Robinson was born on February 3, 1705, the son of John Robinson and his first wife, Catherine Beverley Robinson. He was born in Middlesex County, where the Robinson family had lived for two generations and the Beverley family for three. Robinson was descended from English immigrants who prospered and married into the most prominent Virginia families. Robinson's paternal grandfather, Christopher Robinson, was a brother of a bishop of London and served on the governor's Council. Many of his near relations in Virginia were wealthy tobacco planters, justices of the peace, burgesses, vestrymen, clergymen, and political leaders. Robinson's father was a member of the governor's Council for twenty-eight years and had just been sworn in as president—acting governor—in August 1749 when he died suddenly. The father and son having the same names, the younger man has often been referred to in the literature of Virginia history as John Robinson Jr., but he and his contemporaries did not use Jr. after his father died.
Unlike his father and at least one brother, he attended the College of William and Mary rather than travel to England for his education, and judging by his legislative committee service he studied law. Because of the loss of family and local records, Robinson's life during the early years of his adulthood is poorly documented. On November 8, 1723, he married Mary Storey, of Middlesex County, who died on an unrecorded date within a few years, perhaps during or following childbirth. He later married Lucy Moore, daughter of a wealthy King William County planter. They had at least one daughter and also one son who died in childhood. They lived at Robinson's estate, Pleasant Hill, in King and Queen County, across the Mattaponi River from her parents. She died on an unrecorded date in or after 1743. About the middle of December 1759, Robinson married Susanna Chiswell. They had two daughters and one son, who died before reaching maturity.
Robinson won election to the House of Burgesses from King and Queen County and took his seat when a new assembly first met on February 1, 1728. The following day, the Speaker of the House appointed him to the prestigious Committee of Privileges and Elections, which was unusual for a young, new member and no doubt a recognition of his promise and a reflection of his family's prominence. A few days later, Gavin Corbin, probably the candidate Robinson had defeated, and two other men petitioned to have Robinson's election declared invalid. The House delegated several county justices to hear evidence. After reviewing the result of the investigation, the Committee of Privileges and Elections labeled the challenge "groundless, frivolous, malicious & scandalous," and the House declared Robinson a duly elected member. At the assembly session held in the spring of 1732, Robinson served again on the Committee of Privileges and Elections, and the Speaker named him second in seniority on the Committee for Courts of Justice. In 1734 Robinson chaired the committee that drafted the formal response of the burgesses to the lieutenant governor's opening address and became chair of the Committee for Courts of Justice as well as retained his place on the Committee of Privileges and Elections.
When he first took office as treasurer, Robinson and his clerk or clerks had to straighten out the messy accounts that the Speaker and treasurer John Holloway left when he resigned in August 1734 and that had not been cleared up during the interim. Treasurers had evidently treated the money in the treasury as if it was their own until they were required to pay out public money according to the law. When Holloway resigned, his treasury account was found to be in arrears of £1,850, most of which was probably money that sheriffs owed to the treasury but had not remitted.
When Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier took office in 1758, he described Robinson as then "the most popular Man in the Country: beloved by the Gentlemen, and the Idol of the people; so that he is absolutely sure of the Chair as long as he pleases to fill it." According to the historian Edmund Randolph, who was a child when Robinson died but who knew many of the men who served in the House with him, "the decorum of the house" when Robinson was in the Speaker's chair "outshone that of the British House of Commons" even under its most respected Speaker, Arthur Onslow. "In the limited sphere of colonial politics," Randolph concluded, "he was a column."
In 1758 the assembly passed an emergency law, known as the Two Penny Act, to enable Virginians to pay debts in money rather than in tobacco, which was scarce following a drought. Members of the clergy, whose salaries were effectively reduced, protested to the Privy Council to have the law disallowed. Robinson and the burgesses again hired an agent to argue that the assembly had the constitutional right to care for the colony in an emergency that did not allow time for royal approval of the assembly's bill. They did not succeed, however, and the king disallowed the law in 1759.
The Stamp Act was one of many revenue measures Parliament adopted to pay for the long and expensive French and Indian War, the great international conflict of the epoch. Virginia's part in the war, and consequently that of the treasurer of the colony, imposed much additional work on Robinson. His dual roles as the Speaker of the House and the treasurer had so much augmented his political influence that Dinwiddie and most of the king's ministers in England decided by the mid-1750s that he should not hold both offices. Consequently, when Fauquier arrived in Virginia in 1758, he brought royal instructions requiring him to separate the two offices. He quickly perceived, however, that Robinson's popularity and political following were such that for him to suggest depriving him of either office would be self-destructive. Instead, Fauquier told Robinson of his instructions and said that he would not obey them. That laid the basis for a very easy and productive working relationship between the two during the war years.
The difficulties that sheriffs had in collecting taxes and remitting revenue to the treasury left a major deficit in Robinson's treasury accounts. In the mid-1760s some influential (and indebted) planter-burgesses proposed to create a public loan office to borrow a large sum of money from British investors. The loan could be paid back from future tax revenue over a period of years, but in the meantime the borrowed money could pay the immediate expenses of the colonial government. Robinson supported the bill, which the burgesses passed, but some members of the Governor's Council opposed it and killed the proposal. Even though committees of burgesses routinely made glowing perfunctory reports about the soundness of the treasury accounts, the treasury was very short of cash and not only because collections from sheriffs were seriously in arrears.
The paper money that the colony had issued during the war was part of the problem because it was part of the colony's debt. The money acted like a short-term loan. When the assembly authorized each of several issues of paper money, it set an expiration date for the bills to encourage people to pay taxes with them before the money ceased to have any value. The treasurer paid salaries and purchased supplies with the paper money, which circulated for a limited period of time as much-needed cash, although at a discount. The legislators expected people to pay their taxes with the money to draw the currency back into the treasury, extinguish that portion of the debt, and prevent dangerous inflation. Some of the laws that created paper money required the treasurer to burn the bills when he received them into the treasury or to hold them for burning later. He did not do that, however.
When other men were struggling, Robinson was one of the few men in Virginia with access to ready cash. He was very wealthy and owned several thousand acres of land in half a dozen counties, several houses and lots in Williamsburg, and about 400 slaves. He was also very generous and began lending money to his hard-pressed friends and no doubt anticipated making a profit when the planters repaid him with interest. Their financial obligations to him may also have temporarily increased his political power in the House of Burgesses. To oblige the many desperate friends and political allies who appealed to Robinson for personal loans, he began lending out money from the treasury in addition to his own funds, improperly recirculating paper money that the law required be withdrawn from circulation.
It is likely that most or all of the men who borrowed from Robinson were unaware that many other men borrowed from him, too, or that he should not have lent them that paper money. That he lent so much money to so many men indicates how cash-starved the colony's economy was and also how fragile were the interconnected financial webs of debt and credit. Robinson's accounts, which were not then public, disclosed that many of the most influential and apparently wealthy Virginia families were actually insolvent. Until required to pay their debts, they did not appear to be insolvent but merely short of ready cash. In 1765 and early in 1766, however, many were in danger of financial failure. Had any significant number of them defaulted on their debts, the whole plantation economy could have collapsed and ruined many of the colony's leading families.
Death and Scandal
Robinson died at his residence in King and Queen County late in the night of May 10–11, 1766. The Virginia Gazette reported on May 16, 1766 that Robinson "paid the last Debt to Nature, after labouring some Days with the most excruciating Torments of the Stone," probably an attack of kidney stones. He was buried in the family graveyard at Pleasant Hill. The two Virginia Gazettes published lamentations, eulogies, and elegiac verse that contributors sent in about Robinson's political talents and his amiable and generous nature.
The extent of Robinson's lending and its effects on the treasury became public soon after his death, and in December of that year a committee in the House of Burgesses reported that the treasury accounts were in arrears to the astounding sum of £100,761. It was by far the colony's largest financial scandal. The first consequence of disclosing Robinson's improprieties was widespread public anger that Robert Carter Nicholas, whom Fauquier had appointed treasurer ad interim, had criticized Robinson by name in a long critique published in the Virginia Gazette and suggested that he had acted illegally and immorally. The second consequence was that many public men in Virginia feared for their personal reputations or feared the bankruptcy of their families.
The third consequence was that politicians began maneuvering to succeed Robinson in either or both of his powerful and profitable offices. The logical successor for both was Attorney General Peyton Randolph, who had been Robinson's right-hand man in the House of Burgesses and had the confidence of Fauquier. Richard Henry Lee and Richard Bland also sought the Speaker's office, and Nicholas immediately began a campaign to hold onto the lucrative treasurer's job detached, as the king's ministers wished it to be, from the Speaker's office. By the autumn the magnitude of the scandal was such that few men were willing to support election of any man to both offices. Randolph contented himself with the Speaker's office, for which the burgesses provided a comfortable new £500 annual salary; Nicholas happily retained the treasury; and Lee and Bland had to be content with not being threatened with financial ruin, as they owed Robinson's estate comparatively small sums.
In spite of the unethical nature of Robinson's actions, many men praised him for keeping the fragile Virginia economy alive by recirculating cash when the planters desperately needed ready money. His admirers and his critics were all correct in testifying to his political skills and winning personality, admiring or resenting his use of political power, and condemning but also acknowledging the beneficial short-term effects of his unethical handling of the colony's money. The reputation of Robinson, colonial Virginia's ablest and most powerful native-born political leader, was thereafter permanently linked to the colony's largest financial scandal.
February 3, 1705 - John Robinson is born in Middlesex County.
November 8, 1723 - John Robinson and Mary Storey marry. Mary Storey Robinson dies on an unrecorded date a few years later.
February 1, 1728 - John Robinson takes his seat in the House of Burgesses representing King and Queen County.
August 1736 - John Robinson is nominated for Speaker of the House of Burgesses. He declines, supporting the current Speaker, Sir John Randolph.
November 1, 1738 - John Robinson is nominated for Speaker of the House of Burgesses, after the current Speaker, Sir John Randolph, dies. Robinson becomes the Speaker and the treasurer and remains in both positions until his death in 1766.
ca. 1743 - Lucy Moore Robinson, John Robinson's second wife, dies.
1758 - Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier arrives in Virginia with royal instructions to separate the offices of the Speaker of the House of Burgesses and the treasurer, both of which John Robinson holds. Fauquier chooses not to follow his orders and allows Robinson to keep both positions.
December 1759 - John Robinson and Susanna Chiswell marry.
May 30, 1765 - John Robinson declares that Patrick Henry is speaking treasonous words in the House of Burgesses debates when he condemns the king of England and the Stamp Act.
May 31, 1765 - John Robinson allows the members of the House of Burgesses to repeal several resolutions championed by Patrick Henry.
May 10, 1766 - John Robinson dies at his residence in King and Queen County, leaving large debts in both personal and government accounts.
May 11, 1766 - After the death of the colony's treasurer and Speaker of the House of Burgesses, John Robinson, and learning that his accounts are in arrears to the colony more than £100,000, Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier appoints Robert Carter Nicholas treasurer. Peyton Randolph wins election as the Speaker.
1781 - John Robinson's estate pays its debt to the treasury, but related lawsuits continue for thirty more years.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Tarter, B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John Robinson (1705–1766). (2015, September 28). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Robinson_John_1705-1766.
- MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John Robinson (1705–1766)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 28 Sep. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 15, 2015 | Last modified: September 28, 2015