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
In 1755, Lieutenant Governor, 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 Speakerand Attorney General Peyton Randolph focused on Dinwiddie’s defense requests, , 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, 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
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.
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.
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.
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.