Robert Carter Nicholas Sr.

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Robert Carter Nicholas Sr.
Judge of the High Court of Chancery of Virginia
In office
14 January 1778 – November 1780
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates for James City County
In office
Serving with William Norvell
Preceded byposition established
Succeeded byNathaniel Burwell
Member of the House of Burgesses for James City County
In office
Serving with Lewis Burwell, William Norvell
Preceded byPhilip Johnson
Succeeded byposition abolished
Member of the House of Burgesses for York County
In office
Serving with Dudley Digges
Preceded byJohn Norton
Succeeded byThomas Nelson Jr.
Personal details
Born28 January 1728/9
DiedNovember 1780
SpouseAnne Cary
RelativesWilson Cary Nicholas. John Nicholas, George Nicholas, Philip Norborne Nicholas, Lewis Nicholas (sons)
Robert C. Nicholas (grandson)
Alma materCollege of William and Mary
Virginia Colony currency
Reverse of banknote signed by Robert Carter Nicholas Sr.
Countersigned by Robert Carter Nicholas Sr. as Treasurer.

Robert Carter Nicholas (January 28, 1728-November 1780) was a Virginia lawyer, patriot, legislator and judge. He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and its successor, the Virginia House of Delegates. He became the last treasurer of the Colony of Virginia, and sat on the first High Court of Chancery, one of the predecessors of the Supreme Court of Virginia.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Robert Carter Nicholas was born on January 28, 1728/9, in Hanover County to the former Elizabeth Carter Burwell (1692-1734; widow of Nathaniel Burwell of Williamsburg, Virginia) and her second husband, Dr. George Nicholas (1685-1734). His father was a British medical doctor and convict, transported for forgery.[citation needed] His mother was the daughter of wealthy Virginia landowner, Robert "King" Carter of Corotoman. This man and his full brother would arguably found another of the First Families of Virginia. He had several elder Burwell half-brothers (Lewis Burwell and Carter Burwell—both of whom died in 1756—and Robert Carter Burwell who died in 1777) as well an elder full brother, John Nicholas (1726-1814), who served in the House of Burgesses representing Buckingham County, and after its creation served forty years as the clerk of Albemarle County (and was succeeded by his son John Jr.).[2] Earlier, during the year this Robert Carter Nicholas was born, his father became the burgess representing the College of William and Mary.[3] However, Dr. Nicholas only served two years, and both boys were orphaned in March 1734, when both their parents died. Their uncle John Carter, the colony's secretary and a wealthy planter, became at least Nicholas' guardian and raised him with his sons (this man's cousins and future legislators Charles Hill Carter and Edward Carter) at Shirley Plantation. All three boys were schooled in Gloucester County, and after John Carter died, all three boys became the wards of their uncle Landon Carter. The three cousins completed their education at the College of William and Mary, where R.C. Nicholas studied law under professor George Wythe, who was also litigating aspects of Secretary John Carter's estate.

Early career[edit]

Nicholas was admitted to the bar and practiced in the general court under the royal government while Virginia was a colony. His first documented court appearance concerned announcement that he would settle the estate of his wealthy half-brother Lewis Burwell, who has been a burgess for Gloucester county before being appointed to the Governor's Council and briefly serving as its president before his death in 1756.[4][5]

In October 1765 Nicholas, along with John Randolph and George Wythe, were the committee that heard Thomas Jefferson's bar examinations. Later when Nicholas became Treasurer of Virginia, he stopped taking new cases and turned over many of his existing cases to Jefferson, also a Wythe protege.

From 1761 to 1774, Nicholas served as one of the trustees of the Bray School - a charity school for black children - in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was the principal correspondent with Dr. Bray's Associates in England, who financed the school.

Political career and American Revolutionary War[edit]

In late 1755, York County voters first elected Nicholas as one of their representatives in the House of Burgesses, a part-time position, and he took his seat in March 1756, then won re-election in 1758, serving from 1756-61.[6] During this term, the Governor's Council appointed Nicholas to the committee of correspondence, where he served with Peyton Randolph, George Wythe and John Robinson even when not a burgess.[7] Nicholas then moved to nearby James City County where elections were held in July 1765, and he took his seat in November, then was elected and re-elected one of its representative from 1766-1775.[8] He was conservative but patriotic, supporting the Stamp Act resolutions in 1764, but deeming further resolutions offered by Patrick Henry the following year premature.[9] Following the corruption scandal disclosed upon the death of powerful speaker of the House of Burgesses, John Robinson, who also served as the colony's Treasurer and thus could conceal his improperly lending out paper money scheduled to be burned to political supporters, the House of Burgesses at Nicholas' urging, separated the two positions. Nicholas became the Treasurer of Virginia, and served from 1766-1775, when Lord Dunmore, the colony's last governor, suppressed the legislature.[10]

When in 1769 Peyton Randolph, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, chose Thomas Jefferson to write a response to Royal Governor Lord Botetourt's opening remarks to the House, his motions although accepted and passed were felt in committee to be "lean and tepid" requiring rewrite by Nicholas. Jefferson never forgot this humiliation. In fact, in 1774 Jefferson had to rewrite a motion written by Nicholas objecting to the next Royal Governor Lord Dunmore's land proclamation.[citation needed]

In 1773, fellow burgesses made him Nicholas a member of the committee of correspondence, and when Peyton Randolph resigned, Nicholas served as the president pro tem of the House of Burgesses in July 1775. Continuing his cautious conservatism, in May 1774, Nicholas introduced a motion making June 1 a "day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer" to express sympathy of Virginia for their sister colony of Massachusetts as a result of the closing of the Port of Boston by the British under the Boston Port Act. In March 1775, Nicholas opposed Patrick Henry's proposal to organize the militia or raise 10,000 regulars to serve throughout the war.[11][12]

On December 13, 1775, after the battle of Great Bridge, Nicholas introduced a motion in the House of Burgesses denouncing Lord Dunmore as champion of "tyranny" a monster, "inimical and cruel" for pronouncing martial law and assuming powers, the "King himself could not exercise." Two days later he also submitted a motion to grant pardons to black slaves who he claimed had been deluded by the British to join Loyalist forces.[citation needed]

After Lord Dunmore suppressed the House of Burgesses, James City County voters elected Nicholas as one of their representatives to all five Virginia Revolutionary Conventions, serving with William Norvell and (in the first revolutionary convention, with Lewis Burwell as well).[13] When the Virginia House of Delegates was formed as the successor to the House of Burgesses, Nicholas and Norvell again became James City County's delegates, and won re-election in 1777, serving from 1776 to 1778.[14]

Nicholas opposed the adoption of a Declaration of Independence on May 15, 1776, but declined to vote so that the convention's action might "go out with the prestige of unanimity".[15] Nicholas became a member of the committee appointed to draft a declaration of rights and a new form of government for Virginia.

Judicial career and death[edit]

In 1779 fellow legislators appointed Nicholas to the high court of chancery, where he served with his mentor George Wythe, as well as Edmund Pendleton and John Blair. The court is now considered a predecessor of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Although Edmund Pendleton would become the first president (chief judge) of its successor the Court of Appeals, and George Wythe chose to remain as chancellor, Judge Nicholas had already died, in 1780. He is buried in Hanover County at Mount Brilliant cemetery, whose other famous interment is of John Henry, father of this man's sometime rival, Patrick Henry.

Personal life[edit]

In 1751, Nicholas married Anne Cary (1735-1786), daughter of burgess Wilson Miles Cary of Warwick County. The couple had four daughters and six sons. Most of their sons became lawyers, as well as served in the legislature. The most distinguished was Wilson Cary Nicholas (1761-1820), who became a U.S. senator and Virginia governor. His elder brother George Nicholas (1754-1799) served in the Continental Army and Virginia legislature, but declined the post of U.S.Attorney for the District of Kentucky.[16] His son (this man's grandson), Robert C. Nicholas moved to Kentucky and eventually became a United States Senator from Louisiana. John Nicholas (1764-1819) served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia before moving to New York. The youngest son, Philip Norborne Nicholas(1776-1849) became Virginia's attorney general not long after his father's death, and later a Virginia judge, but perhaps today is best known either as the prosecutor of George Wythe's murderer or as a member of the powerful Richmond junto. His twin, Lewis Valentine Nicholas (1776-1840), lived mostly in Albemarle County. His sister (this man's daughter) Elizabeth (1753–1810) married Edmund Randolph, a Virginia lawyer who became Governor and later the first United States Attorney General. Her sister Sally married John Norton, son of a London merchant.[17]

Edmund Randolph described Nicholas: "By nature he was benevolent and liberal. But he appeared to many who did not thoroughly understand him, to be haughty and austere; because they could not appreciate the preference of gravity for levity, when in conversation the sacredness of religion was involved in ridicule or language forgot its chastity."

See also[edit]

  • Golladay, Victor Dennis. "The Nicholas Family of Virginia, 1722-1820," PhD Diss, University of Virginia, 1973.
  • Randall, William Sterne. "Thomas Jefferson, A Life"


  1. ^ Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography (1915), vol. 2, p. 29
  2. ^ Tyler, vol.2, p. 122
  3. ^ Cynthia Miller Leonard, The Virginia General Assembly 1619-1978 (Richmond: Virginia State Library 1978) p. 74 and note
  4. ^ Saunders p. 4
  5. ^ "Lewis Burwell (1711 or 1712–1756) – Encyclopedia Virginia".
  6. ^ Leonard, pp. 87, 90
  7. ^ Saunders, p. 4
  8. ^ Leonard, pp. 95, 97, 103, 106
  9. ^ Tyler, p. 29
  10. ^ Robert Miller Saunders, The Public Career of Robert Carter Nicholas (University of Richmond Master's thesis 1962) available at
  11. ^ Tyler, p. 29
  12. ^ "Robert Carter Nicholas".
  13. ^ Leonard, pp. 110, 113,115, 118, 120
  14. ^ Leonard, pp. 123, 126
  15. ^ Tyler, p.. 29
  16. ^ "Founders Online: To George Washington from Robert Carter Nicholas, 20 February …".
  17. ^ Saunders p. 2 (or 12 of 72 in online document)

External links[edit]