Author: Brent Tarter

founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography
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Wise, John S. (1846–1913)

John S. Wise was a member of the House of Representatives (1883–1885), a judge, and, late in his career, a writer of novels and history. Born in Brazil the son of Henry A. Wise, who went on to serve as governor of Virginia, John Wise grew up in Accomack County. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and fought at the Battle of New Market (1864) during the American Civil War (1861–1865) before earning a law degree at the University of Virginia and following his father into politics. In the 1870s he became a follower of William Mahone and joined his Readjuster Party, which allied with African Americans and supported reducing the principal and interest on the state’s antebellum debt . After losing to his cousin George D. Wise in 1880, Wise won a seat in Congress in 1882, serving one term, serving as a U.S. attorney for a year in the interim. An outspoken politician who fought at least one duel, Wise lost the governor’s race to Fitzhugh Lee in 1885, leaving Virginia and its toxic political atmosphere three years later to practice law in New York. There he wrote novels, including one in the voice of his favorite hunting dog, a memoir, and an account of his political career. He retired in 1907 and died six years later.

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Wells, Henry Horatio (1823–1900)

Henry Horatio Wells, a Republican and a native of New York, served as governor of Virginia from April 1868 until September 1869. After attending school in Detroit, Michigan, where he was raised, Wells practiced law and served in the state legislature. He supported free public schools, temperance, and the abolition of slavery. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Wells served in a Michigan infantry regiment and then as provost marshal of Union-occupied Alexandria. He stayed on in Alexandria after the war, helping to found a railroad company and practicing law. In 1865, he publicly called for military rule of Virginia in order to protect the African American right to vote. When military rule came to pass, General John M. Schofield, commander of the First Military District, appointed Wells governor of Virginia, an office he held until the next year, when a new constitution was ratified and he lost statewide election as a Republican. Wells later served as a U.S. attorney for Virginia (1870–1872) and for the District of Columbia (1875–1880). He died in 1900.

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Watson, John (d. December 6, 1869)

John Watson was a member of the Convention of 1867–1868 and of the House of Delegates (1869–1870). Born into slavery, he was owned at the time of the American Civil War (1861–1865) by a lawyer in Mecklenburg County and worked as a shoemaker after the war. Almost nothing is known of his life up to that time, although he had not learned to read or write. Watson served as a trustee for a Freedmen’s School, although he seemed to have earned the animosity of some whites. He was considered to be intelligent and a good orator. In 1867, he won election to the constitutional convention and voted with the radical reformers and introduced three resolutions himself. After the killing of a black politician in Charlotte County, Watson and several others spoke there and were arrested for inciting violence; the charges were later dropped. In 1869 he was elected to the House of Delegates as a Republican from Mecklenburg County and voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He died while in office.

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Vagrancy Act of 1866

The Vagrancy Act of 1866, passed by the General Assembly on January 15, 1866, forced into employment, for a term of up to three months, any person who appeared to be unemployed or homeless. If so-called vagrants ran away and were recaptured, they would be forced to work for no compensation while wearing balls and chains. More formally known as the Act Providing for the Punishment of Vagrants, the law came shortly after the American Civil War (1861–1865), when hundreds of thousands of African Americans, many of them just freed from slavery, wandered in search of work and displaced family members. As such, the act criminalized freedpeople attempting to rebuild their lives and perhaps was intended to contradict Governor Francis H. Pierpont‘s public statement discouraging punitive legislation. Shortly after its passage, the commanding general in Virginia, Alfred H. Terry, issued a proclamation declaring that the law would reinstitute “slavery in all but its name” and forbidding its enforcement. Proponents argued that the law applied to all people regardless of race, but the resulting controversy, along with other southern laws restricting African American rights, helped lead to military rule in the former Confederacy and congressional Reconstruction. It is unknown to what degree it was ever enforced, but the Vagrancy Act remained law in Virginia until 1904.

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Underwood, John C. (1809–1873)

John C. Underwood was one of the most conspicuous antislavery activists in Virginia during the 1850s, one of the first members of the Republican Party in Virginia, a federal judge from 1863 to 1873, and the president of the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. Born in New York, Underwood practiced law before moving to Virginia. There his condemnations of slavery were such that his wife, a cousin of the future Confederate general Thomas J. Jackson, worried for his safety. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), President Abraham Lincoln appointed Underwood a federal judge for the eastern district of Virginia. His actions on the bench often appeared to be politically motivated and included repeated efforts to confiscate the estates of Confederates in order to destroy slavery and apply what he called “retributive justice.” After the war, he admitted that he could pack a jury, if necessary, to convict the former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, of treason. He also publicly endorsed African American suffrage and full citizenship rights for freedpeople. Toward that end, he served as president of the constitutional convention that met in 1867–1868, during which he argued, unsuccessfully, that women, too, should be granted full suffrage rights. Underwood remained on the bench in his later years, earning a reputation as an outspoken radical and one who was often contemptuous of his critics. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1873.

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Turpin, Henry (1836–1908)

Henry Turpin, a black Republican from Goochland County, was a member of the House of Delegates (1871–1873). Born into slavery in 1836, Turpin was freed by his white father in 1857 and during the American Civil War (1861–1865) purchased land adjacent to his in Goochland County. He worked as a house painter. In 1871, Turpin won election to the House of Delegates, defeating a white Conservative Party candidate by a narrow margin. He served one term, introducing a bill that eventually passed, allowing veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops to collect certain medical benefits. After losing election in 1873, he moved to the Bronx, New York, where he married in 1886 and died in 1908.

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Thomas’s Administrator v. Bettie Thomas Lewis (1892)

In Thomas’s Administrator v. Bettie Thomas Lewis, decided on June 16, 1892, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a decision by the Richmond City Court of Chancery to honor the deathbed wishes of William A. Thomas. Evidence suggested that Thomas, a white man, desired that his property be inherited by his daughter, Bettie Thomas Lewis, whose mother had been one of Thomas’s former slaves. Thomas did not leave a will, and the administrators of his estate, which was valued at about $225,000, challenged the inheritance. They argued that too few witnesses testified to Thomas’s intent and that their testimony—including that of Fannie Coles, who was described in a brief as “a pariah of mixed blood”—was not sufficiently credible. The Supreme Court of Appeals, however, credited a number of white witnesses who generally corroborated Coles and described Coles herself, who lived with Thomas and his daughter, as “intelligent” and “agreeable.” The ruling awarded Lewis the bulk of her father’s estate and made her, according to the Richmond Times, “the richest colored woman in Virginia.

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Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, The

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished and permanently prohibited the reintroduction of slavery throughout the country. Congress submitted it to the states on January 31, 1865, and it was ratified on December 6, 1865. It was the first of three amendments adopted during Reconstruction that profoundly altered American society, government, and politics. The Fourteenth Amendment that defined citizenship and guaranteed the rights of citizens was ratified in July 1868, and the Fifteenth Amendment that granted the vote to African American men was ratified in February 1870.

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Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia

The Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia—called for at the Convention of 1776 and designed by George Wythe—pictures on the front the Roman goddess of virtue, the word “Virginia,” and the Commonwealth’s motto, Sic Semper Tyrannis, or “thus always to tyrants.” On the reverse side are three more goddesses and the word Perseverando (“by persevering”). The seal has remained largely unchanged since 1779, although at the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865), Unionists in western Virginia established the Restored government of Virginia, adding the words “Liberty and Union” to both sides of the seal. In 1873, the General Assembly removed the words, and in 1903, another ordinance described the seal in essentially the same language as in 1776. The Virginia Convention of 1861, which adopted the Ordinance of Secession, also adopted a state flag that featured the front, or obverse, side of the seal against a background of deep blue.

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Robinson, John (1705–1766)

John Robinson, one of the most powerful political leaders in colonial Virginia, served as Speaker of the House of Burgesses and treasurer from 1738 to 1766. His death revealed mismanagement of funds and led to a significant political crisis. Born in Middlesex County, Robinson attended school at the College of William and Mary and may have studied law. He first won election to the House of Burgesses in 1728 and began his long stint as Speaker a decade later. He ran the General Assembly‘s lower chamber along the lines of a modern floor leader and protected the House’s interests against powerful opposition from lieutenant governors, the chief executives during his time. Though highly respected for his political acumen and his strengthening of the House of Burgesses, Robinson took two actions late in his career that hurt his reputation among historians. First, he opposed the Virginia Resolves in 1765, notably accusing Patrick Henry of speaking treasonous words against King George III. Second, he mishandled government funds while treasurer by augmenting his loans to Virginia’s indebted elites with old paper money slated for destruction. Though these loans possibly kept the colony’s economy from collapsing, a later investigation showed that the treasury accounts were more than £100,000 in arrears. Robinson’s death in 1766 revealed the extent of his debt to the colony, which wasn’t fully paid by his estate until 1781.

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Davis, William Roscoe (d. 1904)

William Roscoe Davis was an important African American leader in Elizabeth City County (later the city of Hampton) during the American Civil War (1861­–1865), and served as doorkeeper for the Constitutional Convention of 1867­–1868. Born into slavery, Davis was noted for his intelligence and received permission to work as a boat operator. He spent a considerable amount of his money paying for a lawsuit to defend his wife‘s manumission, but a local judge refused to enforce the couple’s legal victory. Davis was among the first slaves to find freedom at Fort Monroe. A Baptist exhorter before the conflict, he became an ordained minister by 1863. His charisma was so impressive that he became a paid orator who toured Northern states. Later in life he claimed credit for the creation of Hampton Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Hampton University), telling people that his request for a new teacher led to the arrival of the institution’s founder, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. He remained a leader in the community and respected elder in his family, also serving as the Old Point Comfort lighthouse keeper and buying property in Hampton. He died in 1904.

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Bassett, Burwell (1764–1841)

Burwell Bassett was member of the House of Delegates (1787–1790, 1820–1821), the Senate of Virginia (1793–1805), and the U.S. House of Representatives (1805–1813, 1815–1819, 1821–1829). Born in New Kent County, he was educated at the College of William and Mary before inheriting his family’s land. Bassett won election to the House of Delegates in 1787 and then succeeded his father in the Senate of Virginia in 1793. He supported Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800 and later won a congressional seat as a Jeffersonian Republican. In three different stints in the House, Bassett generally supported states’ rights but only spoke occasionally. He also was a prominent and active lay leader of the Episcopal Church in Virginia. He died in 1841.

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Public School System in Virginia, Establishment of the

The first statewide system of free public schools in Virginia was established in 1870 after the ratification of a new constitution and was one of the most important and enduring accomplishments of Reconstruction. Prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), education had been reserved mostly for elite white families; no southern states had public school systems and in Virginia the education of free and enslaved African Americans had been discouraged and, in some forms, made illegal. After the abolition of slavery, the federal Freedmen’s Bureau established the first statewide system of schools, but only for African Americans; other, biracial systems were set up, but only in Petersburg, Richmond, and Norfolk. The new constitution created a new statewide system that, in spite of protests by African American members of the General Assembly, segregated black and white students. The first state superintendent, William Henry Ruffner, set about building the system’s infrastructure—creating more than 2,800 schools and hiring about 3,000 teachers by August 1871—and building political support for its funding. In debates over how to pay off Virginia’s large antebellum debt some politicians advocated reducing funding for public schools, although the system became more stable when the biracial Readjuster Party took over government in 1881, appointed R. R. Farr superintendent, and increased appropriations. By the turn of the century, public schools had attained broad social and political support.

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Moss, Frank (d. by August 6, 1884)

Frank Moss was a member of the Convention of 1867–1868, the Senate of Virginia (1869–1871), and the House of Delegates (1874–1875). Records of his early life do not exist, but he likely was born in Buckingham County sometime in the mid-1820s. Local tradition holds that he was born into a free family but evidence also exists that he was enslaved. In 1867, he won election as a delegate to the constitutional convention required in order for Virginia to gain admittance into the United States after the American Civil War (1861–1865). Described by an American general as “energetic and enterprising,” he supported radical reformers on all major issues. His speeches, however, were considered so divisive that the Freedman’s Bureau ordered him arrested. A charge of breaching the peace was later dropped. A Republican, Moss served in the Senate of Virginia and voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and later was elected to the House of Delegates. Just after the election, in November 1873, he was arrested and tried for beating a man who voted against him, but the jury deadlocked. A national, pro-Republican newspaper denounced Moss as a laughingstock in 1875 and he lost reelection. In his later years, Moss supported the biracial Readjuster Party, although by 1883 he opposed its leader, Senator William Mahone. The circumstances of Moss’s death are unknown.

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Campbell, Joseph T. (1827–1876)

Joseph T. Campbell was a lawyer, commonwealth’s attorney for Washington County (1863–1865), and a member of the Convention of 1867–1868. Born in Washington County and educated at the University of Virginia, Campbell practiced law in Abingdon. At the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865) he accepted a commission and served briefly in the 37th Virginia Infantry Regiment before falling ill. He returned home and served as commonwealth’s attorney. After the war Campbell was elected to represent Smyth and Washington counties at a state constitutional convention and was a conservative voice during the proceedings. He voted against the constitution that was ratified in 1869. He died in 1876.

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