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 and jurist. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates for six years and a year in the Commonwealth's small executive branch (Council of State). The majority of his public career was as a judge, first of the General Court and later (for 27 years) on the Court of Appeals (which later became the Supreme Court of Virginia).

Early life and family connections[edit]

Roane was born in Tappahannock on April 4, 1762.[1][2] His grandfather, William Roane, of Scots-Irish descent, had emigrated from Ireland in 1741 to Essex County, Virginia, and married a local woman, who bore him six children. The family prospered: Spencer's father William (who also owned plantations in nearby King and Queen County) served in the House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1774, as the prosecutor (deputy King's attorney) for Essex County, and as a colonel of the county militia during the American Revolutionary War.

Spencer Roane received his initial schooling at home, under a Scottish tutor named Bradfute. He then entered the College of William and Mary aged 14, to study law under the tutelege of George Wythe, from whom he gained great appreciation of Edward Coke and the English system of property rights. Roane also became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, along with future U.S. Supreme Court justices Bushrod Washington and John Marshall. After graduating in 1780, Roane traveled to Philadelphia for two years of additional legal studies in the then-nation's capitol.

His father, William Roane, died in 1788, about a year after Spencer Roane married Anne Henry, daughter of Patrick Henry. The family, however, continued its political activity and distinction: William Roane's brother Thomas was elected to the Virginia senate in the 1790s; and Spencer Roane's elder brother Thomas was elected to the House of Delegates for King and Queen County. Their cousins included Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer, and Dr. John Brockenbrough, president of the Bank of Virginia.[3]

Law and Politics[edit]

After Roane returned to Virginia, and after examination by Henry Tazewell and John Taylor, he was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1782, at age 20.[4]

Both Spencer Roane and his former schoolmate John Marshall entered the Virginia House of Delegates in 1783, after winning elections in their respective districts. Virginia law permitted legislators to continue private legal practices, and Roane did so. That year Tappahannock citizens had tarred and feathered merchant Joseph Williamson, a loyalist who had returned to the town several years after helping the British bring ships up the Rappahannock River and burn the town. One of Roane's first legislative proposals was a petition asking that charges against his constituents be dismissed because the peace treaty with Britain had been signed in the fall, months after the incident.[5]

Roane was a Presbyterian, not a member of the formerly established Episcopal Church, and religious freedom for Baptists and Presbyterians was a hot topic during legislative sessions of the new Commonwealth. Virginia's legislators had passed laws mandating religious toleration, and abolishing compulsory church tithes, in December 1776. In 1784 Virginia's legislators allowed incorporation of the Episcopal Church, as well as vested church property in ministers and vestries, subject to triennial inventory reports to county courts. Despite the urging of prominent Episcopalians Patrick Henry, John Marshall, Edmond Randolph and Richard Henry Lee, legislators refused to assess taxes to support Christian religion or collective worship. Roane had opposed that religious establishment. Moreover, following the lead of Jefferson and Madison (as well as young Roane), Virginia's legislators passed a law for the Establishment of Religious Freedom in 1785.[6]

In 1784, fellow legislators selected Roane to serve a one-year term on the Virginia Council of State.[7] Roane thus helped advise Governor Patrick Henry during the year that began in May, 1785. His only recorded dissent concerned an attempted removal of a justice of the peace for misconduct, which Roane thought interfered with the separation of powers.[8]

During the tumultuous debate concerning ratification of the federal Constitution in 1787, Roane advocated ratification, on the condition of adding a bill of rights because the document as drafted did not clarify powers reserved to the states and the people.[9]

Although Roane began his judicial career in 1789, as discussed below, he did not abandon his interest in politics. In 1804, Roane persuaded his schoolteacher cousin Thomas Ritchie, 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.[10] 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 was also called the Richmond junto.

Judicial career[edit]

In 1789, fellow legislators appointed Spencer Roane, then 27 years old, a judge of the General Court, which had been reorganized as a trial court in 1777 and 1788. While on the General Court (where he continued until 1794), Roane declared a legislative act unconstitutional for interfering with judicial independence in Kamper v. Hawkins, 1 Virginia Cases 35-56 (Va.1789-1814) (concerning the merger of the Chancery and General Courts). The Court of Appeals upheld that decision, although the exact date is uncertain.[11]

In 1794, Roane resigned from the General Court in order to accept the legislature's appointment as a judge of the Court of Appeals, where he succeeded his former examiner Henry Tazewell, who had become a United States Senator. The thirty two year old Roane then sold his Mahockney Plantation [12] and moved to Richmond. All the other members of that appellate court had begun practicing law before his birth. Roane sought the guidance of distinguished judge Edmund Pendleton, and on the latter's death in 1803, Roane became that high court's most influential judge, and remained on that bench 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.[13]

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."[14] 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.[15]

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.)[16]

Spencer Roane married Anne Henry (1767-1799), the daughter of Patrick Henry, Virginia governor and patriot.[17] 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.[18]

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. ^ margaret E. Horsnell, Spencer Roane: Judicial Advocate of Jeffersonian Principles (New York: Garland Publishing, 1986)(Garland Series of Outstanding Legal dissertations) pp. 2-3
  4. ^ Horsnell pp. 6-7
  5. ^ Horsnell pp. 14-15
  6. ^ Horsnell pp. 11-13
  7. ^ Dabney, Richmond: The Story of a City (University Press of Virginia, 1990 rev. ed), p. 66.
  8. ^ Horsnell pp. 16-17
  9. ^ Horsnell pp. 18-19
  10. ^ 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).
  11. ^ Horsnell pp.22-23 and note 55
  12. ^ mahockney.org
  13. ^ Susan Dunn, Dominion of Memories (New York:Basic Books 2007) p. 143.
  14. ^ Dunn p. 146.
  15. ^ The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition, Lipscomb and Bergh, eds., vol. 15 (325).
  16. ^ William and Mary College Quarterly, Vol. XVII, Lyon G. Tyler, William and Mary College, Whittet & Shepperson, Richmond, Va., 1909
  17. ^ Patrick Henry's Family, Red Hill, Patrick Henry National Memorial, www.patrickhenry.com
  18. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=18472831