Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Richard Fitzwilliam (d. by 19 April 1744), member of the Council, was probably the son of Thomas Fitzwilliam and Mary Luttrell Fitzwilliam of County Dublin, Ireland. Very little is known about his personal life, including the dates of his birth and death and whether he married or had children. In January 1715 Fitzwilliam received an appointment as comptroller of customs in Currituck, North Carolina. A year or two later he moved to Virginia to be collector of customs for the lower district of James River. On 13 August 1717 Fitzwilliam petitioned the governor and Council for a grant of land in Hampton and permission to erect a wharf there.

Vain, self-centered, stubborn, inflexible, and greedy, Fitzwilliam often found fault with others, and his combative willfulness annoyed numerous influential Virginians. After Henry Irwin, the naval officer for the district, seized a Jamaican schooner for illegal trading, Fitzwilliam protested to the governor and Council on 30 April 1718 that only he as collector had the legal right to make seizures. The Council disagreed and declared that both he and Irwin had authority to seize vessels trading illegally. Fitzwilliam lodged another complaint against Irwin, alleging the naval officer had undervalued a seized vessel and kept the excess profit from the seizure for himself. The Council found Fitzwilliam's allegations baseless and dismissed the complaint on 27 November 1718. Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood noticed irregularities in Fitzwilliam's own accounts and on 18 August 1719 informed the commissioners of customs in London that he was guilty of malfeasance. Fitzwilliam left the office of collector of customs on 17 November 1720 but returned to it on 1 April 1721.

The conflicts with officials in Virginia did no injury to Fitzwilliam's career. By late in July 1725 he was appointed surveyor general of customs for the southern district of America, which included the mainland colonies from Pennsylvania southward and also the Bahamas and Jamaica. Fitzwilliam reported to the Commissioners of Customs, but after the Pennsylvania Assembly transferred responsibility for trials regarding trade and customs from the colony's Supreme Court to lower courts, he complained to the Board of Trade on 26 December 1727 and insultingly described the local judges as men "of mean Circumstances, and as mean capacities" who would render decisions unfavorable to the Crown. At the same time Fitzwilliam also objected to a Virginia law that restricted the ability of people in North Carolina to ship their tobacco through Virginia ports.

When he was first appointed surveyor general of customs, Fitzwilliam successfully petitioned the Board of Trade to serve on the councils of Virginia, South Carolina, and Jamaica. He took his seat on the Virginia Council on 15 December 1725. On 14 December 1727 the governor and Council appointed him one of the commissioners to survey and settle the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. He offered to sell the colony a tent for the expedition, suggesting that his interest was more mercenary than altruistic. Fitzwilliam's investment in an iron foundry the following year reflects a similar desire for personal profit without regard for improving Virginia's infrastructure.

William Byrd (1674–1744), the senior Virginia commissioner for the 1728 boundary survey to settle the colony's southern border, referred to Fitzwilliam in his Secret History of the Line as "Firebrand" and characterized him as a mean-spirited, irascible person who sided with the North Carolina commissioners during a dispute. Fitzwilliam left the expedition six weeks early but later complained about being paid less than the other commissioners. Lieutenant Governor William Gooch divided the sum made available for the purpose among the commissioners according to their attendance. Fitzwilliam told Gooch that he should have received the same payment as the other commissioners despite leaving early. Gooch was astonished and thought the arguments "very strange ones" because Fitzwilliam had been paid to serve on the General Court while "the others were toiling in the Woods," and his having sided with the North Carolina commissioners was "no very just execution of his Trust."

George II issued new commissions to all governmental officials after he became king on 11 June 1727, but Fitzwilliam's name was accidentally omitted from the list of Virginia Council members. Byrd and others wished to keep him off, but Fitzwilliam was reappointed to the Council and took his seat again on 1 November 1728. During the General Assembly session in June 1730 Fitzwilliam insisted on recording his objections to the resolution by which the burgesses received their pay, implying that it awarded them more than they deserved. The House of Burgesses requested a copy of his objections and on 1 July answered his charges and severely censured his conduct. The Speaker of the House cast the decisive vote at the private request of Gooch to kill a proposal that the burgesses petition the king to remove Fitzwilliam from the Council. Gooch wrote that some burgesses described Fitzwilliam as "a Person of a turbulent Spirit unfit for Society."

Fitzwilliam attended the Council for the last time on 22 June 1730 and left Virginia after the burgesses requested a copy of his objections but before they adopted the resolutions denouncing his conduct. He defended himself before the Board of Trade that autumn. Fitzwilliam relinquished his position as surveyor general of customs in September 1731 and by 3 January 1733 had received an appointment as governor of the Bahamas. His insensitivity and abrasive personality contributed to problems there arising from a slave rebellion plot and a military mutiny. The king granted Fitzwilliam a leave of absence in 1737, but he continued to receive his salary until 5 May 1740, when his tenure officially ended.

Richard Fitzwilliam died four years later, probably in Dublin, and was buried there on, or shortly before, 19 April 1744 in the Parish of Donnybrook.

Sources Consulted:
Identification of parents in John O'Hart, Irish Pedigrees; Or, The Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation, 5th ed. (1892), 2:218; numerous references in published volumes of Calendar of Treasury Books, 1714–1718, Calendar of Treasury Papers, 1720–1728, and Calendar of Treasury Books and Papers, 1731–1741, and Henry R. McIlwaine, Wilmer L. Hall, and Benjamin J. Hillman, eds., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (1925–1966), esp. 4:93–94 (taking seat first time), 155–156, 166–167 (appointed to boundary commission), 190 (taking seat second time); R. A. Brock, ed., The Official Letters of Alexander Spotswood (1882–1885), 2:326–327; Kevin Joel Berland, ed., The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover (2013); Fitzwilliam to Board of Trade, 26 Dec. 1727, Public Record Office (PRO), Colonial Office Papers (C.O.) 5/1267, fols. 3–5 (first quotation on fol. 4), National Archives, Kew, England (available on Virginia Colonial Records Project microfilm, Library of Virginia); records of dispute with burgesses in Henry R. McIlwaine, ed., Legislative Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (1918–1919; 2d ed., 1979), 766–767, 768, 769 (last attendance at Council), McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1727–1740 (1910), 83–84, 97–99, and William Gooch to Board of Trade, 23 July 1730, PRO C.O. 5/1322, fols. 64 (third quotation), 66 (second quotation), National Archives, Kew, England (available on Virginia Colonial Records Project microfilm, Library of Virginia); Michael Craton and Gail Saunders, Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People (1992), 1:137–142; Beaver H. Blacker, Brief Sketches of the Parishes of Booterstown and Donnybrook (1860), 75; death reported in London Magazine and Monthly Chronologer 13 (1744): 205–206; burial mentioned in Pembroke Estate Papers, National Archives of Ireland, Dublin; will in Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Registered Wills (PROB 11), Principal Probate Registry, National Archives, Kew, England.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Kevin J. Hayes.

How to cite this page:
Kevin J. Hayes,"Richard Fitzwilliam (d. 1744)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2018 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Fitzwilliam_Richard, accessed [today's date]).

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