Two Penny Acts (1755, 1758)


The General Assembly adopted the Two Penny Acts of 1755 and 1758 as temporary relief measures in response to the failure of the Virginia colony‘s tobacco crops. Tobacco was Virginia’s principal export, but it also backed the colony’s currency, and these crop failures threatened Virginia’s system of taxation for support of local and provincial government, including the parishes and clergy of the Church of England. The Two Penny Acts allowed vestries and county courts to collect taxes and pay salaries in money calculated at the usual market price for tobacco rather than in tobacco at windfall rates. Although it reduced their annual salaries, relatively few Virginia clergymen objected to the 1755 act, which expired after ten months. They were less amenable to the second act, however. Reverend Jacob Rowe spoke so vehemently against it that he was forced to apologize to the House of Burgesses. Reverend John Camm, meanwhile, took the protest to London and succeeded in having the act revoked, which set up a conflict between Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier and the power of the Crown. When clergymen sued for their back wages, the controversy known as the Parsons’ Cause erupted and became a precedent for resistance to English authority.

Virginia’s Economic Climate

Tobacco backed much of eighteenth-century Virginia’s paper currency. Virginians traded either the leaf itself or, more commonly, tobacco notes—receipts representing tobacco that had been inspected, weighed, and packaged for shipment. All public transactions were normally paid in tobacco, including provincial, county, and parish tax levies, as well as fees and salaries for secretaries, clerks, sheriffs, surveyors, church wardens, and clergymen. For the seven Virginia counties in which little tobacco was grown—Augusta, Frederick, and Hampshire in the west; Princess Anne and Norfolk near the coast; and Bedford and Halifax to the southwest—special legislation allowed public transactions to be made in money.

The drought of 1755 devastated the Virginia colony’s agriculture, wreaking havoc not only on its food supply, but also on its tobacco-based system of taxation and payment. At the same time, Virginia was struggling to support the expanding conflict between Great Britain and France for control of North America.

The Two Penny Act of 1755

Robert Dinwiddie

In 1755, Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, motivated by military necessity and the effects of the drought, summoned the General Assembly, which normally met about once a year, for a third time to Williamsburg. “The Urgency of our Affairs,” he told the councilors and burgesses who convened at the Capitol on October 27, 1755, made another session “unavoidable.”

While Speaker John Robinson and Attorney General Peyton Randolph focused on Dinwiddie’s defense requests, Richard Bland, an influential burgess from Prince George County, formulated a response to the drought and its implications. On the second day of the session, the House put Bland at the head of a committee to prepare “a Bill to enable the Inhabitants of this Colony to discharge the Officers Fees in Money, for this present Year.”

As Bland and most of his colleagues and their constituents saw it, the measure came down to basic fairness. As the supply of tobacco dwindled and the demand for it rose, planters fortunate enough to harvest any tobacco at all could sell their leaf for six pence per pound—three times its usual price. The Two Penny Act of 1755 aimed to prevent public officials “from taking Advantage of the Necessities of the People and exacting exorbitant Prices for Tobacco … from the poor and needy.” By allowing taxes to be paid in cash at the rate of two pence per pound of tobacco, Bland’s statute rescued all Virginians from a de facto tax increase and denied officeholders a 300 percent windfall in fees and salaries.

The act was written to “be in Force for the Space of Ten Months, and no longer.” The seven counties already empowered to pay debts in money were excluded from its temporary provisions. On November 8, 1755, Dinwiddie signed the Two Penny Act, along with five other bills, into law on behalf of King George II and dissolved the assembly.

The law affected hundreds of Virginia officeholders, but only eighteen of the colony’s seventy Anglican clergymen protested the Two Penny Act of 1755. Since 1696, Anglican clergymen in Virginia had by law received an annual salary of 16,000 pounds of tobacco, in addition to a parsonage and the profits of a farm, or glebe. A 1748 act of the General Assembly drafted by Richard Bland had confirmed this system of support for the Church of England, setting clergy salaries at 16,000 pounds plus cask (an 8 percent allowance for packing). With tobacco prices hovering just below two cents per pound through most of the eighteenth century, this salary had been worth about £144, plus the parish glebe’s profits; clergymen who chose not to farm the glebe themselves could generally rent its fields for £80 or more a year. While the Two Penny Act simply stabilized that salary, the clergymen who protested the statute felt they were shouldering too much of Virginia’s economic burden.

Reverend John Camm, a professor of divinity at the College of William and Mary, along with seven clergymen who lived near Williamsburg, wrote a letter to the bishop of London in which they denounced the statute as “glaringly inconsistent with natural equity, the Rights of the Clergy … and his Royal Majesty’s Prerogative.” Another letter to the bishop, sent the following February by ten more priests from outlying parishes (including Reverend Patrick Henry, uncle of the famous orator, condemned the Two Penny Act as an attack “upon our establishment” and “an insult upon the Royal Prerogative and contrary to … natural Justice and Equity.” But the number of protesting clergy was relatively small, and the statute expired before debate over the Two Penny Act became too heated.

The Two Penny Act of 1758

Capitol Building in Williamsburg

The agricultural problems that prompted the second Two Penny Act may have been slightly different from those of 1755: the preamble of the second act referred not to a “great Drought,” as did the first one, but to “the prodigious Diminution of our staple Commodity occasioned by the Unseasonableness of the Weather.” Bad weather early in the spring—perhaps hard freezes rather than a general drought—may have devastated tobacco seedbeds before the delicate seedlings could be transplanted to the fields.

The legislative process was different as well. It began this time with a petition read on September 15, 1758, the second day of the new assembly session, from “sundry Inhabitants of the County of Prince George,” Richard Bland’s home county. “By Reason of the short Crops of Tobacco made this Year,” the petitioners requested another Two Penny Act, or, as the burgesses put it, a law “for paying all public, County and Parish levies, and Officers Fees, in Money, for this present Year, at such a Price as by the House shall be thought reasonable.” By the following day, Saturday, September 16, Richard Bland had reworked the 1755 law into a bill ready for its first reading.

The Anglican clergy reacted immediately. As reported in the Journal of the House of Burgesses, Reverend Jacob Rowe, professor of philosophy at the College of William and Mary, in a conversation at a Williamsburg home, asked, “How many of the House of Burgesses were to be hanged?” Unaware that burgess William Kennon was present, Rowe continued to rail against the House: “That every Member who should vote for settling the Parsons Salaries in Money, would be Scoundrels, and that if any Member wanting to receive the Sacrament, was to apply to him, he would refuse to administer it.” On Thursday, September 21—the same day that the House discussed Bland’s bill again, amended it, and ordered it engrossed, or copied onto parchment, for its third and final reading—the burgesses denounced Rowe for scandalous breach of privilege.

Portrait of Francis Fauquier

On Friday, September 22, Rowe knelt at the bar of the House of Burgesses, where he apologized for incurring “the Censure of this House by uttering certain contumelious Words [about] the Members thereof” and paid a fine “for his Offence.” The next day the clerk read the engrossed Two Penny Act of 1758 for the third time. The House adopted it as “An Act to enable the Inhabitants of this Colony to discharge their public Dues, Officers Fees, and other Tobacco Debts in Money, for the ensuing Year,” and submitted it to the governor’s Council.

A week later, on September 29, the clerk of the Council reported that it had passed the Two Penny Act with an amendment—likely a paragraph exempting private contracts, such as rental agreements, from coverage by the law—which the House promptly accepted. On the last day of the session, October 12, Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier signed the Two Penny Act of 1758 into law and sent the burgesses home.

Protest Against and Disallowance of the Acts

Reverend Jacob Rowe’s “contumelious Words” against the Two Penny Act of 1758 marked the beginning of an outpouring of protest from Virginia’s Anglican clergymen. Already they felt their authority diminishing as the number of evangelical dissenters and non-Anglican settlers in the colony rose; surely they must have viewed the passage of a bill that dramatically reduced their salary as an attempt to undermine their position further. In the autumn of 1758, a group of thirty-five clergymen voted to send Reverend Camm to London to convince the Privy Council to overturn both Two Penny Acts. In his argument Camm cited, among other things, that both statutes lacked a suspending clause, which would have suspended their implementation until the king could review them.

Camm’s petition was successful: the Privy Council reprimanded Lieutenant Governor Fauquier and the House of Burgesses for enacting a statute that did not contain a suspending clause, and on August 10, 1759, they declared the Two Penny Acts “disallowed, void, and of none effect.” In Fauquier’s response to the council, he sided with the people of Virginia, writing that “as an entire stranger to the distresses of the country,” he saw no cause to reject a bill that carried a legal precedent and was ardently supported by the burgesses and their constituents to boot.

Patrick Henry Argues the Parsons' Cause

However, the disallowance of the Two Penny Acts was only a partial victory for the clergy. News of the Privy Council’s decision arrived in Virginia after the provisions of the 1758 act had expired, and because the council had not explicitly declared the acts void from inception, the clergymen were not awarded the back pay to which they felt entitled. The ensuing controversy, in which the clergy sued for their pay, was fought in private conversations, newspaper essays and pamphlets, and a series of lawsuits, and became known as the Parsons’ Cause.

An opportunity for Virginians to question and protest the power of the Crown, the Parsons’ Cause set a precedent for rebellion in the years leading up to the American Revolution (1775–1783), and became the stage on which future governor and patriot Patrick Henry first tested his fiery rhetoric.

October 1748
The General Assembly adopts an "Act for the support of the Clergy; and for the regular collecting and paying the parish levies," written by Richard Bland. The act confirms the annual salary of Anglican clergymen at 16,000 pounds of tobacco, plus cask, an 8 percent allowance for packing, a parsonage, and the profits of a parish farm.
A severe drought devastates Virginia agriculture, resulting in a reduced harvest of corn and tobacco.
August 5, 1755
Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie issues a proclamation prohibiting the export of "Flour, Bread, Grain, or Pulse [peas, beans, and legumes]," which Virginia regularly supplied to the Caribbean Islands.
October 27, 1755
Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie convenes the year's third General Assembly session, citing the drought and the expanding conflict between Great Britain and France for control of North America.
October 28, 1755
Burgesses Richard Bland and Lemuel Riddick are directed to prepare "a Bill to enable the Inhabitants of this Colony to discharge the Officers Fees in Money, for this present Year." This bill will become the Two Penny Act of 1755.
November 8, 1755
Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie signs the Two Penny Act, a law which permits obligations payable in tobacco to be discharged in money at a rate of two pence per pound of tobacco, into law on behalf of King George II.
November 29, 1755
Reverend John Camm and seven other Anglican clergymen write a letter to Thomas Sherlock, the bishop of London, denouncing the Two Penny Act as "glaringly inconsistent with natural equity, the Rights of the Clergy ... and his Royal Majesty's Prerogative."
February 25, 1756
Ten clergymen, including Reverend Patrick Henry, send a letter to the bishop of London condemning the Two Penny Act as an attack "upon our establishment" and "an insult upon the Royal Prerogative and contrary … natural Justice and Equity."
September 14, 1758
In a private Williamsburg home, Reverend Jacob Rowe denounces the House of Burgesses for considering an updated version of the Two Penny Act of 1755. Unbeknownst to him, he is overheard by William Kennon, a member of the House of Burgesses.
September 22, 1758
Reverend Jacob Rowe is redressed and fined for "uttering certain contumelious Words" about the members of the House of Burgesses and their plan to pass the Two Penny Act of 1758. On the same day, the House of Burgesses adopts the act and submits it to the governor's Council.
Autumn 1758
A group of thirty-five Virginia ministers, half the colony's Anglican clergy, vote to send Reverend John Camm to London to convince the Privy Council to overturn the Two Penny Acts of 1755 and 1758.
October 12, 1758
Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier signs the Two Penny Act, which fixes the rate of Anglican ministers' salaries at two pence per pound of tobacco. This effectively reduces their pay and earns Fauquier a rebuke from authorities in London.
June 14, 1759
Thomas Sherlock, the bishop of London, denounces the Two Penny Act as treason and an attack on the church.
August 10, 1759
The Privy Council declares the Two Penny Acts of 1755 and 1758 "disallowed, void, and of none effect," opening the way for the series of lawsuits over clergy salaries known as the Parsons' Cause.
  • Heinemann, Ronald L., John G. Kolp, Anthony S. Parent Jr., and William G. Shade. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia 1607–2007. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
  • Issac, Rhys. “Religion and Authority: Problems of the Anglican Establishment in Virginia in the Era of the Great Awakening and the Parsons’ Cause.” The William and Mary Quarterly 30, no. 1 (January 1973): 3–36.
  • Issac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia 1740–1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
  • “Richard Bland.” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
APA Citation:
Kukla, Jon. Two Penny Acts (1755, 1758). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/two-penny-acts-1755-1758.
MLA Citation:
Kukla, Jon. "Two Penny Acts (1755, 1758)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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