Revolutionary Governorship: the evolution of executive power in Virginia, 1758-1781
Maciver, Iain Gordon
The nature of governorship just before, during, and just after the American Revolution is a subject that has been noticeably neglected in the historiography of the Revolution. While biographies of individual governors have been written, there remains a need for a clear ideological and constitutional debate about the actual executive functions, the nature of the appointment system in place, and the constitutional role of governors across the colonial and state periods. This dissertation examines the evolution of governorship in Virginia from 1758 to 1781. It attempts to identify, define and compare two different systems of governorship in Virginia. It examines the nature of executive authority and constitutional role of the different governors in this period. It seeks, first, to identify and define a gubernatorial system in colonial Virginia. By analysing a governor’s methods of appointment, the governor’s constitutional status, his relationship with the legislature and the people at large, this dissertation will identify a ‘British’ system of governorship. Second, the dissertation will attempt to identify a separate republican system of governorship in Virginia that was established in 1776. It will analyse the Virginia Constitution and explain the gubernatorial position in this political framework. It will also examine the first five years of Virginia’s independence from Britain and focus on the nature of gubernatorial authority in practice. By identifying two distinct models of governorship, this dissertation will be able to compare them in order to ascertain to what extent Virginians relied upon or abandoned British constitutional thinking and practice. The dissertation maintains that Virginians relied heavily upon British constitutional thinking when establishing their system of governorship in 1776. While Virginians rejected wholeheartedly a system based on monarchical influence and patronage, they were inspired by radical Country Whig thinkers who had dictated that an uncontrolled executive branch posed the greatest threat to the political system. Virginians in 1776 established a system of governorship that was inherently weak and that was controlled and dominated by the legislative branch. This dissertation, however, maintains that the system of state governorship established by the Virginian Convention in 1776 was not wholly dissimilar to the practical powers and influence at the disposal of royal governors. Both systems were inherently weak: the royal and state governors could not exert any meaningful control over the legislative branch, were not able to exert much influence over the people at large and were not granted many significant practical powers. This dissertation will also demonstrate that executive power, and the perceptions of the dangers that executive power posed, had developed markedly from 1776 to 1781. Not only will it prove that Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry enjoyed more powers than was prescribed to the governorship in 1776, but it will also show that, by 1781, a strong executive branch was required to save the state of Virginia from potential collapse.