Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Invasion, Insolvency
“On February 18, 1779, Nelson presented his credentials to the [Continental] Congress and immediately entered into the business of government.  He was terribly concerned with the critical situation of the country.  Never, ‘since the commencement of the war,’ he wrote, had America ‘been in so much danger’” (Evans 80).  The British had turned their attention from the north and now looked to the south as a means of bringing an end to the war.  They had captured Savannah in December of 1778, and soon they would be marching though the Carolinas.  Equally frightening was the depreciation in value of the Congress’s and the state’s paper currency and both governmental bodies’ inability to raise money to finance their efforts to wage war.  Nelson “was regular in his attendance, served on a variety of committees, and took part in the two serious debates during his stay in Philadelphia” (Evans 80): what should America’s demands be in a peace settlement with Great Britain and how to settle an emerging conflict between the Southern and New England states regarding free navigation of the Mississippi River and fishing off the banks of Nova Scotia.
To the end of his life close confinement and severe mental exertions preceded Nelson’s illnesses.  A relapse in early April provided him the opportunity to leave Congress, which seemed incapable of accomplishing anything, to serve more meaningfully his state.  “He later told Washington that he left Congress ‘with reluctance,’ but it is reasonably clear that he had always intended to resign and run for a seat in the House of Delegates.”  It is puzzling that as with previous sicknesses in Philadelphia, “Nelson returned home to take on tasks as strenuous as those he left behind” (Evans 81).
Not long after Nelson had returned from Philadelphia, sails were sighted in the capes, as they had two years earlier.  This time the enemy did not sail up the Chesapeake.  Commanded by Major General Edward Mathew, the British landed 2,000 men at Portsmouth, captured Norfolk, and then marched 18 miles to Suffolk.  At Suffolk they burned all buildings except a church; in Portsmouth they seized 3,000 hogshead of tobacco.  Altogether, their operation destroyed 100 small vessels.  Over 2,000 militiamen were called up to respond to the invasion. 
Whether or not Nelson -- elected to the Assembly in May -- commanded the militiamen is open to debate. Many members of the General Assembly had wanted General Charles Scott -- one of Washington’s brigade commanders and a Virginian who, fortuitously, was in the state -- to take command.  Some of the members had “felt that to appoint Scott would be treating Nelson unjustly.”  Hearing of the Assembly’s preference, Nelson “announced that he would be honored to serve under General Scott for the duration of the invasion.  … The record does not show whether Scott was actually named” (Evans 82).  In any event, Nelson did collect what militia forces he could, stationing most of them at Yorktown, where he expected that the main attack would occur.  Striking instead south of the James River, Mathew’s soldiers had met little opposition.  Having accomplished what they had intended, on May 26 they left the Portsmouth area on British ships to return to New York. 
Although Nelson had been able to do little about the raid, he made sure that the families of the poorer men in York County that had been called into the militia would not suffer from their absence.  Nelson sent all of his York plantation laborers and some of his domestic servants to assist them until their men returned.
Mathew’s raid made clear that Virginia’s vast coastline with its many rivers emptying into Chesapeake Bay and the sparse population that inhabited the area made invasion by the British an easy endeavor.  Worse, Virginian had little resource to defend itself.  It possessed a flotilla of four little vessels with a total of five dozen guns, and three armed boats.  “Nowhere was there fortifications strong enough to resist a stout British frigate” (Padover 48).  And what military forces there were consisted mostly of poorly armed, untrained, and undisciplined militia.
In June Patrick Henry’s third term as governor expired.  The new state constitution prohibited the governor from serving more than three consecutive yearly terms.  A new person had to be elected to replace him.  Succeeding Henry may have been one of the reasons why Nelson had wanted to quit Congress.  His two opponents for the office were Thomas Jefferson and John Page.  Nelson and Jefferson had been friends since the 1760’s.  To each, John Page was a closer friend.  Page had been an intimae friend of Jefferson’s at William and Mary.  Nelson had come to know him when Page had settled in York.
On the first ballot Jefferson received 55 votes, Page 38, and Nelson 32.  Jefferson had received a plurality, but not a majority.  Nelson withdrew from the race and Jefferson received a sufficient number of votes to win - 67 votes to Page’s 61.  Jefferson’s political support had come chiefly from the back counties where he was regarded as “being with Henry rather than against him” (Malone 303).  Nelson and Page had been favored by the Tidewater voters.  Page had served as lieutenant governor under Henry.
“Certainly he [Nelson] was disappointed and he may have been miffed by the fact that Page, who had taken a far smaller part in the Revolution, had killed his chances of election.  Nelson was ambitious and he wanted to serve the American cause to the fullest extent possible.”  Rather than to devote all of his attention either to the military or to politics, he had chosen to do both and, thereby, had not been entirely successful with each.  “Military service agreed with him and he told Washington that he had ‘often lamented … not taking the field with you at the commencement of this War.’  But now it was too late, … ‘for to enter in a subordinate rank would not suit my own feelings,’ and to take a rank higher than those ‘who had borne the brunt of the war’ would indicate ‘a want of generosity’ on his part.  On June 4, perhaps to rest and restore his wounded feelings, he got permission to be absent from the House of Delegates for seven days” (Evans 82, 83). 
In June the General Assembly spent a considerable length of time debating whether to move the capital to Richmond.  The Tidewater members violently opposed it; the “up country” members, in the majority, pushed it.  Of more importance were the army’s need for men and supplies and the necessity of controlling inflation.  The legislature eventually amended previous legislation to allow the sale of British estates, the proceeds of which would go to the state.  In July the legislature adjourned.  The freeholders of York County met to discuss ways and means of helping the government restore the value of paper currency.  “Nelson served on a committee of fourteen that recommended a ceiling on prices.  The suggestion, though sensible, seems to have gained no support.  To be effective, it would have had to be not only statewide, but nationwide, almost an impossibility considering the weakness of the Continental Congress” (Evans 83).
In September the Continental Congress stopped issuing paper money.  This placed the main burden of supporting the war on the states.  The state assembly during its fall session tackled its insolvency problem, with little success.  Seeing no alternative to agreeing to a “humiliating, inglorious and disadvantageous peace,” the assembly “authorized the state to borrow 5 million pounds from its citizens and, to provide for the interest and principal on the loan, they fixed a tax of ‘thirty pounds of inspected tobacco’ per year for the next eleven years on every tithable person, except free white tithables between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one” (Evans 84).  The legislation that had authorized the sale of British estates was amended to correct the problems of estate purchases being tied up in the courts and the estates of Virginia citizens absent from the country being seized and auctioned.  The estates of absent citizens were protected, litigation proceedings were streamlined, and buyers of estates were given “ironclad guarantees respecting the validity of their purchases.    Returns from the sale of British estates and the payment of British debts were meager and the money that did come in was rendered almost worthless by the continued depreciation of Virginia currency” (Evans 84-85).
Saddled now with a 26 million pound debt, in February 1780 the state floated a loan of 5 million pounds.  “But very little money trickled in because people who had funds could get as high as 20 percent interest on private loans, whereas the state paid only 6 percent.    Jefferson and the Council … appealed to Virginia’s citizens to support the loan drive.  The government also requested certain individuals, who were concerned with the plight of the state, to solicit loans” (Evans 85).  Nelson did so.  He encountered great resistance.  People doubted the government’s ability to repay the loans.  Consequently, Nelson, and others, pledged to pay back what the government could not.  Nelson managed to raise 10,974 pounds out of the total of about 60,000 pounds raised for the state.
Prices rose.  People with money bought “back lands on the river Ohio” and complained about heavy taxation, and candidates for state office who promised tax relief – “men of mean abilities and no rank” – were predominately elected.  The newly-elected assembly met in 1780 in Richmond, the new capitol.  The Continental Congress had asked the states to continue to raise 15 million dollars monthly for its use.  On May 30 the Congress requested an appropriation of $1,953,200 by June 15.  “A large French expeditionary and naval force was expected soon to act in conjunction with the American army, and congress did not have the funds to support any offensive action” (Evans 86).  The Assembly on June 1 resolved that money be borrowed from private individuals and be supplemented by the sale of 600,000 pounds of state tobacco.  Those who loaned cash were to be repaid in December or have the amount discounted from their taxes at the rate of 6 percent.  Nelson was one of seven men authorized to receive the loans.
He canvassed vigorously his own locality and, afterward, solicited south of the James River. “As was the case in February, Nelson found that many people were unwilling to lend money on the shaky security of the state.  Again Nelson pledged his own security for the payment of these loans in case the state was unable to fulfill its obligations” (Evans 87).  He raised 41,601 pounds.  Altogether, Virginia raised $1,430,239, some $500,000 short of its goal.
“Nelson’s contribution, over the past three years, toward American independence had been exceptional.    Thomas Nelson had ‘exerted every nerve,’ and rarely had he allowed his own personal interests to interfere with those of the country.  His fortune, time, energy, and considerable political influence had all been enlisted in the cause.  Much had been asked of him and he had given freely.  Yet the end was not in sight” (Evans 87).
 Sources Cited:
Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  Charlottesville, The University Press of Virginia, 1975.  Print.
Malone, Dumas.  Jefferson the Virginian.  Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1948.  Print
Padover, Saul K.  Jefferson.  New York, A Mentor Book, 1953.  Print.