Early Years and Ministry
James Wesley Hunnicutt was born on October 16, 1814, in Pendleton District, in northwestern South Carolina, the son of James Hunnicutt and Nancy Hunnicutt. He had a religious experience in his youth and became a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church about 1832. Hunnicutt attended Randolph-Macon College from 1834 to 1836 but did not receive a degree. He executed a marriage bond on June 13, 1836, and on that date or soon thereafter married Martha Frances Smith in Lunenburg County. Before she died on April 3, 1850, they had six children, of whom two sons and one daughter lived to adulthood.
By 1841, Hunnicutt disapproved of the Methodists’ practice of baptizing infants and founded the Union Baptists (not the denomination of that name that emerged after the Civil War). In 1842 he published A Summary of the Doctrines, Held and Maintained by the Union Baptists: To Which is Annexed a Recantation of Infant Baptism, and during the following years he formed congregations in Virginia, in eastern North Carolina, and perhaps elsewhere. Hunnicutt moved to Fredericksburg in 1847 and the next year established a weekly newspaper, the Christian Banner. He became a respected member of the community, and in 1857 was one of the city’s delegates to the Southern Commercial Convention that met in Knoxville, Tennessee. Hunnicutt supported slavery and paid taxes on one slave over age sixteen in 1860 and hired two additional enslaved workers that year. In 1854 he opposed the creation of an African American Baptist church in Fredericksburg. On August 23, 1854, he married a member of his congregation, Elvira Magers Samuel. They had no children.
Throughout 1860, Hunnicutt became increasingly troubled at talk about possible secession of Southern states and in June wrote in his newspaper, “Our country is demented; we fear it is doomed.” During that year’s presidential campaign he advocated uniting the two Democratic Party factions with the Constitutional Union Party to defeat the Republicans and preserve the status quo, including slavery and the internal slave trade. After Abraham Lincoln won the election, Hunnicutt predicted that Southern secession would bring increased abolitionist activity, civil war, autocracy, and the end of slavery. While the Virginia convention called to consider the question of secession was meeting in Richmond, Hunnicutt spoke at a pro-Union meeting in Fredericksburg on March 11, 1861. Advocates of secession packed the building, and in the ensuing chaos the meeting had to be abruptly canceled. Bowing to pressure from local secessionists, Hunnicutt ceased publishing the Christian Banner on May 9, but in the May 23 referendum, he voted for secession after a friend convinced him that it was the only way for him to preserve his reputation and his church. Nevertheless, his Union Baptist denomination began to decline.
During the first year of the Civil War, Hunnicutt operated a boarding house in Fredericksburg. After the U.S. Army entered Fredericksburg in April 1862, he resumed publication of the Christian Banner on May 9. He denounced secession and wrote that the many enslaved people who emancipated themselves by running away and seeking asylum with the army vindicated his earlier predictions. On July 2, Hunnicutt argued that slavery had led to war and that resettling all African Americans out of the country would be a preliminary step toward reuniting the country. At the end of August, U.S. troops withdrew from the city, leading Hunnicutt to flee on the 29th to the taunts of his neighbors. He settled in Philadelphia that November and published The Conspiracy Unveiled, a collection of his newspaper editorials. He spent the remainder of the war years speaking for the Union and campaigning for Republican candidates in the United States.
Hunnicutt returned to Virginia after the war ended and established a Republican newspaper in Richmond. He published a single issue of the New Nation in October 1865, and then embarked on a fund-raising tour. The following February Hunnicutt testified before the Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction and charged that even though the old prosecession political leaders had accepted the outcome of the war and the abolition of slavery, they intimidated voters who had been Unionists, ignored the rights of African Americans, and hoped to elect a sympathetic national government that would compensate them for their loss of slaves and property. Hunnicutt returned to Richmond and in March resumed publishing the New Nation. In its first regular issue he stressed that as citizens of the United States African Americans were entitled to their full legal rights, and in July he supported black militia units drilling under arms. His radicalism troubled some moderate Republicans, such as John Minor Botts, a former Whig, but that made him popular among the freedpeople. Hunnicutt spoke before large crowds during the April 3, 1866, celebrations commemorating end of slavery and the fall of Richmond.
Hunnicutt began working diligently to organize the city’s African American voters. In January 1867 he and black businessman Albert Royal Brooks submitted a petition to Congress with 2,400 signatures asking for equal rights for all citizens and a new provisional state government. After Congress passed the first Reconstruction Act in March, Hunnicutt gave speeches that criticized Virginia’s government for not protecting black men’s rights. At the April 1867 Republican Party State Convention held in Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, he won election to the party’s executive committee. Moderate Republicans, including Botts and Governor Francis Harrison Pierpont, met with the radical faction and northern Republicans in June and called for another state convention. When it met on August 1, Hunnicutt’s supporters gained control and the convention again adopted a platform that called for equal legal and political rights, and public schools.
Many white observers feared Hunnicutt’s perceived role as the commander of politically active African Americans. He received death threats, and after giving a speech in September in which he appeared to call for blacks to take up arms against whites, he was temporarily jailed. Hunnicutt’s African American supporters dominated Richmond’s Republican convention when it met on October 14, 1867, and where they nominated delegates for the constitutional convention required by the Reconstruction Act. Five Radicals received unanimous nominations for the city’s five seats—Hunnicutt, John C. Underwood, Lewis Lindsey, James Morrissey, and Joseph Cox—all of whom won election later that month.
During the convention that met from December 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868, Hunnicutt was chair of the Committee on the Elective Franchise and Qualifications for Office and a member of the Committee on Agricultural and Industrial Interests and Immigration. He later stated that he helped engineer the election of Underwood as president. Hunnicutt persuaded the delegates to give him the printing contract for the convention’s proceedings, and the convention’s journal and accompanying documents were printed, but investigations into the stenography and printing costs contributed to the publication of only one volume of the debates, resulting in an incomplete published record of the convention. The report from Hunnicutt’s committee on the franchise called for universal male suffrage except for former Confederates who had previously held positions in the U.S. government, although the committee recommended empowering the General Assembly to restore their voting rights by a two-thirds vote in both houses. The committee also recommended that voting be by secret ballot rather than by voice vote and that African American men be allowed to serve on juries. When the convention adopted a modified version of the recommendation that increased the number of former Confederates disfranchised, Hunnicutt did not vote. He regularly voted with the other Radicals during the convention but did not vote when a Radical proposal to require racial integration of the new public school system failed. As with most members of his party, on April 17, 1868, Hunnicutt voted for the new constitution, which was ratified by the voters without the disabling clauses in July 1869.
Hunnicutt’s political power began to erode during the convention. He proposed an unpopular investigation of employers who reportedly fired workers for voting Republican, and his seemingly conciliatory suggestion that the convention restore former-Confederate voting rights in exchange for accepting the Reconstruction Acts backfired. Much of his speech introducing the resolution blamed secession and the Civil War on powerful leaders who deluded poor whites and sought to expand slavery. His statements led to three days of arguments about Hunnicutt’s actions during the secession crisis. Two of his opponents accused him of making plans for secession supporters to occupy Fort Monroe, and others mentioned his opposition to the African American church in Fredericksburg. African Americans outside of Richmond lost faith in Hunnicutt as he began alienating reformers and Radical Republicans. While the convention was still in session, Chicago publisher Joseph Medill suggested to Underwood that they establish an alternative newspaper under the editorship of reformer Edward Dwight Daniels, replacing Hunnicutt’s New Nation as the Republican Party’s Virginia voice.
After General John M. Schofield, the military commander of Virginia, dismissed Pierpont from the governor’s office as of April 4, 1868, Hunnicutt and another Radical leader, John Hawxhurst, both hoped to be appointed provisional governor, but the general appointed a moderate Republican, Henry Horatio Wells, instead. Hunnicutt sought the party’s nomination when it held its convention on May 6, but he finished far behind Wells. Elections in Virginia, however, were suspended during 1868. Late in October the less-radical Daily State Journal moved from Alexandria to Richmond and received the lucrative government printing contract previously held by the New Nation. In the final issues before Hunnicutt ceased publication on December 18, he lamented that African Americans no longer trusted him and that northern Republicans had undercut southern Unionists.
In March 1869 Radical Republicans elected a ticket for the upcoming statewide elections that included Wells as the candidate for governor and J. D. Harris, an African American physician, as the candidate for lieutenant governor. In response, moderate Republicans selected an alternate ticket under the banner of True Republicans, which was supported by Conservatives. A supporter of the True Republicans, Hunnicutt was a candidate for the House of Representatives from the district that included Richmond and nine adjacent counties. He began his campaign in May with a series of speeches insisting that he had not changed his views or abandoned equal rights for blacks, but during at least one of his speeches some African Americans in the audience heckled him. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, previously one of his most impassioned opponents, endorsed Hunnicutt one week before the July 6, 1869, election, but he lost to Charles Howell Porter.
Hunnicutt then retired to Brooke Station farm in Stafford County. In 1874 he unsuccessfully petitioned Congress for relief from financial losses suffered in the war. Hunnicutt died of unknown causes in Stafford County on October 8, 1880, and was buried in the Fredericksburg City Cemetery.