Claiborne was born on February 1, 1775, in Sussex County and was the son of first cousins William Claiborne and his first wife, Mary Leigh Claiborne. His uncle Thomas Claiborne served five terms in the House of Representatives. Claiborne’s father suffered financial reverses during and after the Revolutionary War and by 1782 had moved the family to Manchester, opposite Richmond, where he engaged in trade. Mary Leigh Claiborne died in April 1782 and, about a year later, Claiborne’s father remarried.
Claiborne received a classical education at a Richmond academy and by March 1798 had moved to Lee County and was practicing law. By the spring of 1801 he had settled in Franklin County, where on May 4 of that year he became commonwealth’s attorney and in November 1803 a captain in the militia. Between 1802 and 1806 he bought more than 800 acres of land north of the Blackwater River on which he built Claybrook, his home for the rest of his life. On May 17, 1815, he married Elizabeth Archer Binford, of Goochland County, whom John Quincy Adams once toasted as the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Their six daughters and five sons included Nathaniel Charles Claiborne, a member of the Convention of 1850–1851.
Claiborne resigned as commonwealth’s attorney on April 2, 1810, after winning election to the first of two one-year terms in the House of Delegates representing Franklin County. He served on the Committee for Courts of Justice during both the 1810–1811 and 1811–1812 sessions. During his first term he objected to the numbers of and salaries for the judges of the Virginia Court of Appeals and also the length of time it took to adjudicate cases. He preferred county courts “as the sacred barriers between the multitude and oppression.” He voted to instruct Virginia’s congressional delegation to do all in its power to prevent renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States, but he approved a new bank in Lynchburg.
On January 7, 1812, the General Assembly elected Claiborne to the Council of State, which shared executive powers with the governor during the War of 1812. The Council proceedings record few dissents by Claiborne to actions the governor and Council took. He regularly attended Council meetings through 1814, but after his marriage in May 1815 his attendance became sporadic. He resigned on April 1, 1817, after having missed about three weeks in February and March and ceasing to attend altogether after March 13.
During the War of 1812 Claiborne wrote “The Crisis,” a series of articles and commentaries on political and military affairs. In 1819 he published several of those essays in Notes on the War in the South; with Biographical Sketches of the Lives of Montgomery, Jackson, Sevier, the Late Gov. Claiborne, and Others, an account of Andrew Jackson’s campaign against the Creek Indians and of the Battle of New Orleans. He also included a short biography of his elder brother William Charles Cole Claiborne, a Tennessee congressman, territorial and state governor of Louisiana, and U.S. senator.
In 1818 the governor appointed Claiborne one of twenty-four commissioners authorized to determine a location for the new University of Virginia. Meeting at Rockfish Gap beginning on August 1 of that year, Claiborne voted with the majority to select Albemarle County as the home for the proposed institution and also declined a professorship at the university.
In April 1821 voters in the counties of Franklin, Henry, Patrick, and Pittsylvania elected Claiborne to the Senate of Virginia for a four-year term. During the 1821–1822 assembly he served on a committee concerning separate elections in Patrick County, but after January 31, 1822, he took a leave of absence for the rest of the session. In the 1822–1823 and 1823–1824 sessions he sat on the Committee of Privileges and Elections. Claiborne also served on a committee on enrolled bills in the 1822–1823 session and on the Committees of Claims and of General Laws in the 1823–1824 and 1824–1825 assemblies. Although he believed that the states, rather than Congress, should be responsible for financing internal improvements, he voted against most of the improvements bills that came before the Senate during his four years’ service.
In April 1823 Claiborne sought the Seventh Congressional District seat in the House of Representatives but lost the tainted contest to Jabez Leftwich, of Bedford County. Each county within a congressional district set its own dates for voting, and usually the running tally was public knowledge before the election ended. Leftwich lagged Claiborne by 814 votes after every county except Bedford had conducted its poll. Bedford County election officials held the voting precincts open for several additional days, and as a result Leftwich outpolled Claiborne 1,180 to 47 there, for a 319-vote overall victory. Claiborne campaigned again in 1825, and again the Bedford polls remained open longer than proper. This time, however, Claiborne’s lead held up, and he defeated the incumbent Leftwich by 78 votes.
Reelected five times, Claiborne represented Bedford, Franklin, Henry, and Patrick counties from 1825 to 1837. He usually supported the policies of President Andrew Jackson until 1832, when he began to vote with the anti-Jackson faction. Appointed to the Committee of Elections in the second session of the Nineteenth Congress (1825–1827), Claiborne chaired that committee from 1833 to 1837. He seldom made formal remarks during his congressional service and routinely opposed most proposals, including internal improvements at national expense and increased protective tariffs. He also voted against most pension and relief bills because he believed
Claiborne delivered aagainst the tariff of 1828 because he favored free trade and opposed any tariff that benefited one region to the detriment of the southern or western economies. Without recording his reasons, he supported the tariff bill of 1832 that pushed South Carolina to nullification, as well as Henry Clay’s compromise tariff of 1833, while opposing the Force Bill. In July 1832 Claiborne voted against rechartering the second Bank of the United States but broke with Jackson over other fiscal policy, particularly the president’s removal of public money deposited with the bank. In May of that year Claiborne attended an anti-Jackson Republican convention in Baltimore gathered to choose a vice presidential candidate.
Claiborne lost his reelection bid in May 1837 to Archibald Stuart and retired to his farm near Rocky Mount. He died at Claybrook on August 15, 1859, and was buried in the family cemetery there.
- Notes on the War in the South; with Biographical Sketches of the Lives of Montgomery, Jackson, Sevier, the Late Gov. Claiborne, and Other Virginia Cases, or Decisions of the General Court of Virginia (1819)