Political Tensions 1770-1775
While the House of Burgesses and Parliament were on remarkably good terms in the early stages of the 1770s, such equilibrium proved to be an aberration. The empire found itself in a dire financial straits yet again in 1773, this time not due to military costs but to the increasingly burdensome operation of the East India Company, which was dangerously close to bankruptcy. In an attempt to revive flagging operations in India, Parliament passed a Tea Act which provided a tax break to imperial merchants that chose to ship their tea from India via England to America.
By this measure, the British hoped to profit doubly, as sales from India would presumably increase while the standing import tax on tea would generate revenue from America. Economically, the plan was sound, as the British-made tea from India was cheaper to the American colonial than the competing Dutch brand even after taxes. Nevertheless, the Tea Act contained a politically objectionable aspect that Parliament failed to calculate.
Once again, the Commonwealths of Massachusetts and Virginia led the cries of protest, viewing the Tea Act as a manipulative move designed by Parliament to turn an imperial profit at the expense of the American colonies. Reaction against the Tea Act was especially strong in Massachusetts, where a group of rebels led by Samuel Adams initiated a massive protest on December 16, 1773, when they destroyed ninety thousand pounds of East Indian tea by dumping it into Boston Harbor. Similar damages occurred in a related protest in New York the following April.
The British reacted to this mass vandalism by passing a series of measures collectively known as the Intolerable Acts. Among these, one of the most objectionable was the Boston Port Act, which was to close down the port of Boston until further notice effective June 1, 1774. In the days leading up to the activation of the Boston Port Act, the House of Burgesses rallied once again to defend the rights of their fellow colonials in Massachusetts. A day of fasting and prayer was proclaimed, and a solidarity resolution, perhaps written by Jefferson, was passed. Due to what he found to be inflammatory language, the royal governor, the Earl of Dunmore, dissolved the House of Burgesses once more, a mere fourteen months after their previous dissolution.
What was formerly mere novelty had become tendentious habit, and the deposed Virginia legislators again met of their own accord at a local tavern. There they agreed to form another non-importation association, and further, proposed to help organize a meeting of leaders from the several American colonies at the First Continental Congress, to be held in Philadelphia in September.
With a view to sending delegates to the First Continental Congress, the First Virginia Convention was held in August. Jefferson was stricken with dysentery en route to the convention, and fell too ill to attend. However, he did manage to send a position paper in his stead, which eventually garnered the title A Summary View of the Rights of British America. At the time of its writing, A Summary View was considered too radical for convention approval, but did serve to boost Jeffersons reputation as an effective revolutionary thinker, especially when it was reprinted in pamphlet form and distributed to a small but influential readership.
Jeffersons main argument in A Summary View was to negate the jurisdiction of Parliament by claiming that colonials owed allegiance solely to the British King, and then only to a just king who acted in the best interests of those whom he served. In the face of injustice, Jefferson suggested, even the king himself would find his jurisdiction null and void. Beyond political philosophy, Jefferson employed history in the service of his thesis. In looking back to the early Saxons who had settled the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries, Jefferson pointed out that the German kings had gradually lost jurisdiction over the territory that eventually came into its own as an autonomous England. Just so, the British monarch must of necessity loosen and eventually lose his hold over the American colonies.
Meanwhile, in the face of this abstract theorizing, the Earl of Dunmore was intent on strengthening the British hold on Virginia rather than loosening or losing it. With the French eradicated by the terms of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War, only a group of native tribes remained as a threatening enemy to British territorial claims. The western frontier had never been particularly secure, and with an eye to establishing firmer control over the Shawnees and other native tribes, Dunmore drafted a militia from the citizenry of Virginia, above and beyond the objections of the House of Burgesses.
Many, including Jefferson, resented what they perceived as an unjust exercise of imperial power, and viewed such a move as an attempt to deflect attention from the mounting tensions regarding taxation. Nevertheless, the Dunmore-backed militia pushed over the Blue Ridge Mountains into present-day Kentucky, where in the autumn of 1774 they met and overcame the Shawnee alliance with relative ease.
But if British claims to the frontier were continuing to solidify, harmony between the imperials and colonials was rapidly deteriorating. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Jeffersons own personal situation, where his two of his cousins found themselves on opposite sides of the emerging battle lines, with Peyton Randolph presiding over the upstart First Virginia Convention and John Randolph holding the line as a staunch defender of the royalist position.
Jeffersons business interests were also torn apart by the conflict. The previous spring, he had initiated a company devoted to vineyard and olive tree cultivation under the operation of a paid labor force. Jefferson was joined in the enterprise by both the Earl of Dunmore and a noted Virginia planter, George Washington. But as tensions between the imperialists and colonials escalated, the alliance collapsed under its own weight.
Beyond the failed alliance, Jeffersons enterprise struggled for other reasons as well. In typical fashion, he proceeded in a manner both realistic and ideal. Tobacco prices had been falling steadily, and further, Jefferson saw more virtue in the production of foodstuffs than in the production of narcotics. These are points for practicalities. However, any financial incentives that may have been gained were more than countermanded by the employment of laborers. Jefferson took this unorthodox step taken in hopes of demonstrating the possibility of an agricultural economy that functioned without the crutch of chattel slavery. But in the face of overpowering competition from larger plantations fueled by slave labor, Jeffersons mission was bound to failure.
Always ahead of the contemporary curve, blessed with the benefits and cursed with the burdens of such vision, Jefferson found himself cursing from afar when he received news of the minutes from the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. While the delegates assembled there had censured several imperial policy decisions, and had united in a uniform boycott of British goods, Jefferson believed that they had not gone far enough in their protests. In closing, the delegates had agreed to reconvene in May 1775 if the imperial government had failed to take necessary steps in redressing colonial grievances. What had started as a string of isolated power struggles was quickly transforming into an organized insurrection.
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