William Henry Brodnax was born about 1786 in Brunswick County, the son of William Brodnax, a lawyer, and Frances Belfield Walker Brodnax. About 1804 or 1805 he attended Hampden-Sydney College, which awarded him an honorary MA in 1830. After studying law in Petersburg, Brodnax established a lucrative practice in that city and in neighboring Brunswick, Dinwiddie, and Greensville counties. Eventually he became very prosperous, married Ann Eliza Withers, and lived on the 1,600-acre Kingston plantation in Dinwiddie County. The couple had four sons and two daughters.
Brodnax represented Greensville County in the House of Delegates for the session of 1818–1819 and served on the Committees for Courts of Justice and on Propositions and Grievances. The assembly elected him a brigadier general of the state militia on January 24, 1824, and later that year detailed him to lead the welcoming escort when the marquis de Lafayette entered Virginia on his triumphal return to the United States. Brodnax was also a presidential elector for William H. Crawford in 1824.
In May 1829 Brodnax received the most votes of the eleven candidates for the four seats from the district comprising Brunswick, Dinwiddie, Lunenburg, and Mecklenburg counties in a convention called to revise the Virginia constitution. He sat on the Committee on the Legislative Department. Brodnax seldom took part in the debates but generally voted with opponents of democratic reforms. He supported a conservative compromise that extended the suffrage to most adult white men but apportioned seats in the General Assembly on the basis of the number of white people reported in the 1820 census, a minor reform that effectively continued the eastern counties’ domination of the assembly. The denial of true white-basis democracy escalated tensions between slaveholding and nonslaveholding Virginians for decades to come.
In 1830 the voters of Dinwiddie County elected Brodnax to the first of three consecutive one-year terms in the House of Delegates. During his first term he served again on the Committee for Courts of Justice and also on the Committees of Privileges and Elections and of Schools and Colleges. During his second and third terms he chaired the Committee for Courts of Justice.
In August 1831 Brodnax commanded the militiamen who marched from Brunswick and Greensville counties to help suppress Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County. At the ensuing assembly session Brodnax chaired a special committee to consider petitions relating to the place of free blacks, slaves, and slavery in Virginia society. Unlike some members from eastern Virginia he favored a full debate on the subjects of slavery and emancipation, but on January 16, 1832, his committee concluded that it was “inexpedient for the present to make any legislative enactments for the abolition of slavery.”
Brodnax owned or had a life interest in more than 100 slaves, according to his estate inventory. He condemned abolitionists for seeking to violate the property rights of slaveholders but expressed equal disdain for apologists for slavery. In abegun in the House of Delegates on January 19, 1832, Brodnax characterized slavery’s influence on Virginia as “a mildew” and called it “the incubus which paralyzes her energies and retards her every effort at advancement.”
A member of the American Colonization Society, he proposed that the state pay for the annual removal from Virginia of 6,000 free blacks and manumitted slaves. Hoping for a decline in the market value of slaves and a resulting increase in manumissions, Brodnax calculated that in eighty years Virginia could be entirely free of African Americans and of the institution of slavery at a cost of about $200,000 per annum. The delegates rejected his plan in 1832 and again when he proposed it at the next session of the House of Delegates.
Brodnax emphatically supported the southern states’ rights political philosophy all of his public life. Like many other Virginia political leaders he condemned Andrew Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis early in the 1830s and thereafter allied himself with the evolving Whig Party. In his last political act Brodnax sent to a meeting of Petersburg Whigs a public letter dated October 14, 1834, and printed ten days later in the Richmond Whig and Public Advertiser. Perhaps fearful of an outbreak of cholera in the area, he excused his absence on the basis of his poor health but used the opportunity to denounce Jackson for betraying the principles of 1776 and the promises he made when elected. Despite his precautions, Brodnax contracted cholera and died at his Kingston plantation on October 23, 1834. He was buried in the cemetery at Dinwiddie Court House.