“Let the Gentlemen Look To It”: The Tea Act and “the Vulgar” in Virginia

ImageOn this date in 1774, a doctor returning from a public meeting in the Northern Neck of Virginia had this report for his friend, Landon Carter. While the question of class consciousness, or even awareness, in revolutionary America has been vastly overstated by some historians, this snippet of political life suggests the divided interests between “the vulgar” and “depraved” on the one hand and “the Gentlemen” on the other, and makes clear that the revolutionary experience was far from a common one.

“The meeting at Farnham last Saturday, I believe, was a very usefull one—Many People who came there with an opinion, too comon among the vulgar, that the Law affecting Tea alone, did not concern them, because they used none of it—had yr prejudices removed—indeed many of the more depraved have said, let the Gentlemen look to it.”

[Source: Landon Carter Papers, University of Virginia]

Grave Truths: A Williamsburg That Is “For Ever England”

We know there are graveyards large and small throughout Williamsburg, Virginia, that date from the revolutionary era.  There are formal cemeteries, like that surrounding Bruton Parish Church, and much more intimate family graves, tucked discretely behind colonial houses.  They represent the final resting places of the well-known (a signer of the U.S. Constitution, children of U.S. presidents and their wives, etc.) and the forgotten (have you ever heard of Edward Nott or the “Hammer Man of Williamsburg”?).

But their markers represent only a fraction of revolutionary Williamsburg’s grave truths.  Historical evidence tells us that Bruton Parish churchyard, for example, is littered with the unmarked remains of once-prominent figures, such as printer Alexander Purdie, alongside numerous infants who never even received a name, much less a gravestone (think of Williamsburg’s own foundlings when you visit “Threads of Feeling“).  We also know from other sources that Mary Stith asked to buried behind her house on Duke of Gloucester Street and members of the Anderson family, her neighbors, were interred behind theirs, but no traces of either plots remain today.  But, as James Shirley so memorably put it almost 400 years ago, death is “the Leveller,” and “in the dust be equal made” both free and enslaved, famous and infamous, so drivers today unknowingly pass the large ravine next to the Virginia DMV on Capitol Landing Road, where the bodies of executed criminals were cast after meeting their unseemly ends on the nearby gallows.

Archaeology has given us an important layer of information about the final resting place of those who gave, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion” to the American cause.  Behind the Governor’s Palace, in as peaceful and picturesque a spot as one can imagine, at least 156 soldiers of the United States lie under a carefully kept lawn, casualties of the last battles of the Revolutionary War–their devotion marked by a tablet on the adjacent wall. On the other side of town, their allies, more than 130 French soldiers, are buried in a marked plot in a small grove tucked away behind Providence Hall Lodge, within sight of the tennis courts.  Their contribution is commemorated in annual ceremonies open to the public.

But where are the British and loyalist graves?  History tells us that they are certainly here somewhere.  They, just as their American and French opponents, died by the dozens in Williamsburg, from battle and smallpox, during the time the British army controlled the city in the spring and summer of 1781.

Take the case of Charles Jones, a young man who represents the American Revolution as the civil war it really was.  Hardly your stereotypical British officer, caricatured in American literature and theater since the war as an effete, bewigged gentleman of privilege who had not set foot in, or given a second thought to, America before 1775.  Jones was, in fact, as American as Thomas Jefferson.  Born in Weston, Massachusetts, which remains little more than a hamlet along the Boston Post Road, a long day’s ride west of the city, he was a first-year student at Harvard when the war began.  The same college that produced arch-patriots such as Samuel and John Adams was also the alma mater of a number of loyalists, such as this privileged son of a former member of the Massachusetts legislature, who took a rather different course when he left Harvard to join a loyalist unit in 1778 or so, when he was 19 years old, and just about to graduate. By the middle of 1781, Charles had risen to the rank of Cornet in the cavalry of John Graves Simcoe’s famous Queen’s American Rangers. On June 26, he was killed in a skirmish with the Marquis de la Fayette‘s forces at Spencer’s Ordinary, not six miles from Williamsburg.  According to Simcoe’s journal, his body was retrieved by his comrades and “buried at Williamsburg the next day, with military honours.” But where?*

Rupert Brooke, a remarkable member of that exceptional cohort of English poets who attempted to capture the meaning and experience of World War I, wrote:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”

So somewhere in Williamsburg, like in so many plots along the Battle Road north of Boston, there is a place that is “for ever England.”  That unknown “rich earth” conceals the remains of those men who gave their lives in the belief that the old British Empire was a better guarantor of freedom than the new American nation.  Perhaps one day we will find that earth, but until then, perhaps every Union flag that flies in the city can serve as a reminder of a time when to breathe in Williamsburg was to breathe English air, and also of the men who fought to keep it that way.

*There are legends that the British buried their dead under what is now Palace Green, but that is highly unlikely as the Palace Green probably did not exist during the American Revolution as it appears today, a verdant lawn–it was then Palace Street, a broad, tree-lined thoroughfare.

“Who does his King but once deny, With him I live, with him, I die.” (July 2, 1776)

One day, when I was burrowing through the Brock Collection at the Huntington Library (and not getting ready to go surfing, I swear), I found this poem.  It was scribbled on the obverse of a letter written on this date, 2 July, in 1776, from Charles Hansford at the Halfway House, a tavern at the midpoint between Williamsburg and Yorktown, Virginia, to the Rev. Mr. Samuel Shield in Caroline County.  Clearly, it was hastily composed and might well be a copy of a more well known piece that I have yet to find.  It struck me for several reasons, not least with its relatively early lionization of Congress, Washington, and the local committees, and its simple definition of what it takes to be a patriot: Deny the King.

“I love & ever will obey

What Congress either does or say

Where George the 3d his sway maintains

There’s nothing but Tyranny & Chains

If yonder Washington commands

May he be crushed with endless woe

Who to the Congress is a Foe

What George the 3d by Law commands

To Ruin upon once happy Lands

Fair Freedom sits & waites around

Where active Committees abound

A band of motley Paltroons waits

Who does his King but once deny

With him I live, with him, I die.”


SOURCE: Huntington Library mss, BR Box 258 (29).

American Loyalists set forth “melancholy facts” in petition to George III asking attention to claims

1788 April 9, London’s Public Advertiser.

They have met every danger and risked death to support His Majesty’s authority “and the rights of the British legislature.” Their right to compensation for their losses “is perfectly founded on the immutable principles of reason, and of justice, which form the establishments of all civil societies; on the fundamental laws of the British Constitution” and His Majesty’s proclamation calling on all faithful subjects to support the state against the rebellion. They lay at His Majesty’s feet the “melancholy facts”: Many have been reduced from affluence to poverty; “others, under the pressure of want, have died with broken hearts–and some have been driven by their distress into insanity, and from insanity to suicide, leaving their helpless widows and orphans to prolong their miserable existence on the cold charity of strangers.”

Signed by Wm Pepperrell, Geo Rome, Jas De Lancey, Jos Galloway, Rbt Alexander, John Randolph Grymes, &c.