William H. Cabell was born on December 16, 1772, at Boston Hill in Cumberland County, the son of Nicholas Cabell and Hannah Carrington Cabell. Reared in a wealthy and politically prominent family, he was closely related to many men of importance in Virginia, and his brotherbecame the first president of the James River and Kanawha Company. Cabell reportedly added the initial H to his name to distinguish himself from several other William Cabells. His acquaintance Hugh Blair Grigsby referred to him in 1860 as William Henry Cabell, but there is no other evidence for a middle name.
Cabell received a classical education from private tutors, attended Hampden-Sydney College from 1785 through 1789, and graduated from the College of William and Mary in July 1793 with the first bachelor of law degree awarded by that college. He read law for a time in Richmond and received his license to practice on June 13, 1794. Cabell moved to Amherst County and on April 9, 1795, married Elizabeth Cabell, a cousin. They had two sons and one daughter before her death from consumption, or tuberculosis, on November 5, 1801. Cabell spent the next several months in Charleston, South Carolina, before returning to Amherst County. On March 11, 1805, he married Agnes Sarah Bell Gamble, daughter of Robert Gamble, one of the wealthiest men in Richmond. They had three daughters and five sons, among them Henry Coalter Cabell, who became a director of the James River and Kanawha Company and of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company and won fame as a Confederate artillery officer.
Cabell was elected to the House of Delegates from Amherst County in 1796, 1798, and four times in succession from 1802 through 1805. He served five one-year terms and the first few days of a sixth. A Jeffersonian Republican, he voted in December 1798 for the Virginia Resolutions that condemned the Alien and Sedition Acts, but in general his tenure in the assembly was unremarkable. Cabell served on the Committee of Propositions and Grievances during the 1798–1799 legislature and on the Committee for Courts of Justice in the 1798–1799, 1804–1805, and 1805–1806 sessions. He never held a major committee chairmanship. In 1800 and 1804 Cabell was a presidential elector for.
On December 6, 1805, soon after the start of Cabell’s sixth legislative term, the General Assembly elected him governor of Virginia. He defeated Alexander McRae, an outspoken Republican, by a vote of 99 to 90. Cabell was only thirty-two years old when he took office on December 11, 1805, and may have been elected because he was acceptable to Jefferson’s supporters, to dissident Republicans led by John Randolph of Roanoke, and to some Federalists. The assembly reelected Cabell in 1806 and 1807. He served the legal maximum of three consecutive one-year terms and relinquished office on December 12, 1808.
Cabell’s years as governor were largely taken up with routine duties related to collecting taxes, administering the state penitentiary, dealing with Revolutionary War land bounties, constructing turnpikes, and appointing numerous state and local officials. By far his most time-consuming responsibility was the regulation of the state militia. Cabell approved the formation of new militia companies, answered requests for supplies, contracted for arms, and commissioned militia officers. The most dramatic event of his administration occurred on June 22, 1807, when the British warship Leopard, ostensibly searching for British deserters, attacked the American frigate Chesapeake off the Virginia coast. Regarding the British action as both illegal and savage, Cabell ordered militia units, arms, and supplies sent to the Norfolk vicinity. By mid-July the crisis had ended, without further violence after the British ships sailed from Hampton Roads.
Cabell displayed a thoughtful and judicious approach in making decisions as governor. He repeatedly advised correspondents which actions were beyond the purview of his office or reported that he had taken action only with the advice of the Council of State. Even during the Chesapeake affair, although Cabell was quick to mobilize the state’s resources, he recognized the superior jurisdiction of the federal government and acted defensively and prudently. So attentive was Cabell to the law that in August 1808 he admonished the Brunswick County jailer for confining a prisoner to a cell with inadequate air circulation that might imperil the prisoner’s health. Cabell recommended that the jailer take the prisoner out of his cell occasionally in order to keep him alive until the date of his scheduled execution.
Early in 1809, a few weeks after Cabell’s final term as governor concluded, the General Assembly divided Kanawha County and named the new jurisdiction Cabell County. His deliberate and thorough approach to decision-making both prepared and recommended him for the next stage of his professional life. On December 14, 1808, the assembly elected Cabell a judge of the General Court. For more than two years he conducted civil trials and heard appeals in criminal cases in the counties of Charles City, Elizabeth City, Gloucester, James City, King William, Mathews, Middlesex, New Kent, Warwick, and York. In March 1811 the governor appointed Cabell to a vacancy on the Virginia Court of Appeals, which became the Supreme Court of Appeals under the new state constitution of 1830, and in 1831 the assembly reelected him. As the senior member he became president of the court on January 18, 1842, but his deteriorating physical condition caused him to miss several sessions in 1850 and 1851. The Constitution of 1851 required the judges to be elected by popular vote, and because of his poor health Cabell was not a candidate in the May 1852 election. His forty-one years of service made him, along with his near-contemporary Francis Taliaferro Brooke, among the longest-serving judges in the history of the court.
Beginning with his first reported opinion in Cooke v. Piles in April 1811, Cabell embarked on a steady and solid judicial career that reflected the same deliberate and analytical characteristics he had displayed as governor. He filed few separate opinions. More often than not Cabell’s views corresponded with those of the majority, and he tended to write succinct explanations of the facts and the law as he understood them. Judicial scholars have noted that although he provided concise, convincing decisions and asserted his opinion when the need arose, he usually followed stronger-willed justices such as Spencer Roane and. Cabell also possessed the rare ability to keep an open mind and sometimes even reversed a previous decision.
The most important case Cabell heard occurred early in his judicial career. The issues in Hunter v. Martin (1814) revolved around the right to appeal decisions made in the Virginia Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cabell and his colleagues unanimously ruled that the U.S. Constitution and the federal Judiciary Act of 1789 did not authorize the federal courts to hear appeals from rulings of the highest state courts. Recalling his 1798 vote for the Virginia Resolutions, Cabell wrote that the power of the U.S. Supreme Court to hear appellate cases infringed on the jurisdiction of the state courts. Ultimately the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Virginia Court of Appeals.
William H. Cabell died at his Richmond home on January 12, 1853. His funeral took place at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, which he had joined in 1851, and he was buried in Shockoe Cemetery in Richmond. The Supreme Court of Appeals published a long resolution honoring Cabell’s gentleness of character, patience, and impartiality and concluded that it was as “natural to love as to honor him.”