Robinson was born on February 3, 1705, the son of John Robinson and his first wife, Catherine Beverley Robinson. He was born in Middlesex County, where the Robinson family had lived for two generations and the Beverley family for three. Robinson was descended from English immigrants who prospered and married into the most prominent Virginia families. Robinson’s paternal grandfather, Christopher Robinson, was a brother of a bishop of London and served on the. Many of his near relations in Virginia were wealthy planters, justices of the peace, burgesses, , , and political leaders. Robinson’s father was a member of the governor’s Council for twenty-eight years and had just been sworn in as president—acting governor—in August 1749 when he died suddenly. The father and son having the same names, the younger man has often been referred to in the literature of Virginia history as John Robinson Jr., but he and his contemporaries did not use Jr. after his father died.
Unlike his father and at least one brother, he attended the College of William and Mary rather than travel to England for his education, and judging by his legislative committee service he studied law. Because of the loss of family and local records, Robinson’s life during the early years of his adulthood is poorly documented. On November 8, 1723, he married Mary Storey, of Middlesex County, who died on an unrecorded date within a few years, perhaps during or following childbirth. He later married Lucy Moore,of a wealthy King William County planter. They had at least one daughter and also one son who died in childhood. They lived at Robinson’s estate, Pleasant Hill, in King and Queen County, across the Mattaponi River from her parents. She died on an unrecorded date in or after 1743. About the middle of December 1759, Robinson married Susanna Chiswell. They had two daughters and one son, who died before reaching maturity.
Robinson won election to the House of Burgesses from King and Queen County and took his seat when a new assembly first met on February 1, 1728. The following day, the Speaker of the House appointed him to the prestigious Committee of Privileges and Elections, which was unusual for a young, new member and no doubt a recognition of his promise and a reflection of his family’s prominence. A few days later, Gavin Corbin, probably the candidate Robinson had defeated, and two other men petitioned to have Robinson’s election declared invalid. The House delegated several county justices to hear evidence. After reviewing the result of the investigation, the Committee of Privileges and Elections labeled the challenge “groundless, frivolous, malicious & scandalous,” and the House declared Robinson a duly elected member. At the assembly session held in the spring of 1732, Robinson served again on the Committee of Privileges and Elections, and the Speaker named him second in seniority on the Committee for Courts of Justice. In 1734 Robinson chaired the committee that drafted the formal response of the burgesses to the lieutenant governor’s opening address and became chair of the Committee for Courts of Justice as well as retained his place on the Committee of Privileges and Elections.
When the assembly next met in August 1736, a burgess nominated Robinson for the Speaker of the House, but Robinson declined and urged the members to reelect Sir John Randolph unanimously, which they then did. Randolph reappointed Robinson to the Committee of Privileges and Elections and made him chair of the Committee of Propositions and Grievances. Randolph died in 1737, and when the members of the House of Burgesses next reconvened, on November 1, 1738, Benjamin Harrison nominated Robinson for Speaker. Robinson’s old political adversary and by then fellow-burgess from King and Queen County, Gavin Corbin, nominated Henry Fitzhugh, and another member nominated a leading veteran burgess, Edwin Conway. “After some Time spent,” the House journal records, “Mr Robinson was chosen Speaker,” suggesting that he may not have won quickly or easily. If the custom in use later was in use then, Fitzhugh and Conway escorted Robinson to the chair where he assumed the office of the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, a chair in which he served longer than any other man. Robinson defeated Fitzhugh for Speaker again in 1742, and defeatedand Philip Ludwell in 1748. Thereafter, Robinson won unanimous reelection at the opening session of each assembly in 1752, 1756, 1758, and 1761 and served until his death in May 1766.
At each assembly that Robinson presided as the Speaker of the House, the legislators also appointed him treasurer of the colony to collect and expend the money that it raised or appropriated by law. Each term as treasurer extended through the end of the first session of the next assembly or so long as he remained the Speaker of the House. Ever since it created the office of colonial treasurer in 1691, the assembly had almost always elected the Speaker of the House as treasurer, which paid a percentage of the money that passed through the office as a salary to support the dignity of the office of the Speaker and to defray the costs of holding that position. Robinson’s salary began at 4 percent, but in 1748 the assembly raised it to 5 percent, or approximately £300 a year. With the extra taxes and expenses of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), his annual income might have risen by the end of the 1750s to £1,000.
When he first took office as treasurer, Robinson and his clerk or clerks had to straighten out the messy accounts that the Speaker and treasurer John Holloway left when he resigned in August 1734 and that had not been cleared up during the interim. Treasurers had evidently treated the money in the treasury as if it was their own until they were required to pay out public money according to the law. When Holloway resigned, his treasury account was found to be in arrears of £1,850, most of which was probably money that sheriffs owed to the treasury but had not remitted.
During Robinson’s long career in the House of Burgesses he became the most skilled and influential Virginia-born political leader of the colonial period. He excelled in legislative politics and was a master of the rules and parliamentary procedure employed in the British House of Commons. He placed reliable supporters in high-ranking committee seats and employed the talents of his followers. The burgesskept a detailed diary early in the 1750s that documents Robinson’s legislative skill. When a measure about which Robinson had strong opinions was before the burgesses, he signaled one of his allies to move that the members resolve themselves into a committee of the whole to allow a free flow of debate. Robinson then designated a burgess to preside as chair of the committee and took a seat with the other members. “The Byg man,” as Carter referred to him, directed the debate and orchestrated the legislative maneuvering, sometimes prodding members to introduce, oppose, or support resolutions, and sometimes shouting objections, or intimidating, or staring down members who opposed his favorite measures or favored bills he opposed. Robinson acted more like a modern party floor leader than as the ostensibly disinterested moderator that the Speaker was then supposed to be.
Robinson cultivated a good working relationship with Lieutenant Governor Sir, who remained in office until 1749. Not so with Lieutenant Governor , who during his administration from 1751 to 1758 alienated many powerful political leaders in Virginia. When the assembly voted to raise money and field a regiment of soldiers during the French and Indian War, it refused to allow Dinwiddie to control the fund. With each appropriation, the assembly appointed a committee of burgesses, with Robinson as chair, to oversee the payments. That removed Dinwiddie from daily management of the money, but it produced inefficiencies, as when the personal affairs of the committee members made it difficult to assemble a quorum to do business. On one such occasion an agent for Colonel traveled to Williamsburg to pick up the regimental expenses and discovered that Robinson was not in town. Even after Robinson returned he could not bring together a quorum for several more days. The agent complained that the public business had to “waite the Conveniency of the Grandees of Government.”
That was an accurate as well as colorful description of Robinson and the other political leaders of mid-eighteenth-century Virginia. Their personal affairs sometimes infringed on or influenced the performance of their public duties. Dense webs of family connections and financial obligations bound them together but also generated personal or regional rivalries. Robinson invested with his political allies in schemes to obtain from the Crown large grants of potentially valuable unclaimed land in the West, which put him and his colleagues in competition with other groups of well-connected men, chiefly from the northern part of Virginia and who also formed land companies for the same purpose. Those competing companies divided the colony’s political elite into factions that challenged each other for control of the assembly as well as for land. Some of Robinson’s later critics among the burgesses were, in fact, speculators, such as young and politically ambitious, who were involved in the scramble for grants of western land. Robinson invested a substantial amount of money along with George Washington and others to drain the Dismal Swamp, harvest the timber there, and sell the land. Robinson also acquired an expensive one-third interest in a southwestern lead mine that John Chiswell, the father of his third wife, developed but that did not earn much money until the American Revolution (1775–1783).
When Lieutenant Governortook office in 1758, he described Robinson as then “the most popular Man in the Country: beloved by the Gentlemen, and the Idol of the people; so that he is absolutely sure of the Chair as long as he pleases to fill it.” According to the historian Edmund Randolph, who was a child when Robinson died but who knew many of the men who served in the House with him, “the decorum of the house” when Robinson was in the Speaker’s chair “outshone that of the British House of Commons” even under its most respected Speaker, Arthur Onslow. “In the limited sphere of colonial politics,” Randolph concluded, “he was a column.”
Robinson presided over the House of Burgesses or directed its proceedings from the floor during some of the most important political controversies of the eighteenth century, in some of which the burgesses strongly asserted their constitutional rights. In 1752 Dinwiddie insisted on his right to charge a fee of one pistole (a Spanish coin then worth about £1 2s. 6d. in Virginia) for signing land grants. Thethat only the assembly, not the lieutenant governor, had a constitutional right to impose a new fee or tax on Virginians. That angered Dinwiddie, but the burgesses angered him even more by authorizing Robinson to pay the expenses of Attorney General Peyton Randolph to go to London, where he hired an agent to present the burgesses’ case to the king’s Privy Council. It ruled in 1754 that Dinwiddie could collect the fee on land grants, but vindicated the burgesses’ unusual decision to send the to London to argue against the lieutenant governor’s action.
In 1758 the assembly passed an emergency law, known as the, to enable Virginians to pay debts in money rather than in tobacco, which was scarce following a drought. Members of the clergy, whose salaries were effectively reduced, protested to the Privy Council to have the law disallowed. Robinson and the burgesses again hired an agent to argue that the assembly had the constitutional right to care for the colony in an emergency that did not allow time for royal approval of the assembly’s bill. They did not succeed, however, and the king disallowed the law in 1759.
On May 29, 1765, late in the House of Burgesses session after some of the members had gone home, the young burgess Patrick Henry introduced several forceful resolutions condemning the Stamp Act, which Parliament had recently passed. The previous year, Robinson and the burgesses had opposed the proposed law as an unconstitutional tax on the residents of the colonies. Robinson and most of the senior members opposed Henry’s resolutions as too inflammatory. During debate the following day, Henry appeared to accuse the king of acting tyrannically when he signed the Stamp Act. Robinson immediately rose to his feet and declared that Henry had spoken treasonous words, whereupon Henry moderated his language. (Accounts differ about what Henry said and about how he gracefully extricated himself from the difficulty.) The burgesses adopted five of seven resolutions, but on May 31, after Henry had left town, Robinson allowed the remaining members to repeal the strongest of the five and expunge it from the journal. As it happened, that was the last session of the House of Burgesses over which Robinson presided.
The Stamp Act was one of many revenue measures Parliament adopted to pay for the long and expensive French and Indian War, the great international conflict of the epoch. Virginia’s part in the war, and consequently that of the treasurer of the colony, imposed much additional work on Robinson. His dual roles as the Speaker of the House and the treasurer had so much augmented his political influence that Dinwiddie and most of the king’s ministers in England decided by the mid-1750s that he should not hold both offices. Consequently, when Fauquier arrived in Virginia in 1758, he brought royal instructions requiring him to separate the two offices. He quickly perceived, however, that Robinson’s popularity and political following were such that for him to suggest depriving him of either office would be self-destructive. Instead, Fauquier told Robinson of his instructions and said that he would not obey them. That laid the basis for a very easy and productive working relationship between the two during the war years.
After the war ended in 1763, Virginia’s government was heavily in debt. The colony’s planters faced a serious shortage of cash as well as high taxes to pay that public debt. The shortage of cash made it impossible for county sheriffs to collect all the tax revenue that residents owed and pay it into the treasury, which in turn made it difficult for the treasurer to pay the colony’s bills and debts. Fluctuating rates of exchange between paper money and the pound sterling strangled credit in the mid-1760s and led to an increase in debt collection suits. There was not much increase in the actual collection of debts, however, because few planters had any money with which to pay, and they could find few purchasers if they tried to sell land or slaves to raise the money. The interconnected webs of debt and credit that enabled the tobacco economy to operate began to fail, and the financial condition of the colony and of the colonists rapidly worsened, even without the prospect of paying a new stamp tax on legal documents, newspapers, and other printed materials.
The difficulties that sheriffs had in collecting taxes and remitting revenue to the treasury left a major deficit in Robinson’s treasury accounts. In the mid-1760s some influential (and indebted) planter-burgesses proposed to create a public loan office to borrow a large sum of money from British investors. The loan could be paid back from future tax revenue over a period of years, but in the meantime the borrowed money could pay the immediate expenses of the colonial government. Robinson supported the bill, which the burgesses passed, but some members of the Governor’s Council opposed it and killed the proposal. Even though committees of burgesses routinely made glowing perfunctory reports about the soundness of the treasury accounts, the treasury was very short of cash and not only because collections from sheriffs were seriously in arrears.
The paper money that the colony had issued during the war was part of the problem because it was part of the colony’s debt. The money acted like a short-term loan. When the assembly authorized each of several issues of paper money, it set an expiration date for the bills to encourage people to pay taxes with them before the money ceased to have any value. The treasurer paid salaries and purchased supplies with the paper money, which circulated for a limited period of time as much-needed cash, although at a discount. The legislators expected people to pay their taxes with the money to draw the currency back into the treasury, extinguish that portion of the debt, and prevent dangerous inflation. Some of the laws that created paper money required the treasurer to burn the bills when he received them into the treasury or to hold them for burning later. He did not do that, however.
When other men were struggling, Robinson was one of the few men in Virginia with access to ready cash. He was very wealthy and owned several thousand acres of land in half a dozen counties, several houses and lots in Williamsburg, and about 400 slaves. He was also very generous and began lending money to his hard-pressed friends and no doubt anticipated making a profit when the planters repaid him with interest. Their financial obligations to him may also have temporarily increased his political power in the House of Burgesses. To oblige the many desperate friends and political allies who appealed to Robinson for personal loans, he began lending out money from the treasury in addition to his own funds, improperly recirculating paper money that the law required be withdrawn from circulation.
It is likely that most or all of the men who borrowed from Robinson were unaware that many other men borrowed from him, too, or that he should not have lent them that paper money. That he lent so much money to so many men indicates how cash-starved the colony’s economy was and also how fragile were the interconnected financial webs of debt and credit. Robinson’s accounts, which were not then public, disclosed that many of the most influential and apparently wealthy Virginia families were actually insolvent. Until required to pay their debts, they did not appear to be insolvent but merely short of ready cash. In 1765 and early in 1766, however, many were in danger of financial failure. Had any significant number of them defaulted on their debts, the whole plantation economy could have collapsed and ruined many of the colony’s leading families.
Death and Scandal
Robinson died at his residence in King and Queen County late in the night of May 10–11, 1766. The Virginia Gazette reported on May 16, 1766 that Robinson “paid the last Debt to Nature, after labouring some Days with the most excruciating Torments of the Stone,” probably an attack of kidney stones. He was buried in the family graveyard at Pleasant Hill. The two Virginia Gazettes published lamentations, eulogies, and elegiac verse that contributors sent in about Robinson’s political talents and his amiable and generous nature.
The extent of Robinson’s lending and its effects on the treasury became public soon after his death, and in December of that year a committee in the House of Burgesses reported that the treasury accounts were in arrears to the astounding sum of £100,761. It was by far the colony’s largest financial scandal. The first consequence of disclosing Robinson’s improprieties was widespread public anger that Robert Carter Nicholas, whom Fauquier had appointed treasurer ad interim, had criticized Robinson by name in a long critique published in the Virginia Gazette and suggested that he had acted illegally and immorally. The second consequence was that many public men in Virginia feared for their personal reputations or feared the bankruptcy of their families.
The third consequence was that politicians began maneuvering to succeed Robinson in either or both of his powerful and profitable offices. The logical successor for both was Attorney General Peyton Randolph, who had been Robinson’s right-hand man in the House of Burgesses and had the confidence of Fauquier. Richard Henry Lee and Richard Bland also sought the Speaker’s office, and Nicholas immediately began a campaign to hold onto the lucrative treasurer’s job detached, as the king’s ministers wished it to be, from the Speaker’s office. By the autumn the magnitude of the scandal was such that few men were willing to support election of any man to both offices. Randolph contented himself with the Speaker’s office, for which the burgesses provided a comfortable new £500 annual salary; Nicholas happily retained the treasury; and Lee and Bland had to be content with not being threatened with financial ruin, as they owed Robinson’s estate comparatively small sums.
Robinson had named several prominent men to administer his estate for the benefit of his widow and underage children. Peyton Randolph was one of them, but for political reasons he chose not to act, and his cousin, the councillor Peter Randolph, agreed to serve instead not long before he died. The attorney Peter Lyons reluctantly agreed but seldom did any work, leaving only Edmund Pendleton, an attorney and one of Robinson’s legislative allies, to sort through the papers, make up the accounts, sell off Robinson’s vast holdings in land and slaves, and try to collect enough money to repay the treasury. Pendleton had to sell Robinson’s estate at auction to pay some of the debts, but so difficult was it to collect what it was owed in order to pay what it owed that the resulting lawsuits were not all finally settled until more than fifty years after Robinson’s death and twenty years after Pendleton’s. The estate repaid the original treasury deficit in 1781 but with such drastically depreciated wartime paper money that the payment was worth only a small fraction of the original £100,761.
In spite of the unethical nature of Robinson’s actions, many men praised him for keeping the fragile Virginia economy alive by recirculating cash when the planters desperately needed ready money. His admirers and his critics were all correct in testifying to his political skills and winning personality, admiring or resenting his use of political power, and condemning but also acknowledging the beneficial short-term effects of his unethical handling of the colony’s money. The reputation of Robinson, colonial Virginia’s ablest and most powerful native-born political leader, was thereafter permanently linked to the colony’s largest financial scandal.