William Branch Giles was not one of that galaxy of supremely great men produced by Virginia. But few Virginians have played a more stirring or independent part in so many varied positions in life, and none has surpassed him as a fighter in the public arena.
Among the Virginia worthies who as yet have not inspired chronicles of their careers, there is no more conspicuous name than that of William Branch Giles. It is true that no historian narrating the period 1790-1830 has failed to give him mention, but no study of his career has been presented to the public. Such knowledge as is generally possessed of his character and achievements has been secured from biographies and histories written, as a rule, from a point of view antagonistic to the famous Virginian. This meagre information has usually been presented in such bitter language as to arouse suspicion of the correctness of the facts and their interpretation. In Lodge’s Alexander Hamilton, Giles is spoken of as “a rough, brazen, loud-voiced Virginian, fit for any bad work, no matter how desperate.” But Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge is a worshipper of Hamilton, whom Giles hated, and an exponent of broad construction, which Giles bitterly fought. In Adams’s life of John Randolph, he is spoken of as a man “whom no man ever trusted without regret.” And in Morse’s life of John Quincy Adams, it is asserted that “Giles’ memory is now preserved solely by the connection he established with the great and honorable statesmen of the Republic by a course of ceaseless attacks upon them.” The standard work on the period of Giles’s prominence, Mr. Henry Adams’s History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, hardly mentions the name of Giles without harsh epithets. In reading these accounts, one cannot but remember that Giles was a bitter enemy of John Quincy Adams, Mr. Henry Adams’s grandfather, and that Mr. Morse is the admiring biographer.
It is not the purpose of the present writer to give a eulogy or indeed a defence of Giles. He will attempt only to supply what has hitherto been lacking, the outline of a careful study of the eccentric Virginia leader from the original sources. It may, however, appear that a man whom the great coterie of New England writers have been inspired to denounce with so much bitterness on every occasion was more than “a rough, brazen, loud-voiced Virginian, fit for any bad work, no matter how desperate,” and that a man who held every office in the gift of the people of Virginia was trusted by someone without regret. It will probably not appear that Giles was a great hero, or was guiltless of some of the charges brought against him.
Born in Amelia, County, Virginia in 1762, graduating in 1781 at Princeton after the manner of other Virginians, practising the law at Petersburg, he soon became active in politics, and was elected to Congress in 1790. With the ardor of an impetuous nature, he became a leader of the opposition to the plans of Hamilton. Jefferson, in organizing his great party to fight against those centralizing policies, soon found he had a bold, fluent, though over-zealous and imprudent, supporter in his young fellow Virginian. Though not, as sometimes said, a tool, Giles was a loyal disciple of Jefferson’s ideas and a reckless expounder of them regardless of himself or his enemies, however high in the esteem of others they might be. Convinced that the moneyed interests were endangering the country, that the Bank was a “sink” of corruption, that Hamilton was the leader of a band of Federalist grafters on a large scale, that Washington was a dupe of his Secretary of the Treasury, he attacked Federalist policies and Federalist leaders with a bitterness seldom surpassed in public debate. The climax came in 1793, when, working in cooperation with Jefferson and Madison, he presented those famous sets of resolutions, one dated January 23, 1793, requesting information as to the conduct of the Treasury Department, and the other February 27, 1793, censuring the Secretary of the Treasury for violating the law of the United States, exceeding the instructions of the President and showing discourtesy to Congress. Though Madison and other leading Republicans defended them, the resolutions of censure met overwhelming defeat. It is probably true that they originated in other reasons than patriotic devotion to the interests of the country. But to one who will view the matter impartially, the conduct of the Secretary of the Treasury was not such as to allay suspicion. He did not make “orderly and serviceable records of the progress and condition of the debt”; he “was impatient of restraints and preferred to make reports in his own way and season”; and in carrying out his plans, he did violate the letter of the law; he had been irritable in his answers to Congress; there did seem to be intentionally a close and unsavory connection between Hamilton and the “interests” ; and men representing the farmers of the South, victims of his beneficiaries, would not unnaturally be distrustful of the actions of Mr. Hamilton. Not only the financial plans of the administration but its friendly disposition to England excited the hostility of the party of Jefferson, including Giles. Carrying out the ideas of certain recommendations of Jefferson, as Secretary of State, Madison, January 3, 1794, presented to Congress a series of resolutions aiming at the protection of our commerce against England by retaliatory restrictions. These resolutions Giles supported as he did also Dayton’s proposing the sequestration of debts due by American citizens to English creditors,—“reprisal is a right,” cried Giles—“reprisal is a duty.”[4, 5] The same year he denounced the Federalist naval policy, declaring that he should value his liberty at a lower price than he now did, if the policy of a permanent Naval Establishment should obtain in the United States. He criticised the President’s message reflecting on the Democratic societies, exposing himself by his bitter language to harsh censure. To this he characteristically replied: “Pay off the Public Debt, and I assure you that my censures of the Government shall be at an end.”
Representing strong Virginia sentiment and party opinion, Giles played a vigorous role in the debate on Jay’s Treaty. It was no mere policy of obstruction that caused Virginians to denounce the Jay Treaty. It was Jay who had in 1786 seriously proposed the surrender of the navigation of the Mississippi. Now Jay, a northern abolitionist, had failed to secure payment for southern slaves carried off by British troops during the American Revolution. May 9, 1794, Giles had attacked the mission of Jay. It seems to imply “an appeal to the generosity and magnanimity of the British nation,” and “experience teaches it forms a perfect burlesque of common sense to draw any conclusions of British generosity.” He was therefore prepared for the fray of 1796. In that contest he defended vigorously the right of the House to inquire minutely into the details of treaties, and when the President refused to send to Congress information and argued the sufficiency of President and Senate in the ratification of treaties, Giles declared he was not convinced by the President’s reasoning, as he had once before declared the President’s speech was not the “political Bible of the Government.” The treaty itself he took up article by article, and found in it “so much to condemn, and so little to applaud” that he marveled it had a single defender. More than that, however, he believed that the treaty “contained the most complete evidence of British interference in our internal affairs, and laid the foundation for the further extension of British influence.”
Giles had strenuously opposed the leading measures of the Washington administration. Nor did he intend to mitigate his hostility on the eve of the retirement of the Father of his Country. Refusing to vote for the highly complimentary address drawn up in answer to the President’s last message, because he thought it would contradict his whole past, he declared he saw “no reason to exult in the wisdom or firmness of our Administration.” The President, it was true, was a well-meaning man, but was much misled. He wished the President to retire and felt that “this was the moment of his retirement.” But a few years afterwards Giles acknowledged in public debate his injustice to Washington. When Adams came into power, Giles, in common with Jefferson and other prominent Republicans, was not disinclined to friendly relations. The old man would make a good President, the Republicans would only have to check him now and then. Soon, however, Giles exhibited a different spirit. All resolutions and bills intended to approve and carry into effect the Administration’s recommendations in foreign affairs he opposed. “He had not much confidence in the President. His speech, at the opening of the session, had destroyed all his confidence.”
However, there was more effective service in opposition to the Adams administration than in criticising the President or engaging in exchanges of personalities with political opponents. On October 2, 1798, he resigned from Congress, and we soon find him in the legislature of Virginia. Opposition in Congress against a majority was hopeless, but a victory could be won in the arena of the state. Giles participated in the stirring debate of December, 1798, on the adoption of the Virginia Resolutions; he was a member of the committee to draft the famous report of 1799. He was also the author of the instructions to the Virginia senators bidding them use their endeavor to secure an appeal of the Alien and Sedition Laws. While at home, he also participated in the campaign of 1800 which overthrew the Federalists, carrying, it is said, every vote but one in his county. And when he entered Congress again, December 7, 1801, it was not as a critic and an obstructionist as of old, but as one of the leaders of a triumphant party. In the House of Representatives on February, 1802, he was the sponsor for the Senate bill repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801, and delivered a long and able speech in defence of the policy of repeal. Denouncing the adoption of the act of 1801 as an effort of a doomed party to entrench itself in power, he supported the constitutionality of the act of repeal and pointed out the evil consequences of the Federalist contention that the judges were so firmly seated that the act would not be repealed. This speech was considered an able production, and copies of it were circulated among the people in Virginia. The debate on the judiciary bill affords evidence of the position which Giles, despite his bitterness of expression, had now acquired in the public councils. He is referred to as the “premier” of the day; there is discussion as to whether members are unduly influenced by the gentleman from Virginia. Bayard of Delaware upbraids him for failing to show that magnanimity “which ought to be inspired by a sense of the high ground he holds on the floor of this House.” Madison had become Secretary of State, and Giles was the floor leader of the Administration in the House of Representatives.
This session, ending May 3, 1802, was the last service of Mr. Giles in the national House. A higher office was in store for him. During the years 1790-1802 he had served continuously with the exception of one term and had become a conspicuous figure. Uniting without delay with the party of Jefferson, he had proved himself, if the most outspoken, also the most fearless and one of the most ingenious enemies of the party of Hamilton and Adams, and when his party had been carried into power by discontent at policies which he had bitterly fought, he reaped a part of the reward. To the regret of Republicans, he retired for a term from Congress on account of ill health, but in November, 1804, he appeared as senator from Virginia. In this office he continued until November 24, 1815. One of the first important matters to which he devoted his attention was the impeachment of Chase. He was on the closest possible terms with John Randolph in preparation for the impeachment proceedings, and used his large influence and remarkable conversational talents in winning senators over to the programme of the Administration. He drafted and circulated a petition to the Governor of New Jersey urging him to quash an indictment against Aaron Burr, Vice-President of the United States, whose support in the impeachment proceedings the Administration desired. He upheld, in the Senate and outside, the view that an “impeachment is nothing more than an inquiry by the two houses of Congress, whether the office of any public man might not be better filled by another.”And at the end of the miserable trial, he honorably and successfully resisted attempts to limit payment of witnesses to those summoned by the prosecution. The trial of Chase, however, was not the only occasion which brought out Giles’s attitude to the power and independence of the Federal courts. This hostility showing itself in 1802, in the discussion on the Judiciary Bill, as we have seen, was increased by the conduct of Marshall in the trial of Burr in 1807. On February 5, 1808, Giles brought in a bill to define treason and other crimes against the United States, and six days afterward delivered his sentiments on the conduct of the courts. Clearly having John Marshall in mind, he contrasted the “honorable and dignified character of an independent judge” with “a judge, who, forgetting the nature of his office, is perpetually aspiring not only to render his department absolutely independent, but to render it supreme over all the departments of the Government; in the one case he is placed in the elevated and dignified attitude of distributing justice impartially among his fellow-citizens; in the other, he is reduced to the miserable political intriguer, scrambling for power.”
One who heard the speech and thoroughly detested his doctrines and his arguments gives us one of the best descriptions to be found of Giles at that time: “Bayard, Giles, and Hillhouse are the first of senatorial champions…. Giles exhibits in his appearance no marks of greatness; he has a dark complexion and retreating eyes, black hair and robust form. His dress is remarkably plain, and in the style of Virginia carelessness. Having broken his leg a year or two since, he uses a crutch, and perhaps this adds somewhat to the indifference or doubt with which you contemplate him. But when he speaks, your opinion immediately changes; not that he is an orator, for he has neither action nor grace: nor that he abounds in rhetoric or metaphor, but a clear nervous expression, a well-digested and powerful condensation of language, gives to the continual flow of his thoughts an uninterrupted impression. He holds his subject always before him, and surveys it with untiring eyes; he points his objections with calculated force, and sustains his positions with penetrating and wary argument. He certainly possesses great natural strength of mind; and if he reasons on false principles or with sophistic evasions, he always brings to his subject a weight of thought, which can be shaken or disturbed only by the attack of superior wisdom.”
The matters to which I have thus far referred, however, are overshadowed in importance by the commercial policy of administration,— the policy of embargo. Of this policy Giles stood an ever ready and powerful defender. By frequent speeches, by enforcement bills, and by personal influence, he sought to uphold the embargo programme. He pleaded that the embargo was successful, that it was beneficial to farmer, trader and manufacturer in the United States, and injurious to England. Little danger was to be feared from New England; he appealed pathetically for harmony in a great struggle against oppression and insult. To the men from the eastern states he made private personal appeals, protesting his friendship for eastern interests and expressing the willingness of the southern states to suffer for their eastern brethren. The ingenuity and power of Giles were the chief reliance of the Administration in Congress. When Republican disaffection, following disaffection in New England, compelled a repeal of the embargo, Giles was able to save something from the wreck. He himself, however, offered the resolution for the repeal of the embargo laws, except as to England and France, and the repeal was to go into effect March 15, 1805. The resolution, he declared, was only the “offspring of conciliation and great concession on my part.” In Virginia Giles was heralded as the champion of the embargo. Eleven days before the expiration of the embargo acts was the day of the accession of James Madison. With Mr. Madison, Giles had always worked in harmony. In the campaign of 1808 for the election of Madison, Giles played a conspicuous part. He also was prominent in the congressional caucus of January 23, and he and W.C. Nicholas “managed” the Madison campaign in Virginia. When the first Congress of the new President met on May 22, Giles was still the Administration leader. He took charge on the part of the Senate of the foreign portion of the President’s message. On December 5, 1809, he brought forward resolutions sustaining the conduct of the Administration in refusing to have any further communication with Jackson, the British minister, and on December 8 made a “spirited” appeal for putting aside party differences in support of the honor of the country. But all was not harmony within the party on which the defence of the country’s honor rested. On January 3, 1810, instead of his usual enthusiastic support of Republican presidential policies, Giles let fall a caustic criticism of the President’s recommendations on military affairs, and was able later to secure the votes of all but six of the senators in favor of a bill of his own not in harmony with the desires of the Administration. In a speech in defence of his bill he declared that in the reaction against the Federalist “visionary theory of energy” it was natural for the Republicans to “run into the opposite extreme.” And this had occurred. The Madison administration was lacking in energy. Significant in this discussion was the support received by Giles from Samuel Smith, brother of Robert Smith, Secretary of State. Giles had joined the Smith faction against Madison.
It is a question as to why Giles, so soon after the election of Madison whom he had strongly supported, should have joined the opposition. Did he desire a Cabinet appointment and, failing to secure it, feel resentment? This is certainly not impossible. Giles had worked diligently for Republican success under all circumstances and particularly for Madison. His genius and energy had been a tower of strength to Jefferson in senatorial contests. He was mentioned for the position of Secretary of State in the Richmond Enquirer, though without discussion or enthusiasm. He was a friend and ally of the Smiths of Maryland, and Robert Smith desired Gallatin’s post. Giles, we know, was violently opposed to Gallatin’s receiving the portfolio of State. Was it the plan that Smith should be Secretary of the Treasury, and Giles Secretary of State? Robert Smith was already in the Cabinet, and had the advantage of Giles when Madison’s insistence on Gallatin’s remaining a member of the Cabinet left place for only Smith or Giles, not both. Smith soon proved a failure in his position, and he and his brother had reason for dissatisfaction; their disaffection, which became notorious, encouraged Giles to abandon his temporary loyalty to the Administration. But not only were Giles and the Smiths to be censured—the Republican party was broken into fragments. Time had dulled the enthusiasm of early Republicans, and reasons for disaffection had appeared. Madison’s hand was too weak to hold them together and his supporters degenerated into a mere clique.
From now on, Giles was an enemy of the Madison administration. With the other members of the Smith faction, in Congress and out, he preferred generally to cooperate with the Federalists. The present writer cannot go into a detailed narration of the various measures which Giles discussed in this last period of his service in the Senate. His most important act from 1808 to 1815 was his opposition to the recharter of the United States Bank. The Legislature of Virginia on January 17, 1811,  instructed her senators to vote against the bill for the recharter of the National Bank. On this subject for Giles, however, no instructions were necessary. He had bitterly opposed the establishment of the Bank in 1791, and had not in the meantime changed his opinion. On February 14, therefore, he rose and covered the familiar strict construction ground which he had traversed so frequently. Not only did he attack the Bank, but he paid his respects to the Administration, accusing it of an imbecility in measures relating to our internal as well as external concerns. And in the days of Washington and Hamilton, he brought the charge that a British influence “pervades this country” and “affects the proceedings of Government so seriously, that it can hardly be said to be independent.” From the point of view of his own career the most significant portion of his speech contained the remarks on the subject of the doctrine of instruction as applied to United States senators. Obeying without any difficulty the mandates of his Legislature, and defending his state for issuing the instructions, he, at the same time, asserts as a matter of principle a senator’s privilege of exercising his own discretion in dealing with any question in regard to which he has received instructions.
Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. There was no need for Giles to discuss the subject. Gratuitously he took up a subject on which he said he knew the Virginians were very sensitive and took the unpopular side of the controversy. The inevitable result came—a censure by the Legislature and popular indignation. From being toasted and praised he became the most unpopular man in Virginia, and his position on instructions blocked his steps in after years whatever way he might turn. It would not be too much, however, to say that his retirement from the Senate a few years later was caused by this episode. For over four years he was to continue harassing Madison and Gallatin and fighting for more effective measures in military affairs than the President was disposed to recommend. On December 9, 1811, instead of a bill providing for 10,000 additional men as the President desired, he reported from the Committee on Foreign Affairs a bill calling for 25,000 men—a correction very desirable if the men could be induced to enlist. A sharp conflict ensued and in the fight Giles found opportunity to assail Gallatin in extremely vituperative language, holding him responsible for all the weak measures of both Jefferson and Madison. The language was certainly unjustifiable, but does not warrant in any way Mr. Adams’s description of it as “an example unparalleled in American history” of “the malignity of the human mind.” Large majorities in the Senate upheld the Giles bill as opposed to the President’s recommendations; it was also finally passed by the House and signed by the President. In the House both Calhoun and Clay stood for it When another administration bill came from the House providing for volunteers at one year’s service, Giles on January 29, 1812, assailed it with vigor, condemning short enlistments and citing with admiration Washington’s opinion as given in Marshall’s Life.
Only brief mention can be made of the remaining events of Giles’s career. He voted for the declaration of war against England, although preferring letters of marque and reprisal against both England and France. He opposed Gallatin’s appointment on the peace mission; he helped prevent the confirmation of Jonathan Russell’s appointment as Minister to Sweden; he again in 1815 opposed the recharter of the United States Bank. By the end of the Thirteenth Congress, the friends of the Administration had been strengthened, peace had come, old enemies had been defeated for reelection, New England disaffection had broken down. Lame, ill, unpopular, his friends doomed to retirement, his private affairs in disorder, Giles determined to withdraw to private life. On November 23, 1815, he therefore sent to the Governor of the state his resignation, and when the Fourteenth Congress met, Armistead T. Mason was in Giles’s place. During his career in the Congress of the United States, Mr. Giles had made many enemies, some no doubt in the course of duty, some unnecessarily. He had written many laws, displayed much genius as well as some fractiousness, and had made his impress upon the national life. With all his failings, mistakes, and ill-temper, he was free from taint of corruption, and patriotic at heart. “In parting with a man,” said Ritchie in 1815, “who has lived so long in public, and filled so large a space in the eyes of the country, we bid adieu to one of the first geniuses of this state. Mr. Giles has erred:— private feeling has too much mingled with public duty—but in point of talents he leaves few equals behind him.”
In retirement Giles was not idle. His prolific pen “reeled off” column after column for the Richmond Enquirer. In 1817 he wrote a long series of articles on the subject of a proposed Constitutional Convention for Virginia, and from 1823 to 1829 his pen was never idle. Internal Improvements, National Bank, Protective Tariffs, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, and Henry Clay call forth a torrent of words, bitter, it is true, but abounding in information and strong argument. The administration of John Quincy Adams was particularly obnoxious to him. With Mr. Adams he engaged in a short controversy whose reverberations were heard in another controversy in New England between Adams and the Federalists. He supported Jackson for the presidency in 1828  and won favorable opinions from Thomas H. Benton. Sent to the Legislature in 1826 he was promoted to the office of Governor, 1827, and was twice reelected to that office. While Governor, his ever faithful county of Amelia sent him to the famous Convention of 1829-1830. In this Convention, the calling of which he had opposed both in 1817 and in 1827, he upheld with all his wonted ability and eloquence, though without his old-time bitterness, the opposition of the eastern counties to reform in the electorate and representation. In an assemblage composed of the veterans of Virginia politics—men like Monroe, Madison, Marshall, and John Randolph, and the brilliant younger men of promise—men like J. Y. Mason, John Tyler, Abel P. Upshur—Giles was at least an “equal among equals.” One who heard him in that assemblage gives us a glimpse of him in his last performance of his career:
There, leaning upon his crutches, and suffering from recent illness, the curious beholder might observe Giles, the hero of many a parliamentary combat, in none of which he ever met with his superior, his mind triumphing over the sufferings of his body, and leaving him still what he had been said to be in his palmy days, the most expert debater that ever spoke the English language, with the exception of Charles James Fox.
Retiring from the Governorship in 1830, while at death’s door, he was elected once more to the Legislature; he declined to accept, sensible perhaps that the end was near. He died December 4, 1830, at his home, “Wigwam,” Amelia county.
Giles was not one of that galaxy of supremely great men produced by Virginia. But few Virginians have played a more stirring or independent part in so many varied positions in life, and none has surpassed him, if any has equaled him, as a fighter in the public arena. Though he was not a statesman, he shone supremely in debate. Despite his blunders and weaknesses, which at times brought him great unpopularity, he was honored by his neighbors and received from his State every gift she could bestow.
Republished with gracious permission from The Abbeville Institute (June 2019). The article was originally published in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Jan., 1913).
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1 Henry Cabot Lodge: Alexander Hamilton (1898), p. 146.
2 Henry Adams: John Randolph (1898), p. 141.
3 John T. Morse, Jr.: John Quincy Adams (ed. 1898), p. 212.
4 Dewey: Financial History of the United States, p. 115.
5 Annals of Congress, Third Congress, First session, p. 544 (March 28, 1794)
6 Annals of Congress, Third Congress, First session, p. 491 (March 10, 1794)
7 Annals of Congress, Third Congress, Second session, pp. 915-919 (Nov. 26, 1794).
8 See Report American Historical Association, 1901, vol. 1, p. 275.
9 Annals of Congress, Third Congress, First session, p. 669 (May 9, 1794).
10 Annals of Congress, Fourth Congress, First session, pp. 1044-1053 (April 18, 1766).
11 Annals of Congress, Fourth Congress, Second session, pp. 1615-1617, 1622 (Dec. 14, 1796).
12 Life and Works of John Adams, vol. 1, p. 495.
13 Annals of Congress, Fifth Congress, First session, p. 364 (June 22, 1797).
14 Annals of Congress, Seventh Congress, First session, p. 579 (Feb. 18, 1802).
15 See Debate on Judiciary Bill, Feb., 1802.
16 Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Dec. 20, 1904, vol. 1, pp. 321-325.
17 Annals of Congress, Tenth Congress, First session, p. in (Feb. 11, 1808).
18 Story: Life and Letters of Joseph Story, vol. 1, pp. 158-159.
19 See Speeches of Nov. 24, 1808, Dec. 2, 1808, etc.
20 Annals Eleventh Congress, Second session, pp. 152-148.
21 Adams: Life of Albert Gallatin, p. 388.
22 “Journal of the House of Delegates,” 1810-1811, p. 707.
23 Annals of Congress, Eleventh Congress, Third session, p. 175.
24 Journal of Virginia House of Delegates, 1811-1812, pp. 155-159 (Feb. 19, 1812).
25 Richmond, Enquirer, Nov. 25, 1815.
26 These letters were published in the Richmond Enquirer. Some of them are republished in the “Political Miscellanies compiled by William B. Giles,” Richmond, 1829.
27 See U. S. Telegraph Extra, March 21, 1828 and July 5, 1828.
28 Benton: Thirty Years View, vol. 1, p. 685 (New York, Appleton’s, 1903).
29 He had also been elected in 1816 but was unable to serve.
30 Southern Literary Messenger, vol. 17, p. 147. See also pp. 297-298. For another characterization at this time, see Literary Messenger, vol. 18, pp. 106-107; Hugh Blair Grigsby, Virginia Convention 0/1829-30, pp. 13-28.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a portrait of William Branch Giles by Anne Fletcher (1876-1955), courtesy of Wythepedia.