Camm was born in the coastal town of Hornsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England, the son of Thomas Camm and Ann Atkinson Camm. He was baptized on June 25, 1717. Educated at a school in the nearby town of Beverley, he was admitted on June 16, 1738, to Trinity College, Cambridge University, as one of the sizars, poorer students who worked as servants in exchange for a reduction in fees. Camm was elected to a scholarship on April 10, 1741, and received an AB early the next year. The bishop of Lincoln ordained him an Anglican priest on March 28, 1742.
Career in North America
Camm soon moved to Virginia and on August 1, 1745, became rector of Newport Parish, in Isle of Wight County. In 1749 he transferred to Yorkhampton Parish in York County, and on May 5 he was appointed one of two professors of divinity at the College of William and Mary. In 1755 Camm gave up a growing school he was operating at his own house and took up residence at the college in exchange for an augmented salary. He began making his mark as an outspoken and often cantankerous leader of the clergy, the faculty, and supporters of the British empire. Camm first achieved public prominence at a convention of Virginia’s Anglican ministers held from October 30 to November 1, 1754, during which he was appointed to three committees and elected a founding trustee of a fund for the relief of widows and orphans of poor clergymen. He served this charity, first as a trustee and from 1766 as treasurer, until about 1778.
Camm gained additional prominence in 1757 after the governor’s Council removed John Brunskill Jr. from Hamilton Parish in Prince William County and forbade him to act as a clergyman in Virginia. Brunskill had been accused of several crimes and moral offenses. The bishop of London failed either to exercise disciplinary authority himself or to grant it to the commissary, his principal representative in the colony, but Camm refused to recognize the right of a lay body to deprive a minister of his office and invited Brunskill to preach in his own pulpit. After failing to persuade Commissary Thomas Dawson to convene the clergy so that they might voice their grievances in a petition to the bishop, Camm and ten other ministers called a meeting for August 31, 1757. The gathering was thinly attended, but the effort so enraged Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie that he unsuccessfully urged a grand jury to indict the men who called the meeting.
The Two Penny Acts
Camm was the most prominent spokesman for the Virginia clergy during more than a decade of bitter public debate following the General Assembly’s adoption in 1755 and 1758 of temporary laws permitting all kinds of obligations payable in tobacco to be discharged at a rate of approximately two pence in current money per pound of tobacco. Poor harvests in those years reduced the supply of tobacco and raised its price. By law parish rectors received an annual salary of 16,000 pounds of tobacco, and they were incensed at what amounted to the denial of windfall profits in years of high prices that would offset declines when tobacco prices were low. Camm tried to persuade the commissary to hold a clerical convocation to craft an official protest, and when the commissary refused, Camm appealed over his head as the first signatory and probable author of a November 29, 1755, protest from eight clergymen to the bishop of London against the first Two Penny Act.
Tobacco prices rose high enough after passage of the second Two Penny Act in October 1758 that the law seriously reduced ministerial income and brought the rage of Camm and his colleagues to a boil. Again thwarted in their bid for an official convocation, they called a meeting on their own authority. Thirty-five ministers, half of the colony’s Anglican clergymen, attended, and all but one voted to subsidize a trip by Camm to England to seek to have the act overturned.
Camm had arrived in London by mid-May 1759 and proved adept at maneuvering in the corridors of power. He presented memorials to the Board of Trade and to the king that ignored the economic reasons for the Two Penny Acts and interpreted them instead as intentional attacks on clerical independence and the royal prerogative. Camm persuaded the bishop of London and the archbishop of Canterbury to lobby on his behalf, and on August 10, 1759, the Privy Council disallowed both Two Penny Acts and two other Virginia laws that had altered royally approved statutes setting clerical salaries. He failed, however, in his effort to have the laws explicitly declared invalid from their inception.
Camm returned to Virginia bearing copies of the order disallowing the Two Penny Acts and an additional instruction to Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier ordering him to refrain from approving any statute without a clause suspending its operation until the arrival of royal confirmation. Accompanied by two fellow clergymen, Camm presented this implicit rebuke to Fauquier on June 27, 1760. An extraordinary scene ensued. Fauquier had heard rumors that the acts were disallowed, and he regarded the copy of the instructions that Camm presented to him, which were unsealed, worn, and dirty, as the official version. He accused Camm of opening official documents without authorization. Furious at this apparent invasion of privacy, at what he perceived as an undue delay in presenting the papers, and at Camm’s having taken the precaution of bringing witnesses to the interview, Fauquier ordered him never to enter his doors again and then made the insult even more pointed by calling in his slaves and ordering them to deny Camm admittance in the future. Camm stoutly denied that he had tampered with the papers, but for the remainder of the lieutenant governor’s tenure Fauquier sought to isolate Camm by urging anyone seeking the governor’s favor to cut friendly relations with the clergyman, whom he described as “a clever man with a bad head & a worse heart.”
Before returning to Virginia Camm initiated what became known as the Parsons’ Cause, the test case in the efforts of ministers to recover legal damages for the difference between the actual price of tobacco in 1758 and the cash equivalent mandated by the Two Penny Act. He argued that the disallowance of the act was meaningless unless damages accrued from the passage of the act, rather than from its disallowance, which had been officially announced well after the act had already expired. The General Court finally ruled against Camm by one vote on April 10, 1764. He lost a subsequent appeal to the Privy Council on a technicality in 1767 but was still trying to revive the litigation two years later.
In 1763 Camm published A Single and Distinct View of the Act, Vulgarly entitled, the Two-Penny Act, in which he printed his own parish’s tithable list and used it to argue that the Two Penny Act was a peculiar way to alleviate economic distress, because it benefited disproportionately the wealthy elite that least needed help. Subsequently attacked in separate pamphlets by Landon Carter and Richard Bland, Camm defended himself against the two men, whom he derisively called “the Colonels.” In A Review of the Rector Detected: or the Colonel Reconnoitered (1764; described as “Part the First”), he asserted that the Two Penny Act encroached on the king’s authority, damaged the church, and undermined justice, property, and commerce. Venturing into poetry and other extended satirical touches in Critical Remarks On a Letter ascribed to Common Sense … (1765; possibly the second installment promised in 1764), Camm denied Bland’s assertion that only the Virginia assembly had the right to legislate on purely internal Virginia affairs and remarked pointedly on the hypocrisy of assertions by slaveholders of the rights of free men. Camm’s uncompromising campaign won him only Pyrrhic victories. He successfully undermined the ability of the assembly to alter ministerial salaries, but his efforts strengthened anticlerical feeling and opposition to effective British control over the colony.
The College of William and Mary
The Bodleian Plate
Camm’s restoration with such convincing proofs of his strong connections in London made him effectively untouchable. In 1765 the visitors sought to enforce a rule against holding multiple offices by demanding that Camm give up either his teaching position or his parish. He insisted on treating the hearing as a judicial proceeding, denied its authority, and threatened another appeal to England. The baffled board declined to proceed. Similarly, after Camm married Elizabeth Hansford, of York County, on July 8, 1769, the visitors again backed down when he ignored their reminder that faculty were required to reside at the college. The union of the middle-aged bachelor with a teenager he had baptized as an infant inspired some amused contemporary comment and a possibly apocryphal reminiscence that Camm had gone to sue on another’s behalf and been invited to speak for himself. The couple had three sons and two daughters.
For several years late in the 1760s Camm filled William and Mary’s chairs of moral and natural philosophy as well as his own divinity chair. In the spring of 1770 he drafted an eloquent faculty protest against a proposal to admit to advanced study those students who lacked training in Greek and Latin. He insisted that the plan would subvert the college’s primary mission of training students for the professions. A year later Camm took the lead in an effort to obtain endorsement of a plan to create a resident Anglican episcopate in America. He maintained that a bishop would provide much-needed internal governance for the clergy and remove the need for prospective ministers to travel overseas for ordination, while posing no threat to religious dissenters or the purse strings of the laity. During the ensuing public debate Camm defended the proposal in three essays in Alexander Purdie’s and John Dixon’s Virginia Gazette in the summer of 1771, but in the face of strident opposition his efforts came to nothing.
Camm nevertheless soon obtained the three top offices to which a Virginia clergyman could aspire. On June 20, 1771, James Horrocks, the commissary of Virginia and president of William and Mary, sailed for England, ostensibly to improve his health but perhaps in hope of returning as the first bishop of Virginia. Despite some initial reservations about accepting the appointment, Camm took over as acting president of the college. After Horrocks died and with a surprising dearth of recorded opposition, given Camm’s reputation for pugnacious defense of views increasingly out of favor in Virginia, the visitors elected him president of William and Mary on July 27, 1772. He had also been appointed commissary by June 30, and on July 31 he was appointed to the governor’s Council and took his seat on that body on October 26, 1772.
William and Mary initially thrived under Camm’s leadership. The college balanced its budget, kept its faculty at full strength, and resumed its building program. It awarded baccalaureate degrees for the first time on August 15, 1772, and at the same exercise it began recognizing academic excellence by conferring the Botetourt Medal. Phi Beta Kappa was also founded at William and Mary during Camm’s administration, although it began as a typical student literary society rather than the academic honor organization into which it eventually evolved.
Unlike fellow Englishmen on the faculty who left the colony as the Revolution approached, Camm stayed at his post but kept an uncharacteristically low profile. Still, no one doubted where his loyalty lay, and by the summer of 1775 Camm was one of only three councillors from whom the royal governor believed he could reasonably hope to receive assistance. Camm made no overtly Loyalist act, however, until November 29, 1776, when at a faculty meeting he opposed a proposal by Reverend James Madison (1749–1812) to strike references to the monarch from surveyors’ licenses issued under the college’s authority. Madison had evidently chosen circuitous wording in the hope that Camm would give his tacit consent, but Camm declined this bow to his feelings and opposed the motion as a violation of the royal charter. The visitors could not ignore such a stance and, sometime between May 10 and September 5, 1777, removed him for neglect and misconduct.
John Camm apparently remained unmolested as the minister of Yorkhampton Parish until his death early in 1779. On February 15, 1779, the York County Court directed four men to “Appraise in Current money the Slaves & personal Estate of John Camm Clk. decd.” Two resulting inventories show that he owned more than twenty slaves and had extensive holdings of fine furniture, silver, china, and other luxury consumer goods.
- A Single and Distinct View of the Act, Vulgarly entitled, the Two-Penny Act (1763)
- A Review of the Rector Detected: or the Colonel Reconnoitered (1764)
- Critical Remarks On a Letter ascribed to Common Sense … (1765)