Early YearsDawson was born in April 1715, probably in Cumberland County, England, and was the son of William Dawson and, most likely, Ellen Troughere Dawson. He received his primary education in England and about 1735, traveled to Virginia, where his brother William Dawson was professor of moral philosophy at the College of William and Mary. Thomas Dawson studied mathematics and natural philosophy before becoming a student of divinity under the direction of his brother. In 1737, the president and masters of William and Mary elected him usher of the attached grammar school, and on June 26, 1738, the board of visitors named him master of the Indian school, a position he occupied for seventeen years. In 1740, Dawson traveled to England, where the bishop of Carlisle ordained him a deacon of the Church of England on September 14 and a priest on September 21.
Bruton Parish Church
Dawson had returned to Virginia by July 1741, and began assisting the aging, rector of Bruton Parish. When Blair died in 1743, William Dawson succeeded him as commissary, or representative, of the bishop of London, on the governor’s Council, and as president of the College of William and Mary. On May 6 the Bruton Parish vestry elected Thomas Dawson rector. He also served as chaplain of the from May 6, 1742, through the session that began on February 27, 1752. On September 12, 1751, Dawson married Priscilla Bassett, daughter of William Dawson’s second wife and her first husband. They had at least two sons and two daughters.
After William Dawson died on July 20, 1752, Thomas Dawson and William Stith, rector of Henrico Parish, were candidates for the three offices he had occupied. Precedent suggested that the college board of visitors elevate the colony’s new commissary to the college presidency, but before the bishop made his appointment the board met in August 1752, and by one vote elected Stith president. Swayed by the‘s recommendation of Dawson and by unfavorable reports about Stith’s behavior and personality, the bishop named Dawson commissary on September 21, 1752. Unlike his predecessors, Dawson did not receive an official commission, despite making several requests, and he therefore lacked legal authority to exercise ecclesiastical jurisdiction. On January 19, 1753, the king named him to the Council. Dawson took his seat on May 1 and attended with few absences until his death.
As commissary, Dawson advocated schools for poor children, and in 1760 he aided in establishing a school for African Americans in Williamsburg. Determined to strengthen the authority of the church and resentful of the growing power of laymen, he objected to a section of a 1749 law that gave parish vestries the right to present ministers for induction. Hoping to augment the status of the ministerial class by reducing the number of unemployed clergymen and improving the quality of those who served, Dawson also proposed to prohibit vestries and clergymen from recommending for ordination candidates they did not know or for whom there was no available rectorship. His initiatives received little support from the bishop, and relations between vestries and church officials remained uneasy.
Though lacking a legal mandate, Dawson called a convention of Virginia’s Anglican clergymen to meet from October 30 to November 1, 1754. About two-thirds of the colony’s ministers attended. Dawson set the agenda for a productive meeting that was the highlight of his career. The participants successfully petitioned the lieutenant governor for reversal of a 1752 Council order that prohibited clergymen from serving as justices of the peace. Their most significant achievement was the establishment of a fund for the care of widows and orphans of deceased clergymen. Dawson proposed the idea, led the committee that designed the fund’s operation, and was appointed one of six trustees of the enterprise, which persisted in relatively unaltered form until the twentieth century. Most ministers subscribed, and the annual meetings of the fund’s trustees were the only formal arena in which the colony’s Anglican clergymen regularly congregated.
Demands created by the Seven Years’ War, known in America as the French and Indian War, shaped the remainder of Dawson’s public life. A proponent of a vigorous defense against the French Catholic threat in the colony’s northwest, Dawson was one of three Council members appointed in 1757 to oversee the provisioning of the militia, and the same year he and two other officials received a party of Indians from several tribes and secured their support for the English. The need for unity in the face of war and the demands that the war placed on the government hindered Dawson’s efforts to contain the spread of religious dissent in the colony. His inability to respond effectively, although probably a wartime necessity, lowered the esteem he might have otherwise commanded among Anglican clergymen worried about dissenters.
President of the College of William and Mary
On October 30, 1755, following the death of Stith, the board of visitors unanimously elected Dawson president of William and Mary. He was sworn in on November 1. The next year he presided over the college’s first recorded conferral of a degree, an honorary AM to Benjamin Franklin. Dawson proved an ineffective leader, and his relationship with the faculty quickly soured. In 1755, mounting war expenses and fear of ashortage led the General Assembly to temporarily permitting the use of paper money to cover all debts at the rate of approximately two pence per pound of tobacco. Parish rectors, who received an annual salary of 16,000 pounds of tobacco, had suffered in years when the value of tobacco was low and resented their inability to profit when the price was high. Though Dawson had tried to convince the Council and lieutenant governor to reject the bill, he refused to heed the calls of faculty members and other clergymen for a protest convention. He wrote privately to the bishop of London expressing his opposition to the law but did not sign either of two petitions that a group of ministers sent to the bishop.
Again in 1758, after the price of tobacco climbed, the assembly passed a. Dawson opposed the bill but mounted no further protest after the generally popular measure was adopted. Dissatisfied with Dawson’s tepid response, irate ministers persuaded the cautious commissary to call a convention, which about half of the colony’s clergymen attended in November. The participants sent , a William and Mary professor, to England, where he successfully petitioned to have the act overturned and then initiated the Parsons’ Cause, an ultimately unsuccessful legal case seeking damages for the reduced salaries. When Camm returned to Virginia, Dawson refused to call a convention to inform the clergy of developments in England. As his subordinates took the lead in representing clerical interests, Dawson’s authority and prestige dwindled.
Dawson’s relationship with his constituents further eroded during the 1757 controversy surrounding lay jurisdiction over clergymen. The governor’s Council removed John Brunskill as pastor of Hamilton Parish in Prince William County and barred him from serving as a minister in Virginia following a trial instigated by vestry accusations of criminal behavior and moral depravity. Dawson disputed the Council’s authority to remove a clergyman but noted also that without a commission he was powerless to convene the proper ecclesiastical court. Alarmed by lay interference in church affairs, several ministers urged Dawson to convene a meeting of the clergy, but wartime fears and a disinclination to intensify anticlerical sentiment among the laity led him to refuse. Camm and other William and Mary professors sidestepped Dawson and called their own convention, and Camm invited Brunskill to preach in his parish in defiance of the Council’s order. By then, Dawson’s relationship with the college faculty had deteriorated so much that professors refused to assist him during a long illness and ceased to attend services at Bruton Parish.
The political struggles of the 1750s spilled readily into the realm of college governance because the school’s charter failed to delineate the division of power between the board of visitors, composed of influential laymen, and the faculty, composed of clergymen. The faculty dismissed an usher for bad behavior in 1757; in retaliation the board of visitors dismissed the professor who had complained about the students, asked the bishop of London to replace him with a layman, and launched an investigation of the usher’s dismissal. When three professors, among them Camm, disputed the visitors’ authority and refused to participate in the investigation, the board dismissed them, too. As the faculty disintegrated and the college sank into disorganization, Dawson provided no leadership and was reduced to delivering messages from the visitors to the recalcitrant professors, who ignored him.
The strife and loss of prestige took a toll on Dawson, who became dependent on alcohol during his final years. Letters to the bishop of London reported a 1760 meeting of the board of visitors at which members accused Dawson of habitual drunkenness, infrequent attendance at college prayers, and gambling at public houses. The board retained him as president after he admitted to the charges, arranged for theto apologize on his behalf, and pledged to reform his behavior. Having failed to keep his promises, Thomas Dawson died, probably in Williamsburg, on November 29, 1760. Incomplete surviving records of the college and Bruton Parish do not indicate where he was buried.