Thomas Jefferson

Political Tensions 1770-1775

Summary Political Tensions 1770-1775

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.

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