Origins of the American Revolution

By Gross, Robert | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Origins of the American Revolution


Gross, Robert, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the Anerican Revolution in Virginia. By Woody Holton. Published for Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by University of North Carolina Press. $39.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

In mid-April 1775 British authorities determined to crack down, once and for all, on colonial resistance to imperial policies. The order went out to the King's men: seize the weapons in American stockpiles and shatter the "rabble's" capacity to defy the will of Parliament and Crown. On the night of April 18, some 700 to 800 Regulars based in Boston rowed across the Charles River to Cambridge and began their fateful march through Lexington to Concord, the seat of provincial military preparations, where local Minutemen, answering the alarm first sounded by Paul Revere, assembled at the North Bridge, confronted the invading Redcoats, and launched the Revolutionary War. Three days later, 600 miles to the south, a detachment of troops from the schooner H.M.S. Magdalen, moored on the James River, slipped quietly into the royal capital of Williamsburg just before dawn, snuck into the provincial powder magazine, and stole away with 15 half-barrels of powder. By the time the cry was raised, the squadron was gone, mission accomplished. In succeeding days, angry Virginians organized independent military companies throughout the countryside and threatened to march on Williamsburg with an ultimatum for Governor Dunmore: return the powder or face the consequences. Did the city fathers welcome the aid? Not at all. Fearful of the governor's response, they negotiated frantically to stave off a confrontation. It was sufficient, in their view, that a supporter of the Crown promised to pay for the powder. The matter should be "as little Agitated as may be, lest difference of Sentiment should be wrought into dissentions, very injurious to the common Cause." Had such leaders been in charge at Concord, the "shot heard round the world" might never have been fired.

Why the difference? From the protests against the Stamp Act in 1765 to the Declaration of Independence, Massachusetts and Virginia were staunch partners in resistance to British taxes and troops. Both colonies closed courts rather than comply with the stamp tax and forced the resignation of officials charged with implementing that law; they joined in the nonimportation campaign to win repeal of the Townshend Duties; the House of Burgesses proclaimed a fast day to support the Boston Tea Party and called for a continental congress after Parliament inflicted the Coercive Acts upon an insubordinate Bay Colony; and in the move toward independence, delegates from both colonies supplied the driving force, with Richard Henry Lee introducing John Adams's resolution that "these United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent States" and Adams stepping aside for Jefferson to draft the official "declaration" of that position. The descendants of Puritans and Cavaliers were seemingly united in a common cause. Yet, behind that apparent agreement lay divergent motives and interests that distinguish Virginia's rebellion from that of New England.

Woody Holton's Forced Founders spotlights those differences in an unsparing analysis of the Old Dominion's rocky road to revolution. Gone from this account are the familiar scenes of an impassioned Patrick Henry declaiming to the House of Burgesses "Give me liberty, or give me death!" and of high-minded gentlemen from the colony's first families resolutely plotting sedition in Raleigh Tavern. In Holton's telling, the squirearchy that guided Virginia to independence was made up of "desperate" men beset by a host of challengers from within and without and gradually pushed into radical measures by forces beyond their control. Owing to the elite's hesitations and fears, Virginia was unprepared to retaliate against Dunmore's sudden raid on the Williamsburg magazine. While Minutemen advanced into battle at Concord to stop British forces from burning the town, the leaders of Virginia held fire, lest the capital be destroyed. …

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