John Snyder Carlile was born in Winchester on December 16, 1817, and was the only child of Jonathan Carlile, a lawyer, and Elizabeth Snyder Carlile. Contrary to an accepted family tradition that Carlile’s father died when he was young, Jonathan Carlile was an abusive alcoholic who squandered his wife’s inheritance and whose conduct forced the family to move frequently. After he deserted his family in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Carlile returned to Hampshire County, where she operated a school. On December 17, 1833, she petitioned the Virginia General Assembly for divorce, and after that request was rejected she obtained a judgment of divorce in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, on August 22, 1836.
At age fourteen Carlile left his mother’s school to begin working as a store clerk. Seven years later he became an independent merchant, but his business failed, leaving him to pay off his creditors. He then studied law and about 1840 gained admittance to the Virginia bar. Carlile practiced in Harrison and Taylor counties and in Beverly, in Randolph County, and in Philippi, in Barbour County, during the 1840s. He married Mary Ellen Gittings in Harrison County on March 5, 1846. They had three sons and three daughters, one of whom died in childhood.
Early Political Career
A Democrat, Carlile won election in April 1847 to a four-year term in the Senate of Virginia from the district comprising Barbour, Marion, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph, and Taylor counties. During his first assembly session he was appointed to the Committees of Courts of Justice and on the Militia and to a joint committee to examine the bonds of public officers. In the 1848 session he was a member of the Committees on the Militia and of General Laws. During the 1849 and 1850 sessions he sat on the Committees of General Laws and of Internal Improvements and also chaired the important Committee of Privileges and Elections.
On August 22, 1850, Carlile was one of four delegates elected to represent the counties of Barbour, Braxton, Gilmer, Jackson, Lewis, Randolph, and Wirt in the convention that met in Richmond from October 14, 1850, to August 1, 1851, to revise Virginia’s constitution. He was named to the Committee of Elections and the Committee on the Executive Department and Ministerial Officers. One of the convention’s most frequent and active debaters, Carlile outspokenly supported democratic reforms, including the popular election of most public officers and judges of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and a proposal to allow governors to seek reelection. He called for a state census in 1855 and every tenth year thereafter so that the General Assembly could frequently redraw legislative districts based on the white population. On May 16, 1851, Carlile voted with the convention majority in favor of a compromise on the basis of legislative apportionment that established a western majority in the House of Delegates but retained an eastern majority in the Senate. On July 31 he also voted for the new constitution that the convention successfully submitted to popular referendum later that year.
Carlile moved to Clarksburg, in Harrison County, early in the 1850s and joined the new American (Know Nothing) Party. In the spring of 1855 he was the only nominee of that party to win election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia. He defeated the incumbent Democrat, Charles Swearinger Lewis, by a narrow margin in the sixteen-county Eleventh Congressional District. In the Thirty-fourth Congress, Carlile received the lowest-ranking seat on the relatively insignificant House Committee on Accounts. In an extended speech, delivered on June 21, 1856, he denounced the Democratic Party’s adoption of the principle of squatter sovereignty. Carlile feared that slave owners might lose their property if they moved into a western territory and opponents of slavery there voted to make the territory free. He published the speech in pamphlet form, in part to rebut charges circulated in Virginia by critics of the American Party that the Know Nothings were in league with abolitionists. Carlile made no major speeches during the remainder of his term and in the spring of 1857 lost his reelection bid to a Democrat, Albert Gallatin Jenkins.
In February 1861 Harrison County voters elected Carlile one of two delegates to represent them in the convention called to frame Virginia’s response to the secession crisis. A few days after the convention opened, an observer writing for the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer characterized him as a “man of fine talents—a ready, keen, solid, and impressive man.” Carlile was “somewhat singular looking, being very sallow and angular in his face, flat on his head, compact and well knit in his framework. He has a rich deep voice, fine power of expression, impertur[b]able coolness and a great deal of tact.”
Throughout the convention, Carlile spoke passionately in favor of the Union and against secession, which he denounced as the product of a Southern conspiracy, as “self murder,” and as “an insult to all reasonable living humanity, and a crime against God.” Emphasizing that he was a slave owner by purchase and not by mere inheritance (at that time he may have owned only one slave) and consequently was not to be confused with Republicans or abolitionists, he argued that slavery was more secure with Virginia in the Union than if the state seceded. One of the acknowledged leaders of the western Virginia Unionists, Carlile was the target of secessionist criticism. He was once assaulted and on another occasion observed a crowd outside his boardinghouse brandishing a rope and threatening to hang him. He voted against secession when the motion failed on April 4, 1861, and again when it passed on April 17. Carlile quickly left Richmond and returned to Clarksburg to continue his campaign against secession. Because of his continued support for the Union, on June 29, 1861, by a vote of 83 to 1 the convention expelled him.
Soon after returning to Clarksburg, Carlile and other Unionists there issued an address to the people of western Virginia calling on Unionists to convene in Wheeling in May to develop a response to the rebellion in Richmond. He urged the resulting convention to draft a proclamation for a new state government. The convention voted to await the results of the referendum on secession but appointed Carlile to a committee that later summoned the Second Wheeling Convention after a majority of voters in eastern Virginia approved the state’s secession from the Union. At the June session he chaired both the Committee on Rules and the influential Committee on Business and took the lead in drafting “A Declaration of the People of Virginia,” which the delegates adopted on June 17, 1861. It stated the rationale of the convention’s decision to declare the state offices of Virginia vacant, after which the convention elected a new governor and other officers and created the Restored government that U.S. president Abraham Lincoln recognized as the legitimate authority in Virginia. At the convention session in August of that year Carlile called for organizing northwestern Virginia counties as a new state. In a dramatic speech on August 8, he enjoined, “Cut the knot now! Cut it now! Apply the knife!” In spite of his enthusiasm, the convention refused to separate from Virginia at that time, but it appointed Carlile to a six-member committee to consider establishing a new state. Carlile’s committee reported a dismemberment ordinance, adopted by the convention on August 20, that proposed creating the state of Kanawha from thirty-nine Virginia counties, with the possibility of later adding seven more.
In the meantime, on May 23, 1861, in spite of a prohibition that the Richmond convention had issued, voters in many western Virginia counties elected members of the United States House of Representatives, and Carlile regained his former seat with little opposition. A few days after being sworn in, he resigned to take his seat in the United States Senate, to which some western members of the General Assembly, meeting irregularly in Wheeling, elected him unanimously on July 9, 1861. Carlile served in the Senate until his term expired on March 3, 1865, and sat on the Committee on Public Lands and the Committee on Territories. He persisted in his Unionism but was often at odds with Republicans in Congress and with the administration. Carlile opposed allowing the army to free or arm escaped slaves, and until the end of the Civil War he continued to affirm the constitutionality and propriety of slavery. He voted against the bill passed on April 3, 1862, to abolish the institution in the District of Columbia but was not present to record his vote in the Senate on April 8, 1864, when that body proposed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery throughout the nation. Increasingly censorious of Lincoln’s conduct of the war, Carlile sharply criticized the administration, Congress, and the Republican Party in speeches in Indianapolis in July 1862 and in New York in April 1863. On June 15, 1864, Lincoln ordered Carlile’s arrest on suspicion of treason.
On June 23, 1862, the Senate Committee on Territories submitted a bill for the admission to the Union of West Virginia as a new state. The bill included several Shenandoah Valley counties where support for the Confederacy remained strong and that had not been represented in the constitutional convention or named in its application for statehood. Carlile was credited with adding those counties to the statehood bill in committee, but he disapproved of including them in the new state without first holding a referendum or recalling the convention to obtain the consent of the inhabitants of those counties. The Senate declined to include the eastern counties in the bill (although Berkeley and Jefferson counties voted on May 28, 1863, to join West Virginia and Congress later approved their inclusion). After the Senate voted to require the new state to adopt a plan of gradual emancipation, Carlile attacked the bill on the grounds that Congress could not dictate the terms of a new state constitution. He spoke and voted against the statehood bill, which passed the Senate on July 14, 1862. Carlile’s opposition to the bill led the Restored Virginia assembly to call for his resignation, but he ignored the resolution.
Carlile’s contemporaries had difficulty identifying a consistent set of principles underlying his conduct, and many of his longtime friends consequently vilified him. His political turns in the 1860s seemed to confirm his son’s assessment that “he would espouse what he considered to be a principle or the proper cause and he would throw the whole force of his intellect and zeal into the advocacy of it—uncaring for personal consequences.” Carlile’s political career effectively ended with the expiration of his term in March 1865. He moved to Frederick, Maryland, but, unable to rejuvenate his political fortunes there, he returned to Clarksburg in the summer of 1868. Carlile endorsed the Republican presidential candidate, Ulysses S. Grant, that year and the following year asked in return to be appointed minister to Brazil. Instead, Grant named him minister to Sweden, but Republican senators, reinforced by sharp objections from many West Virginians, blocked confirmation of the nomination. In 1869 Carlile unsuccessfully campaigned for a seat representing Harrison County in the West Virginia House of Delegates.
Carlile lived his last years on his farm near Clarksburg, West Virginia, and died in that town on October 24, 1878. He was buried in the local Odd Fellows Cemetery.