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Virginia Planter Friend of Washington Explains American Reaction to the Intolerable Acts, Warns War, Urges Effort to Repeal the Law
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“It is not yet too late for the King to recover the Affections of his Subjects in America… If more Troops should be sent over, and any Blows shd happen to the Northward, there will be as great a Passion in America for the Relief of Boston as ever there was for Croisades to Jerusalem… They act here from a Persuasion that a determined System is now formed to tax or enslave them…. The People mean well, they should not be forced to give up what they verily believe to be their Rights…”

Bryan Fairfax wrote this fascinating letter from Virginia to an influential Englishman. (His cousin, Lord Thomas Fairfax, is at least a plausible guess as to the recipient). Fairfax describes the American reaction to the Intolerable Acts and the Boston Port Act, urging the recipient to use his power in England to have them repealed. Fairfax originally signed the letter. Perhaps considering the wisdom of having a name attached to such a passionate letter, he or a reader scratched it out. Whether immediately after writing, or within the next couple of years once the Revolutionary War began in earnest, we cannot tell.

Despite major differences as to their approaches, Fairfax notes, “as to the Virginians I can answer for their good Intentions.” Fairfax and Washington’s correspondence in July and August reveal their major difference: Fairfax believed the British could still be persuaded by arguments, while Washington believed that repeated failures to even acknowledge successive colonial petitions and supplications showed that the British had determined to subjugate the colonies.

[REVOLUTIONARY WAR PRELUDE.] BRYAN FAIRFAX. Autograph Letter Signed but with signature effaced, to Unidentified Recipient, October 24, 1774, [Virginia]. 4 pp., 7¼ x 9 in.

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Complete Transcript

The political Affairs of America have such a gloomy Aspect that I cannot resist the Inclination I have to trouble You with a Letter. The Intention of it is to beg in the most earnest Manner that You will exert your Interest with the Ministry & with the Members of both Houses, as much as possible, to have these obnoxious Acts repealed, or at least the one for altering the Constitution of Massachusetts Bay. It is not yet too late for the King to recover the Affections of his Subjects in America. Nineteen in twenty, if not all, in this part of it are yet loyal Subjects, and mean well; therefore it is not now to be considered whether they are right or wrong. Allowances ought to be made for the prejudices of others. The wisest Governments have always paid some Regard to the general Voice of a people. I wish the Ministry & Parliament would divest themselves of Resentment <2> as much as I have wished, and endeavored to have the same Moderation prevail here. What the Disposition of the People in New England may be I don’t know: It is as difficult for us here to form a true Judgement of it as it is with You in England: But as to the Virginians I can answer for their good Intentions. How long they will remain so will depend on the Wisdom of Administration. If the Ministry should pursue violent Measures they will probably gratify the very Wishes of their Antagonists, as it appears here to some that the Antiministerial Party have lent a helping Hand to the present Discontents. A Letter lately appeared in the Papers wherein the Writer complains that we don’t send Home Fire enough. God knows that there is enough ready.

If more Troops should be sent over, and any Blows shd happen to the Northward, there will be as great a Passion in America for the Relief of Boston as ever there was for Croisades to Jerusalem, and with as well meant an Intention. They act here from a Persuasion that a determined System is now formed to tax or enslave them. If they think so; as the <3> People mean well, they should not be forced to give up what they verily believe to be their Rights; especially when the compelling them to do so cannot do have the good that the bare attempt to enforce that Surrender will do Harm.

But if instead of receding, or stopping, contrary Measures should be taken, I shall then be convinced of what I have only sometimes believed; that the Conduct of Great Britain & America has been overruled by superior Beings, whose Designs we are carrying on without being sensible of it. Many Things are otherwise unaccountable. There really appears to be something like Infatuation on both Sides the Ocean; and almost every Thing in Politicks for ten years past hath had a tendency towards a Separation now: The Publications here relating to Taxes; The violent, popular ones in England, during the late Heats which were republished here; the omitting to publish many such as were written in answer to them; (which might have been owing partly to the patriotic warmth of the printers, partly to the not having Room for all) The rising <4> up of a generation of Men of superior Address & Elocution & different turn of Mind from those we had been used to, and many other Things all seem to have a tendency more or less to lessen the Affections of the People here to the English Government, and to prepare the Way for a Revolution or civil War.

Now whether these Things are owing to the Influence of invisible powers, by the Permission or Direction of the great Governor of the Universe, or whether they happen without it, it should make no Difference in the Endeavors of each Individual; I hope then every Friend to both Countries will exert himself to prevent a Rupture. I believe, Sir, that You are real Friend to your King & Country: I hope then You’l pardon me when I thus ardently intreat, that among all Your Acquaintance You will be pleased to inculcate this Truth; that it is not yet too late for Great Britain to recede; but that one irritating Step more may be productive of Ruin to the whole State.

I am Sir, with very great Regard,

Your most obedt Servt

                                                                        Bryan Fairfax

                                                                                                                        October the 24th 1774

[Postscript:] If his majesty was to drop some Expressions intimating his Desire that something coud be done to make his American Subjects easy, it would have a great Effect towards regaining their Affections.

Historical Background
After Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts Parliament to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party, the Virginia House of Burgesses demonstrated solidarity with Boston, proclaiming a day of “fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” In response, Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the House on May 26 and ordered new elections in July. Despite that order, the Burgesses reconvened the following day, urging Virginia’s counties to elect delegates to a special convention in August.

On July 5, 1774, leaders from Fairfax County met in Alexandria to appoint a committee to draft a statement of their constitutional rights, choosing George Washington and Charles Broadwater to represent the County at the Convention. On July 18, the committee adopted a set of resolutions rejecting Parliament’s supreme authority over the American colonies. They expressed constitutional concerns over taxation, representation, judicial power, military issues, and the colonial economy. They proposed a nonimportation agreement against British goods, condemned the further importation of slaves, and called for a general congress of the colonies.[1] More than thirty other Virginia counties passed their own resolutions, but the Fairfax County Resolves were the most detailed, radical, and influential.

Bryan Fairfax and George Washington’s Related Correspondence
On July 3, Bryan Fairfax (for whose cousin the county had been named in 1742) wrote to George Washington: “I think myself bound to oppose violent measures now. The entering upon a Plan of having no Trade would be an arduous undertaking…. I therefore think it would be more proper to try first what Effect a petition might have toward obtaining a repeal of the Duty.”[2]

Washington responded to his friend and neighbor on July 4, “As to your political sentiments, I would heartily join you in them, so far as relates to a humble and dutiful petition to the throne, provided there was the most distant hope of success. But have we not tried this already? Have we not addressed the Lords, and remonstrated to the Commons? And to what end? Did they deign to look at our petitions? Does it not appear, as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness, that there is a regular, systematic plan formed to fix the right and practice of taxation upon us?” He continued, “With you I think it a folly to attempt more than we can execute, as that will not only bring disgrace upon us, but weaken our cause; yet I think we may do more than is generally believed, in respect to the non-importation scheme.”[3]

Unable to attend the public meeting, Fairfax again wrote to Washington on July 17: “a Petition to the King is now recommended as the first Step that ought to be taken at the Congress. I could have wished that it had been the only Step taken by the Colonies at this time, as to give the Parliament a good Opportunity to repeal the Acts complained of would be the likeliest way to effect it. But this is not generally believed. On the contrary it is supposed that there is a regular System formed for enforcing the principle of Taxation. This is the very point on which our difference in opinion is founded. Those who believe in such a plan being determined on will readily approve of most of the measures proposed. Those who think with me that no such Intention plainly appears will rather postpone them to another Time. A Political opinion, as well as a religious one, is often formed by degrees.” Fairfax also observed, “I come now to consider a Resolve which ought to be the most objected to, as tending more to widen the Breach, and prevent a Reconciliation than any other. I mean that wherein the Authority of Parliament is almost in every Instance denied. Something simular to this, tho’ more imprudent, is the most exceptional part of the Conduct of some in New England.” Washington circulated Fairfax’s July 17 letter among the committee who had drafted the Fairfax Resolves, but did not read it to all in attendance at the meeting, as Fairfax hoped he would.[4]

Washington responded on July 20: “That I differ very widely from you, in respect to the mode of obtaining a repeal of the Acts so much, & so justly complaind of, I shall not hesitate to acknowledge; & that this difference in opinion may, probably, proceed from the different Construction’s we put upon the Conduct, & Intention of the Ministry, may also be true; But as I see nothing on the one hand, to induce a belief that the Parliament would embrace a favourable oppertunity of Repealing Acts which they go on with great rapidity to pass, in order to enforce their Tyrannical System; and on the other, observe, or think I observe, that Government is pursuing a regular Plan at the expence of Law & justice, to overthrow our Constitutional Rights & liberties, how can I expect any redress from a Measure which hath been ineffectually tryd already—For Sir what is it we are contending against? Is it against paying the duty of 3d. pr lb. on Tea because burthensome? No, it is the Right only, we have all along disputed, & to this end we have already Petitiond his Majesty in as humble, & dutiful a manner as Subjects could do; nay more, we applied to the House of Lords, & House of Commons in their different Legislative Capacities setting forth that, as Englishmen, we could not be deprivd of this essential, & valuable part of our Constitution.” Washington closed his letter, “I cannot conclude without expressing some concern that I should differ so widely in Sentiments from you in a matter of such great Moment & general Import; & should much distrust my own judgment upon the occasion, if my Nature did not recoil at the thought of Submitting to Measures which I think Subversive of every thing that I ought to hold dear and valuable–and did I not find, at the same time, that the voice of Mankind is with me.”[5]

On August 5, Fairfax respectfully disagreed: “There is a new opinion now lately advanced in Virginia that the Parliament have no Right to make any or scarce any Laws binding on the Colonies. It has given me much Uneasiness. For altho’ I wish as much as any one that we were legally exempted from it, yet I hold it clearly that we ought to abide by our Constitution. The common Consent and Acquiescence in the Colonies for such a Length of time is to me a clear Proof of their having a Right. And altho’ it is said that it has only been exercised in Matters of Trade, it will be found to be a Mistake.”[6]

Three weeks later, Washington admitted that it would be “a piece of inexcusable arrogance in me, to make the least essay towards a change in your Political Opinion’s; for I am sure I have no new lights to throw upon the Subject, or any arguments to offer in support of my own doctrine than what you have seen; and could only in general add, that an Innate Spirit of freedom first told me, that the Measures which Administration hath for sometime been, and now are, most violently pursuing, are repugnant to every principle of natural justice; whilst much abler heads than my own, hath fully convinced me that it is not only repugnant to natural Right, but Subversive of the Laws & Constitution of Great Britain itself.” Writing to his longtime friend, Washington concluded, “if you disavow the Right of Parliament to Tax us (unrepresented as we are) we only differ in respect to the mode of opposition; and this difference principally arises from your belief that they (the Parliament I mean) want a Decent oppertunity to Repeal the Acts; whilst I am as fully convinc’d, as I am of my existance, that there has been a regular Systematick Plan formd, to enforce them; and that nothing but Unanimity in the Colonies (a stroke they did not expect) and firmness can prevent it.”[7]

Three years later, during the Revolutionary War, Fairfax was arrested near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty. He again wrote to Washington, now commander-in-chief of the Continental Army: “For two years past I have had a stronger Desire to enter into Holy Orders than ever I had before, tho’ frequently in my Life have had the same, yet generally suffered worldly considerations to interfere. This Desire and the not finding myself at Liberty to concur in the Public measures make me very anxious to get to England, and I have been in Hopes of obtaining a Pass from the Congress to go to N: York for that Purpose…. [I]f Your Excellency can give me a Pass that I may come & see You, I shall be very glad to do it whether I succeed in the other matter or not for You are often in my Mind & I have often sympathised with Yr. Ex. in regard to the great & laborious Undertaking You are engaged in.”[8]

Washington responded three days later, “The difference in our political Sentiments never made any change in my friendship for you, and the favorable Sentiments I ever entertain’d of your Honr, leaves me without a doubt that you would say any thing, or do any thing injurious to the cause we are ingaged in, after having pledg’d your word to the contrary— I therefore give my consent, readily, to the prosecution of your Inclination of going to England, and for this purpose Inclose a certificate—or pass-port to come forward to this army whenever you please.”[9]

Bryan Fairfax, 8th Lord Fairfax of Cameron (1736-1802) was born in colonial Virginia as the son of Col. William Fairfax (1691-1757). As a young man, he lived at his father’s plantation Belvoir on the west bank of the Potomac River. His father was the business agent for his cousin Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. Bryan Fairfax became a lifelong friend of his neighbor George Washington, whose Mount Vernon plantation was three miles away across Dogue Creek. In 1754, he served as a clerk for his brother-in-law and as deputy clerk for Fairfax County. He also served as a lieutenant in George Washington’s militia regiment early in the French and Indian War, then as a justice for Fairfax County at the same time as Washington, and the two often hunted foxes together. In 1759, he married Elizabeth Cary (1738-1778), and they had seven children. In 1777, he attempted to travel to England but failed and returned to Virginia. He became a minister of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1789 and served as rector of the Fairfax Parish from 1790 to 1792. When his first cousin, once removed, Robert Fairfax, 7th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, died without an heir in 1793, the title was left in abeyance. In 1798 while in England, Bryan Fairfax claimed the title and after review by the House of Lords, he became the 8th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, the first born in the United States, in 1800. Because he was an Episcopal priest in the United States, he never used the title. He was among the last guests at Mount Vernon before Washington died in December 1799.

Condition: Very Good; several mended fold separations.

Provenance: Ex-Richard Maass Collection.

[2] Bryan Fairfax to George Washington, July 3, 1774, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, July 4, 1774, Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 12 vols. (Boston: American Stationers’ Company, 1833-1837), 2:388-90.

[4] Bryan Fairfax to George Washington, July 17, 1774, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

[5] George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, July 20, 1774, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.

[6] Bryan Fairfax to George Washington, August 5, 1774, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

[8] Bryan Fairfax to George Washington, September 21, 1777, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.