Virginia was established as a colony of Great Britain in 1624 by act of a royal decree. Although the governor of the colony was appointed by the King of England, the people of Virginia were allowed to elect delegates from among themselves to serve in the Virginia Assembly and House of Burgesses who would then decided the laws which all Virginias would live by. However, the governor had the power to veto any law he didn't like that had been passed by the Assembly.
The official state religion was the Anglican church and its ministers were paid from the taxes collected from all Virginias. Since tobacco was the most abundant crop of Virginia and it was in high demand, the ministers (or parsons as they were called) in 1748 the legislature passed a law saying that ministers were to be paid a salary of 16,000 pounds of tobacco a year.
In 1755 the price of a pound of tobacco was two cents which meant that the ministers were receiving the equivalent salary of $320 a year. But by 1758 Virginia has suffered three years of drought which severely reduced the amount of tobacco that could be grown. Because of the shortage, the price of tobacco had risen to six cents per pound. And, because of a shortage of this crop, that prevented the ministers from receiving their normal yearly allotment of tobacco.
To make it easier for the ministers to get paid, the Virginia Assembly passed a law saying that the clergy could get paid in cash at the rate of two cents a pound of tobacco. This law was known as the Two Penny Act however, the ministers felt this law was unjust. They argued that since the price of tobacco had gone up, they should get paid in money according to the current price of tobacco.
The Virginia Assembly disagreed saying that the ministers were asking to be paid three times more than their normal salary for doing nothing extra to earn the large increase in their salary. The legislature presented their case to Francis Fauquier, the governor of Virginia at that time, and he upheld the law.
Dissatisfied with this verdict, the case was appealed to the King who said the Two Penny Act was illegal and he vetoed it. Virginias were outraged by the king's decision. Feeling that they had been granted the freedom to make their own rules as part of their charter to be a colony, they felt that the king was unfairly dictating what they could or couldn't do.
Feeling encouraged by the king's veto, the Reverend James Maury, a minister from Hanover County, Virginia, sued the county for back wages, demanding that Virginia pay him and all other clergymen the six cents per pound of tobacco they were entitled to over the past several years. When the case came to court in 1763, a young, unknown lawyer named Patrick Henry defended Hanover County arguing "that a King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a Tyrant and forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience." The verdict of the jury upheld the law passed by the Virginia Assembly, thereby overturning the King's veto. Henry had won the case and became an instant hero to Virginians.
Patrick was a man with intense passion in what he believed and had the gift of oratory. He was a powerful and dynamic speaker who could mesmerize audiences with his eloquent words and their fiery delivery. Two years later he was elected to the House of Burgesses which was the legislative body of the Virginia Assembly.
The French and Indian War had ended in 1763 but it cost England dearly in money. With its treasury nearly empty, King George III needed to find ways to raise more money and he decided to do it by taxing the American Colonies. In 1764 the English Parliament passed the Sugar Act and in 1765 they passed the Stamp Act. Both of these tax bills outraged Americans and shortly after being elected to the House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry introduced a bill known as the Virginia Resolve which outlawed obeying both the Sugar and the Stamp Act, in effect declaring them unlawful laws. His argument that it was illegal for the King to tax Americans without their interest being represented in Parliament. Referring to the king as a tyrant, his rhetoric was so strong that he was accused of treason. Instead of Governor Fauquier simply vetoing the resolution, he was so angry at the disrespect shown to the king that he dismissed the entire Assembly, thereby preventing them from meeting together to pass laws.
Various political groups also protested the Stamp Act and it was repealed only to be replaced by other taxes. When the people of Boston rioted over these taxes, the King ordered them to be arrested and sent to England to be tired for their crimes. In 1769 the Virginia Assembly sought to pass a resolution condemning this act but the new governor of Virginia, Lord Botetourt, dissolved the legislature rather than let them pass their resolution into law. However, a few months later, the British gave up trying to extradite the Boston rebels and repealed all the taxes.
John Murray was the fourth Earl of Dunmore and had been appointed by the King of England to be the governor over the colony of New York in 1770 but a year later Governor Lord Botetourt died and the King appointed John Murray to take his place. He was addressed as Lord Dunmore.
In 1773 the King again attempted to extradite American patriots to England to stand trial. In response to this action a number of Virginia legislators, including Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, formed a Committee of Correspondence, which was an official committee of the legislature to deal with this threat from England. Most of the colonies at that time had such committees whose purpose was a way for all the states to communicate information with one another and keep them up-to-date on what the British were doing in the various colonies. However, Lord Dunmore objected to the existence of this committee and dismissed the legislators.
Later that year, on December 13th, the patriots in Boston dumped a ship's worth of tea into the harbor and England retaliated by sending warships to impose a naval blockade on that city, effectively cutting off all supplies from getting in or out. Its purpose was to cripple Boston's economy. On June 1, 1774 the Virginia House of Burgesses issued a proclamation calling for a day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer to show their support for the people of Boston in particular and for the colony of Massachusetts in general but Lord Dunmore was displeased with this proclamation and dismissed the Virginia legislators.
By now the displeasure the colonist had with England's interference in their affairs was beginning to escalate. Since the Virginia legislature was not allowed to meet in the Assembly hall, the legislators secretly met at the Raleigh Tavern on August 1st and formed their own provincial government independent of British rule. Without Lord Dunmore's permission, this meeting was viewed by the governor as not only being illegal and without power but was also an act of treason against the Crown.
The legislators called their government the Virginia Convention and was the first of several such meeting. In attendance were such men as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Payton Randolph, Patrick Henry and many others. They discussed how to respond to the new round of taxes imposed upon them by England, the lack of representation in Parliament, and the increasing role of the British government in the affairs of the colonies. It was resolved that ban doing business with English merchants, not pay the debts they owed England, and that they would provide supplies to the patriots in Massachusetts.
These actions were noticed by Lord Dunmore and he used his British troops to enforce compliance to British laws. To counteract this military threat, Virginians began organizing their own militia companies for self defense who then began seeking ways to get more military supplies such as weapons, gunpowder, ammunition, cannons, etc.
Seeing this rising threat from the colonist, Lord Dunmore place more guards to protect British military supplies. In addition to this, he knew he had to find a way to crush the spirit of rebellion that was growing in Virginia. He knew that one way he could do that was to prevent the Virginia legislators from meeting together. In this way they would be prevented from organizing a coordinated effort against the Crown. Therefore, Lord Dunmore made it illegal for the legislature to meet without his permission. Anyone caught violating this order would be arrested and imprisoned.
Yet, as unrest grew, the legislators knew they had to meet again in order to discuss how they should respond to the loss of their liberties. But they also knew that the British troops were also watching them. If they attempted to meet as a group there was a very real possibility they would be discovered and arrested. Therefore, a plan was devised which called for all of the legislators to ride out of town separately, at different times, and going in different directions but they would all meet up with one another at St. John's church in a small town called Richmond which sat nearly 50 miles west of Williamsburg. In this way it was hoped they would be far enough away from the prying eyes of British troops that they could meet without being discovered.
Even so, there was always the chance they one of them might have been followed so, once inside the church, they locked the doors and had a lookout stand guard for signs of any British troops.
One by one, each delegate rose and addressed the Convention, their second since Lord Dunmore dissolved the Virginia Assembly, offering their suggestion on what they thought should be done. Thomas Jefferson in particular argued that war with England should be avoided because the colonies weren't strong enough to fight against such a strong military. Others suggested sending a petition directly to King George, pleading their case and appealing to his sense of graciousness and mercy. Others suggested that their unpleasant situation may be only temporary and that if they waited a little longer perhaps things would improve, while others suggested that taking any further action might only make things worse.
The last person to address the House was Patrick Henry. He stood and said (in part):
"Mr. President, it is natural [for] man to indulge in the illusions of hope [but, are we among] those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which concern their temporal salvation? I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves?
"Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation. Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it?
"They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt.
"They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.
"Gentlemen may cry, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
Patrick Henry's words were so impassioned and had such a powerful affect on those who heard it that day at the second Virginia Convention that the legislators resolved to raise up a militia for the purpose of taking up arms in defense of their rights if it became necessary.
The following month, on April 20th the militia of Hanover country, led by Patrick Henry, was needed to prevent the Royal marines from taking the store of gunpowder out of Williamsburg. On May 6, Lord Dunmore declared Patrick Henry to be among "a number of deluded followers who had organized an independent company… and put themselves in a posture of war." Now the Virginia legislators were officially recognized as rebels to the Crown.
Just a short thirteen months later, Thomas Jefferson sat in Philadelphia and penned the words that officially declared the intentions of all the colonies to be free and independent from British rule and many of the things Jefferson wrote in that statement were sentiments he had heard Patrick Henry give in St. John's church at the second Virginia Convention.