This text comes from our book, From Sea to Shining Sea.
Not long after he helped the British capture Fort Duquesne, George Washington resigned from the colonial militia. The 26-year-old Washington was about to take on new responsibilities: marriage and family. On January 6, 1759, he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children. Martha not only brought happiness to Washington, but, because she was one of the richest women in Virginia, she brought him wealth. Though he and Martha never had children of their own, Washington was very attentive to Martha’s two children, Patsy and John Parke Custis.
Along with his own Mount Vernon estate on the Potomac River, Washington was an able overseer of the Custis White House plantation on the York River, near Williamsburg, the capital of colonial Virginia. A very successful tobacco farmer, Washington practiced crop rotation so as not to ruin the soil. He also raised peach and apple orchards and grapes for Madeira wine. Being a large colonial landowner in Virginia, he had many slaves. He cared for them all, feeding them with his own produce, seeing to it they were well dressed and housed. When his slaves were sick, Washington obtained medical care for them.
As one of the great men of his colony, Washington had been elected to Virginia’s lawmaking body, the House of Burgesses, in 1758. Every year, he traveled to Williamsburg to attend the meetings. Outside of spending these few weeks each year at the House of Burgesses, the young Washington had little interest in politics. But in 1765, all this changed for him and many others. Washington attended the meeting of the House of Burgesses in May of that year and heard ominous words, foretelling an end to peace and calm in England’s American colonies. Patrick Henry, another young burgess, had risen to speak. In most solemn tones, Henry declared, “Caesar had his Brutus. Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third . . .”
“Treason!” cried several burgesses, interrupting Henry’s speech. They knew what was he was driving at. Brutus had killed Caesar in the Roman Senate. Cromwell had beheaded Charles I. What was Henry saying about the British king, who also was king of Virginia and the other colonies?
“George III,” said Henry after a pause, “may profit by their example.” The uproar in the hall rose, but then slowly died down. When all was quiet again, Patrick Henry defiantly added, “If this be treason, make the most of it!”
Not only Patrick Henry, but many other colonists were angry over a law passed by the British Parliament in 1765 and called the Stamp Act. This law required that the colonists pay a tax on all legal documents, diplomas, licenses, newspapers, and other documents. The British government collected this tax by requiring that all these documents be printed on paper marked with a special seal or stamp, and that the colonists had to pay for the paper.
Parliament passed the Stamp Act tax to pay for the French and Indian War, which had been very expensive. For the same reason, Parliament passed other laws. For example, Parliament passed a law to keep New England merchants from smuggling in molasses (that is, sneaking it into port without paying a tax). Royal officials, Parliament declared, could obtain permission from the colonial courts (whose judges were controlled by the king) to search warehouses for smuggled goods. All merchants caught smuggling, Parliament declared, were not to be tried by a jury of their own peers, but in “admiralty courts” operated by the British navy. Trial by jury was an ancient English right, and here the colonists were being deprived of it.
Some colonists protested, saying that such laws violated the English constitution and were even opposed to the natural rights of man. They reasoned that, although they were colonists, they were English colonists. They should possess all the rights that other Englishmen enjoyed under the law. The colonists also believed that only their local assemblies could tax them, since no Englishman could be taxed without representation. They concluded that they might be within their rights to refuse to pay any tax Parliament laid on them. The colonists began to ask themselves, “Should we obey such laws, if they are unjust?”
The Stamp Act brought the colonies together for the first time. In October 1765, representatives from nine colonies met in New York City for a Stamp Act Congress. The congress protested the Stamp Act, saying Parliament could not tax the colonies because it did not represent them. The congress also declared that trial by jury was a right belonging to every British subject, and neither the king nor Parliament could take it away.
In March 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. When the news reached the colonies, there was great rejoicing. George Washington was among those who had protested the Stamp Act; he, doubtless, hoped that Parliament would never attempt anything of the kind again.