In the century after 1650, the colonies enjoyed extraordinary economic growth. The gross national product (GNP) of British North America multiplied some 25 times between 1650 and 1770, and scholars estimate that American colonists may have enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world by the time of the Revolution.103 Overseas markets for colonial exports expanded as colonists increased their production levels and supplied valuable timber, tobacco, and rice to the Caribbean and the countries across the Atlantic. Imports also grew throughout the eighteenth century, as increasingly prosperous—and numerous—colonists expanded their demand for food and manufactured goods. After 1750, inland trade among the colonies also expanded by leaps and bounds, fostering both economic interactions and increased intercommunication among colonists.104 This sort of prosperity is not usually an indication of a gathering revolution. But when colonists felt both financially and ideologically threatened by Parliamentary taxation policies, they proved willing to risk some economic well-being in the short term for the sake of ensuring their liberty—both economic and political—in the long term.
To empower their resistance to Parliamentary taxation, colonists sought to harness their economic clout as a unified body. The boycott was one of the first and most important methods they employed, starting in 1765 with merchants who pledged to refuse all British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed. That initial effort seemed to win success when Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766. When the boycott was revived in reaction to the Townshend Duties of 1767, it soon spread from the merchants of Boston to the planters of the Chesapeake.
The Virginia elite may have opposed Parliamentary taxation on principle, but they also stood to benefit personally from boycotting payments. For years prior to the boycotts of the 1760s, the elite rank of Virginia society had become enmeshed in an immense web of debt to British creditors; the per capita debt in Virginia almost doubled between 1664 and 1776.105 Virginia planters bought expensive goods, like Thomas Jefferson's extensive wine collection and library, and George Washington's made-to-order Moroccan leather slippers and fine household linens, all designed to maintain the appearance and lifestyle to which they were accustomed and which they were expected to uphold. This may sound trivial today, but a man's reputation was everything in eighteenth-century society; one Virginian, William Byrd III, became so overcome with debt that he had to mortgage his silver plate and 159 slaves, then committed suicide on New Year's Day in 1777.106 In only three years, Robert Bladen managed to squander his inherited plantation of 1,200 acres and 40 slaves.107 Wealthy landholders therefore became frustrated and alarmed by their own dependence on credit, as eighteenth-century society increasingly came to look upon luxury and frivolity as signs of weakness, corruption, and a lack of liberty.
Landholders certainly recognized that a boycott would not only send an effective message to British authorities, it would also reduce their debts to the British merchants. When independence became a real possibility in early 1776, the gentry also had the incentive of free trade with all the world's nations if they split from England and its trade monopoly, as enforced by the Navigation Acts. Virginia's leaders also temporarily banned slave imports in 1769 and 1774, since those imports also benefited England.
Like the boycotts on manufactured imports, the temporary slave trade moratorium was not much of a sacrifice for the tidewater elites (the tidewater was the coastal area with the most fertile land). These very wealthy landholders along the Atlantic shoreline already had plenty of slaves, and by the 1730s those slaves were increasing through natural reproduction rather than importation. Elite slaveowners were also becoming concerned that newly enslaved Africans were the ones most likely to foment rebellion. Meanwhile the smaller planters to the west, who still needed slaves, simply ignored the ban. Nonetheless, while the 1769 ban was considered a failure, the 1774 slave boycott was a success, in no small part because British traders wouldn't even approach the colonies, due to their unstable political situation. Thus Virginia's colonial gentry spearheaded early colonial protest movements that were part patriotic and part self-serving, or at least convenient for most wealthy landowners in their colony. This dual motivation enjoyed some successes but overall the results of the initial 1760s and early 1770s activism were mixed.
As historian Woody Holton has explained, there were other "incentives" for Virginia's tidewater gentry to turn from protest to advocating outright independence between 1774 and 1776. During that period, the boycott adopted by the First Continental Congress made life extremely hard for the small farmers of Virginia and elsewhere, and it gave Virginia's slaves—who composed 40% of the colony's population in 1775—an opportunity to challenge their owners' power.108 Almost half of all white Virginians owned one or two slaves by the 1760s, but the gentry were on another level—the wealthiest 10% of Virginians owned half of all property in the colony. They owned the largest concentrations of field slaves, almost all of the domestic slaves, the best lands, the finest imported goods, and the sturdiest brick houses. Perhaps another 10% of Virginians were traders, artisans, and slave overseers. That left the remaining 80% of white Virginians—more than 200,000 people—in the small farmer category known as the "yeomanry." With the Continental Congress boycott of late 1774 and 1775, these small farmers could not obtain income from exports and they suffered shortages because they could not import goods either. This situation threatened to divide Virginia's white population, a possibility that the gentry could ill afford if they wanted to maintain control over the slave population and avoid the specter of a class war among white colonists.
In December 1775, Virginia farmers began a series of salt riots, brought on by the non-importation agreement that the colony initiated a year earlier. Non-importation was designed to put pressure on Parliament by causing unemployment and riots in Britain, but when the salt ran out in Virginia, the situation turned dire: salt was a necessary component of preserving meat, preparing food, and feeding livestock. Salt shortages would persist until either the boycott was broken or Virginia revived its foreign trade; the only way to revive trade was to declare independence, for no foreign power would risk dealing with a part of the British Empire. If the gentry did not push for independence soon, the specter of a mass uprising loomed before them. Independence had the potential to unite Virginians of all social ranks, but if it came too late, the social order might collapse. In some places, such as Loudoun County, Virginia in late 1775 and 1776, tenants rose up against overly demanding landlords and refused to pay their rent; gentry across the colony and beyond recognized the potential for widespread class warfare.
Beside disgruntled farmers, soldiers were agitated over pay disparities—top officers received eleven times what enlisted men made. And the masses were equally enraged by the gentry's slow prosecution of the war, which delayed the time when soldiers could return home to cultivate grain and tobacco in order to make rent and help their families get by. When Parliament declared rebel colonies beyond the king's protection in late 1775, elites like Richard Henry Lee recognized that the Virginia gentry must form a new government immediately in order to prevent a social collapse into anarchy (or a possible upending of the social order).109 By early 1776, patriot leaders who sought independence tried to sway the Virginia gentry by intimating that only independence and a new form of government could thwart the mounting agrarian insurgency in Virginia. They pointed to New Hampshire and Massachusetts as examples of colonies steeped in disorder, but which were rescued by the establishment of independent government.
Nowhere was social disorder more feared by the gentry than among the enslaved population. The poor white majority might be persuaded by the prospect of new liberties and freedoms in an independent republic, but blacks had little to gain from either independence or a return to British rule. In late 1774, the slaves of Virginia seized the moment and drew the colonial governor into an alliance that permanently estranged white Virginians from British rule. Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, first threatened to free the slaves of his colony in April 1775, then carried out that threat in November 1775. The slaves themselves did not need to await an official proclamation, and many fled their masters before it was even issued. Blacks mounted a resistance in the pivotal years of 1774 and 1775.
On 21 April 1775, after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, Dunmore seized the Virginia gunpowder supply in Williamsburg (as Governor Gates had recently done in Massachusetts). Many white Virginians believed that the governor had left them defenseless against their slaves, and in the midst of swirling insurrection rumors as slaves took advantage of the increasing chaos of the period. The following day, the Governor threatened to emancipate the slaves and burn Williamsburg down if any one of the senior British officials was harmed. He also reminded white Virginians of their vulnerability not only to slave insurrection but to Indian attacks, especially if they were without his support.
Virginians naturally interpreted such statements as a powerful threat, and the white reaction was, in historian Woody Holton's words, "intensely hostile."110 The reports of Dunmore's scheme to liberate the slaves in exchange for their military support and his threat to leave colonists exposed to Indian raids soon spread across the South, inflaming white colonial opinion. Rumors abounded that Parliament was considering an emancipation bill, or that a new British official would soon arrive to free the slaves and encourage an insurrection.
Dunmore actually followed through on his threat in November 1775, but he did not make general emancipation a goal of the war, only offering freedom to those slaves who signed up with the British army. Dunmore's decision resulted in the financial devastation of many slaveowners in Virginia, and the specter of armed slaves fighting their old masters was terrifying—but the institution of slavery survived intact. And Dunmore's gambit failed to secure Virginia for the crown. By the summer of 1776, Dunmore's forces were outnumbered and he had to retreat to New York City, while his actions had turned Loyalists ambivalent and even many loyalist colonists into Patriots by endangering all of them. Native Virginian Thomas Jefferson saw to it that Dunmore's proclamation became what historian Woody Holton characterized as "the largest and angriest complaint in the Declaration of Independence," the last of the 27 enumerated complaints against the tyranny of the British monarchy that were offered to justify American independence.111
Indians also factored into the gentry's decision to lead the way for independence in more than one respect. After mid-century, it seemed that every planter's favorite investment scheme was real estate: specifically, the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. Land speculators began staking claims in the Ohio River Valley and Kentucky. These claims brought the gentry into direct conflict with a number of parties: the western settlers who were already living out there and working the land as their own; tribes such as the Mingos, Shawnees, Delawares, and Cherokees, who lived and hunted throughout those regions; and the British government, which often disputed such claims and then shut them down entirely with the Proclamation of 1763 that forbade any settlement west of the Appalachians. While they may have resented the gentry for laying claim to the lands they were already working, western settlers had one major commonality with the colonial elites: both groups wanted free reign to expand westward beyond the Proclamation Line of 1763. Independence offered a means of obtaining the coveted land. In this respect, as in the others previously discussed, elites sometimes opted for independence out of personal interest, as did the poorer farmers and settlers.
Yet elites, whether slaveowners from Virginia or wealthy merchants from New England, also had plenty to lose once they sided with the cause for independence. If the Americans lost the war, these elites could expect to lose their property, their livelihoods, their slaves and other assets, and even their lives. In hindsight, however, they made out much better than most would have expected. The names of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were publicly announced with the publication of the formal and complete draft in January 1777. In the Declaration, the 56 delegates to the Constitutional Congress "mutually pledge[d] to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."112 From a British perspective, the signers would have been America's most visible and well-documented traitors. If captured, they potentially risked death.
According to legend, on 2 August 1776—the day that 54 of the signers inscribed their names on the Declaration—John Hancock employed some gallows humor by declaring, "Gentlemen, we must be unanimous; there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together." True to form (but again, according to legend), Ben Franklin is said to have responded: "Yes, we must indeed all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."113 These signers were overwhelmingly young—their average age was 43—and privileged. Although a handful, such as Bostonian radical Sam Adams, were of modest means, most were well off: nine were large landowners, eleven were prosperous merchants—and John Hancock was easily the richest man in New England, if not the richest merchant in all of America—and 24 were lawyers or jurists who would never be able to practice again if the British prevailed. They had quite a bit to lose.114
Although five signers were ultimately caught by the British, none of them, in fact, died in custody. Four of the five were captured in the course of military operations, not for their status as Declaration signers. Nine of the signers died from wounds or other causes during the war, but there is no evidence that the signers were tortured or treated any worse than other prisoners. Richard Stockton of New Jersey, the lone Patriot taken prisoner by Tories solely because he signed the Declaration, violated the mutual pledge of the signers—he was the only Patriot to do so—by recanting his participation in the revolutionary cause. He may have done so under duress, in order to gain his freedom, and his health never fully recovered from the detrimental effects of his imprisonment. Many of the other signers went on to hold important offices after the Revolution, and a few negotiated the postwar treaties between the United States and the Cherokee and Iroquois peoples.
In recent years, a series of widely circulated emails (oftentimes entitled "The Price They Paid") have recounted the extraordinary hardships faced by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, this revisionist history-by-email-forward is misleading at best, and outright wrong at worst.115 Most signers of the Declaration were not targeted for special harassment or retribution by the British, but suffered the travails of the Revolutionary War on about an equal plane with the rest of their countrymen. A small minority were captured or killed during the conflict, and most enjoyed long lives, especially given the shorter life expectancies of the colonial period. One historical study found that when Thomas Jefferson was elected in president in 1800, over half of the original Founding Fathers were still alive, and that their mean age at death was 66.5 years.116 These men certainly risked all for their country, and many made sacrifices or fought bravely in the war; but so did the thousands of nameless Patriots on the front lines of the battlefields.