Williamsburg’s Revolutionary Leaders
When visiting Williamsburg, it is easy to be dazzled by the many historical figures who greet guests in the city and who are so wonderfully portrayed by CW’s talented historical interpreters. Mr. and Mrs. Washington, Jefferson, Henry, Madison, Mason, and LaFayette, just to name a few.
The homes of all of these figures are prominent historic sites themselves, although visitors to CW could be forgiven if they believed these figures actually resided in the capital. In fact, they, and nearly all of the members of the House of Burgesses were only visitors to Williamsburg, admittedly on a regular basis and often for an extended period of time.
As the seat of government for Virginia, however, Williamsburg on the eve of the Revolutionary War was the residence of several of the colony’s most important political leaders. This included the royal governor, John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore. Lord Dunmore, who reluctantly relinquished the post of governor in New York to assume the post in Virginia in 1771, was a Scotsman with a fiery temper. Destined to be the last royal governor of Virginia, he was joined in Williamsburg in February 1774 by his wife Charlotte and six of their seven children (their youngest son remained in Scotland). While Dunmore’s official residence, the Governor’s Palace located at the end of Palace Street, may not have matched the standards that Lord Dunmore and his family were accustomed to in Scotland, it was arguably the most elegant house in Williamsburg, if not all of Virginia, and dozens of servants (some paid and others indentured) as well as a great number of slaves worked hard to serve the Governor and his family’s every need.1
While Lord Dunmore represented the chief executive authority in the colony (in the name of King George III) the leading legislative figure in Virginia was the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph. Speaker Randolph lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and 27 household slaves on Nicholson Street, within a short walk of the Governor’s Palace and an even shorter walk from the courthouse and market square, which were situated directly across from Randolph’s house in the center of Williamsburg. Trained in the law in London, Randolph had devoted most of his adult life to public service, first as Attorney General and then as Speaker of the House of Burgesses (representing the city of Williamsburg in the assembly). The high regard in which Speaker Randolph was held among all Virginians was shared by the delegates assembled in Philadelphia at the First Continental Congress. Randolph was selected by these men to preside over the Congress in the fall of 1774 and again in May of 1775 at the 2nd Continental Congress.2
John Randolph, the Attorney General of Virginia, was Peyton Randolph’s younger brother. He too lived near market square, within view of the courthouse. He followed a similar path to his brother, studying law in London and becoming a Clerk to the House of Burgesses in 1752. John Randolph replaced his brother as Attorney General upon Peyton’s selection as Speaker of the
House of Burgesses in 1766. He also served as a burgess in the House of Burgesses as the representative of the College of William and Mary as well as an alderman for the city of Williamsburg. Although Peyton and John Randolph shared a strong commitment to public service, their views diverged significantly regarding the growing political dispute with Parliament. Unlike his brother Peyton, who was a political moderate in his opposition to Parliament, John Randolph was firmly conservative and argued forcefully against actions by the colonists that challenged parliamentary authority. He viewed the 1st Virginia Convention and the Continental Congress, both held in 1774, as extra-legal and thus unconstitutional assemblies, and urged Virginians to refrain from disloyal actions that would provoke parliament and the King.3
Robert Carter Nicholas, the Treasurer of Virginia, was viewed by all who knew him as a pious, even tempered man. Nicholas lived on Francis Street, across from the powder magazine and courthouse, with his wife and ten children. Nicholas had attended William and Mary and possessed land outside of Williamsburg from which he derived a generous income. He was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1756 as a representative from York County (living at the time in the house adjacent to the Governor’s Palace). In 1761 Nicholas gave up his seat in the assembly and relocated to Francis Street, which was situated in James City County. He returned to the House of Burgesses in 1766 as a representative from James City County and was appointed that same year as treasurer of the colony at the death of the former treasurer and Speaker of the House of Burgesses, John Robinson. It was as treasurer that Robert Carter Nicholas served Virginia during the Revolution.4
George Wythe, a lawyer who many in Virginia believed possessed one of the colony’s best legal minds, resided in a grand brick building on the palace green within sight of the Governor’s Palace. When he wasn’t tutoring the likes of Thomas Jefferson in the law or arguing cases before the General Court, Wythe served his fellow citizens of Williamsburg as a city alderman and mayor, responsibilities he surrendered in 1773 upon his resignation as an alderman. Like the Randolphs and Robert Carter Nicholas, Wythe also held an important post in the colonial government, he served as Clerk of the House of Burgesses. In this position, Wythe assisted burgesses with their bills and resolutions, something his keen legal mind was well suited for. Wythe had served as a burgess himself during the early years of the dispute with Parliament and was well versed on the troubles. His experience and vast legal knowledge would lead to his selection as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776. Among Virginia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence, George Wythe’s name comes first, a testament to the high regard his fellow Virginians had for him.5
These five men (Lord Dunmore, Peyton Randolph, John Randolph, Robert Carter Nicholas, and George Wythe) held the principle governmental posts in Virginia in 1775 and wielded great influence in the governance of the colony.
Governing the City
Most people probably don’t realize, however, that the city of Williamsburg had its own governing body, the Common Hall, established in 1722 when the city received its royal charter. Williamsburg’s Common Hall consisted of a mayor, a recorder (clerk/lawyer), six aldermen and twelve common councilors. The original members of the Common Hall were appointed by the King and served for life during good behavior. When a member of the Common Hall died or resigned, (either alderman or councilor) the vacancy was filled by the aldermen. The city mayor was elected annually by the Common Hall from among the aldermen.
Although there was virtually nothing democratic about the selection of Common Hall members, the urban population from which they were drawn meant that the members of the Common Hall were more economically diverse than that of the House of Burgesses. Several members were skilled artisans and others were merchants, while a few doctors and lawyers were also members of the Common Hall.6
On the eve of the Revolutionary War in 1775, the mayor of Williamsburg was John Dixon, printer and publisher of one of the three Virginia gazettes that appeared in the capital every week. City aldermen in 1775 included Attorney General John Randolph, Thomas Everard, a lawyer and clerk for the county of York, John Blair Jr., another lawyer, James Cocke, a prominent merchant, Dr. James Blair and Dr. William Pasteur, both physicians.7
Some of the members of the Common Council in 1775 included John Tazewell, a lawyer, James Geddy, a silversmith, Alexander Craig, a saddler, Benjamin Powell, an undertaker (building contractor) and Robert Miller, a merchant. Several other counselors remain unidentified.8 All of these men formed the Common Hall, which was charged with addressing the local concerns and problems of the city’s residents.
The Continental Association of 1774
And while we are identifying Williamsburg residents involved in the Revolution, 245 years ago this upcoming December the inhabitants of the capital created a committee to enforce the resolves of the 1st Continental Congress. You will likely recognize a number of these folks below and I suspect you’ve visited their homes or at least walked past their residences and places of business.
The inhabitants of Williamsburg formed their committee to enforce Congress’s Non-Importation Association on December 22, well after the independent militia company had formed. Committee members were:
Peyton Randolph Speaker of the House of Burgesses
Robert Carter Nicholas Treasurer of the Colony and Burgess from James City County
George Wythe Clerk of the House of Burgesses and Lawyer
John Dixon Alderman, Mayor, and Printer (of one of the Virginia Gazettes)
Benjamin Waller City Recorder and Attorney
Thomas Everard Alderman and Clerk of York County
James Cocke Alderman and Merchant
William Pasteaur Alderman and Physician
Benjamin Powell Councilor and Undertaker (general contractor)
John Tazewell Councilor and Lawyer
James Southhall Tavern Keeper
James Hubard Merchant
Robert Nicholson Merchant
John Carter Merchant
Dr. John M. Galt Physician9
With all of the attention that the “A List Stars” of the American Revolution receive, it is easy to forget that thousands of other Americans, including many who lived in Williamsburg, did their part to secure American liberty and, ultimately, American independence. So I say the next time you walk into Mr. Geddy’s house, or walk past Mr. Carter’s or Mr. Nicholson’s store, remember, they did their part in the American Revolution too.
1 John E. Selby, Dunmore, Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1977, 10-19
2 Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of Peyton Randolph Esq. in York County taken January 5th, 1776
3 William J. Van Schreeven and Robert L.Scribner, eds., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. 1, (University Press of Virginia, 1973), 204-205
4 William J. Van Schreeven and Robert L.Scribner, eds., “Footnote 2,” Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. 2, (University Press of Virginia, 1975), 11-12
5 Robert L. Scribner, ed., “Footnote 11,” Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence Vol. 3, (University Press of Virginia, 1977), 423-424
6 Note: According to the 1722 Charter that established the Common Hall, its members were to meet on St. Andrews day to elect a mayor and fill any vacancies in the Common Hall. A survey of the Virginia Gazettes for the first week of December from 1766 to 1776 produced the list of counselors, aldermen, and mayor for 1775.
7 Note: According to the 1722 Charter that established the Common Hall, its members were to meet on St. Andrews day to elect a mayor and fill any vacancies in the Common Hall. A survey of the Virginia Gazettes for the first week of December from 1766 to 1776 produced the list of counselors, aldermen, and mayor for 1775.
9 Purdie and Dixon, “December 22, 1774,” Virginia Gazette, 3