Spencer Roane

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Spencer Roane
Spencer Roane.jpg
Judge of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals
In office
April 13, 1795 – September 4, 1822
Personal details
Born (1762-04-04)April 4, 1762
Essex County, Virginia
Died September 4, 1822(1822-09-04) (aged 60)
Bath County, Virginia
Spouse(s) Anne Henry
Children William H. Roane, Fayette Roane
Alma mater College of William and Mary
Occupation Lawyer, politician, judge

Spencer Roane (April 4, 1762 – September 4, 1822) was a Virginia lawyer, politician, newsman and jurist. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates and as a judge of the Court of Appeals (which later became the Supreme Court of Virginia), where he served for 27 years.

Early life[edit]

Roane was born in Essex County, Virginia, on April 4, 1762. His father was William Roane, a Scotsman's son who had emigrated from Ireland in 1741 and served in the House of Burgesses before the American Revolutionary War.[1][2]

Spencer Roane attended private schools and entered the College of William and Mary about 1777. In 1780, Roane briefly studied law under Chancellor George Wythe, and later traveled to Philadelphia for additional legal studies. At age 22, Roane was appointed to the Virginia Council of State, and continued his legal career.[3] His father, William Roane, died in 1788.

In 1804, Roane persuaded his cousin Thomas Ritchie, a schoolteacher and bookstore owner, to establish the 'Richmond Enquirer' as an intellectual counterweight to the 'Virginia Gazette' (which supported the Whig party) and 'Richmond Recorder' (which supported the Federalists). The 'Enquirer' supported the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and others. Roane, Ritche and Dr. John Brockenbrough, all natives of Essex County, Virginia became known as the "Essex Junto" because of their political power in the county courts and the officeholders dependent on them.[4] John Randolph of Roanoke, John Taylor of Caroline County, Andrew Stevenson and Benjamin Watkins Leigh also later came to be characterized as members of what came to be called the Richmond junto.

Judicial career[edit]

In 1789, fellow legislators appointed the 27 year old Spencer Roane a judge of the General Court, where he continued until 1794. He resigned in order to accept appointment as a judge of the Court of Appeals. Roane sold Mahockney Plantation [5] and moved to Richmond. Roane remained an influential judge on that high court until his death on September 4, 1822.

Roane gained reputations for advocating States' Rights, as well as for opposing U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. This disagreement was partly political, because President John Adams appointed Marshall after losing the contested election, and President-elect Thomas Jefferson was rumored to favor Roane for the position. But their political divergence began years earlier, when Marshall agreed to represent abolition advocate Pleasants, the executor of Quaker merchant who sought to free slaves pursuant to his father's will, although such a provision had been illegal when drafted, as pointed out by other heirs who sought to have enslaved property. Roane's opinion in Pleasants v. Pleasants allowed the executor to free the slaves, but reinforced the legal basis for the "peculiar institution."

In 1815, Roane defied the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, which he feared marked a drift toward abolition of slavery.[citation needed] In 1819, Roane editorialized (under the pen names Hampden and Amphictyon) against Marshall and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in McCulloch v. Maryland.[6]

When in 1820, Marshall wrote for his court in Cohens v. Virginia, on its face simply concerning the sale of lottery tickets, but which also tested Federal jurisdiction over transactions completed entirely within a single state, Roane criticized the decision as the "zenith of despotic power" and "negatives the idea that the states have a real existence."[7] Roane had become the judicial voice of opponents of the National Bank, tariffs, and government funded internal improvements. He believed that the federal courts could not entertain lawsuits against states without their consent under tenth and eleventh amendments to the US Constitution, and wrote several opinions foreshadowing the Nullification Crisis.[citation needed]

Twice in his lifetime Judge Roane was appointed to committees to revise Virginia's laws, including the slave codes. Some of the correspondence between Jefferson and Roane remains, although Roane reportedly destroyed many papers before his death.[8]

Family relationships[edit]

Spencer Roane was named for Col. Nicholas Spencer, acting Governor of the state of Virginia in 1683-1684. Although Roane wasn't descended from Spencer, he was a family relation. (Col. John Mottrom, first member of the Virginia House of Burgesses for Northumberland County, had a son John Mottrom, who in turn had a son named Spencer Mottrom, named for Gov. Nicholas Spencer, who was married to John Mottrom Jr.'s sister. Capt. Spencer Mottrom's daughter Mary, in turn, was married to Joseph Ball, whose son Spencer Ball had a son Spencer Mottrom Ball, whose daughter married William Roane, father of Justice Spencer Roane.)[9]

Spencer Roane married Anne Henry (1767-1799), the daughter of Patrick Henry, Virginia governor and patriot.[10] Their son, William H. Roane, became a U.S. Senator from Virginia. Another son, Fayette Roane (1792-1819), predeceased his father.

Death and Legacy[edit]

Roane died on September 4, 1822 while visiting hot springs in what would become Virginia's westernmost counties after the secession of West Virginia during the Civil War. He is buried in the Brockenbrough Family Cemetery in Bath, Virginia.[11]

Roane County, West Virginia and Spencer, the county seat, are both named for Judge Roane. (Roane County, Tennessee, is named for a cousin, Archibald Roane.[2])


  1. ^ The William and Mary quarterly, Volume 4, page 249
  2. ^ a b Elbert Watson (1964) and David R. Sowell (1988), Papers of Governor Archibald Roane, 1801-1803, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
  3. ^ Dabney, Richmond: The Story of a City (University Press of Virginia, 1990 rev. ed), p. 66.
  4. ^ Dabney, p. 66, 116. The junto's activities were later glamorized as Virginia resisted the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. See Harry Ammon, The Richmond Junto:1800-1824, 16 Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (1953 no. 4) pp. 395-418(1953).
  5. ^ mahockney.org
  6. ^ Susan Dunn, Dominion of Memories (New York:Basic Books 2007) p. 143.
  7. ^ Dunn p. 146.
  8. ^ The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition, Lipscomb and Bergh, eds., vol. 15 (325).
  9. ^ William and Mary College Quarterly, Vol. XVII, Lyon G. Tyler, William and Mary College, Whittet & Shepperson, Richmond, Va., 1909
  10. ^ Patrick Henry's Family, Red Hill, Patrick Henry National Memorial, www.patrickhenry.com
  11. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=18472831