Dinwiddie was born on October 3, 1692, to the merchant family of Robert Dinwiddie and Elizabeth Cumming Dinwiddie at Germiston House, near Glasgow, Scotland. He attended the University of Glasgow, probably pursued a merchant’s life, and became an Admiralty agent in Bermuda in 1721. Despite some questions about the perquisites his commission authorized him to collect, by 1725 he had been appointed deputy collector of customs and in 1727 was appointed collector of customs in Bermuda. Three years later he was named to a seat on the governor’s Council there. On March 30, 1738, Dinwiddie was promoted to surveyor general for the southern part of America, a jurisdiction that included Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Bahama Islands, and Jamaica. Several times he investigated the collection of customs in the region and in 1743 discovered cases of fraud in his jurisdiction. On further investigation, the English customs commissioners found more misconduct than fraud in the customs officers, chiding Dinwiddie for acting with “more zeal than prudence.”
In Bermuda, Dinwiddie married Rebecca Auchinleck (Affleck in some accounts) by 1738. They had two daughters. Dinwiddie’s commission as surveyor general allowed him to become a member of one of the colonies’ Councils, and he chose Virginia, where he settled probably in Norfolk. He arrived to take his seat in June 1741, but members of the Council raised objections to his appointment and granted him only limited status as an ex officio member. On July 10, 1742, the king confirmed Dinwiddie’s appointment and he took his oath as a member of the Council on April 16, 1745. He attended Council meetings until September of that year, after which he moved his family to London. Although Dinwiddie held his office as surveyor general for life, he consigned the post to the Virginian Peter Randolph in 1749.
Lieutenant Governor of Virginia
Evidently as a reward for Dinwiddie’s long service, the king appointed him lieutenant governor of Virginia on July 4, 1751. Dinwiddie served during the absence of royal governor William Anne Keppel, second earl of Albemarle, until his death in December 1754, and of his successor, John Campbell, fourth earl of Loudoun, thereafter. Dinwiddie arrived in Virginia with his wife and daughters on November 20, 1751. In 1752, in the first session of the General Assembly after his arrival, the legislators named a new county after him. His younger brother, John Dinwiddie, also immigrated to Virginia where he became a merchant.
Dinwiddie shocked the colony two days after the close of the General Assembly session in April 1752 by announcing that he would to collect a fee of one pistole (a Spanish coin worth 15 or 16 shillings or, enough to purchase a cow and a calf) for signing and sealing every patent conferring legal title to land. He also announced that he would not issue a patent on lands for which warrants of survey had been recorded before April 22, until arrears in quitrents had been paid. All in all, Dinwiddie sought to collect quitrents on about 900,000 acres of land. Since he had to pay half of his salary to Albemarle, Dinwiddie undoubtedly believed that he needed to collect fees to cover his costs. After all, eighteenth-century officials viewed public office as a profitable form of personal property. The House of Burgesses hotly denounced the fee as “illegal and arbitrary” and sent Attorney General Peyton Randolph to London to oppose Dinwiddie’s claim. In July 1754 the Board of Trade informed Dinwiddie of the decision reached by the king’s Privy Council that allowed the lieutenant governor to collect the fee but not for patents of less than a hundred acres, not for land west of the mountains, and not for headrights. The Board of Trade also refused to allow Dinwiddie to collect fees on patents made out before April 22, 1752.
The compromise allowed Dinwiddie to focus on the most important element of his tenure—British expansion to the west and the French threat there. As a stockholder in the Ohio Company and as a government official, Dinwiddie pursued a policy of corporate and imperial advancement. In 1753 he convened the assembly to counter French expansion in the West where the French had constructed a fort in territory claimed by Great Britain and sought to build others. Legislators did not share his concern, but Dinwiddie dispatched young George Washington to the French to warn them to remove from territories claimed by Britain. The French denied these claims and on July 3, 1754, defeated the inexperienced Washington at Fort Necessity in what is now western Pennsylvania. The encounter between Washington and the French led to the outbreak of the Seven Years’, or French and Indian, War.
Dismayed by Virginians’ lack of financial support for military intervention in the west, Dinwiddie was gladdened in 1755 by the arrival of Major General Edward Braddock and regular troops at royal expense. The initial optimism was rudely dashed by Braddock’s military disaster on the Monongahela River on July 9, 1755. The end result left only a few hundred militiamen, about 200 provincial troops, and three to six companies of rangers to guard Virginia’s long western frontier, fewer troops than those defeated under Braddock’s command. Although the assembly authorized the recruitment of 1,200 volunteers for the Virginia Regiment, only about half that many served during 1756 and 1757. Dinwiddie’s efforts to wage war were also hampered by British policy that reduced the standing of provincial officers relative to their British counterparts.
Four months after Braddock’s defeat, Dinwiddie found his capacity for governing reduced in November 1755 by Britain’s relocation to Virginia of approximately 1,100 supposedly neutral French from Nova Scotia, all in the midst of a world war with France. With no good place to settle the Acadians, Dinwiddie was unprepared politically and physically to cope with the problems that arose. Fortunately for him, the General Assembly passed an act authorizing their transportation to Great Britain.
In the spring of 1757, Governor Loudoun, who was then commander in chief of all British forces in North America, imposed an embargo on all colonial exports. Concurring with complaints by Virginians about commercial hardship, Dinwiddie acted unilaterally and ended his superior’s embargo in Virginia. Loudoun was outraged. By this time Dinwiddie had begun to emphasize his declining health as a reason for resigning his post earlier than he had anticipated. He informed the Council of his decision by December 1757. Departing Virginia on January 12, 1758, the portly but once energetic governor who had worked tirelessly for British interests was weary, aggravated, and aging. As a Crown official, Dinwiddie was of uneven abilities. Nevertheless he was a man of integrity, one of those without whom the British Empire could not function.
Residing in London, he continued to profit from his post as surveyor general. He suffered from a recurring paralysis of some sort and often visited spas at Bath and at Clifton, near Bristol, for his health. Dinwiddie died on July 27, 1770, at Clifton and he was buried at Saint Andrew’s, the parish church there. He left a very sizeable estate that included several properties and his many bequests included £10,000 to each of his two daughters and an annual income of £350 to his wife.