Baldwin was born on January 11, 1820, in Augusta County, the eldest of three sons and third of six children of Briscoe Gerard Baldwin and Martha Steele Brown Baldwin. He attended local schools and studied at the University of Virginia from 1836 to 1839. In the latter year he returned to Staunton to study law in the office of his father, who was one of the leaders of the bar in the Shenandoah Valley before being elected to the Virginia Court of Appeals early in 1842. Baldwin was admitted to the bar in May 1841, and on September 20, 1842, he married Susan Madison Peyton. They had no children.
Law, Politics, and Unionism
Like his father, Baldwin was a Whig and he made his first political speech during the 1844 presidential campaign. He filled in for Alexander H. H. Stuart, his law partner and brother-in-law, who was the Whig candidate for presidential elector, and he made such an impression debating the Democratic Party representative that local politicians took notice. In 1845 he was elected to represent Augusta County in the House of Delegates. There Baldwin reluctantly sided with those who favored the calling of a state constitutional convention. He supported changes that would allow for partial amendment of the new constitution and link apportionment in the General Assembly directly to population and wealth. His belief that seats in the proposed convention (not actually held for five more years) should be distributed based on the system of representation then in effect, and that the different sections of the state would have to compromise by basing apportionment on the value of taxable property as well as white population, alienated his constituents, many of whom opposed measures that limited their political clout by including the value of slaves in decisions about apportionment. Baldwin accordingly lost his bid for reelection in April 1846.
Baldwin remained active in politics and served on the board of visitors of the University of Virginia from 1856 until 1864. In 1859 he narrowly lost election to the Supreme Court of Appeals. In 1860 he campaigned for the Constitutional Union Party ticket of John Bell and Edward Everett, which carried Virginia. Baldwin and Stuart were two of Staunton’s leading Unionists during the winter of 1860–1861, and on February 4, 1861, they and Unionist Democrat George Baylor were elected to represent Augusta County in the convention called to discuss the possibility of secession. The convention met from February 13 to May 1, 1861, and Baldwin was one of its most emphatic Unionists. He served on the Committee on Federal Relations and, in the longest and most celebrated speech of his life, he spoke for three days, starting March 21, in favor of preserving the Union.
As the secession crisis neared its climax, Baldwin had a long private meeting with United States president Abraham Lincoln in Washington on April 4, 1861. Although interpretations of the negotiation later varied, Baldwin tried to persuade Lincoln to take no action that could be deemed hostile to the Southern states, such as reinforcing Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and Lincoln tried to persuade Baldwin to have the Virginia convention adjourn, thus thwarting the secessionists in Virginia. The meeting was inconclusive because Lincoln refused to assure Baldwin that he would not use force to retain control of federal installations in the South, and Baldwin could not assure Lincoln that the Virginia convention would disperse without reconvening in response to future events. Baldwin returned to Richmond to find that while he was meeting with Lincoln the convention had voted 90 to 45 against secession. Baldwin continued to press for reconciliation and compromise, but the Unionist majority in the Virginia convention collapsed two weeks later, and on April 17, 1861 the convention voted 88 to 55 to secede. Baldwin voted against secession but later, as a gesture of support for his native state, signed the Ordinance of Secession.
Civil War and Later Years
To the dismay of many old Democrats and advocates of secession, Governor John Letcher appointed Baldwin inspector general of volunteers. On August 19, 1861, Baldwin became colonel of the 52nd Virginia Infantry. He served briefly in the mountains of western Virginia but suffered a physical breakdown and resigned on May 1, 1862. Thereafter he was colonel of the Augusta County militia, and although he was called into the field several times, he saw no further action. While still recuperating, Baldwin was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives on November 6, 1861. He defeated Letcher in May 1863 to win reelection and served in Congress for the duration of the war. Baldwin was a member of the Committee on Ways and Means during both Congresses, and during the second he chaired the Special Committee on Impressments. Baldwin was also one of the strongest critics of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Baldwin returned to Staunton at the end of the Civil War and on May 8, 1865, participated in a meeting of community leaders who urged a speedy restoration of civil government. He swore allegiance to the United States government on May 20 and July 5, and U.S. president Andrew Johnson pardoned Baldwin on September 28, 1865. Baldwin was not in Staunton when news of his pardon was received there, nor was he present on October 12 when he was overwhelmingly elected to one of the three Augusta County seats in the General Assembly without his knowing that he had been nominated. Baldwin was elected Speaker of the House when it convened on December 4, 1865, and presided over three sessions of the assembly between then and the end of April 1867. He became an expert on parliamentary procedure, and the rules of the House that evolved during his speakership were known for many years thereafter as Baldwin’s Rules. Baldwin took a cautious and conciliatory middle course between radical reformers and former Confederates. He expressed his beliefs most clearly in Washington on February 10, 1866, in lengthy testimony before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. He told the congressional leaders that while most Virginians had accepted the verdict handed down on the battlefield and would go along with some civil rights for freedpeople, they were opposed to further extension of the political rights of African Americans. Baldwin quickly became a leader of the Conservative Party in Virginia and was chairman of the party’s May 1868 state convention, which almost nominated him for governor in spite of his public announcement that he would decline the nomination. Two months later he headed the Conservative Party’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention.
In 1869 Baldwin was a member of the so-called Committee of Nine, led by Alexander H. H. Stuart, who met with U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant to arrange the compromise that brought Reconstruction to an end in Virginia. Its terms permitted the Virginia electorate to vote separately on the ratification of the constitution prepared by the Convention of 1867–1868 and on the clauses of that constitution that would have disfranchised many former Confederate soldiers and government officials. The voters, as predicted, ratified the constitution and defeated the disqualification clauses. This negotiation concluded Baldwin’s political career. He returned to the practice of law in Staunton, where he served as counsel for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. He also took an interest in local projects. In the General Assembly in 1867 he had pushed through a bill to incorporate the Augusta County Fair, which was later named the Baldwin-Augusta Fair in his honor. In one of his last letters Baldwin requested that the Staunton City Council improve the road leading to the fairgrounds. Baldwin died at his home in Staunton on September 30, 1873, and was buried in Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton.