May 17, 1769: Washington criticizes “taxation without representation”
On this day in 1769, George Washington launches a legislative salvo at Great Britain’s fiscal and judicial attempts to maintain its control over the American colonies. With his sights set on protesting the British policy of “taxation without representation,” Washington brought a package of non-importation resolutions before the Virginia House of Burgesses.
The resolutions, drafted by George Mason largely in response to England’s passage of the Townshend Acts of 1767, decried Parliament’s plan to send colonial political protestors to England for trial. Though Virginia’s royal governor promptly fired back by disbanding the House of Burgesses, the dissenting legislators were undeterred. During a makeshift meeting held at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia’s delegates gave their support to the non-importation resolutions. Maryland and South Carolina soon followed suit with the passing of their own non-importation measures.
The non-importation resolutions lacked any means of enforcement, and Chesapeake tobacco merchants of Scottish ancestry tended to be loyal to their firms in Glasgow. However, tobacco planters supported the measure, and the mere existence of non-importation agreements proved that the southern colonies were willing to defend Massachusetts, the true target of Britain’s crackdown, where violent protests against the Townshend Acts had led to a military occupation of Boston, beginning on October 2, 1768.
When Britain’s House of Lords learned that the Sons of Liberty, a revolutionary group in Boston, had assembled an extra-legal Massachusetts convention of towns as the British fleet approached in 1768, they demanded the right to try such men in England. This step failed to frighten New Englanders into silence, but succeeded in rallying Southerners to their cause. By impugning colonial courts and curtailing colonial rights, this British action backfired: it created an American identity where before there had been none.