Virginia’s revolutionary May Convention adopted its three resolutions of May 15, 1776. In doing so, it decided to craft a declaration of rights, a republican constitution, federal relations with other former British colonies in the New World, and foreign alliances for the fledgling Virginia republic. It did more than that, however: it also touched off a decades-long dispute about the meaning of republican self-government, about the shape the Virginians’ new republic would take. On the mid-May day that it ran up a continental union flag atop the old colonial capitol at Williamsburg, James Madison said, Virginia staked its claim to self-government. What proved more difficult was deciding what self-government would mean.
The American Revolution proceeded simultaneously on two levels: the state and the federal. The federal Constitution ratified in 1788 provided an international context in which the sparsely populated, weak new states could conduct the experiment in republicanism the Revolution was meant to inaugurate, and the founding of the federal republic has naturally drawn the bulk of historians’ attention. While federal reform was essential, and while Virginians took the lead in achieving it, the state-level activity of those years struck contemporaries as more important. As Thomas Jefferson noted in 1776, independence would have been for naught without success in state-level reforms of government and society.
This study follows the Virginia revolutionaries through their revolutionary reforms from the beginning on May 15, 1776 with the adoption of the independence resolutions through the end of the Old Dominion’s national political preeminence around 1830. In the Revolution’s early days, a kind of euphoria swept the staid Virginia ruling elite. A new day, it seemed, had dawned. Within a federal context that left control of almost all internal matters to them, Virginians would argue about the contours of their new society and remake it along largely republican lines. This was the main activity of their revolution. By the story’s end, to their surprise, virtually all of Virginia’s republican leaders were disappointed with the post-revolutionary state of Virginia (to coin a phrase). The tale, oddly, has seldom been told.
Many old revolutionaries were disappointed that the old elite did not dominate the newly republican Old Dominion as it had the colonial one. This class-based disappointment was heightened by the old elite’s discontentment with a new, less polished cohort’s performance in office. Among other results, their unhappiness with unanticipated changes in their state’s political culture and decline in their economic situation led the East’s aristocratic leaders to shut the growing West out of political power, to treat western Virginia as a subordinate society — a colony. Ultimately, the East’s attitude fostered a reciprocal sectionalism, a separate West Virginia consciousness. Analogous developments on the federal level would have even severer results.
Virginia’s self-centeredness had extremely significant consequences, and its effects in the era of the Old Dominion’s unchallenged dominance deserve to be chronicled. Colonial Virginia pamphleteer Richard Bland and his most illustrious acolyte, Thomas Jefferson, understood Virginia to be America. When they discussed colonial history in the documents at the center of chapter 1’s discussion, the story they recounted was actually Virginia’s. (It had little in common with, for example, Massachusetts’.) When Jefferson became president in 1801, he imagined — as other Virginia Republicans imagined — all Americans sharing a common understanding (the peculiar Virginian understanding) of the Revolutionary inheritance, including the United States Constitution. The question whether other states might have different traditions, valid alternative understandings, seldom occurred to them — seems never to have occurred to Jefferson. To be American was to be Republican, to be Republican was to understand things (for better or for worse) Virginia Republicans’ way. When Jefferson said, hopefully, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists. We have called by different names, brethren of the same principle,” he revealed not that he was simple-minded or that he had a Pollyanna hopefulness concerning human nature (and the likelihood that party contention would simply wither away), but that his horizons were limited.
Thus, when this study refers to Virginians’ understanding of their revolution, when it says that they expected certain things for their new republic, it does not do so in order to slight other states or to insist on an imaginary homogeneity of the states. Rather, the point is that Virginians believed that other Americans agreed with them perforce, that all good men and true were (Virginia) Republicans, that this was the Revolution’s promise.
Once they had adopted their declaration of rights and constitution in June 1776, republican Virginia’s founders set out upon a reforming career that changed the world. In the long decade 1776-1788, their new independence (for nearly all purposes) forced Virginians to adopt a number of monumental alterations to their legal, constitutional, and social structures. However, various factors combined to draw a large number of more plebeian men into the Virginia political system in the 1770s and 1780s, and the measures they adopted — especially in the economic field — gave rise to growing discontent among members of the old ruling class. One of the disgruntled, James Madison, hit upon a strategy calculated in part to undercut the power of the new republicans and their political leader, Patrick Henry: he would convene a sizable group of eminent men from all the colonies to adopt a new federal constitution. As he explained in The Federalist #10, Madison hoped that this constitution would be administered by a more select group of men than ran the state governments, and thus would adopt more “continentally minded” policies. He and others succeeded in 1788 in securing ratification of the new federal Constitution they had taken the lead in drafting and defending, but only after Virginian opponents of this Constitution mounted the most persuasive of all state campaigns against it. Because of the strength of Virginian opposition, Virginia Federalists secured ratification only by promising Virginia’s ratification convention that the new Constitution would have left Virginia’s sovereignty essentially untouched. This momentous, though limited, accomplishment is chronicled in chapters 2 and 3.
Within months of the new federal government’s inception, Virginia’s political elite was almost unanimously displeased by the nationalizing program of the Washington Administration, which struck directly at Virginians’ cherished control over their state’s internal polity. Chapter 4 describes Virginia Republicans’ ultimate response to the Federalist era in federal politics: the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. While these documents struck leading figures in other states as the height of particularist folly and constitutional sophistry, from the point of view of Virginians familiar with the vows made by Virginia Federalists in 1788, these touchstones of future state and southern sectionalism were merely “an appeal to the real laws of our country.” As at other points, so at this one, leading Virginians of the 1790s believed their opponents to be wrong-headed, dupes, or worse. Any honest patriot would agree with the Virginia Republicans.
Republicans, as most politically active Virginians called themselves, persuaded themselves in the 1790s that all would be well if only their man, Thomas Jefferson, were elected president, because a Jefferson administration would respect the rights of the states to rule themselves in all but a few specified areas; it would respect the federal government’s limited role as guarantor of peace among the states and between America and foreign countries. The final two chapters describe the growing unease with the Revolution’s legacy among Virginia Republicans, including even Madison and Jefferson himself, in the first third of the nineteenth century. Seemingly, what Virginians had gained had come at a price. For example, John Tyler, Sr. and Jefferson agreed that the abolition of feudal land tenures chronicled in chapter 1 had left the Old Dominion bereft of a class of men fit to rule it. Republicanism was of no avail without such a class, they agreed, and Jefferson and Tyler’s proposed solution, establishment of a three-tiered system of public schools, divided Republicans among themselves. Governor Tyler, in a melancholy missive to Jefferson, wondered whether the Revolution they had made had been worthwhile. Virginians perhaps had been more capable of governing themselves before they seized the prerogative.
The story here, then, cuts against the grain of traditional interpretations of the Revolution and Jeffersonian America. Central to it is the old reality of American political life that the state was the primary unit of political allegiance, the chief locus of political identity, and the level at which most significant political questions were decided in the Early Republic. It should be unsurprising that in the absence of television, radio, news magazines, national newspapers, air travel, interstate highways, the internet, and even cheap postal service, and in a day when very few people went away to college, it was uncommon for anyone to “think continentally.” When Virginians argued about what a republic should be, then, their concern was almost never some Platonic ideal republic, nor even the United States, but their own Old Dominion. The context of this dispute might be an American federation, but it was an American federation they understood as intended to be administered in a thoroughly Virginian way. The Virginians of Jefferson’s day had very high hopes, and a good many of them had faith in legal and political reform as the solution to almost any social ill. There is a certain poignancy in the fact that by 1830, most had decided that America’s — Virginia’s — besetting problems were simply intractable.
The relative novelty of this approach to Virginia’s history explains some of the unexpected omissions from the tale that follows. For example, George Washington and John Marshall, two of the most significant Virginians of the era, make fleeting appearances in this account. Instead of these epochal figures, the reader will encounter state-level politicians and intellectuals now far more obscure, such as Thomas Ritchie, William Branch Giles, John Tyler, Sr., George Nicholas, Francis Walker Gilmer, Spencer Roane, and the slightly more familiar John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke.
This is a story whose repercussions radiated out beyond Virginia in the Early Republic and continue to be felt by all Americans even in our own day. Their state’s decline in wealth and status led the East’s ruling class into an increasingly defensive posture, both in federal politics and within the state. They opposed the American System of Henry Clay, and all similar proposals for an active federal government, and they defeated all hopes for an intrastate accommodation with the West Virginians from this defensive posture. The mode of constitutional interpretation concocted in Virginia in the days of the Imperial Crisis and Revolution, the accommodation between racial subordination and Lockean social compact theory chosen by the May Convention of 1776, the optimism about the potential of government-funded education and church-state separation that marked those days, the division over the relative attractions of republican and democratic government, and a number of other attitudes and postulates developed by Virginia’s first republican leaders affected American politics and society markedly through the nineteenth century. Many are felt even now. If no one today would speak of “America” when he meant Virginia, in some sense, all Americans today really are Virginians — for better and for worse.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Introduction to Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840 by Kevin Gutzman. Appears here by permission of the author.
1. David C. Hendrickson, Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003).
2. Jefferson, pining to leave Congress and return to Virginia to help draft the 1776 constitution, called the new state constitution “the whole object of the present controversy.” As he explained the situation, “should a bad government be instituted for us in future it had been as well to have accepted the bad one offered to us from beyond the water without the risk and expense of contest.” Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Nelson, 16 May 1776, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, et al. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950 – ), 1:292-293. He had to content himself, in the end, with writing the first draft of the Declaration of American Independence instead.
3. This characterization of them was offered by George Nicholas, whose “Antifederalist” explanation of ratification’s significance had provided the margin of Federalist victory in 1788. For Nicholas in 1788, see Kevin R. C. Gutzman, “Edmund Randolph and Virginia Constitutionalism,” The Review of Politics 66 (2004), 469-97.
4. David C. Hendrickson, Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding.