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The Significance of the Fairfax Resolves

By Nancy Spannaus

July 24, 2022—In the run-up to the 250th anniversary of the United States War of Independence, the Fairfax Resolves chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) has determined to mark with a plaque the gravesites of all 25 signers of the manifesto known as the Fairfax Resolves. That document was voted up by the meeting of Freeholders in Fairfax, Virginia on July 18, 1774, to be forwarded to an August 1 convention called by the House of Burgesses in late May. It is considered to have been the most radical, and prescient, set of resolutions to be issued in Virginia and crucial to the convening of the First Continental Congress, and the Declaration of Independence.

Thus, on July 23, approximately 50 SAR members, along with some members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and local residents, gathered in the Pohick Episcopal Church in Lorton, Virginia to commemorate the approval of the Resolves, and mark the graves of four of its signers. The Pohick church was the site of the meeting which voted up the Resolves. One of the gravesites, that of Rev. Lee Massey, the pastor of the Pohick Church in 1774, is located under the pulpit in the church, which dates to that very year. (see photo)

The Fairfax Resolves of 1774 were a major step toward the convening of the First Continental Congress, which is depicted here.

In addition to the traditional delivery of biographical sketches of the four patriots, the presentation of wreaths, and the standard SAR ceremony, this event featured two extraordinary and informative re-enactments. Addressing the attendees were General George Washington (aka Samuel Davis) and Rev. Lee Massey (aka Rev. Thomas Costa), who eloquently expressed their reasons for taking this daring step of defiance against the British parliament, and toward American independence.

I attended this event with my husband Ed, who serves as President of the Sergeant Lawrence Everhart Chapter of the SAR in Maryland. The bulk of this post will be comprised of my recapitulation of the two speeches by the re-enactors, which give multiple insights into the motivations of these leading Virginians in the period leading to the outbreak of the Revolution. But first, a summary of the historic event itself, its context, and the individuals being honored.

“No Laws, to which they have not given their Consent”

The Fairfax Resolves were the result of a decision taken by the Virginia House of Burgesses on May 30 and 31, to hold a meeting on August 1, to determine what actions should be taken to support the city of Boston, then subject to the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts, which had shut their ports and put them under military occupation. The Burgesses made this decision after having passed a resolution for a Day of Fasting and Prayer for Boston to be held on June 1. That action had led Virginia Governor Dunmore to dissolve their assembly, but, not being dissuaded, they reassembled at a nearby tavern, and forged ahead with the call for the state convention.

The Significance of the Fairfax Resolves
The Pohick Church, scene of the original Resolves and the July 23 commemoration (Nancy Spannaus)

The two-month time period was specifically provided in order to permit the Burgesses “an Opportunity of collecting the Sense of their respective Counties” on the issue. That process resulted in the submission of 31 resolutions to the August 1 meeting, of which the Fairfax Resolves were the most extensive and far-reaching. A full reading of those 24 Resolves is well worth your time.

The Resolves begin with an assertion of the rights of Englishmen, specifically, the right to be governed by “no Laws, to which they have not given their Consent, by Representatives freely chosen by themselves.” Most notable were the Resolves’ calls for “a firm Union” of the colonies, “the Improvement of Arts and Manufactures in America,” a full embargo on imports and exports from and to Great Britain (as of November 1, 1775 if American grievances had not been redressed), and an end to the slave trade. While expressing a desire to remain part of the British Empire, as well as professing loyalty to a King they believed was being misled, the Resolves took a hard line on the need for all colonies and merchants to abide by the bans on exportation and importation, or be treated as “Traitors.”

The first meeting called in Fairfax to draft the Resolves was set for July 5, but was sparsely attended due to weather. A Committee of Safety was appointed, which was charged with drafting the Resolves. George Washington’s close friend, George Mason, is considered to have been the principal author, although Washington himself was likely intimately involved. These two men spent the evening before the Freeholders’ meeting of July 18 together at Mount Vernon, reviewing and perhaps revising the document that was unanimously approved the next day.

The gravesite of Rev. Lee Massey, under the pulpit at Pohick Church. (Nancy Spannaus)

The 25 freeholders at the July 18 meeting were prominent citizens of the County. The four honored at this commemoration were Charles Alexander, a member of the Committee of Safety; William Brown, a top surgeon in the Revolutionary Army; Lee Massey, an attorney and pastor of Pohick Church; and John West IV, a Burgess from Fairfax and local Justice of the Peace. All are buried at the Pohick church.

George Washington: Not His First Rebellion

What would have impelled George Washington, a prominent Virginia planter, to take such a bold move as to sign the Resolves? That is the question which re-enactor Samuel Davis/George Washington set out to answer. The tall, red-headed General, dressed immaculately, spoke firmly, but a bit haltingly (as was his custom) as he explained his stance to the crowd.

The Significance of the Fairfax Resolves
George Washington (aka Samuel Davis) addresses the crow, as Fairfax Resolves SAR President David Huxoll looks on. (Ed Spannaus)

This was not my first rebellion, “Washington” said. The first came when I learned that my pay as a Major in the Army during the French and Indian War was not the same as that of British officers of the same rank – and that they could order me around, even if of inferior rank. I protested to no avail. The second was when the Crown rescinded the grant of land promised to me in 1763 (the end of the French and Indian War). While this recission was eventually reversed, after my objections, it certainly stuck in my craw as a sign of injustice.

The third, “Washington” emphasized, came in the area of business. To export his produce and import necessary equipment for the plantation, he had to deal with a British mercantile agent named Robert Carey. This Carey, “Washington” noticed, was constantly short-changing him, sending him inferior goods, inflating prices of imports, and cutting prices of exports.  He was being treated as a second-class citizen because he was an American, and he let Carey know he knew it.

Yet most of Washington’s protests got him nowhere.

“Washington” saw the actions taken by the Parliament against Boston as a “tipping point.” He also declared himself especially incensed about England’s insistence on the continuance of the slave trade, and declared Resolution 17, which called for a ban on importation of slaves during the “Difficulties,” the “most important article. The Resolves added that “We take this Opportunity of declaring our most earnest Wishes to see an entire Stop for ever put to such as wicked cruel and unnatural Trade.”

Virginians had previously sought to curtail the “wicked” slave trade, but met British resistance.

“Washington” did not mention it, but this author is aware that there had been considerable motion in Virginia toward ending the trade as early as 1767. A paper by Arthur Lee in that year addressed the House of Burgesses on the need for “The Abolition of Slavery.”[1] A bill was passed that same year for a major tax to be levied in slave importation, which was seen as a move to curtail it. George Washington and George Mason both supported that bill – which was then vetoed by the Crown!

A similar effort was made in 1772, with a bill that levied a tax of 25% of the purchase price on slave importations. This was squashed by the Board of Trade in London as harming “the trade and commerce” of Liverpool, Bristol, and Lancaster.

Thus, the Fairfax Resolves call against slavery was taking up a broadly popular idea. It was included as the second item of the Virginia Aug. 1 Convention’s resolution and then by the First Continental Congress, which banned the trade, with extraordinary success throughout the Revolution.[2]

The Pastor Speaks

Next to address the crowd was Rev. Lee Massey (aka Thomas Costa), who had been the rector at Pohick Church when the Fairfax meeting convened there on July 18, 1774. I paraphrase.

I never did trust the Massachusetts people, Massey began. They were always having riots and running rum, and just acting like bunch of pretentious radicals. They were intemperate, not like us Virginians, people of refinement and taste.

But my perceptions changed this year, I have to confess. They have been subjected to punishment which far exceeds their crime. The whole population of Boston, women and children and the poor, are suffering for the acts of a few. This calls for our support against this cruel response.

The Significance of the Fairfax Resolves
Rev. Lee Massey (aka Thomas Costa) addresses the crowd (Edward Spannaus)

Now is the time that we have to join in one common cause. I agree with Benjamin Franklin, who said that we should no longer consider ourselves Virginians or Marylanders, but Americans.

To those who oppose our action here, I pose the following. If our society were organized so that acts of virtue and wisdom were rewarded, then we could rightly insist upon conforming with its authority. But since we find that we today see scoundrels and blackguards the beneficiaries of riches and honors, we have no choice but to unite to defeat the evils which are taking place.

A Step Toward Unity

These two orations made two crucial points about our Revolution.

First is the significance of the oppressive economic policies by the Empire against American producers and insistence on the slave trade. “George Washington” (aka Davis) reflected that in discussing his dealings with the Mercantile Agent as well as his statements on slavery.

Second is the question of national unity. I believe that “Rev. Massey” (aka Costa) hit the nail on the head. The Fairfax Resolves, and the resulting Virginia Resolution of August 6, which was highly influenced by them, represented a major step toward unity of what had been quite fractious colonies. Virginians did look down on Bostonians; Bostonians turned up their noses at New Yorkers; the list goes on and on. Previous efforts at colonial combination, such as the Albany Congress of 1754, had gone nowhere.

But now Virginia, the largest and most populous colony in the British dominions, was declaring its solidarity with Boston, and calling on all the other colonies to do the same. Its most prominent citizens were taking a stand against Parliamentary authority and risking their lives.

The individuals honored in this ceremony were fully aware of the danger they faced. Their courage and perseverance toward founding our nation are rightly remembered today.

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, available here.

[1] See https://americansystemnow.com/stamp-act-resistance-spurs-anti-slavery-fight/ for an account of Lee’s paper and other Virginia moves against slavery. Note that Arthur Lee became a prominent revolutionary, representing the United States in France early during the war.

[2] See McBurney, Christian M., “The First Efforts to Limit the African Slave Trade Arise in the American Revolution: Part 3 of 3. Congress Bans the African Slave Trade, Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 14, 2020.