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This morning I received a letter from Mr. Maddison who is a member of the Virginia Convention, informing me of the declaration of Independency made by that body.
-from the Memorandum Book of
Philadelphian William Bradford, ca. May 21, 1776
You'l have seen your Instructions to propose Independance and our resolutions to form a Government . . . The Political Cooks are busy in preparing the dish.
-Edmund Pendleton, in Virginia, to Thomas Jefferson,
in Philadelphia, May 24, 1776
In May 1776, at the age of twenty-five, the slightly formed James Madison, Jr., was party to a critical conversation taking place among Virginia's leaders in the colonial capital of Williamsburg. Across the middle colonies, some still believed that negotiation with Great Britain could have its desired effect. But in Virginia active debate had already ended, and a formal break was to take place. Instructions to that effect were being forwarded to the Virginia delegation at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia-a precise directive from the "Political Cooks" in Virginia. Without this, thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson would have had priorities other than writing the Declaration of Independence. And that is where we begin.
Before there was a United States of America, its colonists belonged to separate competing units within a sprawling empire. Cultures were as diverse as currencies were dissimilar. For most of its existence, Virginia cared more about its own vital interests, and securing its own expanse, than it cared about forging a common continental bond. The Old Dominion, in total square miles, was the largest of the thirteen colonies. This fact bred satisfaction among its landed elite and a distinctive sensibility as well. Mannered country gentlemen oversaw broad estates that enjoyed commanding views. They had names such as Lee, Randolph, Carter, Harrison, Taylor, and Byrd. They counted their herds, their hogsheads of tobacco, their silver, and the luxuries of the dining table. They calculated provisions for the slave families who shared their land but little else. They sat for portraits; they rode in coaches.
The Virginians were substantially different in temperament from New England's elite. The latter, it was said, were solemn, critical, and intense, trained for the bustle of business. Harsh seasons and a rocky coastline conditioned them. Along with good, plain common sense, the northern environment appeared to have produced a severity of manners and a tautness of disposition that stood in contrast to southerners' relative laxness and fondness for amusement. One can debate whether these traits-exuberance and extravagance versus cunning and conceit- were any better than stereotypes. Nevertheless they prevailed in the literature for quite some time and adhered most to those who guided the political direction of the country.1
Only a series of extraordinary events could induce the otherwise divergent colonies to imagine a cooperative future. Once provoked, the states found common ground and eventually united. Before they could, however, the constituent parts of British America had to acknowledge on some level the Virginians' sense of their own importance-their special place on the continent.
We all know that North and South, fourscore and five years after celebrating their initial union, entered into a ruinous civil war. While its origins are debated by scholars, its general contours are well established. Historical memory is hazier as we retreat in time and ask what triggered the French and Indian War, and why it matters. That war eventually extended into Canada and established collective purposes among otherwise disobliging colonies. Hostilities, begun in 1753, were not settled until the French were expelled from all of North America ten years later.
The war was instigated by Virginia. And not just by Virginia, but in a very real way by twenty-one-year-old Major George Washington, at the behest of Virginia's lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, an intense man with an intense desire to protect and expand the colony's frontier settlements. In November 1753 Washington journeyed west and declared to an encroaching French force that the Ohio Country belonged to Virginia. The British government did not in fact know whether the Ohio Valley lay within Virginia's boundaries; but Dinwiddie forged ahead regardless, unconcerned with the claims of other colonies and aware that he had the support of his colony's leading men. To put it simply, Virginians thought big. Their vast land stood for autonomy and permanence.2
If any of the Virginians doubted the propriety of what they wished for, the French and Indian War erased that uncertainty. The conflict aroused a kind of pathos among colonial Americans that, before mid- century, they had experienced only in sermonic messages and declared days of fast. The long and barbarous war created a more powerful literature and a more heated vocabulary of human atrocity. Up to now dramatic poetry had tended to feature individual soldiers' cruelty; now images of a "bleeding country"-stark depictions of communal suffering and redemptive courage-predominated. The political propagandists of the 1770s would paint pictures of an abused and terrorized people striving for justice, happiness, and peace of mind. An enlarged discourse of responsibility drew a deep and dark distinction between heroic values and an unsympathetic and merciless enemy.3
In the prelude to the Revolution, two decades after Major Washington's first foray to the west, Virginia had a very different royal governor in Lord Dunmore, who was, compared to the engaging Dinwiddie, hard, spiteful, and suspicious. Patriot planters who met to decide the future of the country felt pressure coming from multiple directions, and yet they were giving up none of their claims to western territory. By 1775 Virginia was part of a defensive union-what was called, for a time, the United Colonies. And George Washington, no longer the young, uncertain emissary of a royal appointee, was a general, the persevering commander of a rebel armed force, and the confident owner of some twenty thousand acres of quite valuable land in western Virginia, awarded to him by Dinwiddie for his service in the 1750s.4
Washington took a risk when he agreed to lead the Continental Army. He was doubtful about his inexperienced junior officers and utterly shocked by the lack of discipline among their disrespectful troops. Vulnerable to attack, the newly designated United States of America learned in 1776, one year after he assumed his command, that it was unlikely to win independence from England without considerable aid from the former French enemy. In short, the country frantically struggled to sustain itself as it was striving to establish a collective identity.
Enter James Madison, Jr., and Thomas Jefferson. Theirs were prominent but not heralded names in Virginia-not yet. They are best described as members of the steering committee that directed the patriot effort in 1775-76. Madison made his contributions from Williamsburg, Virginia, and Jefferson made his from Congress in Philadelphia. Both were in the thick of things, but neither had any expectation of increased visibility after completing his present duties.
Their lives were shaped by the Revolution. Their life visions were shaped by it too. Yet the Revolutionary experience was not a uniform one across the United Colonies. To write about Madison and Jefferson, we must first see the American Revolution through the eyes of their people, the Virginians.
But we cannot stop there. For the next half-century or more, both in
and out of government, Madison and Jefferson devoted themselves to the
elusive ideal of a nation possessed of multiple cultures-multiple power
centers-and still, somehow, a working Union. Wherever they were employed, they never set aside their provincial identities for long. Even in Williamsburg, on the Atlantic side of their state, they retained their local prejudice in favor of the river-fed interior or Piedmont section. The pair were not simply Virginians; they were Virginians of a particular breed.
"The Ablest Man in Debate"
The year America declared its independence from Great Britain was the year in which James Madison and Thomas Jefferson met. There is anecdotal evidence that as a student, Madison once watched Jefferson argue a court case, but they were never introduced.5 Neither could have foreseen how essential the other would become to his public career and individual legacy. At that time, in fact, the relationship each had with Edmund Pendleton was far more important than the relationship these two future allies had with each other.
Pendleton should not be lost to history. He was Virginia's preeminent politician at the time of independence, a moderating voice amid turbulence, known for his decisiveness and praised for his diligence. Fifty-five years old in 1776, he was instrumental in Virginia's declaring its independence from Great Britain. It was Pendleton who gave Jefferson advance warning that the leaders of the colony were hammering out a text, urging Congress to terminate the relationship with Britain.
Unlike Madison and Jefferson, Pendleton was one of the few leaders not born to wealth. Because his father died before he was born, and his mother, caring for six older children, bore two more by a second husband, Edmund received little attention as a child. First apprenticed to a tailor, he knew nothing of the classics-that measure of wisdom and key to social respect that the children of privilege acquired from their private tutors. But he had a facility for the law, and over the years this studious "son of nobody" acquired a reputation for ethical practice. As an attorney, he wrote up deeds for land purchases. Among his many clients over the years, George Washington and James Madison, Sr., regularly engaged his services.
Beginning in 1745, Edmund Pendleton was one of a small number of attorneys authorized to bring cases before Virginia's most prestigious tribunal, the General Court. From within his legal circle would emerge the leaders of the Revolutionary resistance. As he invested in land- the path to upward mobility since the colony's founding-he became their advocate on more than one front. Though he was not born to privilege, Pendleton's personal genealogy still helped him along. He came into the world the same year as James Madison, Sr., and was the grandson of a seventeenth-century settler, James Taylor, by his second wife. The elder Madison was the great-grandson of the same Taylor, by his first wife.
And so the "son of nobody" became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1752. It was an association of men united by their strong family and social networks-and not inconsequentially, by their common
indebtedness to British merchants-who tended to get on well with one
another and with royal appointees as well. Pendleton remained in that body up to its dissolution at the time of the Revolution and expressed
opposition to the imposition of taxes even before outspoken younger patriots such as Patrick Henry did. As much a lover of liberty as any of the more memorable founders, Pendleton was no firebrand, no troublemaker. Rather, he was a detail man, cautious, deliberative. Elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, he was joined by George Washington, Patrick Henry, and four others. To take the phrase "cooler heads prevailed" and apply it to Virginia on the eve of the Revolution, his was that cooler head.
The worst one could say of Pendleton he said of himself: that he was a substandard writer. But he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the law and was an easy man for a younger political aspirant to approach. In his 1821 autobiography, Jefferson recalled Pendleton in glowing terms: "one of the most virtuous & benevolent of men, the kindest friend." Both in the General Court and in the House of Burgesses, he had symbolized competency for the young lawyer from Albemarle. He was, Jefferson acknowledged, "the ablest man in debate I ever met with." Madison too completely trusted in his integrity.6
Ordinarily, revolutions are long in brewing. Not so America's. Though joint operations of British regulars and colonial American fighters had brought victory in the French and Indian War, the decade 1765-75 proved the undoing of their transatlantic bond. Britain had debts after the war, and Americans were told they had to pay their fair share. No American sat in any governing body in Britain, yet Parliament claimed it could tax the colonies without their consent. The colonists did not like being dictated to from across the sea. They especially resented the loss of local autonomy.
The Stamp Act of 1765 was the opening salvo and provoked everything from angry taunts to street theater. All paper documents across the colonies (newspapers, pamphlets, contracts, and licenses) were to be imprinted with a special stamp, which had to be paid for in hard currency. As a new member of Virginia's House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry introduced a series of resolutions, among which was one insisting that people could be taxed only by their elected representatives. Northern newspapers carried the Virginia Resolves, and Henry acquired a wide reputation. The crisis over taxation was everybody's problem, not a single colony's.
Although the hated Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, Parliament did not retreat. It passed the Declaratory Act, defending its power to impose laws on the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." New taxes followed, including one on tea, the Americans' favorite drink. The drama enlarged in December 1773, as a band of protesters appeared at Boston Harbor dressed in "the Indian manner" and, in defiance of the tax on tea, boarded ships and dumped 342 chests into the deep. The Boston Tea Party has long stood as a symbol of American determination, but at the time even the most uncompromising Virginia patriots thought this form of resistance unwarranted. All awaited Parliament's response. When it came, it was unexpectedly severe.
The Coercive Acts shut down Boston Harbor and curtailed Massachusetts self-government. The Quartering Act placed soldiers in Bostonians' homes. The Quebec Act lowered the Canadian border to the Ohio River and threatened the western land interests of the colonies south of New England, including Virginia. The king, his ministers, and a majority in
Parliament all believed that aggressive restrictions were needed to force
the wayward Americans into submission, but the new acts only goaded the
various colonies to cooperate more closely.7
The opposing sides in this face-off regarded each other as obstinate. In 1774 they grew increasingly adamant. For their part, proud Virginians refused to stand idly by as the Bostonians faced hardships. In May of that year the Virginia House of Burgesses called for a day of fasting and prayer as a show of support. Their royal governor, Lord Dunmore, countered by calling a halt to the session. Jefferson, a burgess, had a hand in the fasting resolution; he issued a plea for the colonies to be of "one Heart and one Mind" in answering "every injury to American rights." It was in the same year that Jefferson, soft-spoken in person, proved himself a staunch critic on paper with A Summary View of the Rights of British America, printed in Williamsburg and subsequently reprinted in Philadelphia and London.
The House of Burgesses, through its Committee of Correspondence, remained in contact with the Massachusetts political organizers. Meeting in rump session at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Jefferson and his peers took the decisive step of calling for a "general congress" of the beleaguered colonies. They called as well for a gathering of the best political minds in Virginia. Thus the same men who had previously sat in the House of Burgesses now represented Virginia at an extralegal convention-
a shadow government bypassing royal authority. The Virginia Convention met for the first time in August 1774. A few weeks later, when the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, Virginians were given prominence. Peyton Randolph, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, was promptly elected the first president of Congress.8