George Washington Papers

From George Washington to George Mason, 5 April 1769

To George Mason

Mount Vernon 5th April 1769.

Dear sir,

Herewith you will receive a letter and sundry papers which were forwarded to me a day or two ago by Doctor Ross of Bladensburg.1 I transmit them with the greater pleasure, as my own desire of knowing your sentiments upon a matter of this importance exactly coincides with the Doctrs inclinations.

At a time when our lordly Masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of American freedom, it seems highly necessary that something shou’d be done to avert the stroke and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our Ancestors; but the manner of doing it to answer the purpose effectually is the point in question.

That no man shou’d scruple, or hesitate a moment to use a—ms in defence of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends; is clearly my opinion; Yet A—ms I wou’d beg leave to add, should be the last resource; the de[r]nier resort. Addresses to the Throne, and remonstrances to parliament, we have already, it is said, proved the inefficacy of; how far then their attention to our rights & priviledges is to be awakened or alarmed by starving their Trade & manufactures, remains to be tryed.

The northern Colonies, it appears, are endeavouring to adopt this scheme—In my opinion it is a good one; & must be attended with salutary effects, provided it can be carried pretty generally into execution; but how far it is practicable to do so, I will not take upon me to determine. That there will be difficulties attending the execution of it every where, from clashing interests, & selfish designing men (ever attentive to their own gain, & watchful of every turn that can assist their lucrative views, in preference to any other consideration) cannot be denied; but in the Tobacco Colonies where the Trade is so diffused, and in a manner wholly conducted by Factors for their principals at home, these difficulties are certainly enhanced, but I think not insurmountably increased, if the Gentlemen in their several counties wou’d be at some pains to explain matters to the people, & stimulate them to a cordial agreement to purchase none but certain innumerated articles out of any of the Stores after such a period, nor import nor purchase any themselves. This, if it did not effectually withdraw the Factors from their Importations, wou’d at least make them extremely cautious in doing it, as the prohibited Goods could be vended to none but the non-associater, or those who wou’d pay no regard to their association; both of whom ought to be stigmatized, and made the objects of publick reproach.

The more I consider a Scheme of this sort, the more ardently I wish success to it, because I think there are private, as well as public advantages to result from it—the former certain, however precarious the other may prove; for in respect to the latter I have always thought that by virtue of the same power (for here alone the authority derives) which assume’s the right of Taxation, they may attempt at least to restrain our manufactories; especially those of a public nature; the same equity & justice prevailing in the one case as the other, it being no greater hardship to forbid my manufacturing, than it is to order me to buy Goods of them loaded with Duties, for the express purpose of raising a revenue. But as a measure of this sort will be an additional exertion of arbitrary power, we cannot be worsted I think in putting it to the Test. On the other hand, that the Colonies are considerably indebted to Great Britain, is a truth universally acknowledged. That many families are reduced, almost, if not quite, to penury & want, from the low ebb of their fortunes, and Estates daily selling for the discharge of Debts, the public papers furnish but too many melancholy proofs of. And that a scheme of this sort will contribute more effectually than any other I can devise to immerge the Country from the distress it at present labours under, I do most firmly believe, if it can be generally adopted. And I can see but one set of people (the Merchants excepted) who will not, or ought not, to wish well to the Scheme; and that is those who live genteely & hospitably, on clear Estates. Such as these were they, not to consider the valuable object in view, & the good of others, might think it hard to be curtail’d in their living & enjoyments; for as to the penurious man, he saves his money, & he saves his credit; having the best plea for doing that, which before perhaps he had the most violent struggles to refrain from doing. The extravagant & expensive man has the same good plea to retrench his Expences—He is thereby furnished with a pretext to live within bounds, and embraces it—prudence dictated œconomy to him before, but his resolution was too weak to put it in practice; for how can I, says he, who have lived in such & such a manner change my method? I am ashamed to do it: and besides, such an alteration in the System of my living, will create suspicions of a decay in my fortune, & such a thought the world must not harbour; I will e’en continue my course: till at last the course discontinues the Estate, a sale of it being the consequence of his perseverance in error. This I am satisfied is the way that many who have set out in the wrong tract, have reasoned, till ruin stares them in the face. And in respect to the poor & needy man, he is only left in the same situation he was found; better I might say, because as he judges from comparison, his condition is amended in proportion as it approaches nearer to those above him.

Upon the whole therefore, I think the Scheme a good one, and that it ought to be tryed here, with such alterations as the exigency of our circumstances render absolutely necessary; but how, & in what manner to begin the work, is a matter worthy of consideration; and whether it can be attempted with propriety, or efficacy (further than a communication of sentiments to one another) before May, when the Court & Assembly will meet together in Williamsburg, and a uniform plan can be concerted, and sent into the different counties to operate at the same time, & in the same manner every where, is a thing I am somewhat in doubt upon, & shou’d be glad to know your opinion of. I am Dr Sir Your most Obt humble Servant

G: Washington


GW was not present in April 1768 when the House of Burgesses initiated Virginia’s official protest to the Townshend Acts adopted by Parliament in the summer of 1767. He took a leading part, however, in forming in 1769 and 1770 the colony’s nonimportation association to promote their repeal, particularly of the act laying taxes on certain colonial imports. It was in response to a circular letter from the Massachusetts legislature that the Virginia burgesses first drew up, and on 16 April 1768 adopted, addresses to the king, Lords, and Commons protesting the passage of the Townshend Acts and calling for their prompt repeal. The next year, in March 1769, the merchants of Philadelphia followed the earlier lead of their counterparts in Boston and New York and, in opposition to the acts, formed an association to ban the importation of a wide array of British goods. Shortly before writing this letter to George Mason on 5 April, GW received from Dr. David Ross of Bladensburg, Md., a copy of a letter to Maryland merchants from Philadelphia merchants enclosing a copy of the nonimportation association that they had adopted for Philadelphia. Ross also sent a copy of the response of Annapolis merchants to the Philadelphians’ proposal that Maryland merchants form a similar association as well as a copy of a letter to Virginia merchants from Annapolis merchants in which they forwarded to the Virginia merchants copies of their correspondence with the Philadelphia merchants and a copy of the text of the Pennsylvania nonimportation association. GW seems to have sent on to George Mason all four documents, expressing his own support for the formation of such an association in Virginia and soliciting Mason’s reaction. See note 1.

Mason immediately responded to GW’s letter. He assured GW that he shared his views that the very desirable association could not be formed before the Virginia assembly met in May and expressed his regret that illness prevented his preparing and publishing “Something preparatory to it in our Gazettes” (5 April). As justices, GW and Mason were together in Alexandria for the meeting of the Fairfax County Court on 17 and 18 April, and Mason accompanied GW on the evening of 18 April from Alexandria to Mount Vernon for a visit that lasted until the afternoon of 21 April (see Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 2:141–42). Two days later, on 23 April, Mason sent from his house at Gunston Hall changes that GW was to make in “the Association, of which I sent You a Copy.” GW took the copy of Mason’s proposal with him when he left Mount Vernon on 30 April to attend the meeting of the assembly in Williamsburg (see Mason to GW, 28 April, nn.1 and 2).

GW was in Williamsburg for the opening of the session on 8 May. On 16 May he joined the other burgesses in adopting a series of resolutions reasserting their sole right to lay taxes on their fellow colonists and denouncing the British move to have colonists accused of treason taken to Britain for trial. When at about noon on the next day the new governor, Lord Botetourt, having “heard of your Resolves, and augur ill of their Effect,” dissolved the House of Burgesses, GW and most of the other members walked down the Duke of Gloucester Street and met in the Apollo Room of Anthony Hay’s Raleigh Tavern (JHB, 1766–1769 description begins H. R. McIlwaine and John Pendleton Kennedy, eds. Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia. 13 vols. Richmond, 1905–15. description ends , 214–18). The moderator of the meeting, Speaker Peyton Randolph, made GW a member of a committee to present on the next day a plan for forming a nonimportation association in Virginia. GW recorded in his diary for 17 May only that he “Dined at the Treasurers and was upon a Committee at Hays till 10 oclock” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 2:152). The plan of association that the committee submitted to the burgesses after they had assembled in the Apollo Room on the morning of 18 May, which ninety-six of the burgesses voted to adopt, was essentially the plan of George Mason given to the committee by GW (see Mason to GW, 28 April, n.1).

1According to Stanislaus M. Hamilton (Letters to Washington description begins Stanislaus Murray Hamilton, ed. Letters to Washington and Accompanying Papers. 5 vols. Boston and New York, 1898–1902. description ends , 3:346–56), GW at some point labeled a packet of his papers: “Old Papers Respecting the Non-importation of British Goods.” Of these, he sent to Mason copies of the four documents that he received from David Ross (see source note). For further reference to the plan of the Pennsylvania nonimportation association, see Mason to GW, 28 April, n.1. For the contents of the letter of the Annapolis merchants to the Philadelphia merchants, see Mason to GW, 5 April, n.3. See also source note. David Ross was a merchant in Bladensburg who served as commissary for the Maryland forces in the French and Indian War.

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