George Washington’s marvelous list of liberties and grievances

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On the federal holiday on Monday and on his real birthday on Thursday, February 22, we celebrate the 292nd birthday of our nation’s first president, George Washington. Later this year, there will be celebrations of the 250th anniversary – or sesquicentennial – of one of his greatest achievements: the co-authorship with fellow Founding Father George Mason of a document of rights and grievances entitled the Fairfax Resolves.

Though often glossed over in the telling of the origins of the American Revolution, the Fairfax Resolves adopted in July 1774 was one of the first documents to combine a list of the colonists’ grievances against the mother country of Great Britain with a statement of individuals’ natural rights. It likely influenced the Declaration of Independence that would be issued two years later, also in July.

The Fairfax Resolves also contained critiques of British mercantilism – the government’s control of trade routes and subsidization of certain privileged businesses – similar to those that would be made by Adam Smith in his pathbreaking Wealth of Nations, also published in the Revolutionary year of 1776.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the historical site that has preserved Washington’s home and commemorates his life, will host a symposium on this July 24-25 that explores the Fairfax Resolves’ place in the origins of the American Revolution. The document – along with Washington’s career as an innovative and versatile entrepreneur – is also key to understanding Washington’s motivations for independence and desire for government to respect the natural rights of its citizens.

In my book George Washington, Entrepreneur, I document George Washington’s amazing entrepreneurship and innovation. Starting out from a background that was humble compared to the other Founding Fathers and lacking resources for a college education, Washington became an apprentice surveyor for the Fairfax family (the namesakes of Fairfax County, VA, that is now part of the Washington, D.C., metro area) at 16. He quickly built a lucrative freelance surveying practice and speculated in real estate by purchasing or asking for compensation in some of the undeveloped land he surveyed.

Later, after he acquired Mount Vernon, Washington abandoned tobacco as the farm’s cash crop, diversified into wheat and dozens of other crops, and built a grist mill to sift that wheat into flour that he would export throughout the colonies and to the West Indies and Britain. In addition, he turned Mount Vernon into what historian Harlow Giles Unger has called “a vast agro-industrial enterprise” that included a blacksmith shop to make tools such as horseshoes and nails and a mini textile factory to make clothing, the latter of which was run largely by Martha Washington.

These ventures caused George and Martha to run into the vortex of regulation Britain foisted upon its colonies. The red tape stemmed from Britain’s mercantilist trade policies. As I write in George Washington, Entrepreneur, “Parliament’s Navigation Act of 1651 gave Britain complete control of trade routes, and colonists could generally only export and import to and from the mother country.”

With limited trade routes and heavy shipping costs for goods from Britain, colonists began to make things as well as grow things, just as Washington did with his enterprises at Mount Vernon. The Industrial Revolution that had taken hold in Britain in the 18thcentury was also coming to the colonies on a small-scale basis due to the efforts of individual entrepreneurs like Washington.

The British Parliament saw colonial manufacturing upstarts like the enterprises at Mount Vernon, small as they were when compared to companies in Britain, as a threat to British manufacturers. Parliament passed laws such as the Iron Act, Hat Act, and Wool Act to sharply restrict or ban colonial entrepreneurs from making everything from nails and horseshoes to hats and wool carpets.

These same mercantilist policies that would be subject to critique from Smith in his Wealth of Nations in 1776 would come under fire from Washington and other prominent colonists in the years prior to the Fairfax Resolves. In 1769, Washington penned a letter to Mason expressing the concern that if Britain can “order me to buy Goods of them loaded with Duties,” it may also “forbid my manufacturing.”

Washington and Mason continued their conversation as the events such as the Boston Tea Party in 1773 moved the American colonies further toward revolution. In July 1774, shortly after Virginia’s royal governor shut down the House of Burgesses for issuing proclamations against the British government, Washington and Mason sat down at Mount Vernon and penned the Fairfax Resolves. In its list of 24 “resolves,” – or resolutions – the document expressed the increasing disenchantment of the colonists with the mercantilist arrangement in light of the heavy onset of new taxation from Britain.

Resolve No. 3, for instance, laid out the burden to the colonies of Britain’s protectionist policies preventing them from exporting to and importing from other nations. As stated by the document, the colonies had “cheerfully acquiesced” to these practices as long as they were “directed with Wisdom and Moderation.” However, “the Claim lately assumed and exercised by the British Parliament” was that “of making all such Laws as they think fit, to govern the People of these Colonies, and to extort from us our Money without our Consent.” Not only are such abuses of power “diametrically contrary” to traditional English liberties, they are “totally incompatible with the Privileges of a free People, and the natural Rights of Mankind.”

In speaking of the “privileges of a free people” and the “natural rights of mankind,” the Fairfax Resolves arguably becomes one of the first declarations of the universal rights of mankind. To a limited extent, it is also one of the beginning points for Washington’s and the new nation’s reckoning with the evils of slavery.

Resolve 17 of the document called for a temporary halt of the slave trade and expressed the signatories “earnest wishes” for “an entire stop forever put to such a wicked, cruel and unnatural trade.” As I wrote in George Washington, Entrepreneur, this statement condemning the slave trade in the harshest of terms stands as a refutation – or at least a caveat – to the assertion that Washington never spoke publicly against slavery in his lifetime. It was also, as I have written, an early sign of “Washington’s growing antipathy toward slavery would culminate in his freeing all his slaves some 25 years later” in his last will and testament.

After Washington and Mason drafted the Fairfax Resolves, the document was signed by 24 leading residents of Fairfax County. It would be presented one month later in August 1774 to the delegates at the Virginia Convention, which replaced the sessions of the House of Burgesses that had been suspended, and after that was presented to the Continental Congress in the fall of 1774. Today, the document stands as a powerful early condemnation of mercantilism, declaration of natural rights, and window into the thinking and motivation on liberty and economics of its co-author, George Washington.