The Consolidation of State and Judicial Power

By Huebner, Timothy S. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1994 | Go to article overview

The Consolidation of State and Judicial Power


Huebner, Timothy S., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


As a leading Virginia jurist from 1789 to 1822, Spencer Roane figured prominently in the major constitutional, legal, and political debates of his day. A renowned critic of the nationalism of the Marshall Court, he is best remembered for his political activities--for opposing the chief justice through a series of newspaper essays that championed the theory of state sovereignty. More often than not, historians, because they have focused on Roane's battle with John Marshall, have portrayed the Virginia judge as a state political boss--head of the so-called "Richmond Junto"--rather than as a member of one of the nation's most powerful judicial tribunals.(1) Yet Roane's record constituted more than the partisan sniping that filled the pages of the early nineteenth-century Richmond Enquirer. As a judge of the Virginia General Court for five years and the most prominent member of the state's Supreme Court of Appeals for twenty-seven, he played an important role in establishing the independence, power, and prestige of the state's judiciary by advancing the concept of judicial review, promoting unanimity among the judges, and deciding cases on the basis of settled legal precedents. Because his famous contest with Marshall over the nature of federalism originated as a battle over judicial power and jurisdiction within Virginia, Roane's views as a political writer can only be understood within the context of his work as a state judge. Roane's legacy, therefore, stems from his experience on the state bench as well as from his foray into national politics.

An examination of Roane's public life offers insights into the tradition of judging that developed in the early nineteenth-century South. Scholars have long neglected southern legal history in general and the region's judiciary in particular. While lavishing attention on planters and politicians, historians of the South have continued to overlook its professional class, including judges and lawyers.(2) Legal historians, for their part, have devoted equally little attention to southern jurists. The most comprehensive historical analysis of American judges, G. Edward White's American Judicial Tradition, despite its title, really focuses on a northern tradition of jurisprudence associated with such men as Lemuel Shaw, James Kent, Joseph Story, Samuel Miller, and Joseph Bradley. The only southerners who appear in White's book are Supreme Court justices, and aside from John Marshall, the only nineteenth-century southern jurists who merit White's attention are Roger B. Taney and John Marshall Harlan I--both from border states and therefore unrepresentative of the region as a whole. At the state level, the lack of biographical studies is particularly apparent. Historians know almost nothing about how even the most prominent southern state jurists dealt with issues of paramount importance to the nation's legal development.(3) An analysis of the judicial career of Roane--the preeminent jurist of the South's most important state during the early nineteenth century--provides a first step in redressing this historiographical imbalance.

Born in 1762 in Essex County, Virginia, the second son of William Roane, Jr., and Elizabeth Ball Roane, Spencer Roane came from a wealthy, well-connected Tidewater family of Scottish origin and grew up within the context of Virginia's tobacco culture.(4) Although William Roane, Jr., provided a comfortable life for his family, by the 1760s times were changing for the Tidewater gentry. A century of tobacco farming in Essex County had adversely affected the fertility of the soil, and fresh lands to the west and south began producing a better leaf for a more competitive price. Planters, whose lives had revolved around tobacco for generations, found themselves faced with having to adopt new staple crops, such as cotton, wheat, and corn.(5) Moreover, growing planter indebtedness to English merchant houses foreshadowed trouble with Great Britain. As international economic tensions rose, British creditors called in long-standing debts and caused Virginia's gentry to feel betrayed and dishonored. …

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