Causes > Virginia Resolves

Virginia Resolves

Background

The Virginia Resolves were a response to the Stamp Act of 1765 by the Virginia House of Burgesses. The Stamp Act was a piece of contentious legislation as the British had levied the tax against the colonist in order to pay for the expensive cost of defending British colonies around the world, especially from the French and Indian Wars.

Patrick Henry's Speech on the Virginia Resolves - Peter F. Rothermel (1851)

The Virginia Resolves claimed that as per long-standing British law the Colony and Dominion of Virginia was only allowed to be taxed through a measure that the colonists themselves voted on. However, since there were no colonists in the British Parliament the colonists claimed only the Virginia General Assembly could do this.

On 29 May 1765, Patrick Henry would make his famous speech before the Virginia House of Burgesses to facilitate the successful passage of the Virginia Resolves. He famously stated;

"Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III... (Henry was interrupted by cries from the opposition)… may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it."

When Patrick Henry paused after the vibrant portion of the speech, Speaker John Robinson stood and shouted, "Treason! Treason!". Patrick Henry at this point issued a semi-apology.

Peyton Randolph would later tell his cousin, a young Thomas Jefferson who used to visit the House that he would have given 500 guineas for a single vote on the Virginia Resolves. To the colonists this was a test of their economic and political independence from Britain, something they would have one way or the other.

Passage

Henry had waited for most of the more conservative members of the assembly to be away before submitting the resolves. The Burgesses generally voted along geographic lines with eastern Virginians opposing the resolves and central Virginians supporting them. Patrick Henry left Williamsburg, Virginia that night fearing the powerful members of the House would harass him with a warrant. The next day, with Patrick Henry gone and most conservative assembly members back in session, the assembly again set a vote with conservatives trying to have the Resolves struck from the record. However Henry's supporters managed to preserve the first four resolutions with only the more radical 5th Resolution being struck.[1] In late June the Newport Mercury was the first newspaper to publish the Virginia Resolves to the general public with several other newspapers following soon after. Notably none of the newspapers drew on the official House records and as a result the published resolutions included not only the 4 ratified resolutions but also the, already removed, 5th resolution. In fact the newspapers even went so far to include a 6th and 7th resolution the origin of which is still disputed. Some sources quote those two articles as being part of Henry's original manuscript[2] while others argue that their origin is completely unknown. A direct result of the publishing of the Virginia Resolves was a growing public anger over the Stamp Act and according to several contemporary sources the Resolves were responsible for inciting the Stamp Act Riots. Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts stated that "Nothing extravagant appeared in the papers till an account was received of the Virginia Resolves." Later Edmund Burke linked the resolves with the beginning of the opposition to the Stamp Act that would contribute to American Revolutionary War.

Legacy

The Fifth Resolution to the Virginia Resolves was originally adopted for passage along with the other four resolutions on 29 May however, in a second vote the following day this portion was removed. Eventually two of the other resolutions written by an unknown author, possibly Patrick Henry would fail as well. Overall the contention over this legisliation would continue to inflame the colonial and imperial tensions.

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Sources

Primary Sources

Text of the Virginia Resolves

Secondary Sources

Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-375-70636-4

Morison, Sources and Documents, pp. 17-18

John Pendleton Kennedy, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1761-1765 (Richmond, Va., 1907)