Bland was born on May 6, 1710, the son of Richard Bland and his second wife, Elizabeth Randolph Bland. His probable birthplace was Jordan’s Point in Prince George County, his father’s plantation. Orphaned in 1720, he grew up under the guidance and tutelage of his guardians and relatives, the Randolphs of Turkey Island, and he attended the College of William and Mary.
Bland married Anne Poythress on March 21, 1730, and they had six sons and six daughters before her death on April 9, 1758. On January 1, 1759, Bland married Martha Macon Massie, a widow who died eight months after their marriage. He subsequently married Elizabeth Blair Bolling, the widowed half sister of councillor John Blair (ca. 1687–1771). She died late in April 1775.
Bland managed his inherited plantations, joined many of his friends and family members in speculating in land, studied law and qualified to practice before the colony’s General Court, and exhibited a litigious streak. At his death his estate included thirty slaves. An erudite and highly intelligent man and a dedicated student of history and law, Bland assembled a large, excellent library as well as many valuable original documents for a history of the colony that he never wrote. Thomas Jefferson, who acquired some of the most useful books and records after Bland’s death, later described him as “the most learned and logical” of all the leading men of that generation. Bland’s eyes were failing him by October 1774, when his acquaintance Roger Atkinson described him as having “something of the look of musty old Parch[men]ts w’ch he handleth & studieth much.”
Bland served on the Prince George County Court and sat on the local parish vestry, where he sometimes officiated as a lay reader. Like his father before him he sat on the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary. Elected to the House of Burgesses from Prince George County in the spring of 1742, Bland remained in the Virginia legislature without a break until his death more than thirty-four years later. He quickly became a leading burgess with high positions on the most important committees and frequently chaired one or more standing committees or the committee of the whole. His able pen and extensive knowledge of law and history almost always got him onto critical drafting committees for important bills and resolutions concerning Virginia and its place in the British empire. Bland ranked with speaker John Robinson and Peyton Randolph as one of the most influential and productive burgesses during the last quarter century of the colonial period. Following Robinson’s death, Bland lost a bid for becoming speaker to Randolph.
During the 1750s and 1760s Bland took a leading role in defending the colony’s use of paper money to finance its part in Great Britain’s war against France. Late in November 1764 he helped to frame the colony’s first protests against the Stamp Act, but it is unclear whether, as was later reported, he opposed or was even present when Patrick Henry introduced a second, more inflammatory set of resolutions the following year. Later in the 1760s Bland was a key draftsman of the assembly’s stern objections to the Townshend Acts. In addition he opposed creation of an American bishopric to govern the colonial Church of England and maintained that local vestries, rather than the General Court or the bishop of London through the colonial commissary, had full authority over the parishes and the right to select and provide for the support of their ministers. At every turn Bland argued for colonial control of colonial affairs and against any extension of British control over Virginia’s internal political and economic life. Between 1753 and 1774 his newspaper articles, public letters, and pamphlets made him one of the best-known Virginians of his day. Bland’s cultivated mind and spirited pen helped lay the groundwork for revolution, although revolution was never his goal nor independence his purpose. Rather, as each new political crisis strained the relationships between the General Assembly and the royal governor, between colony and Parliament, and between colony and Crown, he gradually developed and asserted Virginia’s constitutional and legal claim—and ultimately its moral claim under natural law—to a large measure of self-government.
Bland first emerged as a defender of Virginia’s rights during the pistole fee controversy. He helped draft the burgesses’ resolutions of November 1753 charging that Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie‘s imposition without legislative approval of a fee of one pistole for signing and affixing the colonial seal to land patents was “of dangerous Consequence to the Liberties of his Majesty’s faithful Subjects, and to the Constitution of this Government.” In response to Dinwiddie’s assertion that he had a right to impose the fee as a part of the royal prerogative, Bland likened the controversy to the struggles of Parliament with Charles I in the 1630s and asserted that just as levying a tax in England was illegal without parliamentary action, so too no fee could legally be imposed in Virginia without approval by the people’s representatives in the General Assembly. He almost went so far as to maintain that even the royal prerogative could not operate contrary to the laws and legal customs of the colony. Bland spelled out his reasoning in a short essay entitled “A Modest and True State of the Case,” now better known as A Fragment on the Pistole Fee, the title under which it was first published in 1891.
Bland acquired a much wider fame during the protracted debates following the adoption in 1758 of the second of the so-called Two Penny Acts, both of which he had helped to write. Passed in the wake of tobacco crop failures, the laws, which applied to all transactions and contractual obligations payable in tobacco, permitted parish vestries to substitute for one year a cash payment of approximately two pence per pound of tobacco in lieu of 16,000 pounds of tobacco and cask, which was the legal annual salary of ministers. The laws raised important and complex issues, including whether the General Assembly could amend or repeal the statute establishing ministers’ salaries without first obtaining royal consent, whether the assembly’s acts diminished ministerial salaries unfairly, and whether these questions could be properly adjudicated in the colony’s courts. Bland fired early salvos in a pamphlet war on these subjects. In A Letter to the Clergy of Virginia, in Which The Conduct of the General-Assembly is vindicated, Against The Reflexions contained in a Letter to the Lords of Trade and Plantations, from the Lord-Bishop of London, published in Williamsburg in 1760, Bland attacked the leaders of the Virginia clergy and the bishop of London while adducing legal precedents and constitutional and practical justifications for the assembly’s actions. He stated that in emergencies the General Assembly of Virginia had the right to do whatever was necessary for the good of the colony, royal instructions to colonial governors notwithstanding. Four years later, after Landon Carter and commissary John Camm had entered the bitter and highly personal debates, Bland published an extended satiric dialogue, Colonel Dismounted: or the Rector Vindicated, in a Letter addressed to His Reverence: Containing A Dissertation upon the Constitution of the Colony, which blasted Camm by name and asserted more boldly than anyone had before that for all strictly provincial purposes the General Assembly of Virginia was the only representative body that could tax or legislate for the colony. In developing his argument Bland distinguished between acts of Parliament made to regulate imperial affairs and those of a purely local nature, a distinction used later in 1764 and in 1765 to help justify the actions of the House of Burgesses and most other colonial assemblies in North America that were busy contesting the power of Parliament to lay a stamp tax on the colonists.
After the Stamp Act crisis, Bland undertook to refute the theory of virtual representation used by defenders of that law against the colonial objection to taxation without representation. In An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies (1766), he took his previous arguments several steps further by denying that Parliament had the authority to lay a tax on a colony or pass legislation respecting its internal affairs. Bland’s pamphlet directly challenged Parliament’s dominance in the British empire. It emphasized instead the importance of representative assemblies in the governance of the colonies and brought to the forefront the power of natural rights as a counterbalance to parliamentary or even royal power and authority.
Late in the 1760s and early in the 1770s Bland attended all of the recorded Virginia protest meetings and conventions, served on the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, and signed all of the Virginia associations and pacts directed at British policies. A group of bold and energetic younger men soon began to take the lead, but they built on foundations that he had laid, and he supported their efforts. In September 1774 Bland was a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he told John Adams that the meeting was so important to the defense of colonial rights that despite his age he would have gone all the way to Jericho if necessary. Bland returned to the Second Continental Congress in the spring of 1775 but retired at about the end of May because of ill health. On July 7 of that year, after being publicly accused of disloyalty to the colonial cause, he vindicated himself and attacked his accuser, a clergyman named Samuel Sheild, in a public letter to the newspaper. Bland also demanded and received a public endorsement of his patriotism from the Convention of July–August 1775.
Bland served on the eleven-man Committee of Safety that in effect governed Virginia between September 1775 and July 1776, and he represented Prince George County in the Virginia Conventions of December 1775 and May 1776. He had never aimed at independence, and some of his comments in the spring of 1776 have been interpreted, possibly incorrectly, as indicating a reluctance to take that last big step. Hugh Blair Grigsby, a Virginia historian able to base his assessment on the firsthand knowledge of many of Bland’s contemporaries, later remarked that unlike many other men whose utterances were unclear because they knew too little, Bland often expressed himself poorly because he knew too much. In the spring of 1776, when Thomas Paine’s Common Sense had many Americans exclaiming over its irresistible rhetorical power and conceding the inevitable necessity of declaring independence, Bland, ever the pedant and close student of history, chose to fault Paine’s reading of history and reportedly declared “that the Author of common sense is a blockhead and ignoramus for that He has grossly mistaken the nature of the Jewish Theocracy.” Bland may merely have been irritated by one of Paine’s historical analogies, and there is no reliable evidence that he hesitated when the question of independence became unavoidable. On May 15, 1776, Bland joined the other members of the Virginia Convention in instructing the colony’s congressional delegation to move a resolution of independence. His infirmities confined him to a relatively inconspicuous role in the Convention of 1776, but he served on the committee that wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the first constitution of the commonwealth, which lodged most governmental power where Bland had always thought it belonged, with the people’s directly elected representatives in the House of Delegates, the lower and more numerous branch of the General Assembly.
After returning to Williamsburg early in October 1776 as a member of the House of Delegates, Richard Bland collapsed in the street on October 26, 1776, and died that evening in the house of John Tazewell. He was buried on November 7, 1776, in the family cemetery at Jordan’s Point.
- “A Modest and True State of the Case” (1753), later published as A Fragment on the Pistole Fee (1891)
- A Letter to the Clergy of Virginia, in Which The Conduct of the General-Assembly is vindicated, Against The Reflexions contained in a Letter to the Lords of Trade and Plantations, from the Lord-Bishop of London (1760)
- Colonel Dismounted: or the Rector Vindicated, in a Letter addressed to His Reverence: Containing A Dissertation upon the Constitution of the Colony (1764)
- An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies (1766)