Alexander H. H. Stuart’s Legal Education and Certification
Active in politics at an early age, Stuart attended the Convention of National Republican Young Men in Washington, D.C., in May 1832 and a state convention in Staunton in July, both in support of Henry Clay’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. In essence, Stuart was a Whig all his life, from before the founding of the party until long after its demise. In 1836 he won election as a Whig to the first of three consecutive one-year terms in the House of Delegates. He was one of two members representing Augusta County and served on the Committee for Courts of Justice. Stuart was especially interested in the improvement of commercial transportation networks and in January 1838 drafted a report for the Committee on Roads and Internal Navigation (of which he was not a member) proposing a $5 million plan to build canals, roads, and railroads in western Virginia and to improve navigation of the James River. Political friction between eastern and western politicians and between Democrats and Whigs doomed the proposal. In February 1838 Stuart spoke at length against a successful motion to set aside the committee’s plan. He had his speech printed as a twenty-three-page pamphlet and received a low-ranking seat on the Committee on Roads and Internal Navigation the following year, but he was unable to revive the project.
Congress and the Cabinet
In April 1841 Stuart defeated Democrat James McDowell (a future governor and congressman) for the seat in the House of Representatives from the district consisting of the counties of Alleghany, Augusta, Botetourt, Floyd, Montgomery, Roanoke, and Rockbridge. In the Twenty-Seventh Congress, which met in three sessions from May 31, 1841, through March 3, 1843, Stuart served on the Committee on Expenditures in the Navy Department, and in February 1842 was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Committee on Foreign Affairs. At the opening of the first session Representative John Quincy Adams, the former president, renewed his campaign to rescind a rule of the House not to receive petitions against slavery. Stuart firmly believed in the right of citizens to petition Congress and was one of the few southern representatives who supported Adams. Stuart introduced the resolution that ultimately broke the deadlock that Adams’s motion to amend the rules had created.
The growing sectional divide about slavery and the division of the Whig Party following the death of President William Henry Harrison, which made Virginian John Tyler president, impaired the efforts of Stuart and other Whigs to employ the resources of the national government to stimulate economic development. Stuart strongly criticized Tyler’s opposition to a bill to create a national fiscal bank, and he supported a tariff to protect American and Virginian manufacturers. In 1843 Democrat William Taylor defeated Stuart when he ran for reelection.
Stuart continued to practice law in Staunton and remained active in Whig Party politics. As a result of his one term in Congress he was well known to many national politicians and in 1844 accepted an invitation to make an address that he entitled “The Rights, Duties and Responsibilities of the Working Men of America” at the American Institute of the City of New York. Stuart was a candidate for presidential elector on the unsuccessful Whig ticket in 1844 and the successful Whig ticket in 1848.
In September 1850 Stuart accepted appointment as secretary of the interior in the administration of Millard Fillmore. The Department of the Interior had been established in 1849 and consolidated the work of the General Land Office, the Office of Indian Affairs, and the Patent Office. Stuart was the new department’s third secretary in less than two years, and it fell to him to organize the bureaucracy. He also oversaw the initial work of the department’s Mexican Boundary Commission that between 1850 and 1857 settled the boundary between the United States and Mexico. His tenure concluded with the end of Fillmore’s term on March 4, 1853.
John Brown’s Raid and Secession
Stuart declined the Whig Party’s nomination to the Senate of Virginia that year. The national party disintegrated following the 1852 presidential election. Like many, but not all, Virginia Whigs, Stuart turned to the new American (Know Nothing) Party and hoped it would pursue the Whigs’ economic development policies. Know Nothings often exhibited nativism and religious prejudice and some of its northern supporters also opposed slavery. Virginia’s Democrats, hoping to win the votes of proslavery former Whigs, denounced the party during the 1855 gubernatorial election and even sought to portray the state’s Know Nothings as secret opponents of slavery. In the spring of 1856, after Democratic governor Henry A. Wise continued his criticism of the Know Nothings, Stuart replied with a series of twelve long letters published in the Richmond Whig and Public Advertiser and as a pamphlet, Twelve Letters over the Signature of “Madison,” on the American Question. Written by a Distinguished Virginian. Refraining from endorsing or opposing slavery, Stuart praised the American Party’s proposals to deny some immigrants rights he believed should belong exclusively to native-born Americans.
In 1857 Stuart won election to a four-year term in the Senate of Virginia to represent Augusta County. Following John Brown’s failed attempt to seize the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859, the General Assembly created a large joint committee to investigate the incident. Stuart was the senior senator on the committee. Its report condemned the raid as the product of Northern abolitionist agitation and recommended three main responses: strengthening local militia units, encouraging Virginia’s domestic manufacturing, and achieving commercial independence from the North. Some of the report’s arguments about the history and constitutionality of slavery and about Southern economic independence closely resembled Stuart’s known opinions.
Between the raid on Harpers Ferry and his appointment to the investigating committee, Stuart addressed the Central Agricultural Society of Virginia and advocated industrial and commercial development of Virginia as in the best interest of Southern agricultural prosperity. He indicated that he fully accepted slavery as an integral part of Virginia and Southern agriculture and believed that it also benefited the Northern economy. He feared that emancipation would result in devastating violence. Stuart owned nine enslaved people in 1860.
In the presidential election of 1860 Stuart supported the Constitutional Union Party’s candidate, John Bell, a former Whig congressman and Know Nothing senator from Tennessee who narrowly won Virginia’s electoral votes. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln led seven lower South slave states to secede early in the winter of 1860–1861. On February 4, 1861, Augusta County voters elected Stuart, John Brown Baldwin (Stuart’s brother-in-law), and George Baylor to represent the county in the state convention that met beginning on February 13 to deal with the secession crisis. All three men opposed secession. Appointed to the important Committee on Federal Relations, Stuart declined to serve on the grounds that he was still a member of the Senate of Virginia and would not neglect the duties of one appointment in order to fulfill the duties of another. Stuart voted against secession on April 4 when the motion failed by a two-to-one margin.
Four days later the convention directed Stuart and two other delegates to go to Washington to ask Lincoln about his plans for Fort Sumter. By the time they saw the president on April 13, the fort had surrendered, and Lincoln informed them that he planned to retake the fort and all other property of the federal government. Lincoln’s subsequent call for 75,000 militia, including men from Virginia, to put down the rebellion tipped the scales in the Virginia convention. On April 17 the convention voted 88 to 55 to submit an ordinance of secession to the voters for ratification. Stuart, Baldwin, and Baylor all voted against secession, but they remained loyal to Virginia and on June 14, at the second session of the convention, they signed the ceremonial copy of the ordinance.
At Stuart’s suggestion, on May 1, the last day of the convention’s first session, the president appointed a seven-member committee, with Stuart as chair, to prepare amendments to the state constitution. References to the United States needed to be changed to refer to the Confederate States after the convention ratified the constitution of the new confederacy; but Stuart’s committee, probably at his prompting, suggested several other important changes to the Constitution of 1851, which he condemned as too democratic. In his speech when introducing the proposals, Stuart blamed unrestrained democratic practices in free states for Lincoln’s election and the resulting Civil War. He also criticized free public schools in the North as dangerous. The committee recommended restricting the suffrage to adult white men who paid taxes, and a minority of the committee, almost certainly including Stuart, wished to restore to the assembly authority to elect the governor, reversing an 1851 reform that for the first time had allowed Virginia’s voters to elect governors. The committee also suggested restructuring the state’s court system and removing the voters’ rights to elect judges and other court officials. The convention accepted some of the committee’s recommendations and submitted a revised constitution to the voters, who in a referendum on March 13, 1862, rejected it.
Civil War and Reconstruction
Stuart held no public office in the government of Virginia or the Confederacy during the Civil War, but he made public speeches in support of relief efforts for soldiers. In March 1864 he declined an appointment to travel to Canada to support Confederate efforts aimed at securing an advantageous peace agreement with the United States. On May 8, 1865, a month after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Stuart chaired a mass meeting in Staunton, where resolutions were adopted to inform the U.S. Army that opposition to the federal government no longer existed in Augusta County and to ask the army’s protection for the people. He took oaths of allegiance to the United States and to the loyal government of Virginia as required by the General Assembly to be qualified to vote that autumn, and on October 12, he easily won election to the House of Representatives. The radical Republican majority in Congress refused to seat legislators from Virginia and other former Confederate states, however.
In June 1866 in a commencement address at the University of Virginia, Stuart lamented the end of old Virginia. In March 1867 when radical Republicans enjoyed majorities in both houses, Congress placed Virginia and most of the other former Confederate states under military rule and ordered them to write new state constitutions. Congress allowed African American men to vote in the election of delegates and be eligible to serve in the conventions. The delegates elected in October 1867 for the convention that met in Richmond from December 3 through the following April 17 included numerous men of northern birth, native white Virginians who had remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War, and two dozen African Americans, some of whom had been enslaved as recently as two or three years earlier. The radical agendas of Congress and of the convention led numerous respected prewar political leaders, many of them former Whigs, to form an opposition party. Stuart presided over the founding meeting of the Conservative Party in Richmond on December 11, 1867.
The constitution the convention adopted in April 1868 made numerous important changes in Virginia’s government. It reformed local government on more democratic lines, created the state’s first free public school system, and guaranteed all adult men the right to vote except former Confederate officers, soldiers, and most officeholders. Because the constitution allowed only men who were eligible to vote to serve on juries, it also excluded a large proportion of white Virginia men from jury service.
For a variety of reasons the army put off holding the necessary referendum to ratify the constitution and the general election scheduled for 1868. In the meantime the state Republican Party nominated three radicals for statewide office. Alarmed at the political prospect and opposed to many features of the proposed constitution, Stuart published a letter signed Senex in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on December 25, 1868, and recommended that a delegation of Conservatives write an alternative constitution to submit to Congress. On January 1, 1869, Conservatives appointed a nine-member committee to negotiate with congressional leaders and seek support from prominent northerners in and out of government. Stuart chaired the committee that, like the Conservative Party’s leadership, included mostly Whigs. Later that month, members of the Committee of Nine testified before the Reconstruction committee of the House of Representatives and the Judiciary committee of the Senate, met individually with many members, and conferred with President-elect Ulysses S. Grant. They reached an agreement to allow the ratification referendum to take place on July 6, 1869, when the voters could separately decide whether the disfranchisement clauses would be ratified or rejected. The voters then ratified the constitution and rejected disfranchisement of former Confederates. That preserved the right to vote for African American men and the other democratic reforms in the constitution. The following January Congress gave its formal approval and seated senators and representatives from the state, bringing Reconstruction in Virginia to an end.
Stuart never regained the statewide public attention he had received as leader of the Committee of Nine. In 1873 Augusta County voters elected him to one of its three seats in the House of Delegates. He was appointed chair of the important Committee on Finance. The most important issue the assembly then faced was how to pay the antebellum public debt that had been created to finance road, railroad, and canal construction. Some legislators, later known as Readjusters, wished to refinance the debt at a lower rate of interest or even repudiate part of the principal in order to fund the new public school system. Others, later called Funders, believed in paying the full principal and interest. Stuart identified with the Funders but was willing to allocate money for the schools. He had changed his mind about public education and believed that universal manhood suffrage under the new state constitution required educated citizens. Stuart won reelection in 1875, but resigned when the result was contested. In a special election in January 1876 he again won election and resumed his seat as chair of the Finance committee. When he retired from politics in 1877 the problems of the debt and paying for the schools had grown worse rather than better and political divisions about the debt grew wider.
Stuart was rector of the University of Virginia from 1876 to 1882 (when Funders forced out all the university’s officers) and again from 1886 (after the Readjusters had dissolved as a political party) to 1887, first president of the board of the Virginia Institution for the Education of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, in Staunton from 1839 to 1851, a trustee of the Peabody Education Fund from 1871 to 1889, and president of the Virginia Historical Society from 1881 until his death. In 1888 at the Virginia Historical Society’s request he published a small book containing texts of many of the important documents associated with the Committee of Nine. Stuart died at his Staunton home on February 13, 1891, and was buried next to his wife, who had died on November 16, 1885, in Thornrose Cemetery in that city. The Department of the Interior observed a thirty-day period of mourning, and many Virginia newspapers noted his passing as the end of an era.