Daniel and Mason Colvin on Virginia’s “Ten Thousand Names” Petition of 1776

Daniel and Mason Colvin were among the 10,000 Virginian asking  their state legislators know to kick the Anglican Church to the curb.

Daniel and Mason Colvin were among the 10,000 Virginians asking their legislators to kick the Anglican Church to the curb.
Source: Library of Congress: American Memories website.

I thought I’d spend a wee bit more time on Daniel Colvin just to see what pops up, and sure enough, something intriguing did. It was that he and his son, Mason Colvin, had signed the famous Ten Thousand Names Petition, which helped exacerbate the movement in Virginia toward disestablishment or what we modern folks like to think of as the legal framework behind the idea of  separation of church and state.  It’s the very first  part of the first clause of the First Amendment among our hallowed Bill of Rights — containing what’s come to be known as the  Separation Clause essentially preventing the formation of any state religion on U.S. soil.  The second part of that same clause gives us our freedom of religion.  Our right to worship as we see fit. There are  folks nowadays, for example,  who insist that L. Ron Hubbard was somehow linked to an alien deity of sorts. Thus, with the blessing of the IRS, Scientologists have  the blessing of the government to do and think whatever it is that Scientologists do in the name of, well, in the name of L. Ron Hubbard.  I won’t debate the merits of worshiping a science fiction writer from Nebraska,   but none of that freedom would exist without  the Ten Thousand Name Petition which is what launched the whole  U.S. freedom of religion business.

By   the 1760s, Virginian dissidents (any non-Anglican church member)  were fairly fed up with not only the constraints of the Church of England such as its tithing and other  requirements but with the endless — and often violent — harassments  endured by them both from the Anglican Church and their own government.[1] For example, if you were a Baptist in Virginia and wanted to get married you could find a parish minister, but he’d likely be Anglican and would charge you three or four times the amount of tobacco (or chickens or whatever you paid,) that your Anglican neighbor paid for the same service. If you were  a Baptist minister, you may well be jailed, beaten, or harassed endlessly, along with your congregants in any number of ways. Mean? Yes. Plus,  finding a Baptist preacher to perform the rite was a bit tricky.  Many worked “underground,” at their peril. Further even if a dissident minister did marry you, the county clerk was not  obliged to  record a Baptist  marriage return in the local marriage registry.[2] This is also why one finds so many marriage bonds in early colonial Virginia records, but far fewer  ministerial returns.   In other words, the Anglicans had the church monopoly sewn up and were hell-bent on keeping it.

That began to changed dramatically in 1776 when the most massive religious petition ever signed in colonial Virginia was sent to the state’s General Assembly. But wait…there’s more. It’s true that dissident petitions had been sent to Virginia’s General Assembly before the outbreak of hostilities between England and her colonies, but the timing of this petition is what makes it significant because, by-mid 1776, with the colonial war effort already underway, it became, for the Baptists and their Presbyterian allies, a disestablishment bargaining chip. Those at Richmond knew by mid-year that recruitment of much needed soldiers was going badly; they needed more riflemen and more soldiers to hold off the British — thousands more. In North Carolina, some Scottish Presbyterians had already joined British forces, and the risk of that happening in Virginia was very real. The Baptist knew it, and their government leaders knew it too,  thus Baptists and their allies adopted the stance that if the new forming government wanted their united loyalty to win the war, the price was religious freedom.    It was an irresistible, perfectly-timed masterstroke. And it worked in large measure, so far as Virginia’s laws were concerned regarding religious practices. After December that year, non-Anglicans would no longer be required to pay the ridiculous fines for  non-attendance of Established services — which had been the status quo — nor would they be required to pay the usual monthly tithe which supported Anglican churches, glebs, and poor houses.   It did not bring an end to the harrasments, but it was a serious start.  Virginia’s  eventual break  with the Anglican church had to wait nearly another decade yet, petitions such as this — and a continuing stream of smaller ones which followed it — ultimately helped pave the way for disestablishment being codified in our Bill of Rights.

Two other aspect of this document that intrigued me are  less patriotic. The first is deductive; the other visual. First, the fact that these two Colvins appear on the petition as dissenters gives great weight to the idea that they were Baptist. Secondly, and perhaps just as important, is how seeing the names Colvin, clearly spelled, confirmed for me for the umpteenth time how the surname COLVIN is rarely  misspelled in original documents  despite the fact that for numerous decades folks have been mistranscribing it in every way possible. The Virginia Genealogy Society Quarterly, ( 36: 1)  for example,  for unknown reasons,  transcribed those same names in their 1998 edition which featured a partial transcription of the petition, as ‘Corbin”.  They did manage to get the image number of the petition page correct — page 93. That made  finding it among the 250 pages of the digitized version (which the Library of Congress has displayed  in its entirety  and made available online,) fairly easy. Daniel Colvin is in left hand column; his son, in the right. As to whether those are the actual signatures of  said  petitioners, I have  doubts since many of the names close by appear to be written in a similar hand. This pattern is similar throughout the page.

[1] An excellent overview of how Virginian dissenters helped shaped the idea of separation and how their efforts spearheaded what ultimately became the 1st amendment of the Bill of Rights can be found in  Dr. John A. Ragosta’s “Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win The American Revolution & Secure Religious Liberty”  Oxford University Press, 2010. Dr. Ragosta’s treatment has been well-received amongst  reviewers in scholarly journals because it fills a much needed gap in helping to understand the critical role Virginians played in not only shaping our nation’s Revolutionary history,  but  in particular how the efforts of  Virginian dissenters played a critical but historically under appreciated role in influencing one of our nation’s most cherished rights.

[2] Inexperienced genealogists  sometimes  use a marriage bond date as a surrogate for an actual marriage date. This is a mistake since  a bond is only a surety. They do this because  the marriage return  is sometimes missing among the microfilmed colonial  clerks’ marriage records.  Their absence is often an overlooked indicator that the marriage was performed by a dissent cleric, (if in the Virginia Piedmont, this most likely means  a Baptist cleric,) who’s own returns the county clerk was under no legal obligation to record.


About Alex Colvin

Senior, History, minoring in Anthropology, University of Houston. Charter President, Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society, (Webb UH Main 2014-2015) University of Houston. Additional credentials can be found in the CV / Services tab.
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