Francis Fauquier (1703-1768)

Fauquier, Francis

The erudite and enlightened Francis Fauquier was Lieutenant Governor of Virginia from 1758 to 1768 as colonial leaders formed opposition to Parliament's authority to enact the Stamp and Townshend acts. In 1765 Fauquier personally defused what could have turned into a very ugly incident involving a crowd's confrontation of Virginia's stamp agent, George Mercer. He also prevented the House of Burgesses from appointing delegates to the Stamp Act Congress. Thomas Jefferson would later judge Fauquier as "the ablest man" to ever serve as lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Fauquier was born in London in 1703, the son of Jean-Fran├žois Fauquier, an employee at the Royal Mint, and Elizabeth Chamberlayne, member of a merchant family that traded slaves to Virginia. He became a director of the South Sea Company in 1748, was elected a governor of Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital in 1751, became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1753, joined the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in 1757, and was associated with major cultural figures of the period such as William Hogarth and George Frederic Handel.

Much like the mystery that surrounds his early life, very little is known about how Fauquier became Lieutenant Governor of Virginia on February 10, 1758. His involvement in finance and commerce and his ties to Chesapeake merchants might have been attractive qualities to the Privy Council. He arrived in Virginia in June and found a colony faced with major challenges: the Seven Years War was draining its men and money. The conflict with France and environmental factors had disrupted Virginia's economic lifeblood — the tobacco trade. He alleviated the financial situation by working with the assembly to issue paper money (which would later come back to haunt the colony). Fauquier also allowed the passage of several acts — known collectively as the Two Penny Acts — that allowed Anglican parishes to pay their clergymen in tobacco at a set price of two pence per pound. Some members of the clergy loudly protested, particularly those who lived in Tidewater counties that produced tobacco of a much higher value. Some of the ministers brought lawsuits in county courts to recover damages (which led to Patrick Henry's emergence in "the Parson's Cause"), while others went to England to petition the King for relief.

The immediate pressures on the colony eased considerably in May 1763 when Fauquier announced to the Virginia assembly that the war was over and that Parliament had voted to compensate the American colonies for the costs they incurred in the conflict, including the payment of provincial troops. Of major importance was the re-opening of the French market for Virginia tobacco, a rejuvenated English market, and a reduction in the cost of insuring transatlantic shipping. New concerns arose, though, from following news from London. In July the Privy Council disallowed a Virginia law for the relief of insolvent debtors because it applied to all debtors, not just those in prison. The law acted more like a general bankruptcy law, which "although just and equitable in abstract principle," would not be fair as a practical matter because most creditors of Virginians lived in Britain. Then in October the King issued a proclamation meant to calm relations with Native Americans by halting westward settlement beyond a new boundary line along the Appalachian Mountains. April 1764 brought more tension: Parliament passed the Currency Act to ban colonial legislatures from issuing any more paper money (Virginians were using vastly devalued wartime paper money to pay British debts as if they were on par with the pound sterling). Rumors also began to circle that the British government was developing ways to tax America to pay for the war and the troops that would be permanently stationed on the continent for colonial protection.

In the midst of all this, a pamphlet war began in Williamsburg between supporters and opponents of the Two Penny Acts. When news of the proposed Stamp Act reached the city, the war of words broadened into a constitutional debate. Richard Bland's pamphlet, The Colonel Dismounted: Or the Rector Vindicated (1764), articulated for the first time in the revolutionary period the argument that in the act of emigrating Virginians took with them their rights as Englishmen and their allegiance to the King but left behind the sovereignty of Parliament over the internal affairs of the colony. In December the House of Burgesses followed with strongly worded petitions to the King and Parliament denying the constitutionality of the Stamp Act as a tax imposed without the Virginians' consent.

In the spring 1765 session of Virginia's assembly, Patrick Henry, a newly elected burgess from Hanover County, introduced his strongly-worded Stamp Act Resolves, five of which passed on May 30. Fauquier responded by dissolving the assembly on June 1. Directed by Henry Seymour Conway, the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, "to preserve the Peace and Tranquility of the Province committed to your care," Fauquier prevented Virginians from attending the Stamp Act Congress in New York in October by refusing to call the legislature into session so they could elect delegates.

Preserving Virginia's peace proved increasingly difficult, even for the judicious Fauquier. In September 1765, Richard Henry Lee staged two days of hanging and burning effigies of Virginia's stamp agent, George Mercer, and the prime minister, George Grenville. Mercer was burned after Lee read Mercer's "dying speech." Mercer, a Virginian and longtime political enemy of Lee's, arrived in Williamsburg with the stamps for Virginia on October 29, and there was every indication that Lee's re-enactment would become reality. A large crowd, made up mostly of "Gentlemen of property in the Colony," challenged him in the Exchange (an open area next to the Capitol). To keep Mercer from bodily harm, Fauquier personally escorted the stamp agent to the safety of the Governor's Palace. The next day, Mercer resigned and, fearing for his life, immediately left Virginia to return to England.

Fauquier was left with the aftermath: The Stamp Act went into effect on November 1. On November 2, Fauquier convened the General Court, but only the Attorney General, Peyton Randolph, was there because lawyers refused to appear before it using stamped documents. Williamsburg's newspaper, which also required stamped paper, stopped publishing, and all trade threatened to come to a halt until Peter Randolph, a Virginian and the Surveyor General for the Colonies, advised port collectors to clear vessels as usual by granting certificates attesting to the inability of securing the stamps. Then the county courts got into the action, beginning with that of Northampton County on the Eastern Shore, which declared the Stamp Act unconstitutional and proceeded to do business without stamps. In March 1766, Richard Bland published another pamphlet, An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies, which presented the radical case that Parliament not only lacked the authority to tax the colonies, it also lacked the power to legislate for them in any way. As one Virginia merchant put it to a correspondent in Boston, "We are as violent opposers of the ye Stamp Act here as you in N[ew] England and will never submit to the ye Chains."

The constitutional dispute quieted considerably in May 1766 when word arrived that Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March. But local political battles still tested Fauquier's influence. The death of long-time Speaker of the House of Burgesses John Robinson caused a battle among Peyton Randolph, Bland, and Lee to succeed him. Fauquier supported Randolph, who won handily when the assembly next met. George Wythe, Fauquier's candidate for attorney general, did not fare so well, losing to Randolph's brother, John.

The quiet over constitutional issues did not last. Parliament passed the Townshend Acts in June 1767 to place new duties on exports to America of glass, paper, lead, paint, and tea. News of the duties caused riots in Norfolk in September. Other colonies began to form new non-importation agreements and draft protests. John Dickinson began publication of his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, which attacked the constitutional foundation of the duties and were reprinted in the Virginia Gazette beginning in January 1768. Fortunately for Fauquier, the Virginia assembly was not scheduled to meet again until March 1768. In February 1768, Fauquier fell ill. He died on March 3 and was buried in Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church.

Fauquier is primarily remembered for his enlightened nature and for the personal impact he had on those around him, such as Jefferson and future Virginia governor John Page. He also left an exceptional legacy for those who are not so well remembered. In his will, written on March 26, 1767, he declared that slaves were "a part of my Estate in its nature disagreeable to me, but which my situation made necessary." Feeling morally obligated to provide for his enslaved workers, he directed that children be kept with their mothers, and he allowed the slaves to choose their next masters. Although he did not free them, Fauquier gave his slaves the liberty to make a critical decision that would affect the rest of their lives.

Browse Content By Theme