Early Life and Education
Fitzhugh was born in Stafford County on March 9, 1792, the youngest child and only son of Ann Randolph Fitzhugh and William Fitzhugh, who served in the American Revolution (1775–1783) and as a member of the Continental Congress. Fitzhugh lived at Chatham with his family along the banks of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg until 1796, when they moved north. His father, William Fitzhugh, built a house on the 12,000-acre Ravensworth tract in Fairfax County and purchased a large town house in Alexandria, but retained the Chatham estate in Stafford County for another decade.
Fitzhugh attended the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton University) and received a bachelor of arts degree in 1808. He graduated with academic honors and gave the Latin salutatory address at the final school ceremony. During the War of 1812 Fitzhugh served in the 1st Corps d’Elite of the Virginia militia under.
When his father died in 1809, Fitzhugh inherited the vast majority of his estate, including Ravensworth, the house in Alexandria, and more than 200 enslaved individuals. Fitzhugh was just seventeen years old, and his mother had died four years earlier. The guardians appointed with responsibility for him until he reached twenty-one included his two brothers-in-law, William Craik and.
American Colonization Society
Fitzhugh was greatly influenced by his older sister,. She married Martha Washington‘s grandson George Washington Parke Custis in 1804 and they moved to the newly constructed across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Custis was an Episcopal lay leader and a member of Christ Church in Alexandria. As a devout Christian, she found the institution of slavery to be in direct conflict with her beliefs. She developed strong connections with some of her enslaved workers, although the relationships were by definition unequal. Custis taught the enslaved children at Arlington to and endeavored to instruct the enslaved men and women in Christianity. Custis was an early supporter of the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, more commonly known as the American Colonization Society (ACS), and encouraged her brother to become involved.
The ACS was controversial in its own time and continues to be so today. Formed in Washington, D.C., in 1816, its mission was to colonize free people of color to the west coast of Africa. The controversy arises from the fact that the ACS held appeal to both sides of the debate over the issue of how to deal with the continued existence of slavery in the United States. Some proponents viewed it as a positive way to provide formerly enslaved people with a life free of racial prejudice, and others saw it as a way to rid the United States of the problem of the rising numbers of free blacks. The society had support from a number of prominent Virginians including‘s nephew Bushrod Washington, , James Monroe, and , who served as president of the ACS for a time. Not just a southern institution, the ACS had support throughout the country through a variety of newspapers and serial publications including the National Intelligencer, published in Washington, D.C.; the North American Review in Boston; and the Quarterly Christian Spectator of New Haven, Connecticut.
Fitzhugh constructed single-familyfor the enslaved men, women, and children at Ravensworth at the urging of his sister Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis. The inventory of his estate reveals that most of the enslaved people were listed in family groups with last names included for many, a practice initiated by his father. Fitzhugh established a program at Ravensworth that enabled the enslaved individuals to work for pay and put the surplus from their expenses toward their freedom.
Fitzhugh was elected vice president of the American Colonization Society in 1820. He defended the ACS against both proslavery and antislavery critics during his time as vice president of the organization. He continued to support the ACS through a series of essays written under the pseudonym “Opimius” that appeared in the Richmond Enquirer between 1825 and 1826 and in the African Repository and Colonial Journal in 1827. In the essays, Fitzhugh argued that the ACS represented a middle ground between the continuation of the institution of slavery and the outright abolition of slavery. He believed that by establishing a colony for free blacks in Africa, there eventually would be a decline in slavery in the United States as slave owners saw the benefits of removing blacks, enslaved or free, from the country.
Although sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved, Fitzhugh did not see a way that free blacks could ever be fully integrated into society. Slave uprisings, such as, which occurred just north of Richmond in 1800, were a source of anxiety for slave owners. Although the plot was interrupted before it could occur, it resulted in the arrest and prosecution of more than seventy enslaved men and the hanging of twenty-six individuals. The incident inspired the General Assembly to strengthen existing laws regarding enslaved workers. Five years later, in 1805, a slave uprising occurred at Chatham, the estate in Stafford County where Fitzhugh was born. On January 2, 1805, six enslaved men refused to return to work and overpowered and captured the overseer of Chatham. By the end of the incident, one of the enslaved men had been killed, another was wounded, and another had drowned in the river. One of the white men involved died as a result of his injuries. The three remaining enslaved men were tried and condemned to death; one was executed, and the other two were sold out of the country. Although the Fitzhughs were not living at Chatham at the time, and William Henry Fitzhugh was only twelve, the incident must have been on the minds of everyone in the vicinity. One year later, his father sold Chatham.
On January 10, 1814, William Henry Fitzhugh married Anna Maria Goldsborough. Her father, Charles Goldsborough, was a U.S. congressman from Maryland from 1805 to 1818 and then governor of Maryland from 1818 to 1819. The couple lived exclusively at Ravensworth after selling in 1820 the Alexandria townhouse that Fitzhugh had inherited from his father Although they did not have any children of their own, their large home served as a gathering place for extended family and friends.
Fitzhugh participated in both local business and politics. He was a director of the Union Bank in Alexandria. On July 4, 1813, Fitzhugh delivered a speech at the Presbyterian Meeting House before the Washington Society of Alexandria, a group that formed in January 1800, just a month after George Washington’s death. (Fitzhugh’s father had been its first president.) The lengthy speech paid homage to George Washington and other heroes of the Revolutionary War generation.
Fitzhugh was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1811 to 1816 and again from 1828 to 1829. He also served as a state senator from 1819 to 1822. Fitzhugh was a member at the Convention of 1829–1830 and, along with Richard R. Henderson, Charles Fenton Mercer, and James Monroe, represented the district comprising Fairfax County and Loudoun County. He participated fully in the debates and generally supported democratic reforms. Fitzhugh voted against final adoption of the new constitution, however, because he believed it did not go far enough in instituting significant changes in the state.
Fitzhugh died suddenly, possibly of an aneurysm, on May 21, 1830, at the age of thirty-eight while visiting his wife’s family in Cambridge, Maryland. Fitzhugh was buried in the family cemetery at Ravensworth, but the grave marker was moved to Pohick Episcopal Church Cemetery in 1957 after the Ravensworth land was sold to developers. The estate was left in his wife’s care until her death in 1874, when it was divided between the children ofand . Mary Lee was the only child of William Henry Fitzhugh’s sister, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis.
Fitzhugh’s will stated that his enslaved workers would be freed after the year 1850. The inventory of his estate at the time of his death in 1830 contained the names of 208 enslaved individuals. The will directed that newly freed people were to receive funds to aid in their relocation to wherever they wanted to live. Additionally, if they elected to emigrate to Liberia, they would receive a onetime payment of fifty dollars. However, there is no evidence that any of them ultimately chose to go to Liberia. Anna Maria Fitzhugh honored the dictates of her husband’s will. Between January 1850 and February 1851, sixty-one of Fitzhugh’s formerly enslaved workers appeared at the Fairfax County Court to register as free blacks. Although Virginia law required that all manumitted individuals leave the state within a year of receiving freedom, at least three of Fitzhugh’s formerly enslaved workers petitioned to remain in the state and all three received approval to remain.