The Fifth Virginia Convention

Fifth Virginia Convention

The American rebels stood to lose a lot by winning the war. Sites interpreter B.J. Pryor discusses the risk of success.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

As we mark the anniversary of American independence this July, "Behind the Scenes" will consider revolutionary documents – writings that influenced the colonial uprising and the nation that emerged.

With me this week is B.J. Pryor, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he's a site interpreter. B.J. is here to talk about the 5th Virginia Convention, the 1776 meeting of prominent Virginians that produced documents that anticipated the essence of America's Constitution and Bill of Rights.

B.J. Pryor: It's the most important thing that ever happened in Williamsburg, because of what it accomplished.

Lloyd: What did it accomplish?

B.J.: Well the most important thing was, at that convention that the representatives of Virginia asserted independence for their new commonwealth. They drafted the first – what amounts to – bill of rights in North America, and the first written constitution drafted by the elected representatives of the people and established the first government in the world that rested on that foundation. They did all that in less than two months.

Lloyd: George Mason also, I think, had probably thought about things like bills of rights and freedom of religion. Jefferson and Madison were the driving forces behind freedom of religion. So when they met, they already had a lot of good ideas.

B.J.: Absolutely. These ideas had been floating around for a long time. Many of these ideas had been expressed by philosophers for 100 years. But, it's one thing to talk about something; it's another to put it into practice. It's another thing to make it concrete and real in the actual world rather than a theoretical conversation of philosophers in a parlor. That's what makes this significant.

Lloyd: After the 5th Virginia Convention, in a couple of months' time, finished its work, where did it go from there?

B.J.: The next step was to put into effect what it had done: to set up that new government, to organize the first election under the new constitution.

Of course, the other thing is, what the Virginians did, they didn't so much declare Virginia independent. They declared independence to be a necessity. They called upon the other colonies to join them in asserting independence. They did all their work before they had heard back from the other colonies. Of course, when the convention ended, the congress in Philadelphia was talking about independence, but they didn't vote on it yet – not until July, as we know.

So, there was some slight concern that maybe the rest of the colonies wouldn't go along. They were sort of out in advance. A lot of the colonies were doing similar things, not quite as extensive or quite as radical, at the same time. Of course, the communications were such that nobody knew what anybody else was doing. You couldn't say, well, South Carolina voted this way two days ago.

Lloyd: They can't send an email.

B.J.: Right. So everybody is working in the dark. There are certain things about this whole convention that I think are fascinating, and some that are particularly misunderstood. The whole question of independence – I think a lot of people have the idea that the colonies somehow labored for years under this oppressive British rule and always dreamed of liberty and independence, and finally they got themselves together and asserted it. The fact is that a lot of the members of this convention were pulled into independence kicking and screaming. It's not what they wanted.

They saw themselves as patriotic, loyal Englishmen. They always considered that what they'd been doing for the last 12, 13 years had been standing up for their rights as English subjects under the ancient laws of Great Britain, that it was Parliament that had betrayed them and violated those laws. They were the true patriots trying to preserve these principles.

They did not go into this fight intent on giving up their nationality, giving up their identity as Englishmen, giving up their ties to their ancient homeland, giving up their ties to their mother church, giving up the flag that their fathers had fought under for generations.

With independence, they would have the opportunity to create a new government, to negotiate foreign alliances, to make trade deals -- they could purchase the munitions they needed. In essence, independence was a military necessity. So the desire for independence was not the cause of the American Revolution. The desire for independence was the result of the American Revolution.

Lloyd: I have always remembered – I think I learned it somewhere in high school, though probably not – that "No taxation without representation" did not refer to the American colonies, it referred to the British parliament. A British citizen could not be taxed, except he had a representative, or his district had a representative in the House of Commons.

B.J.: Exactly.

Lloyd: Had American colonies been represented in parliament, there would have been no protest.

B.J.: No. That would have been completely a disaster and that was not even desired. You see, here's the problem: let's suppose that you and I agree that that fellow over there will pay our debts. You and I agree to this – he'll pay all our debts. He says, "Hey, wait a second. That's not fair. I had no say in this decision."

We say, "OK, we'll include you. The three of us will sit here and by a simple majority vote, we'll decide whether or not you're going to pay our debts." He's represented in that decision, but it doesn't solve the problem.

The difficulty is, as long as the colonies are governed under a separate set of laws and separate rules, they have to have a separate legislature. They cannot be represented in parliament, because as long as parliament is making laws for them different from the laws they're making for their own constituents. Only if all are governed under the same laws can all be represented in the same legislature. So there's a fundamental … so that's why the colonies never asked for representation in parliament. They knew that sitting a few Americans in parliament wasn't going to change a darn thing as long as the British parliament was going to use the American colonies to pay British debts.

Lloyd: At what point, if there is such a point, do Virginians, for instance, say, "We can't do this anymore?"

B.J.: Well, you could say that is exactly what happened on May 15, 1776, when they adopted their resolution saying, "We have tried everything. We have, by every earnest means, tried everything we can to effect a just reconciliation. Everything has failed. There is no choice left. Now independence is the only route."

That's when the people of Virginia, through their representatives, publicly asserted, "That's it. It's over." Now, individual Virginians had been coming to that conclusion for months – different people at different times. But it was a tough conclusion to come to. Many of the men who voted for independence, they didn't celebrate independence. They regretted that it had come to this.

Lloyd: So it was rather a failure.

B.J.: Mm-hmm. It represented, when the colonies voted for independence, they were saying that everything they have done in the last 12 years has failed. We have tried everything in our power to gain justice from our central government, to restore harmony and order to this relationship. Everything has failed. Now, there is nothing left but to separate.
Lloyd: How soon did the other colonies – because there are 12 other colonies, and without them, we are pretty much alone – did they resist it? Did they accept it reluctantly? How would you sort of characterize that?

B.J.: Remember the Continental Congress voted unanimously for independence on July 2nd, and then adopted the famous declaration July 4th. So this is on their minds. What had been going on with a lot of them is that, say some place like Delaware -- I do not know the history of Delaware, so I'm just using that as a theoretical model -- the people of Delaware can say, "Well, we may think it's time for independence, but if we assert the independence of our colony and nobody else goes along, and the British government goes, 'Oh, look. Delaware. They're the troublemakers. They're the ones who are at the head of this whole thing.'" They're the ones that are sort of the, "We crush Delaware, and nobody else will try this independence trick." So they said, "We're not going first."

So, Virginia's vote was a catalyst. It wasn't that nobody else was thinking along these lines, or nobody else was ready, but it took one of the big powerful states to go first to convince the rest that this will go, that this will work.

You know, the other thing about this is that we always talk about independence in terms of, "What if they had lost? What if they had lost this war, and what would have happened to these people?" Well there was another danger they were very much aware of that we hardly ever think about, which is, "What if they won the war, and they couldn't make this new kind of government work?"

There were plenty of people in Europe, all the experienced statesmen in Europe who said, "Governments are imposed by force. They are maintained by power. Centuries of tradition and habit and custom is the only thing that will give a government true legitimacy. You get a bunch of people around a table, you make up a government on a sheet of paper, you label it a constitution, and you think that's going to work? It is a formula for disaster. You are sowing anarchy and confusion. A government based on a sheet of paper, agreed to one afternoon will never work, never has, never will." And what if they were right?

The men who made that first state constitution and started this experiment – they had high hopes, absolutely. But they had no proof, put it that way, they had no proof that the critics weren't right, that this wasn't going to be a disaster. If it was a disaster, even if they won the war, they might still plunge their country into chaos and years of anarchy and confusion. So they were running risks that we don't often think about.

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