Conflict at Home and Abroad: Virginia’s domestic causes for joining the Revolution

Many claim that Virginia was truly the first colony to embrace the revolution, the first one to take action and declare independence.  The question is: what caused this?  At the time before the Revolution, Virginia was already in a state of extreme unrest.  Between changing religious affiliations, an unreliable tobacco economy, and an unsustainable class system, an open fight was a long time coming.  Virginia’s choice to join the war was caused as much by domestic disputes as by legitimate British oppression.

Before shots were fired in the name of freedom from Britain, Virginia was already in a state of unrest.  In the mid eighteenth

The cover of a book of Anglican prayer from 1762.  Photo copy courtesy of

The cover of a book of Anglican prayer from 1762. Photo copy courtesy of

century, a new Christian sect began to gain popularity in the colonies: Baptism.  As Isaac writes, much of the conflict in Virginia “was not over the distribution of political power or economic wealth, but over the ways of men and the ways of god” (Isaac, 346).  The Baptists’ ideas of what a church service should be was very different from those accepted by the Anglican Church at the time.       At church, as in life, the gentry were the stars of the show.  Sunday services were just another arena for social and business activities.  Their conversation was often of “the price of Tobacco, Grain etc. and settling either the lineage, Age, or qualities of favorite Horses” (Isaac, 350).  Baptists at the time taught that these behaviors were inappropriate and disrespectful.  They sought to make interaction with the Holy a more interactive and engaging experience.  Services often included singing and clapping,even audience participation; something unheard of in the Anglican Church.  But perhaps most shocking of all, the language of Baptist congregations leant itself much more to equality than did that of the Anglicans.  Members called each other “brother” and “sister”, regardless of race or class.  This challenged the hierarchy that the gentry sought to uphold (Isaac, 351).  The growing popularity of Baptism among the lower and middling classes did not sit well with the wealthy planters of the FFV.  Baptist meetings were considered illegal and could be broken up at any time by local authorities (as was explained in Colonial Williamsburg).  Exacerbated by poor class relations, tensions surrounding faith came to blows often and divided led to a great deal of strife in population.

But religion was not the only source of conflict in the colony of Virginia.  The economy of Virginia was based on one product more than any other: Tobacco.  It was the colony’s greatest export, and, to quote Dr. Mr. Whittenburg, was a veritable “money tree”.  It was, for a time, a kind of miracle crop.  However, with the reliance on one thing,

An 18th century advertisement for Virginian tobacco.  Photo copy from

An 18th century advertisement for Virginian tobacco. Photo copy from

small fluctuations in the price could have drastic effects on the economy.  Tobacco prices plummeted in 1773 (Holton, 106).  This was likely the result of a surplus on the British end.  Because Tobacco keeps for a long time, British warehouses soon filled with more Virginian tobacco than anyone could use.  Though this issue was linked to Britain, it was not the result of oppression, but a homogenous economy tied up in a single crop.  Not only that, but many tobacco farmers were deeply in debt to storekeepers andcould be sued if they did not pay back these debts in the appropriate amount of tobacco (Holton, 107).  The fal of prices had the potential to ruin many of the colony’s middling planters.  With rising pressure to stop importing tobacco to Britain in order to raise prices again, tensions rose both at home and abroad.

Another cause of tension within the colony was its ‘peculiar institution’, in other words: slavery.  Half the population of Virginia was enslaved.  As we were told by ‘Patrick Henry’: the colony had reached a point where its economy depended on slavery.  With every physically and financially able young man claiming his own land and growing his own crops, the only workforce left to the planter class was one of enslaved Africans-or so they believed.  Slavery was condoned everywhere; in the law books, in churches, and by polite society.  In order to be a member of the FFV one had to own slaves.  But to many of the whites of Virginia, slaves were more than a labor force.  They were a potential threat.  At the Randolph house, our guide talked at length about the extent to which masters had to trust their slaves.  Slaves slept beside their beds every night, some even shaved their owners with straight razors every morning.  This relationship did not stem from trust but from self-rationalization.  Slave owners had to believe that the people they saw as their property did not wish them harm.  Virginians lived in constant fear of a slave uprising.  It frightened them almost as much as an Indian raid or another attack from the French.  With such a rift between two halves of the population, it is no wonder that Virginians were a little trigger-happy.

And yet, slavery did not end in Virginia, and did not lead to war for another century.  Perhaps sectarian conflicts might have come to a peaceful conclusion, or the drop in tobacco prices could have given way to a more diversified economy (within the realm of what was legal under the laws of British mercantilism) and all that conflict need not have led to war.  Tensions in eighteenth century Virginia were at a boiling point, but the rebellion that began in the north was the catalyst that caused it to boil over.  This is not to say that British ‘oppression’ had nothing to do with the war.  Virginians felt supremely victimized by British control of exports and the occasional parliamentary intervention into American affairs.  However, it seems unlikely that these things could have caused Virginia to declare independence on its own.  There was no open conflict between citizens and soldiers as there was in New England.  Perhaps, if all had been well in Virginia when that conflict had arisen in the north, it might have taken a lot more to get Virginia to join the war.

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