On July 18, 1774, a committee led by George Washington in Fairfax County, Virginia, voted to adopt the Fairfax Resolves condemning British actions against the colonies, and calling for an embargo on British imports and exports. It represented growing colonial resistance, which ultimately led to a British gun control program and the march on Lexington and Concord.
The Fairfax Resolves were in response to the Coercive Acts, a series of laws passed by Parliament in early 1774 to punish the colonies — particularly Massachusetts — after the Boston Tea Party. These acts included the Boston Port Act closing the Boston Port, the Massachusetts Government Act stripping virtually all authority from the colonial government, the Administration of Justice Act removing authority from local courts and authorizing trials to be held in Great Britain instead of Massachusetts, and the Quartering Act allowing British troops to take over private buildings.
In response, the Virginia House of Burgesses proclaimed June 1, 1774, a day of “fasting, humiliation, and prayer” in support of Boston and the Massachusetts Colony. Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunsmore responded by dissolving the House of Burgesses.
On May 27, members of the House of Burgesses defied the royal governor and convened at the Raleigh Tavern. During the meeting, the body called for all Virginia counties to elect delegates to a special convention scheduled for August.
Leading up to the convention, 31 Virginia counties passed resolutions in opposition to the Coercive Acts. Of those, the Fairfax County Resolves were the most detailed, radical and influential.
The people of Fairfax County elected George Washington and Charles Broadwater to represent them at the August convention. On July 5, in defiance of Gov. Dunsmore, Washington and others met in Alexandria and appointed a committee to draft resolutions to be presented during the convention.
George Mason was likely the primary drafter of the resolves with significant input from Washington.
The first several resolutions reveal that a constitutional crisis was at the root of the dispute between Britain and the colonies.
The opening resolve declared that Virginia was not “a conquered country,” and the inhabitants retained all their rights as British citizens.
“Our Ancestors, when they left their native Land, and settled in America, brought with them (even if the same had not been confirmed by Charters) the Civil-Constitution and Form of Government of the Country they came from; and were by the Laws of Nature and Nations, entitiled to all it’s Privileges, Immunities and Advantages; which have descended to Us their Posterity, and ought of Right to be as fully enjoyed, as if We had still continued within the Realm of England.” [Emphasis added]
The resolves then declared the people’s right to self-government and affirmed “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,” calling it “the most important and valuable Part of the British Constitution, upon which its very Existence depends.”
The third resolution declared that Parliament couldn’t possibly represent the colonists.
The Inhabitants of the American Colonies are not, and from their Situation can not be represented in the British Parliament; that the legislative Power here can of Right be exercised only by our own provincial Assemblys or Parliaments, subject to the Assent or Negative of the British Crown, to be declared within some proper limited Time.
Resolution number five sums up the root of the dispute between the colonists and the British government, with a nod to the unlimited power of the Declaratory Act of 1766, which asserted British power over the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”
“Resolved that the Claim lately assumed and exercised by the British Parliament of making all such Laws as they think fit, to govern the People of these Colonies, and to extort from Us our Money without our Consent, is not only diametrically contrary to the first Principles of the Constitution, and the original Compacts by which We are dependant upon the British Crown and Government; but is totally incompatible with the Privileges of a free People, and the natural Rights of Mankind; will render our own Legislatures merely nominal and nugatory, and is calculated to reduce Us from a State of Freedom and Happiness, to Slavery and Misery.” [Emphasis added]
The Fairfax Resolves were more than a list of complaints. They called for a “firm union” of the colonies and concrete action in the form of a boycott on the import and export of British goods.
With the call for a boycott, the Fairfax Resolves echoed the “Solemn League and Covenant ” passed by the Boston committee of correspondence a month earlier.
The Fairfax Resolves also condemned the importation of slaves as a “wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade” and called for its end.
George Washington presented the Fairfax Resolves to the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg in August. During the convention, they were slightly modified and adopted. Two months later, the Sons of Liberty in Boston, led by Dr. Joseph Warren, followed suit with the Suffolk Resolves, which called for non-compliance to the Coercive Acts, disobedience to courts, tax resistance and more.
Ultimately, the First Continental Congress approved the Continental Association, on Oct. 20, putting the boycott into effect by establishing a formal agreement between the 12 colonies represented in the Congress. (Georgia did not send delegates.)
The British, of course, responded to all this opposition with more of the same; more attempts to assert control, including a massive gun control program later that year, and the eventual march on Lexington and Concord in April 1775.
The Fairfax Resolves and other resolutions like them drafted during the run-up to the War for Independence reveal the evolution of American political thought and their commitment to constitutional principles. John Adams argued that this was the actual American Revolution.
Writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1815, John Adams asked, “What do We mean by the Revolution? The War?”
His answer: the Revolution happened before the War for Independence:
“That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.”
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