Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Preserving the Patrimony: William Branch Giles and Virginia versus the Federal Tariff

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Preserving the Patrimony: William Branch Giles and Virginia versus the Federal Tariff

Article excerpt

DUMAS MALONE once wrote of Virginia's William Branch Giles that "[p)ersonal animosities frequently marred the clarity of his political judgment and rendered his career erratic and essentially destructive."' The truth is rather different: the reason that the great Jefferson biographer judged Giles so harshly is that the statesman found himself in opposition to virtually every other prominent politician of his day at one time or another. Yet Giles's career was not destructive; he was a profoundly conservative man whose public writings in a career spanning four decades show a steady fealty to Virginia's way of life, Virginia's constitutional principles, and Virginia's institutions.2 William Branch Giles was devoted to saving Virginia from those who would have incorporated it into a larger, in some ways very different, entity.

His love of things Virginian set Giles apart from both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, each of whom was dedicated to projects intended to make Virginia less Virginian by making it more American. In Jefferson's case, this inclination grew out of great uneasiness with various aspects of the "state of Virginia" and a desire to participate in the "republic of letters."3 In Madison's case, unhappiness with the performance of Virginia's (and other states') legislatures in the decade before the adoption of the federal Constitution of 1787 led to disdain for the state governments and concoction of devices for undermining their authority.4

William Branch Giles is best known for his part in the attempt by oppositionists in Congress in 1793 to censure Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton for financial wrongdoing. The Giles Resolutions explicitly accused the New Yorker of malfeasance, and although they were rejected, they earned Giles immortal fame (perhaps infamy) as the hatchet man for Jefferson and Madison. All three Republicans viewed Hamilton as a threat to the sociopolitical order, and so they opposed him vigorously.5 Giles could be bombastic, and his initiatives were often as stark and bold as his views. Many of his political opponents held his opposition to them to be an asset.6 His political tactics, such as the anti-tariff resolutions of 1827, were often thought too inflammatory to help his cause.7

Historians are wont to portray the nullification crisis of the 1830s as a result of an insulated, peculiar political culture in South Carolina, an exotic tropical carbuncle best lanced and forgotten. The typical telling has John C. Calhoun, James Hamilton, Jr., Robert Y. Hayne, and their compatriots launching out on paths uncharted before their time, while a geriatric James Madison tried furiously to highlight the distinctions between 1798 and 1828.8 William Branch Giles's career gives the lie to that interpretation.9 In the Virginia Senate in 1798, Giles was the sponsor of the Virginia Resolutions-the General Assembly's manifesto of opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts and the touchstone of all of Virginia's antebellum political discourse. His position, stated openly at the time, was that Virginia should secede. In a public letter on 21 February 1799, he declared that he preferred dissolution of the Union to ongoing submission to the Federalist program and added, "I consider. . . disunion as a deplorable event but less deplorable, than a perpetuation of expensive armies, perpetuity of expensive navies, perpetuity of excessive taxes, and all the other oppressive consequences resulting therefrom."10 The constitutional views that led him to that conclusion remained firm throughout his career; more famous Virginia politicians, such as James Madison, shrank from their full implications.

Giles served in Congress into Madison's second term as president, when ill health and disgruntlement led him to retire. After a ten-year hiatus, though, Giles was persuaded by the actions of the second Adams administration that the Virginia doctrines of '98 must be brought down off the shelf and proclaimed to all the world. …

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