Alexander Spotswood (1676–1740)


Alexander Spotswood served as lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1710 until 1722, ruling robustly in the absence of Governor George Hamilton, earl of Orkney. Born in Tangier, Morocco, Spotswood moved with his mother to England in 1683 and joined the military in 1693. After a seventeen-year military career, Spotswood was commissioned lieutenant governor of Virginia. Spotswood initially sought to improve relations with American Indians through regulated trade, to end piracy, and to increase gubernatorial power. He frequently and publicly expressed his unbridled contempt for those members of the House of Burgesses and governor’s Council who disagreed with his policies and practices. But by the end of his administration, Spotswood had shifted from seeking to impose imperial will on Virginians to becoming a Virginian himself. He constructed ironworks in Spotsylvania County, making him the largest iron producer in the thirteen colonies, and designed and constructed the Bruton Parish Church building, a Williamsburg powder magazine, and the Governor’s Palace. He also served as deputy postmaster general for North America after 1730. He died in 1740 in Annapolis, Maryland, while raising troops for the British campaign against the Spanish in South America.

Early Years

Spotswood was born in the English colony of Tangier, Morocco, in 1676, where his father, Robert Spotswood, was a surgeon for the English garrison. Alexander’s mother, Catherine Spotswood, brought the young boy to England in 1683; his father died in 1688. In 1693 Spotswood began his military career as an ensign in the earl of Bath’s infantry regiment in Flanders; he rose through the ranks to lieutenant colonel. Spotswood was seriously wounded at the Battle of Blenheim (1704) during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714); legend has it that he was struck by a four-pound cannonball, which he kept as a souvenir and liked to show his guests. In 1708 he was taken prisoner in the Battle of Oudenarde, but John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, negotiated his release. By September 1709 Spotswood had become disappointed by failed promises of promotion and sought advancement outside the military, though he retained an interest in military matters throughout his life. On February 18, 1710, Queen Anne commissioned Spotswood as lieutenant governor of Virginia—a position he obtained either through Marlborough or through his friendship with George Hamilton, earl of Orkney and governor of Virginia (1704–1737).

Lieutenant Governorship

First General Assembly

In his first years as acting governor, Spotswood demonstrated his commitment to effective and efficient leadership, immediately tackling the colony’s major issues: security, Indian relations, and economic depression. But as Spotswood confronted these challenges to Virginia’s security and prosperity, he faced the dilemma of many other eighteenth-century colonial leaders: his responsibility to the colony exceeded his resources and his power to effect real change. Spotswood in particular had little support from the General Assembly. His arrival in Virginia had ended a four-year period during which the governor’s Council, a group of twelve men appointed by the Crown, ruled the colony without the assistance of a governor or the House of Burgesses. Spotswood made no effort to conceal his low opinion of Virginia’s government—especially the House of Burgesses, which he famously called “a Set of Representatives, whom Heaven has not generally endowed with the Ordinary Qualifications requisite to Legislators.”

Cartouche on Fry-Jefferson Map

In 1713, in an attempt to ameliorate both Virginia’s economy and his relationship with the General Assembly, Spotswood created the Tobacco Inspection Act. The act called for tobacco to be inspected before it entered the European market, which would ideally result in a smaller amount of higher-quality leaf that would increase demand and raise tobacco prices. To quell the anticipated resistance from the assembly’s planter elite—and to generate power for himself—Spotswood created patronage positions: forty inspectorships, worth £250 a year, which he awarded to twenty-nine of fifty-one sitting burgesses. Unfortunately for the governor, his patronage scheme failed. Tobacco prices did not increase immediately, and the inspection policy was unpopular with Virginia farmers. In the next election, all but one of the Spotswood appointees lost their legislative seats.


Spotswood also ran afoul of Virginians with the Indian Trade Act, which he established in 1714. The act granted the Virginia Indian Company, a joint-stock company, a twenty-year monopoly over American Indian trade, and charged the company with maintaining Fort Christanna, a settlement in southern Virginia for smaller Indian tribes. Establishing the company was Spotswood’s attempt to circumvent any political opposition by shifting some of the financial burden of defense against Indians from the colonial government to private enterprise, but in doing so, he angered those who had invested in private trade, such as William Byrd II.

Not all of Spotswood’s policies were so vehemently opposed. He sent the Virginia militia to the North Carolina border when Tuscarora Indian uprisings in 1711 and 1712 threatened that colony, and he took an aggressive stand against pirates, who were wreaking havoc on colonial trade in Virginia and North Carolina. It was Spotswood who in 1718 dispatched the force that killed the notorious Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, in Ocracoke. Spotswood also strengthened and expanded the colony’s western frontier by leading an expedition in the summer of 1716 across the Blue Ridge Mountains and down into the Shenandoah Valley. He claimed these lands for the king, and in the 1730s the area was settled as a buffer against French and Indian aggression. Similarly, he established a fortified settlement at Germanna on the Rapidan River as a frontier outpost.

The Bodleian Plate

Spotswood also left an indelible imprint on Virginia architecture during his tenure as lieutenant governor. Colonial Williamsburg, so familiar to latter-day tourists, features a town principally of his design: he helped to restore the College of William and Mary following a 1705 fire; he proposed a new Bruton Parish Church in 1710 and then designed the structure, which served as a model for numerous other churches in Virginia; and he constructed a powder magazine in Williamsburg in 1715. For Spotswood, these buildings stood as a cultural and military bulwark against Britain’s foes. Between 1710 and 1722 he oversaw the completion of the commanding Governor’s Palace. Spotswood was criticized for the project’s high cost, but plantation owners began to emulate the building’s Georgian architecture in their own homes as early as the 1720s, and by the mid-eighteenth century, the style was an indicator of wealth and power.

Removal from Office

Spotswood learned too late that he had several masters to please, each with a different set of interests: English merchants, imperial bureaucrats, and the Virginia planter elite. The last were so well connected to Britain and the Privy Council that they brought considerable pressure on policies that did not meet their favor. Indeed, by 1717 the imperial government had disallowed the Tobacco Inspection Act and the Indian Trade Act. Though the governor tried a number of schemes to increase his power—appointing judges for his newly created court of oyer and terminer, calling for new elections, trying to remove certain members of the Council (including Byrd), insisting he could appoint new parish ministers without consulting the local vestry—his political position had been sorely weakened. As a soldier, Spotswood was accustomed to commanding and being obeyed. As a governor, he had discovered that he could not overcome the increasing power of Virginia planters as exhibited through the House of Burgesses and Council.

Spotswood and the Council achieved a détente on April 29, 1720, when both parties resolved “to act for the future as cordial friends in the administration of the government.” Central to this change was Spotswood’s commitment to becoming a permanent Virginia resident. Later that year, as part of a series of land grants awarded to settlers to create a buffer against the French, the Council granted Spotswood 86,000 acres in the newly created Spotsylvania County. In a letter dated June 11, 1722, Spotswood wrote to the Board of Trade that the “angry proceedings of the Assembly in 1718” were “balanced by their good agreement in 1722.”

Reverend James Blair

Despite the Council’s change of heart and the apparent harmony that followed, Hugh Drysdale arrived in Virginia on September 25, 1722, to replace Spotswood as lieutenant governor. Historians are uncertain as to exactly why Spotswood was removed, but several factors may have contributed; the cumulative effect of ten years of vocal opposition from members of the House of Burgesses and the governor’s Council certainly played a role. Some historians have suggested that in accepting his massive land grant, Spotswood showed a disregard for Crown policy that could not be ignored (according to the Board of Trade, no single person or family was allowed to claim more than a thousand acres of land in Virginia). Another theory is that two of Virginia’s most powerful councillors, Byrd and the Reverend James Blair, were behind the dismissal. Byrd and Blair had never reconciled with the governor, and both were in London when the decision to replace Spotswood with Drysdale was made. If Blair did have a hand in Drysdale’s gubernatorial appointment, Spotswood would be the third consecutive Virginia governor Blair helped to unseat. Spotswood’s governorship demonstrated that cooperation with the Virginia elite could make or break a political career—a lesson from which future governors would benefit.

Later Years

Fireback from Germanna

Spotswood settled in Germanna on the Rapidan River in Spotsylvania County, where he had constructed a house or, as Byrd later described it, an “enchanted castle,” larger even than the Governor’s Palace (archaeological evidence indicates that the house was later abandoned and destroyed by 1750). He diverged from the Virginia norm of cultivating wealth through tobacco by building the South’s first ironworks—though he, too, relied on slave labor to run his business. Spotswood became a major producer of iron, which he exported primarily to England while also manufacturing iron products for Virginia.

In 1724, Spotswood returned to England to secure title to his lands in Virginia and to determine the taxes on the vast grants. That same year he married Anne Butler Brayne of St. Margaret’s Parish, Westminster, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. With the final confirmation of his large grants and clarification of his taxes in February 1729, Spotswood was able to return to Virginia in the same year with his wife and her sister. In 1730, imperial officials appointed him to a ten-year term as deputy postmaster general for North America. In addition to bringing postal service as far south as Williamsburg (it had previously extended only to Philadelphia), he selected Benjamin Franklin as Philadelphia postmaster in 1737.

Anne Spotswood

When war with Spain broke out in 1739, Spotswood resumed his military career. He was appointed a brigadier general in the British army and second in command to Major General Charles Cathcart. At long last, Spotswood had fulfilled his dream of military advancement. But he never saw battle: after suffering a short illness, he died on June 7, 1740, in Annapolis, Maryland, where he had traveled to organize troops and consult with colonial governors. His burial site is unknown.

Alexander Spotswood is born in the English colony of Tangier, Morocco, to Robert and Catherine Spotswood.
October 1683
Catherine Spotswood and her son Alexander move from Tangier, Morocco, to England.
Alexander Spotswood joins the British military, beginning his career as an ensign in the earl of Bath's infantry regiment in Flanders.
August 13, 1704
Alexander Spotswood is wounded at the Battle of Blenheim during the War of Spanish Succession.
July 11, 1708
The French take Alexander Spotswood prisoner during the Battle of Oudenarde during the War of Spanish Succession. John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, negotiates Spotswood's release.
February 18, 1710
Queen Anne signs Alexander Spotswood's commission as lieutenant governor of Virginia.
June 21, 1710
The new lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood, lands in Jamestown.
June 23, 1710
Alexander Spotswood publishes the royal commission outlining his power and authority as governor of Virginia, and assumes his post as lieutenant governor.
Alexander Spotswood helps to rebuild the College of William and Mary, which was damaged in a 1705 fire.
Construction of the Governor's Palace, in Williamsburg, begun in 1705, is completed with the encouragement of Alexander Spotswood.
Alexander Spotswood proposes the construction of a new Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg.
Alexander Spotswood sends the Virginia militia to the North Carolina border in response to that colony's request for help quelling Indian uprisings.
November 1713
Alexander Spotswood introduces the Tobacco Inspection Act, which requires that tobacco be inspected before entering the European market. The act incorporates a patronage scheme, creating forty tobacco inspectorships worth £250 a year. Spotswood will award twenty-nine of these inspectorships to sitting burgesses.
December 1714
Alexander Spotswood endorses the Indian Trade Act, which gives the Virginia Indian Company a twenty-year monopoly on trade with Native Americans and charges the company with maintaining Fort Christanna, a settlement in southern Virginia.
A powder magazine, the construction of which is supported by Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood, is completed in Williamsburg.
September 7, 1715
Alexander Spotswood dissolves the House of Burgesses after a five-week session, calling them "a Set of Representatives, whom Heaven has not generally endowed with the Ordinary Qualifications requisite to Legislators."
Alexander Spotswood takes up residence in the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg.
Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood promotes expansion into the Blue Ridge Mountains when his "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe" expedition crosses into the Shenandoah Valley. He and a party of about fifty gentlemen, possibly including William Dandridge, embark on the expedition; German and Scots-Irish families from Pennsylvania soon follow.
In response to pressure from influential Virginia politicians, the Privy Council disallows the Tobacco Inspection Act and the Indian Trade Act, both sponsored by Alexander Spotswood.
November 22, 1718
The pirate Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, is killed in a fight with a party of soldiers and sailors, led by Robert Maynard and commissioned by Virginia lieutenant governor Alexander Spotswood.
April 29, 1720
Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood and the governor's Council end a ten-year period of tense relations by resolving "to act for the future as cordial friends in the administration of the government."
December 1720
The governor's Council awards Alexander Spotswood 86,000 acres in the newly created Spotsylvania County.
James Blair leaves on a third trip to England to lobby for the removal of an executive, this time Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. While abroad Blair arranges for the publication of a five-volume collection of his sermons.
April 3, 1722
Hugh Drysdale is appointed lieutenant governor of Virginia after the king's ministers decide to replace Alexander Spotswood.
Alexander Spotswood sails to England to secure title to his Virginia lands and to settle taxation issues.
Alexander Spotswood marries Anne Butler Brayne in England. They will have two sons and two daughters.
February 1729
Spotswood returns to Virginia with his wife, Anne Spotswood, and his sister-in-law, Dorothea Brayne.
Alexander Spotswood is appointed deputy postmaster general of North America for a ten-year term. During his tenure, he extends postal service south to Williamsburg and appoints Benjamin Franklin postmaster of Philadelphia.
The British decide to use colonial troops in their military campaign against Spanish provinces in the Americas. Alexander Spotswood is appointed brigadier general and quartermaster general of troops in America.
June 7, 1740
On a trip to Annapolis, Maryland, to raise troops and consult with colonial governors in preparation for an attack on the Spanish in Cartagena, Colombia, Alexander Spotswood dies after a brief illness. His burial site is unknown.
  • Billings, Warren M., John E. Selby, and Thad W. Tate. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains, New York: KTO Press, 1986.
  • Brock, R. A., ed. The Official Letters of Alexander Spotswood. 2 vols. Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1882–1885.
  • Dodson, Leonidas. Alexander Spotswood, Governor of Colonial Virginia, 1710–1722. New York: AMS Press, 1932.
  • Havighurst, Walter. Alexander Spotswood: Portrait of a Governor. Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg, 1967.
  • Lenman, Bruce P. “Alexander Spotswood and the Business of Empire.” Colonial Williamsburg 13, no. 1 (1990): 44–55.
  • Morton, Richard L. Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960.
  • Shrock, Randall. “Maintaining the Prerogative: Three Royal Governors in Virginia as a Case Study, 1710–1758.” PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1980.
APA Citation:
Shrock, Randall. Alexander Spotswood (1676–1740). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/spotswood-alexander-1676-1740.
MLA Citation:
Shrock, Randall. "Alexander Spotswood (1676–1740)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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