Brockenbrough was born on July 10, 1778, in Tappahannock, the son of John Brockenbrough, a physician, and Sarah Roane Brockenbrough. He attended the College of William and Mary in 1798 and studied law. Brockenbrough represented Essex County in the House of Delegates from 1801 to 1803 and served on the Committee on Propositions and Grievances during his first term and on the Committee for Courts of Justice during both terms. He was then elected to the Council of State and served from June 3, 1803, until mid-May 1806, having been voted off that body on December 17, 1805, under a constitutional provision that required the assembly to remove two councillors every third year. Brockenbrough represented Hanover County in the House of Delegates from 1807 to 1809 and again sat on the Committee for Courts of Justice.
In the assembly Brockenbrough wrote his first newspaper essays, using the pseudonym Aristogitan. His most noted political writing consisted of attacks on the jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court and Chief Justice John Marshall. Republican Party leaders in Virginia regarded the Court’s 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Maryland as a declaration that the national government held supreme sway over the states and would exercise a power that, through the implied powers clause, had no fixed limits. Virginia’s political leaders met the challenge with a strong defense of the states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution and federal system. Brockenbrough wrote essays under the pseudonym Amphictyon in the March 30 and April 2, 1819, issues of the state’s leading newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer. He condemned the Court for construing the Constitution too broadly and allowing the national government to expand its power at the expense of the states. The states’ rights countermovement succeeded in putting Marshall and the nationalists on the defensive, and the chief justice entered the fray with a public response to Brockenbrough’s attack.
Throughout his adult life Brockenbrough was identified as a member of the Richmond Junto. This leadership clique included his brother John Brockenbrough, the president of the Bank of Virginia; Thomas Ritchie, the editor of the Richmond Enquirer; and his kinsman Spencer Roane, a member of the Court of Appeals who like Brockenbrough wrote essays sharply critical of the U.S. Supreme Court under Marshall. Political rivals described the Junto as a secret, omnipotent organization that controlled the state’s politics by dominating the Republican Party caucus, but if the Junto formally existed at all, its power was greatly exaggerated. That Brockenbrough was identified as one of its leaders attests to his contemporary stature. He was a respected member of the state judiciary and an architect, along with Roane and John Taylor of Caroline County, of the southern states’ rights constitutional doctrines. Brockenbrough was a presidential elector for James Monroe in 1820, William Harris Crawford in 1824, and Andrew Jackson in 1828.
On February 7, 1809, the General Assembly elected Brockenbrough to a seat on the General Court. During twenty-five years of service he heard appeals from lower courts in criminal cases and met twice a year with other General Court judges as the state’s final appellate court for criminal cases. From 1809 to 1812 Brockenbrough was judge for the circuit of seven western counties reaching from Montgomery on the northeast to Lee on the southwest. Thereafter he presided over the circuit for the city of Richmond. By seniority Brockenbrough became president of the General Court in November 1820. During his tenure he wrote his most influential newspaper articles, and with Hugh Holmes he edited and published a Collection of Cases Decided by the General Court of Virginia (1815). Brockenbrough subsequently edited and issued a second volume, Virginia Cases, or Decisions of the General Court of Virginia(1826), which included his own “Brief Sketch of the Courts of this Commonwealth.” As a member of the committee that the assembly appointed in 1816 to revise the laws of the state, Brockenbrough also published Draughts of Such Bills as Have Been Prepared by the Revisors of the Laws (1817). In 1818 he served on the Rockfish Gap Commission, which recommended Charlottesville as the site of the new University of Virginia.
On February 20, 1834, the assembly elected Brockenbrough to the Supreme Court of Appeals, on which he served until his death four years later. None of those weighty and controversial constitutional issues about which he wrote in the newspapers came before the Court of Appeals. Brockenbrough’s work there consisted of interpreting Virginia statutes and ruling on appeals from lower Virginia courts on the construction of deeds and wills and on procedural matters of civil law and in equity.
Brockenbrough married Judith Robinson White at White Plains in King William County on December 22, 1803. Their six daughters and two sons included John White Brockenbrough, who became a federal judge and prominent legal educator. William Brockenbrough died in a Richmond boarding house on December 10, 1838, and was buried at White Plains.
- A Collection of Cases Decided by the General Court of Virginia (1815)
- Virginia Cases, or Decisions of the General Court of Virginia (1826)