It wasn’t really their fault, they said. Slavery, men of the founding generation liked to argue, was brought to the colonies by Britain. It came via Barbados and the other sugar islands of the Caribbean. Thomas Jefferson and Henry Laurens both blamed Britain and wished the colonies could free themselves of the practice. It was ironic, therefore, that American slavery not only outlasted the War for Independence but also outlasted slavery in the British Empire. In truth it was more than ironic: it was a tragedy that led to additional decades of forced labor and the deaths of well over half a million Americans in the Civil War.
Could the abolition of American slavery have come sooner? Maybe. Slavery never existed in the New World without someone also speaking out against it, and antislavery views took a demonstrably large leap forward during the founding era. Christianity, social contract theory, and the very spirit of the Revolution led many Americans to the same conclusion. Even many slaveowners understood it was wrong. “I can only say,” wrote George Washington about slavery in 1786, “that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
....continue to the Journal of the American Revolution
In 1775, the North American colonies had no professional armies and few leaders with significant military training. What possessed them, then, to believe they could take on the mighty British Empire? Politics and principles aside, two experiences led the Americans to believe they could stand up to the British: the 1745 Siege of Louisbourg and the 1755 Battle of Monongahela. The first dispelled any notion that they were powerless against professional forces. The second dispelled the notion of British invincibility.
In the 1740s, the maritime French colony of Île-Royale and its fortress at Louisbourg guarded the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Today, the two main islands of Île-Royale are known as Prince Edward Island (Canada’s smallest province) and Cape Breton Island (part of Nova Scotia). The French and the Wabanaki Indians were a constant threat to New England. Multiple engagements had occurred during little-remembered wars such as King William's War, Queen Anne’s War, and Father Rale’s War. Louisbourg was (and is) positioned on the east coast of Cape Breton and directly east of the modern state of Maine, which was then part of Massachusetts. Louisbourg itself was a threat to New England: it was a center for privateering and well positioned to interfere with New England’s economically crucial fishing industry.
At the start of King George’s War (known in Europe as the War of Austrian Succession) in 1744, a Franco-Indian force raided and destroyed the British fishing village at Canso, in nearby Nova Scotia. In 1745, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley organized a response. Militia from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, set off on an expedition supported with funds and supplies from Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania. While there were no professional soldiers involved, they did have support from the British Navy.
The Fortress of Louisbourg was thought to be impenetrable from the sea. A land approach, however, provided hilly terrain that allowed for the erection of siege batteries. After a siege of several weeks and a number of raids and skirmishes, the fortress surrendered on June 27, 1745. While the French forces had suffered from poor morale and other issues, the stark fact remained that American militia had taken on and defeated a professional army sheltered in a major fortification.
A decade later, early in the French and Indian War, General Edward Braddock suffered his better-remembered defeat near the banks of the Monongahela. The lesson here was that British redcoats were not invincible. In a report to his mother, Washington wrote, “The Virginia troops showed a good deal of bravery, and were near all killed; for I believe out of three companies that were there, there are scarce 30 men left alive. … In short, the dastardly behavior of those they call regulars exposed all others that were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death; and, at last, in despite of all the efforts of the officers to the contrary, they broke and ran as sheep pursued by dogs; and it was impossible to rally them.”
While the British army was humiliated, Washington’s own reputation for heroism was bolstered, in part because of his own reports. “I luckily escaped without a wound,” he wrote, “though I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me.”
Louisbourg (1745), Monongahela (1755), and the outbreak of the Revolution itself in 1775 are milestones in the colonists’ increasing confidence in their own military capabilities. Though Louisbourg was remote from Virginia, it was not remote from those who began the war in Massachusetts. Braddocks’ defeat was very much front-of-mind to all Virginians at the start of the war. This must have been especially true for men like the 8th Virginia's Maj. Peter Helphenstine and Capt. Thomas Berry of Winchester (Washington's headquarters during the French and Indian War) and Captains John Stephenson and William Croghan who filled their companies with men from the settlements near the site of the general’s failure.
Twenty years after Monongahela, Massachusets’ 1775-1776 experiences at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, and the Siege of Boston reinforced New England’s view that militia could take on professional troops. Victories won by militia and green provincial troops at Great Bridge and Sullivans Island indicated the same to Virginia and the south.
This elevated view of their militias’ capabilities must be viewed as an important factor in the colonists’ decision to take up arms against the Crown. It is even more important in view of the prevalent Anglo-American dislike of standing or “regular” armies. Oliver Cromwell had used his “New Model” army to rule by martial law. King James II had attempted to use a standing, professional army to restore the monarchy’s supremacy over parliament. For this is he was deposed and replaced by William and Mary, who accepted a Declaration of Rights (enacted as a “Bill of Rights” in 1689) that specifically forbade standing armies on British soil in peace time.
When Britain decided to leave a standing army in America after the French and Indian War, the colonists reacted in a way that should have been predictable. Peace-time standing armies had been illegal in Britain for nearly a century, universally seen as a threat to the “rights of Englishmen.” And yet there they were, posted in the colonies and quartered in private homes. Colonial charters had guaranteed the rights of Englishmen to the colonists. This was a clear violation. Virginia’s 1606 charter read, for example:
"Also we do ... DECLARE ... that all and every the Persons being our Subjects, which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and Plantations, and every of their children, which shall happen to be born within any of the Limits and Precincts of the said several Colonies and Plantations, shall HAVE and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities, within any of our other Dominions, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born, within this our Realm of England, or any other of our said Dominions."
Among the 27 indictments against the King in the Declaration of Independence was the charge that “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.” When the war began, it was a war between American militia and British regulars. While some might have seen this as an uneven fight, many more saw it as proof of the justice and moral superiority of the American cause.
The British Army was the most powerful in the world, and there may have been a time when the colonists would not have dared to fight them. In 1775, after the Siege of Louisville, after Braddocks defeat, and with God and Justice on their side, the Americans believed they could win. And they did win, but not until the Continentals themselves were professionalized. Still, consistent with principle, the Continental Army was disbanded at the end of the war.
Read more: "A Campaign of Amateurs: The Siege of Louisbourg, 1745" by Raymond F. Baker.
In 1781, the traitor Benedict Arnold was sent to Virginia by the British to disrupt American supply lines supporting patriots farther south. Opposing him was Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg, the 8th Virginia’s original colonel. Gov. Thomas Jefferson gave Muhlenberg instructions to capture Arnold and specified that the plan should be carried out by “men from the western side of the mountains.” As a former pastor from Woodstock and colonel of the 8th Virginia, Muhlenberg knew many such men. Jefferson wrote:
You will readily suppose that it is above all things desireable to drag him from those under whose wing he is now sheltered. ... Having peculiar confidence in the men from the Western side of the mountains, I meant as soon as they should come down to get the enterprize proposed to a chosen number of them, such whose courage and whose fidelity would be above all doubt. Your perfect knowlege of those men personally, and my confidence in your discretion, induce me to ask you to pick from among them proper characters, in such number as you think best, to reveal to them our desire, and engage them [to] undertake to seize and bring off this greatest of all traitors. Whether this may be best effected by their going in as friends and awaiting their opportunity, or otherwise is left to themselves. The smaller the number the better; so that they be sufficient to manage him. Every necessary caution must be used on their part to prevent a discovery of their design by the enemy, as should they be taken, the laws of war will justify against them the most rigorous sentence. I will undertake if they are succesful in bringing him off alive, that they shall receive five thousand guineas reward among them, and to men formed for such an enterprize it must be a great incitement to know that their names will be recorded with glory in history....
Arnold wasn’t captured. His security was too tight. Some histories, however, report rumors of a failed attempt. Edward Hocker’s 1936 biography of Muhlenberg, for example, documents a “tradition” that Col. George Rogers Clark (who had two brothers in the 8th Virginia) was tapped to lead the mission. Clark was newly famous for his successful campaign against the British in Illinois and his capture of Gov. Henry Hamilton, the coordinator of Indian attacks on the frontier.
According to Hocker’s narrative, one of Clark’s men was captured and taken before Arnold, who asked him, “What would be my fate if the Americans caught me?” The prisoner replied, “We would cut off that shortened leg wounded at Quebec and Saratoga and bury it with the honors of war, and then hang the rest of you.”
Ironically, it was George Rogers Clark who ultimately had his leg cut off. Many years later, after a having a stroke and in a drunken stupor, he fell into a fireplace and severely burned himself. When gangrene set in, he was told a leg would have to be amputated. On the day of the procedure, he arranged to have fifers and drummers from the local militia come and play martial tunes to celebrate. He reportedly tapped his fingers in time with the music as they sawed off his leg, “effected more by the music than the pain.”
Updated August 24, 2019
On May 15, 1776 the provisional government of Virginia voted to instruct its Congressional delegation to propose and support a declaration of independence from Great Britain. This was two days after the 8th Virginia marched south with General Charles Lee to meet the enemy in the Carolinas. However, a few of the regiment’s soldiers—stragglers and sick men who were left behind—may have witnessed the celebration on May 16. The Union Jack was lowered from the capital and replaced with the Grand Union flag. The men were paraded to nearby Walter’s Grove, attended by the commander of the provincial army (General Andrew Lewis), the Committee of Safety, the Virginia Convention, and members of the public.
The resolution was read aloud, followed by three toasts. The first was to “The American independent states.” The second was to “The Grand Congress of the United States and their respective Legislatures.” The third was to “General Washington, and victory to the American Arms.” Each toast was saluted by the firing of cannon. After the reading, an outdoor “refreshment” was held for the soldiers. When the sun set, illuminations were lit to celebrate. The next day, May 17, was set aside as a day for fasting and prayer.
Three weeks later, the Virginia delegation complied with its mandate, proposing independence to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Less than a month after that, Independence was formally declared. It took until early August for the 8th Virginia to hear the news in far-off Charleston, South Carolina.
Meanwhile, 8th Virginia stragglers continued to arrive in the capital, including an entire company under the command of Captain William Croghan from Fort Pitt. These men were present when two truly world-historical events occurred in Williamsburg: the June 12th adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (a precursor to and model for the Declaration of Independence), and the June 29 adoption of a new, written (rather than evolving or “living”) constitution which declared the people rather than a monarch to be sovereign.
The May 15 resolution and the Virginia Declaration of Rights are both worth the few minutes it takes to read them. The Declaration was written by George Mason with revisions from Robert Nicholas and James Madison. It is clear how much Thomas Jefferson depended on Mason’s writing in drafting Congress’s declaration for the colonies. Mason's declaration was a template for the Bill of Rights as well. Similarly, the Virginia Constitution was, at least in some respects, a template for the U.S. Constitution--though other states can claim that as well. For the United States, July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day. Virginians should also celebrate--or at least remember--May 15.
The May 15 Resolution
Forasmuch as all the endeavours of the United Colonies, by the most decent representations and petitions to the King and Parliament of Great Britain, to restore peace and security to America under the British Government, and a reunion with that people upon just and liberal terms, instead of a redress of grievances, have produced, from an imperious and vindictive Administration, increased insult, oppression, and a vigorous attempt to effect our total destruction. By a late act all these Colonies are declared to be in rebellion, and out of the protection of the British Crown, our properties subjected to confiscation, our people, when captivated, compelled to join in the murder and plunder of their relations and countermen, and all former rapine and oppression of Americans declared legal and just; fleets and armies are raised, and the aid of foreign troops engaged to assist these destructive purposes; the King's representative in this Colony bath not only withheld all the powers of Government from operating for our safety, but, having retired on board an armed ship, is carrying on a piratical and savage war against us, tempting our slaves by every artifice to resort to him, and training and employing them against their masters. In this state of extreme danger, we have no alternative left but an abject submission to the will of those overbearing tyrants, or a total separation from the Crown and Government of Great Britain, uniting and exerting the strength of all America for defence, and forming alliances with foreign Powers for commerce and aid in war. Wherefore, appealing to the Searcher of hearts for the sincerity of former declarations expressing our desire to preserve the connection with that nation, and that we are driven from that inclination by their wicked councils, and the eternal law of self-preservation:
Resolved, unanimously, That the Delegates appointed to represent this Colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this Colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming foreign alliances, and a Confederation of the Colonies, at such time and in the manner as to them shall seem best: Provided, That the power of forming Government for, and the regulations of the internal concerns of each Colony, be left to the respective Colonial Legislatures.
Resolved, unanimously, That a Committee be appointed to prepare a Declaration of Rights, and such a plan of Government as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this Colony, and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights
A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free convention which rights do pertain to them and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government.
Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Section 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.
Section 3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration. And that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
Section 4. None of mankind is entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.
Section 5. That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in which all, or any part, of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws shall direct.
Section 6. That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly ought to be free; and that all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented for the public good.
Section 7. That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, by any authority, without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights and ought not to be exercised.
Section 8. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.
Section 9. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Section 10. That general warrants, whereby an officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, or whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive and ought not to be granted.
Section 11. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other and ought to be held sacred.
Section 12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.
Section 13. That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
Section 14. That the people have a right to uniform government; and, therefore, that no government separate from or independent of the government of Virginia ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof.
Section 15. That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.
Section 16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.
The adventures of 8th Virginia Captain James Knox have been unfairly overshadowed by those of Daniel Boone. This may be true generally, but it is definitely—and literally—true at the site of a memorial marker in Greene County, Kentucky.
The 8th Virginia’s recruitment area was vast—covering almost the entire Virginia frontier, which at that time stretched from Pittsburgh to the Cumberland Gap—a distance of 450 miles. Those two places were, at that time, the only practical access points to the “Kentucky Country”—all of which was, at the start of the war, part of Fincastle County, Virginia. To get there, you could float down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, or you could travel overland through the Cumberland Gap. Few had taken the latter route, however, when James Knox led a hunting party that way in 1770.
Knox was one of the original “Long Hunters,” who entered Kentucky on months-long or even years-long hunting trips, intending to return with large quantities of pelts. Daniel Boone is by far the most famous of the long hunters, but that is partly because there is only room for one of these little-remembered adventurers in public memory.
In 1770, James Knox and his team established a hunting camp and pelt repository (a “skin house”) by the north bank of a creek now known as Skinhouse Branch. Years later, a church was built on the same site. Today, the 187-year old nondenominational church sits at the intersection of Skinhouse Branch and Long Hunters Camp roads—neither of which carries enough traffic to warrant painted markings. It is surrounded by farms growing corn, tobacco, and soybeans. Two stone markers were put there long ago by local citizens to memorialize James Knox and the hunting expedition of 1770. In front of them, and closer to the road, is an official Kentucky state historic marker noting that Daniel Boone was also there—a year later.
Early in 1776, Knox recruited one of the 8th Virginia’s ten companies. His men were decimated by malaria during the South Carolina expedition of that summer and fall. By the spring of 1777, only a handful were left. Knox became a captain in Morgan’s Rifles and commanded a company at the victory at Saratoga. He took a few of his 8th Virginia men with him, and his 8th Virginia Regiment company ceased to exist. He was a prominent citizen of Kentucky in his later years, but has always been overshadowed by Daniel Boone.
Read More: "Searching for Captain Knox" (3/29/18)
Of all the Tories engaged in the brutal southern theater of the Revolution, none has a worse reputation than Colonel David Fanning. His savagery was matched only by his loyalty to the Crown. After the war, he referred to the Treaty of Paris as “the act of oblivion.” Fanning’s career and writings offer an unfamiliar perspective on the war and its aftermath.
Fanning used fear and violence to keep his part of North Carolina loyal, or at least neutral. “On one occasion, Fanning and his troop called at a smithshop to get their horse shoes repaired, where he met with a young man of the name of Bland, who had for a time served under him, but had withdrawn himself with a hope that he would be permitted to live at home in peace; Fanning charged him with being a deserter, stabbed him several times with his sword, and then shot him, and after turning him over with his foot to see that he was dead, said the d—-d rascal would never deceive him again.”
In a better-remembered incident, “He and his raiders first rode to Col. [Andrew] Balfour's plantation. When they arrived, the Loyalists immediately opened fire. Absalom Autry fired at Col. Balfour and the shot broke his arm. Col. Balfour made his way back into the house to protect his daughter and his sister. The Loyalists rushed the house and pulled Col. Balfour away from the women, then riddled his body with bullets. Even Col. Fanning fired his pistol into Balfour's head. The women were kicked and beaten until they fled to the home of a neighbor.”
Fanning left an account of his service, which includes interesting reflections of a loyalist in Canadian post-war exile. Like combatants everywhere, he had far more sympathy for his comrades than for his enemy. Reflecting on the fate of the loyalists he had commanded, he wrote, “Those people have been induced to brave every danger and difficulty during the late war, rather than render any service to the Rebels. .... As to place them in their former possessions, is impossible—stripped of all their property, driven from their Houses—deprived of their wives and children—robbed of a free and mild government—betrayed and deserted by their friends, what can repay them, for the misery? Dragging out a wretched life of obscurity and want, Heaven, only, which smooths the rugged paths, can reconcile them to misfortune. Numbers of them left their wives and children in North Carolina, not being able to send for them; and now in the West Indies and other parts of the world for refuge, and not returned to their families yet. Some of them, that returned, under the act of oblivion passed in 1783, was taken to Hillsboro, and hanged for their past services that they rendered the Government whilst under my command.”
Fanning’s memoir, written just a few years after “act of oblivion,” begins with a scriptural citation. Quoting 1 Samuel 15:23, he writes, “Rebellion according to the Scripture is, as the Sin of Witchcraft; and the propagators thereof, has been more than once punished; which is dreadfully exemplified this day in the now United States of America but formerly Provinces; for since their Independence from Great Britain, they have been awfully and visibly punished by the fruits of the earth being cut off; and civil dissention every day prevailing among them; their fair trade, and commerce almost totally ruined; and nothing prospering so much as nefarious and rebellious Smuggling.”
Indeed, the first years of Independence were messy. Even as Fanning was completing his memoir, the First Congress was meeting in New York under the new Constitution and working with the nation's first president to craft a more perfect union.
A close read of 1 Samuel 15 puts Fanning’s scripture quote in context, providing food for thought. The full verse reveals that it is a king (Saul, the predecessor of King David) who has rebelled against the will of God. (I quote here from the King James version, the version Fanning would have read.) “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” This, at least to modern minds, turns the meaning of the verse on its head. However, Saul’s confession turns the meaning around one more time. “And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. (1 Samuel 15:24)
Kings owe their allegiance to God, not to the people. To Fanning, evidently, that was an important distinction.
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
© 2015-2019 Gabriel Neville