“We’re Not Boston”: An Examination of the Motivation of 18th Century Virginians to Support the American Revolution

Political oppression is a lofty motive for revolution: it explains away the cause and often excuses all but the most heinous of crimes committed in the name of escaping it. This is the motive which Americans like to remember their revolution for, but it must be remembered that the motives for the revolution are varied and far from uniform. In Virginia, the first colony to secede from the British Empire, political oppression did exist, it’s use as an excuse for revolution was eclipsed by the desire of the First Families of Virginia to reclaim their lost economic power and the fear of potential Indian and slave revolts.
The one incident which was pointed to as the principal cause for Virginian secession was the seizure of gunpowder from the Williamsburg armory by Lord Dunmore. However, Dunmore did hold the authority, as leader of the militia, to place the gunpowder wherever he pleased, and Virginians were for the most part aware of this simple hierarchy. In fact, Woody Holton explains that “By dawn on the morning the powder was removed, most of white Williamsburg gathered on the town green near the governor’s palace… returning to the green, [a delegation of town notables] persuaded the crowd to disperse. Williamsburg lapsed into ‘perfect tranquility.’ But then, a Report was spread by his Excellency throwing out some threats concerning the slaves.” (Holton, 275). Therefore, it is established that the people of Williamsburg were irate over the confiscation of “their” gunpowder, but the incident hardly produced the revolutionary fervor which threats to arm the slaves did. Holton elaborates that this threat was especially worrying due to the growing friendship between the slave population and the Indians in the years since the conclusion of the Seven Years War, indicating that “White Virginians became especially alarmed about their slaves during Pontiac’s Rebellion. For the first time in recent memory, Indians spared lives of blacks at the settlements they attacked… militia lieutenant William Fleming told Governor Fauquier in July 1763, ‘should it be productive of an Insurrection it may be attended with the most serious consequences.'” (Holton 272)
An additional tributary to the revolutionary fervor was the channeling of the FFV’s resentment and frustration over their lost economic power. The FFV originally would arrange for and profit from the selling of tobacco overseas, but this role became more and more diminished until the merchants became almost entirely Scottish. According to Dr. James Whittenburg, a professor of history and department chair at the College of William and Mary, “Scotch” was at the time used frequently as a derogatory term or insult, even by men such as Thomas Jefferson, who is generally depicted as being accepting and tolerant. The FFV believed the Scottish to be cutting in on their trade and came to identify that interference with British government allowing the citizens of the mother country to compete in the colonies, but not vice versa. The FFV would jump at the chance to make an even larger profit on their tobacco, and freedom from this mercantilist system of trade would constitute a satisfactory change in their eyes no matter how it was achieved. Common planters followed suit in this anger and discrimination, indicating a widespread frustration not with the political autocracy under which they toiled, but instead the systematic economic stifling of Virginia businesses. By the time of the revolution, the largest pottery kiln in America belonged to William Rogers and was only approximately 30 feet by 30 feet, meaning the kilns were not large enough, let alone numerous enough, to provide for an entire society or make the profit which Virginians were longing for. They repeatedly rebelled against the Navigation Acts which kept them in economic servitude to Britain, even risking fines or whipping for smuggling (Roger’s Ware pieces were discovered in the Dutch colony of St. Eustacia). This flouting of British laws constituted an economic rebellion in and of itself, and when Lord Dunmore threatened to release hell and war upon the Virginians, this pre-existing anger at British laws found another outlet and provided an extra reason for revolt.
Study of the origins of the American Revolution is largely based on the idea that the British did not represent Americans, and were oppressing them politically. Yet the Americans had lived underneath royal governance for more than a century without issue. In the birthplace of the rebellion, Virginia, political oppression was simply an opportune motive which was co-opted to make the cause for independence more credible; the real reasons for the colonists’ revolt lie in their distaste for British interference in their financial affairs and threatening to unleash different social classes against each other.

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