advertised to the world the rich back-country, now known as the Valley of Virginia; a migration thither from Pennsylvania and from Europe followed which revolutionised the province. The majority of blacks over whites soon gave way before the influx of white immigrants, and in 1756 there was a population of 292,000, of whom only 120,000 were negroes, and the small farmer class had grown so rapidly that the old tide-water aristocracy was in danger of being overwhelmed. The “West” had now appeared in American history. This first West, made up of the older small farmers, of the Scottish settlers, of the Germans from the Palatinate and the Scottish-Irish, far outnumbering the people of the old counties, demanded the creation of new counties and proportionate representation in the Burgesses. They did not at first succeed, but when the Seven Years' War came on they proved their worth by fighting the battles of the community against the Indians and the French. When the war was over the prestige of the up-country had been greatly enhanced, and its people soon found eastern leaders in the persons of Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry.

In 1763-1765 an investigation of the finances of the colony, forced by the up-country party, showed widespread corruption, and resulted in the collapse of the tide-water oligarchy, which had been in power since 1660. In the meantime the Presbyterians, who had been officially recognized in Virginia under the Toleration Act in 1699, and had been guaranteed religious autonomy in the Valley by Governor Gooch in 1738, had sent missionaries into the border counties of eastern Virginia. The Baptists about the same time entered the colony both from the north and the south and established scores of churches. The new denominations vigorously attacked the methods and immunities of the established church, whose clergy had grown lukewarm in zeal and lax in morals. When the clergy, refusing to acknowledge the authority of the Burgesses in reducing their stipends, and, appealing to the king against the Assembly, entered the courts to recover damages from the vestries, Patrick Henry at Hanover court in 1763 easily convinced the jury and the people that the old church was well-nigh worthless.

From this time the old order was doomed, for the up-country, the dissenters and the reformers had combined against it. But the passage of the Stamp Act hastened the catastrophe and gave the leaders of the new combination, notably Henry, an opportunity to humiliate the British ministry, whom not even the tide-water party could defend. The repeal of the Stamp Act, followed as it was by the Townshend scheme of indirect taxation, displeased Virginia quite as much as had the former more direct system of taxation. When the Burgesses undertook in May 1769 to declare in vigorous resolutions that the right and power of taxation, direct and indirect, rested with the local assembly, the governor hastily dissolved them, but only to find the same men assembling in the Raleigh tavern in Williamsburg and issuing forth their resolutions in defiance of executive authority. Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, with Thomas Jefferson, a new up-country leader of great ability, were the leaders.

Lord Dunmore

In 1774 Lord Dunmore, the governor, led an army to the Ohio river to break an Indian coalition which had been formed to check the rapid expansion of Virginia over what is now Kentucky and West Virginia. The up-country again furnished the troops and did the fighting at Point Pleasant (q.v.), where on the 10th of October the power of the Indians was completely broken. But the struggle with England had reached a crisis, and Virginia supported with zeal the revolutionary movement and took the lead in the Continental Congresses which directed the succeeding war (see United States). In 1775 Patrick Henry organized a regiment of militia and compelled the governor to seek safety on board an English man-of-war in Chesapeake Bay. The war now assumed continental proportions, and the Virginia leaders decided in May 1776 that a declaration of independence was necessary to secure foreign assistance.

When the Continental Congress issued the famous Declaration Virginia had already assembled in convention to draft a new Constitution. Although Henry, Lee and Jefferson exercised great power, they were unable to secure a Constitution which embodied the demands of their party: universal suffrage, proportional representation and religious freedom. A draft for such a Constitution was submitted by Jefferson, but the Conservatives rejected it. The system which was adopted allowed the older counties, which must be conciliated, a large majority of the representatives in the new Assembly, on the theory that the preponderance of property (slavery) in that section required this as security against the rising democracy.

In place of the former governor, there was to be an executive chosen annually by the Assembly; the old Council was to be followed by a similar body elected by the Assembly; and the judges were likewise to be the creatures of the legislature. The Assembly was divided into two bodies, a Senate and a House of Delegates. The legislature would be all-powerful, and yet representation was so distributed that about one-third of the voters living in the tide-water region would return nearly two-thirds of the members of the legislature. The franchise, though not universal, was generously bestowed; it was a very liberal freehold system.

The recruiting ground for the American army in Virginia was the up-country among the Scottish-Irish and the Germans who had long fought the older section of the colony. In 1779 Norfolk was again attacked, and great damage was also done to the neighbouring towns. In January 1781 Benedict Arnold captured Richmond and compelled governor and legislature to flee beyond the Blue Ridge mountains, where one session of the Assembly was held. The last campaign of the war closed at Yorktown on the 19th of October 1781.

Virginia leaders, including Henry, were the first to urge the formation of a national government with adequate powers to supersede the lame confederacy. In 1787, under the presidency of Washington, the National Convention sat in Philadelphia, with the result that the present Federal Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification during 1787–1789. In Virginia the tide-water leaders urged adoption, while the upcountry men, following Henry, opposed; but after a long and a bitter struggle, in the summer of 1788 the new instrument was accepted, the low-country winning by a majority of ten votes, partly through the influence of James Madison. Thus the eastern men, who had reluctantly supported the War of Independence, now became the sponsors for the national government, and Washington was compelled to rely on the party of slavery, not only in Virginia but in the whole South, in order to administer the affairs of the nation.

In 1784, Virginia, after some hesitation, ceded to the Federal government the north-west territory, which it held under the charter of 1609; in 1792 another large strip of the territory of Virginia became an independent state under the name of Kentucky. But the people of these cessions, especially of Kentucky, were closely allied to the great up-country party of Virginia, and altogether they formed the basis of the Jeffersonian democracy, which from 1794 opposed the chief measures of the Washington administration, and which on the passage of the Alien and Sedition laws in 1798 precipitated the first great constitutional crisis in Federal politics by the adoption in the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures of the resolutions, known by the names of those states, strongly asserting the right and duty of the states to arrest the course of the national government whenever in their opinions that course had become unconstitutional.

Jefferson was the author of the Kentucky resolutions, and his friend Madison prepared those passed by the Virginia Assembly. But these leaders restrained their followers sharply whenever the suggestion of secession was made, and the question of what was meant by arresting the course of Federal legislation was left in doubt. The election of 1800 rendered unnecessary ah further agitation by putting Jefferson in the President's chair. The up-country party in Virginia, with their allies along the frontiers of the other states, was now in power, and the radical of 1776 shaped the policy of the nation during the next twenty-five years. Virginia held the position of leadership in Congress, controlled the cabinet and supplied many justices of the Supreme Court.

Thirteen Colonies


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28

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