The Fairfax County Resolves, R.J.Rushdoony once said, are “the best single document for understanding the constitutional and the legal issues between the colonies and England.” Though “one of the most important documents in American history,” he further notes, it has been almost entirely forgotten.1 (A recent Library of Congress exhibit underscores the significance of the Fairfax Resolves, calling them “the first clear statement of fundamental constitutional rights of the British American colonies as subjects of the Crown.2”)
It is certainly true that the Fairfax Resolves have been neglected. I have never seen a college history text that mentions them. And even though the Fairfax Resolves were largely framed by George Washington and George Mason, I have never seen a college text on the American Revolution that covers them.
Why are they ignored? In the past generation or so, American historians have not emphasized constitutional principles. Historians who focus on race, class, and gender issues have little interest in fundamental legal questions. Students are far more likely to learn about Sally Fairfax, the one-time object of Washington’s affections, than about the Fairfax Resolves.
The Fairfax County Resolves were part of the colonial response to the Coercive Acts, which were a series of punitive measures enacted by the British Parliament in response to the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773. Americans promptly dubbed them the Intolerable Acts, and for good reason: the Boston Port Act closed Boston harbor; the Impartial Administration of Justice Act allowed indicted royal officials to face trial in Britain, rather than before colonial judges and jurors; a revised Quartering Act permitted the lodging of British soldiers in colonists’ homes — a cruel provision, given the nasty reputation of 18th century soldiers; and the Massachusetts Government Act eliminated representative government in that colony.
Patriots around the colonies saw the Coercive Acts as a major threat to American liberty. The British ministry, it seemed, was moving toward outright tyranny. As Washington put it, “[T]he crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition, that can be heaped upon us, till custom and use shall make us tame and abject slaves.”3
Ultimately, colonists would send representatives to the (First) Continental Congress in September, 1774, to coordinate resistance to British policy. In the meantime, state by state, patriots issued resolutions and took steps to protect their liberties.
The state of Virginia is a good example of the rising opposition to British tyranny. On May 24, 1774, the House of Burgesses formally protested the Boston Port Act; two days later, the royal governor dissolved the House. A week later, burgesses who remained in Williamsburg called for a statewide convention to meet in sixty days. Over the next two months, burgesses were to “collect the sense of their respective counties.” Thirty-one of these Virginia county resolutions remain. The Fairfax County Resolves, ratified in northern Virginia on July 18, was the most significant.4
Their authorship is usually attributed to Mason and Washington (who chaired the proceedings). They probably drafted the Resolves on July 17 at Mount Vernon, submitting them the following day for debate and ratification at a county assembly. There, “the Freeholders and Inhabitants” of Fairfax County approved twenty-four monumental resolutions which reflect the temper and commitments of American patriots.5 The Resolves have four major emphases.
First, the Fairfax Resolves emphasized fundamental constitutional principles. As Englishmen, the colonists possessed inalienable constitutional rights which could not be abridged by king or parliament. Their ancestors brought those rights with them to America; those rights were confirmed by colonial charters; and colonists had never abandoned them. Colonists did not see themselves as revolutionaries who wanted to throw off English rule. Rather, they were descendents of Englishmen defending their constitutional rights under the original English compact. As the first resolution states it, colonists brought “the Civil-Constitution and Form of Government of the Country they came from, and were by the Laws of Nature and Nations entitled to all it’s Privileges, Immunities and Advantages, which have descended to us their Posterity.”
Virginia patriots specifically highlighted key constitutional rights, such as the principle of “consent of the governed.” “The most important and valuable Part of the British Constitution, upon which it’s very Existence depends,” the second resolution says, “is the fundamental Principle of the People’s being governed by no Laws, to which they have not given their Consent, by Representatives freely chosen by themselves.” Without this constitutional safeguard, “the Government must degenerate either into an absolute and despotic Monarchy, or a tyrannical Aristocracy, and the Freedom of the People be annihilated.”
A corollary principle was “no taxation without representation.” “To extort from us our Money with out our Consent,” the fifth resolution states, is “diametrically contrary to the first Principles of the Constitution“ and “is totally incompatible with the Privileges of a free People, and the natural Rights of Mankind” and “is calculated to reduce us from a State of Freedom and Happiness to Slavery and Misery.” Control of taxation, the sixth resolution continues, is “the only effectual Security to a free People, against the Incroachments of Despotism and Tyranny.”
Affirmations of Loyalty
Second, the Fairfax Resolves stated the colonists’ willingness to remain within the British Empire. Colonists did not wish to separate or become independent. They were willingly “subject to all his Majesty’s just, legal, and constitutional Prerogatives.”
The colonists also recognized their duties within the empire. They were willing to contribute to its defense, and had done so in the French and Indian War. They were willing to abide by imperial trade regulations. Though mercantilist policy was “subject to Abuse,” they would “chearfully acquiesce” to these laws, since it helped the whole empire.
In 1774 American patriots were loyal to the king — “under a just, lenient, permanent, and constitutional Form of Government.” Their “greatest Wish and Inclination, as well as Interest” was to remain within the British Empire. Colonial loyalty, however, was conditional: ”but tho’ we are it’s Subjects, we will use every Means which Heaven hath given us to prevent our becoming it’s Slaves.”6
The conviction of the colonists comes through in the penultimate resolution. The Continental Congress should “transmit an humble and dutiful Petition and Remonstrance to his Majesty, asserting with decent Firmness our just and constitutional Rights and Privileg[es,] lamenting the fatal Necessity of being compelled to enter into [these] Measures; declaring, in the strongest Terms, ou[r] Duty and Affection to his Majesty...and most humbly conjuring and beseeching his Majesty, not to reduce his faithful Subjects of America to a State of desperation.”
Limits on Parliamentary Power
Third, patriots focused on Parliament’s abuse of power. The House of Commons, they insisted, was not elected by Americans and was not accountable to Americans. Resolution seven warns that Parliament was establishing “the most grievous and intolerable Species of Tyranny and Oppression, that ever was inflicted upon Mankind.” Parliament’s assault on colonial rights, the patriots continue, will reduce the colonies to a state of desperation, will dissolve the ancient compacts between colonists and Britain, and “will end in the Ruin both of Great Britain and her Colonies.”
In particular, the Fairfax Resolves point to unconstitutional Parliamentary actions. Revenue acts (without the people’s consent), the suspension of jury trials, the abrogation of colonial charters, the “Protection and Encouragement of Murderers” in Boston, and especially the Coercive Acts were examples of Parliament’s erection of an “Iniquitous System.”
Fourth, the Fairfax Resolves called upon Virginians and Americans to have a united resistance to British tyranny. This call to coordinated action dominates the last half of the Resolves. A “firm Union” of the colonies, resolution twelve promises, will defeat “the pernicious Designs” of Parliament.
Colonists were called to assist Boston, since the citizens of Boston were “suffering in the common Cause of all British America.” Americans would also collect money to reimburse the East India Company — as the destroyed tea had been private property. But Americans would also boycott the company, resolution eleven explains, as it was the “Instrument of Oppression and the Cause of our present Distress.”
Colonists were also called to self-sufficiency, moderation, and virtue. Leaders needed “to set Examples of Temperance, Fortitude, Frugality and Industry.” Colonists must put economic pressure on Britain, boycotting British goods. They should also embargo critical exports — such as tobacco and timber, and merchants were to cap prices. In resolution eighteen, Virginians demanded an end to slave importation, hoping to terminate the “wicked cruel and unnatural Trade.”
Colonists even created an enforcement mechanism to guarantee compliance. The inhabitants of all the Colonies were asked to enter “a solemn Covenant and Association” in which they pledged themselves to boycott British goods. Then, committees in each county, in every colony, would publish in local papers “a List of the Names of those (if any such there be) who will not accede thereto; that such Traitors to their Country may be publickly known and detested.” Colonies which refused to abide by the Covenant and Association would themselves face boycott measures. In short, Virginians proposed an apparatus to encourage pan-colonial resistance to British tyranny.
I cannot imagine Americans producing a document like the Fairfax County Resolves today. Indeed, most Americans would have trouble reading and understanding the document. As a people, I fear that we are far too ignorant of history, of Scripture, and of constitutional principles. Every semester I teach a course on the American War for Independence, and I am always amazed at the learning, the conviction, and the courage of the founding generation. I look forward to the day when Americans will once again treasure the constitutional principles expressed by the Freeholders of Fairfax County in 1774.
1 Rousas Rushdoony, American History to 1863 (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon Foundation, 1973), Tape 3.
2 “American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Fairfax County Resolves,” http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trt010.html (January 31, 2006).
3 Quoted in George Tindall and David Shi, America: A Narrative History, Fourth Edition (N.Y.: Norton), 222.
4 See Donald Sweig, “A New-Found Letter and the Fairfax Resolves,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series 40:2 (1983).
5 Those interested in a point-by-point commentary and analysis should see Rushdoony’s lecture. The entire text of the Resolves is now available online Fairfax County Resolves, http://www.constitution.org/bcp/fairfax_res.htm.
6 For similar sentiments, see Congress’s “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” (July 6, 1775).