Daniel Bryan (ca. 1789–1866)


Daniel Bryan was a poet, a lawyer, and a member of the Senate of Virginia (1818–1820) representing Rockingham and Shenandoah counties. Publishing his works in periodicals and short books, he wrote in a neoclassical style that was fashionable at the beginning of his literary career but that had fallen out of favor by the end of his life. He corresponded with several important figures of his day, including Edgar Allan Poe, who praised Bryan’s verse. Bryan is now remembered chiefly for his epic about Daniel Boone, a minor poem that provides a wealth of information about American ideals and aspirations early in the nineteenth century. As a Virginia senator, Bryan opposed slavery and during the American Civil War (1861–1865), he was a staunch Unionist. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1866.

Born in rural Rockingham County, Bryan attended Washington Academy (later Washington and Lee University) but did not graduate. He then studied law at home. His first book, The Mountain Muse (1813), consisted primarily of “The Adventures of Daniel Boone,” an ambitious poem of more than 5,600 lines. Perhaps the poem’s subject persuaded some later writers that its author was a nephew of the famed frontiersman. Boone did have a nephew named Daniel Bryan, but he was not the poet.

By 1815 Bryan was practicing law in Harrisonburg, and he married Rebecca Davenport that year. She died in July 1816. In April 1818 Bryan married Mary Thomas Barbour, sister of James Barbour (1775–1842) and Philip Pendleton Barbour, who were then representing Virginia in Congress. Later in 1818 Bryan was elected to a term in the Senate of Virginia. On January 26, 1820, he cast the only vote against a Senate resolution advocating Missouri’s entry into the Union as a slave state. He also delivered an impassioned speech defending his stand, in which by denouncing slavery and urging gradual emancipation he placed himself in direct opposition to the pro–Missouri positions of his brothers-in-law and Virginia’s Jeffersonian-Republican establishment.

In April 1821 Bryan accepted an appointment as postmaster of Alexandria. He was absent from Richmond when the new legislative session began, and his Senate seat was declared vacant. Shortly afterward Bryan’s poetry began to appear regularly in periodicals, often anonymously or bearing only the initials “D.B.,” and in his own short books. Bryan’s most notable works during the 1820s, his most productive decade, were The Lay of Gratitude (1826), a tribute to the marquis de Lafayette, and The Appeal for Suffering Genius (1826), an attempt to encourage support for struggling artists. He also gained a reputation as an orator and sometimes delivered his speeches in verse form.

Throughout his career Bryan’s poetic style remained essentially unchanged. Of his later works, only “Strains of the Grotto,” a somewhat gothic poem first published in 1837, betrays any influence of the romantic movement then burgeoning in American literature. Thematically Bryan’s writings often expressed intense nationalism as well as support for various reform causes, including temperance, women’s education, and the antidueling movement.

Bryan resigned his postmastership in 1853 to accept a position in the library of the Treasury Department. He opposed secession and remained a firm Unionist while living in Alexandria during the Civil War. Immediately after hostilities ended, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. Daniel Bryan died there on December 22, 1866, and was buried in Washington’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Major Works

  • The Mountain Muse (1813)
  • Oration on Female Education (1816)
  • The Lay of Gratitude (1826)
  • The Appeal for Suffering Genius (1826)
  • Thoughts on Education in Its Connexion with Morals (1830)
  • A Tribute to the Memory of the Rev. George C. Cookman … and The Lost Ship, A Poem on the Fate of the Steamer President (1841)

ca. 1789
Daniel Bryan is born in rural Rockingham County.
Daniel Bryan's first book, The Mountain Muse, is published. It consists primarily of the 5,600-line poem "The Adventures of Daniel Boone," leading some to speculate that Bryan is Boone's nephew. Although the famed frontiersman had a nephew with that name, he was not the poet.
October 5, 1815
Daniel Bryan, a practicing lawyer in Harrisonburg, marries Rebecca Davenport. She dies in July 1816.
April 8, 1818
Daniel Bryan marries his second wife, Mary Thomas Barbour, sister of James Barbour and Philip Pendleton Barbour, who represent Virginia in Congress. Bryan is elected to the Senate of Virginia later in the year.
January 26, 1820
Daniel Bryan casts the only vote against a Virginia Senate resolution advocating Missouri's entry into the Union as a slave state. He also delivers an impassioned speech denouncing slavery.
April 1821
Daniel Bryan accepts an appointment as postmaster of Alexandria.
Long the postmaster of Alexandria, Daniel Bryan resigns to accept a position in the library of the Treasury Department.
December 22, 1866
Daniel Bryan dies in Washington, D.C., and is buried in the city's Oak Hill Cemetery.
  • Studer, Wayne M. “Bryan, Daniel.” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara Bearss, John T. Kneebone, J. Jefferson Looney, Brent Tarter, and Sandra Gioia Treadway, 344–345. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
APA Citation:
Studer, Wayne & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Daniel Bryan (ca. 1789–1866). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/bryan-daniel-ca-1789-1866.
MLA Citation:
Studer, Wayne, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Daniel Bryan (ca. 1789–1866)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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