3.2.1 Coastal Upper South (1787-1831): Revolutionary Backwash

The Debate Over Repudiation of British Claims

Page v. Pendleton – Virginia, 1793 (Wythe 211); Turpin v. Locket – Virginia, 1804 (6 Call 113)

  • One of the most contentious legal issues after the Revolution was whether America’s new government should help British citizens hold on to land they had acquired during the colonial era and help them collect debts they were owed.  Many Americans felt the Revolution had wiped out all such obligations, and provisions in the federal treaty of peace with Great Britain (1783) and the Jay Treaty (1794) guaranteeing payment of many British debts triggered storms of criticism. 
  • Virginia was at the center of the debate, which was framed by four of its leading jurists:  Chancellor George Wythe and supreme court justices Edmund Pendleton, Spencer Roane and St. George Tucker.  Rivalries and divisions among these judges shaped much of Virginia’s law during the early republican era.
  • During the Revolution, Virginia enacted a law sequestering debts owed to British citizens:  the state would receive payments and hold them until the war was over.  This was good for debtors and bad for British creditors:  Virginia allowed debtors to pay in greatly depreciated wartime currency, and the state made it difficult for creditors to collect after the war.  
  • In Page, Wythe struck down the portion of the law allowing debts to be paid in depreciated currency, holding that this violated British creditors’ property rights.  Wythe’s decision put a permanent end to his  popularity in Virginia.  In Locket, Virginia’s supreme court considered the validity of an 1802 law directing that property which Anglican parishes had acquired during the colonial era as government-sponsored churches be sold and used to help the poor.  A majority of the court, led by Pendleton, was poised to strike down the law.  But Pendleton died the night before the court was to issue its decision.  The court then deadlocked 2-2, with Tucker and Roane voting to uphold the law and arguing that the Anglican church’s colonial property rights died along with its colonial status as the official state church
Virginia state capitol, Richmond - courtesy Library of Congress

Edmund Pendleton, Virginia supreme court justice - courtesy Wikimedia Commons