William Branch Giles

William Branch Giles (August 12, 1762  December 4, 1830; the g is pronounced like a j) was an American statesman, long-term Senator from Virginia, and the 24th Governor of Virginia. He served in the House of Representatives from 1790 to 1798 and again from 1801 to 1803; in between, he was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and was an Elector for Jefferson (and Aaron Burr) in 1800. He served as a United States Senator from 1804 to 1815, and then served briefly in the House of Delegates again. After a time in private life, he joined the opposition to John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, in 1824; he ran for the Senate again in 1825, and was defeated, but appointed Governor for 3 one-year terms in 1827; he was succeeded by John Floyd, in the year of his death.

William Branch Giles
portrait by John Adams Elder
24th Governor of Virginia
In office
March 4, 1827  March 4, 1830
Preceded byJohn Tyler
Succeeded byJohn Floyd
United States Senator
from Virginia
In office
December 4, 1804  March 3, 1815
Preceded byAndrew Moore
Succeeded byArmistead T. Mason
In office
August 11, 1804  December 4, 1804
Appointed byJohn Page
Preceded byAbraham B. Venable
Succeeded byAndrew Moore
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 9th district
In office
March 4, 1801  March 3, 1803
Preceded byJoseph Eggleston
Succeeded byPhilip R. Thompson
In office
December 7, 1790  October 2, 1798
Preceded byTheodorick Bland
Succeeded byJoseph Eggleston
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates from Amelia County
In office
In office
In office
Personal details
Born(1762-08-12)August 12, 1762
Amelia Courthouse, Colony of Virginia, British America
DiedDecember 4, 1830(1830-12-04) (aged 68)
Amelia Courthouse, Virginia, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic-Republican
Alma materCollege of William & Mary
Hampden–Sydney College


He was born and died in Amelia County, where he built his home, The Wigwam. Giles attended Prince Edward Academy, now Hampden–Sydney College, and the College of New Jersey now Princeton University; he probably followed Samuel Stanhope Smith, who was teaching at Prince Edward Academy when he was appointed President of the College in 1779. He then went on to study law with Chancellor George Wythe and at the College of William and Mary; he was admitted to the bar in 1786. Giles supported the new Constitution during the ratification debates of 1788, but was not a member of the ratifying convention.

Giles was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election in 1790, taking the seat of Theodorick Bland, who had died in office on June 1; he is believed to be the first member of the United States Congress to be elected in a special election. He was to be re-elected three times; he resigned October 2, 1798, on the grounds of ill health, and in disgust at the Alien and Sedition Acts.

During this first period in Congress, he fervently supported his fellow Virginians James Madison and Thomas Jefferson against Alexander Hamilton and his ideas for a national bank preferring Jefferson's idea of an agrarian republic. Working with Jefferson and Madison, he introduced three sets of resolutions in 1793, which attempted to censure Hamilton's "administration of finances" as Secretary of the Treasury to the point of accusing him of misadministration in office under the Funding Act of 1790 to force the US to repay America's debts to France following the French Revolution.[1] In accordance with this goal, he opposed the pro-British Jay's Treaty and resisted naval appropriation to be used against France during the Quasi-War. In the same year, he voted for the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in the House of Delegates in order to declare the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional.

After another term in the House, from 1801 to 1803, Giles was appointed as a Senator from Virginia after the resignation of Wilson Cary Nicholas in 1804. Giles served in the US Senate, being reappointed in 1810 until he resigned on March 3, 1815. Giles strongly advocated the removal of Justice Samuel Chase after his impeachment, urging the Senate to consider it as a political decision (as to whether the people of the United States should have confidence in Chase) rather than as a trial.

Giles was deeply disappointed by the acquittal of Chase. He supported the election of Madison as president in 1808, in preference to the Federalist's candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. In fact, Giles was Madison's chief advocate in Virginia.

After the election, however, he joined with Senator Samuel Smith of Maryland and his brother Robert Smith, the Secretary of State, in criticizing Madison; first as too weak on Britain and then, in 1812, as too precipitate in going to war; however, voted for the declaration of war. He particularly disliked Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury, and was largely responsible for preventing his nomination as Secretary of State and for defeating Gallatin's bill of 1811 for a new Bank of the United States.

Giles's refusal to accept the General Assembly's instructions led to his rejection at the next poll for a senator. (Senators in those days were elected by the state legislatures.) Giles served one relatively uneventful term in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1816–1817 and then retired from political office for a time. He, however, published opinion pieces and columns, chiefly in the Richmond, Virginia, Enquirer, in which he deplored the Era of Good Feelings as a false prosperity, given over to banks, tariffs, and fraudulent internal improvements; these would centralize and corrupt government, and ruin the farmers. He attacked John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay as he had attacked Hamilton, calling them corrupt Anglophiles.

Giles also published a criticism of the Jeffersonian program for public education. As Giles explained, it was unjust to tax one man to educate another man's children, and the teachers that the government employed would constitute a special interest, always at the ready to vote for higher taxes and higher government spending. Besides, he said, giving every boy in Virginia three years of school would have limited practical utility, would deprive farm families of much-needed labor power, and would leave the typical "scholar" unfitted for the return to hard labor that awaited him.

When James Barbour left the Senate in 1825, Giles attempted to persuade the legislature to appoint him as replacement; they appointed John Randolph instead. In 1826, Giles was again elected to the House of Delegates, and in 1827 he was elected Governor; Giles served as Governor of Virginia for three terms, from March 4, 1827 to March 4, 1830. From the governorship, Giles encouraged Virginia's Senator Littleton Waller Tazewell to organize a southern resistance to the American System of Henry Clay centered on a boycott on northern manufactures. Tazewell found little support for it among southern senators.

In Giles's last term, he was a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830 where he strongly supported the existing apportionment of the House of Delegates giving the eastern counties of Virginia, with a minority of the voters, control of the legislature. He did favor reform of the suffrage requirements, however. Giles also opposed the movement in the convention to strengthen his own office, the governorship. Strong governorships in other states, such as New York, were at the center of political machines kept together by patronage and corruption, he said, and the reason that Virginia had not suffered from those ills was that the governorship in his state was too weak to be worth fighting for. Rather than follow the example of New York, with its party machine, it was better for Virginia to retain George Mason's executive model. Giles lost to some extent: while the governor's term remained short and was still accountable to the General Assembly, the Constitution of 1830 abolished the privy council, thus making the governorship a bit more independent.


Giles married twice; first, Martha Peyton Tabb, in 1797; he built his 18-room house, "The Wigwam (Chula, Virginia)," for her. They had three children. After she died in 1808, he married Frances Ann Gwynn in 1810 and had an additional three children.

Counties in two states were named in his honor: Giles County, Virginia[2] and Giles County, Tennessee. His name also graces a residence hall at the College of William and Mary.[3]

The Wigwam was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.[4]


  1. Sheridan, Eugene R. (1992). "Thomas Jefferson and the Giles Resolutions". The William and Mary Quarterly. 49 (4): 589–608. doi:10.2307/2947173. ISSN 0043-5597. JSTOR 2947173.
  2. Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. p. 137.
  3. "William & Mary – Giles, Pleasants & Preston Halls". Wm.edu. Retrieved July 2, 2016.
  4. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  • F. Thornton Miller, "Giles, William Branch"; American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000. Access Date: Wed November 26, 16:23:26 EST 2008 (link requires subscription
  • W. Frank Craven, "William Branch Giles" in Princetonians, 1776–1783; a Biographical Dictionary, Princeton University Press, 1981.

Further reading

  • Dice Anderson, William Branch Giles; A Study in the Politics of Virginia and the Nation from 1790 to 1830, George Banta, 1914 and William Branch Giles, a Life, George Banta, 1915.
  • Mary A. Giunta, The Public Life of William Branch Giles, Republican, 1790–1815, PhD dissertation, Catholic University, 1980. For some reason, this study leaves off before Giles' editorial and gubernatorial career.
  • Kevin R. C. Gutzman, Virginia's American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776–1840, Lexington Books, 2007.
  • Kevin R. C. Gutzman, "Preserving the Patrimony: William Branch Giles and Virginia vs. The Federal Tariff," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography" 104 (Summer 1996), 341–72.
This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.