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The Legislative Petitions from Fairfax County
During the American Revolution

by John D. Sinks

 

 

The American Revolution was not just a military conflict, but a movement to establish a new government. The Sons of the American Revolution recognizes this broader nature of the American Revolution, crediting Revolutionary service not only those who performed military services, but also those who performed a wide range on non-military activities. Among those recognized as patriots are signers of petitions addressed to and recognizing the authority of the provisional and new state governments.

 

It is reasonable to recognize signers of such petitions as patriots. They were taking a position on shaping the new government, from such weighty issues as the relationship between church and state to details such as the length of a street in a town. Some appear to be motivated largely from self-interest. However, getting inside the head of a person who lived over two centuries ago to distinguish the degree of self-interest versus community interest is not possible. Even a Continental soldier could have been motivated by self-interest in the form of a bounty for enlisting. What is important and what we can determine in the 21st century is the action, whether serving in the military, signing a petition, or performing a number of other acts that supported the Revolution.

 

The Library of Virginia preserves in two record groups petitions to the Virginia legislature for the Revolutionary time period, April 19, 1775 through November 26, 1783. The earliest are those addressing the de facto Revolutionary government of the state, one of the Virginia Conventions. These are found in Record Group 2, Revolutionary Government. After the Fifth Virginia Convention established a permanent government, petitions were usually addressed to the speaker and members of the General Assembly. These are preserved in Record Group 78, Records of the Legislative Branch and General Assembly. For an excellent overview of legislative petitions in the Library of Virginia, see the Library’s Research Notes Number 18: Legislative Petitions.

 

Fifteen legislative petitions from Fairfax County, including the Town of Alexandria, are extant in the Library of Virginia. All of these petitions are in Record Group 78. Several extensive studies of the legislative petitions have been conducted. The most recent is by Randolph Church in Virginia Legislative Petitions: Bibliography, Calendar, and Abstracts from Original Sources, 6 May 1776-21 June 1782. Church identified an additional four petitions, two from Fairfax County and two from Alexandria, which appear not to be extant. A petition of justices of Fairfax dated November 20, 1782, beyond the range Church’s work, responded to an additional petition which we could not find. Church abstracted petitions and identified legislative action taken on them. As valuable and Church’s work is, it has three serious limitations for the Sons of the American Revolution. First, the time window is too narrow. Although we find no petitions from Fairfax between April 19, 1775 to May 6, 1776, there are two petitions after May 6, 1776 through November 26, 1783. Second, Church includes only the first few signers for each petition in his abstracts. A man wishing to join Sons of the American Revolution needs to know if his ancestor signed, even if he was the last to sign. Third, in some instances the body of the full text of a petition provides proof of Revolutionary service for a person. In one Alexandria petition a number of justices of the county court were named, a civil service in support of the Revolution. This is important because no Fairfax County minute or order book covering any period of the Revolution is extant. Those interested in local history also want these details. The full text is sometimes needed to understand the nuances of an issue and a full list of signers can sometimes enable one to discern local alliances. All of this motivated the Fairfax Resolves Chapter to transcribe the legislative petitions from Fairfax for the Revolutionary time period.

 

The project was carried out in several phases. First, the petitions where photocopied from microfilm and transcribed by chapter members. Second, two chapter members reviewed and corrected the transcriptions against the photocopies. Third, three chapter members further corrected transcriptions comparing them against the original petitions in the Library of Virginia. Finally, some of the difficult signatures on the petitions were identified by referring to other records. Context enabling transcribers to discern words within the text of the petitions was absent in the case of lists of names. Difficult names were compared against names from the 1782 tax list, will books, books, and even other petitions. The following members of the chapter participated in at least one phase of the project.

     
Thomas Cranmer Robert Engle David Hall
Robert Hampton Lawrence Lamborn Lawrence McKinley
Andrew Monahan Paul Peak Philip Ray
Ronald Rice Thomas Speelman John Sinks
  John Sweeney  
     

At the time of the Revolution Fairfax County included what is now Arlington (formerly Alexandria) County and the independent cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax. In addition, some who lived within the current Fairfax County boundaries resided in what was Loudoun County at the time of the Revolution. When Loudoun County was formed in 1757, the boundary with Fairfax was set at Difficult Run and a straight line from the head of Difficult Run to the mouth of Rocky Run. In 1798 the boundary was moved to the west to conform to the boundary between Truro Parish and Hamilton Parish, where it remains today. Those conducting research of people residing between Difficult Run and the present Fairfax-Loudoun boundary should be aware that during the Revolution residents within this area were in Loudoun Co.

 

We have identified the petitions by whether they are classified as Alexandria or Fairfax Petitions by the Library of Virginia, and for the thirteen abstracted by Randolph Church the number he assigned to them. We have ended lines in the transcripts where the lines broke in the original documents. Despite the care taken to transcribe the petitions accurately, some of the names were exceptionally difficult to discern. Those relying on the transcriptions to learn about the activities of particular individuals should use the microfilm and, if necessary, the original records in the Library of Virginia.

 

Finally we would like to thank the staff of the Library of Virginia for the outstanding support we have received throughout the project.

 

 

 

 

2017 Fairfax Resolves Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution