Virginia's 19th Century Governors

Library of Virginia

Portraits from a century of transformation

From James Monroe to James Hoge Tyler:
The nineteenth-century saw the transformation of Virginia’s governorship through constitutional change and a war. What had been a one year position elected by the General Assembly became, by mid-century, a four year position elected by popular vote. The Civil War brought both the creation of the new state of West Virginia from Virginian counties and two competing state governments, each with its own governor. By the time James Hoge Tyler took office in January 1898, both the state and position that James Monroe had known in December 1799 were irrevocably changed.  
Virginia's governors were initially chosen by the General Assembly and served one-year terms. They could not serve more than three terms in a row and had to wait for four years before being re-elected. The Constitution of 1830 changed the term length to three years, but the election remained in the hands of the General Assembly. 

James Monroe served as Virginia’s governor from December 19, 1799–December 24, 1802 and January 19–April 3, 1811. He would later serve two consecutive terms as president (1817–1825).

John Page was governor from December 24, 1802–December 11, 1805. This portrait of Page as a young man was copied from an original by John Wollaston and given to the state in 1881.

William H. Cabell was governor from December 11, 1805–December 12, 1808. Cabell spent most of his career as a jurist, serving on the state Supreme Court from April 3, 1811-December 31, 1850.

The portraits of John Tyler Sr. (served December 12, 1808–January 15, 1811) and John Tyler Jr. (served December 11, 1825–March 4, 1827) were given to the state by Letitia Tyler Semple in 1873.

George William Smith was acting governor twice before becoming governor on December 6, 1811. His time as governor was short-lived, however, as he died in the Richmond Theatre Fire on December 26, 1811.

James Barbour served as governor of Virginia from January 4, 1812–December 11, 1814. His portrait was donated to the state in 1873 by his daughter, Frances Cornelia Barbour Collins.

Barbour was the first Virginia governor to live in the current Executive Mansion, completed in 1813. In this plat from February 1813, the Mansion is visible in the upper left quadrant.

The Governor's Mansion, also known as the Executive Mansion, is the oldest state governor's residence still used as such. You can virtually tour the mansion using Google Street View.

Wilson Cary Nicholas was governor from December 11, 1814–December 11, 1816. He also served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives.

James Patton Preston was governor from December 11, 1816–December 11, 1819. During the War of 1812, he served with the 12th and 23rd U. S. Infantry and was wounded at the battle of Chrysler's Farm.

James Westhall Ford (ca. 1806-1868) was a notable Virginian portrait painter. The State Art Collection includes 3 other portraits by Ford: Maria Byrd Page, Edmund Walls, and Black Hawk.

Thomas Mann Randolph, who was governor from December 11, 1819–December 11, 1822, married Thomas Jefferson's oldest daughter, Martha.

James Pleasants Jr. was governor from December 11, 1822–December 11, 1825. This portrait, by Waldemar Dieterich, is a copy of an original by the portrait painter Chester Harding (1792-1866).

John Tyler Jr. served as governor from December 11, 1825–March 4, 1827. Selected as William Henry Harrison’s vice president, he became president following Harrison’s death on April 4, 1841.

Behind Tyler is a depiction of the U.S. Capitol as it would have looked in the early 1840s, with Charles Bulfinch’s copper dome. The iron dome we know today wouldn't be completed until 1866.

A view of the Capitol in 1840, shown from the President's House (White House).

The document on the table reads “Bank Bill Vetoed,” referencing Tyler’s famous veto in August 1841 of a bill to establish a national bank.

William Branch Giles was governor from March 4, 1827 to March 4, 1830. During his term, Giles also served as a representative at the Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830.

John Floyd served from March 4, 1830–March 31, 1834. His term included Nat Turner's slave rebellion of August 1831, to which he responded with a proclamation calling for the arrest of Turner.

Littleton Waller Tazewell's term as governor, from March 31, 1834–March 30, 1836, came at the end of a long public career as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the U.S. House and Senate.

Tazewell's portrait, by artist G. P. A. Healy, is one of the few pre-20th century paintings in the state collection to feature eyeglasses. His spectacles are pushed back on his forehead.

David Campbell was governor from March 31, 1837–March 31, 1840. This portrait is attributed to Flavius J. Fisher and said to be a copy of an original by artist John Wesley Jarvis (ca. 1781-1839).

Thomas Walker Gilmer, who was governor March 31, 1840–March 20, 1841, resigned to take a position in the U.S. House. He would later serve as Navy Secretary and die in the USS Princeton disaster in February 1844.

James McDowell was governor from January 5, 1843 to January 1, 1846. As a member of the House of Delegates during the great slavery debate of 1832, he had spoken in favor of a gradual abolition.

William Smith served as governor twice, from January 1, 1846–January 1, 1849 and from January 1, 1864–May 9, 1865 (under the Confederacy). Known as "Extra Billy," he was also a Confederate general.

John Buchanan Floyd, the son of John Floyd, served as governor from January 1, 1849–January 1, 1852. On taking office, he called for the state constitutional convention of 1850-1851.

Acting Governors
From the Constitution of 1776 until the Constitution of 1851, governors were initially elected by the General Assembly, with gubernatorial vacancies being filled by members of the Council of State. George William Smith served as acting governor before his election to governor in December 1811. Peyton Randolph, who is not represented by a portrait in the state collection, was acting governor from December 27, 1811–January 4, 1812. 
Wyndham Robertson
Wyndham Robertson served as acting governor from March 30, 1836–March 31, 1837 following the resignation of Littleton Waller Tazewell. Robertson served in the Virginia House of Delegates twice, from 1838-1841 and from 1859-1865.

On the wall behind Robertson is Lloyd’s Offical Map of the State of Virginia, published in 1862. This map was one of the most widely reproduced depictions of the state in the 19th century.

Robertson's desk has his letters, a fox head letter opener, sealing wax, a seal stamp, a small candlestick that has been used to melt the sealing wax, and several quills.

When Governor Gilmer resigned in March 1841 a succession of Acting Governors held the seat. They included John Mercer Patton, Gilmer’s Lieutenant Governor (March 20–31, 1841).

After Patton, John Rutherfoord, a member of the Council of State acting as governor, served from March 31, 1841–March 31, 1842.

John Munford Gregory, also a member of the Council of State acting as governor (March 31, 1842–January 5, 1843), served before the inauguration of James McDowell in January 1843.

From 1852 to the Civil War
The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850-51 not only turned over the selection of governors to the public but removed the property requirements for voting. Any white male 21 and over who had been a Virginia resident for at least 2 years was qualified to vote. This "Reform Convention" also sought to address the discontent of western Virginians, who felt underrepresented in the General Assembly. While the new constitution did ease some regional tensions, the Civil War would ultimately sever the western and eastern parts of the state.     

Joseph Johnson served from January 1, 1852–January 1, 1856 and was the first governor elected by popular vote, following the new constitution of 1851.

"He shall hold the office for the term of four years [...]. The Governor shall be elected by the voters, at the times and places of choosing members of the General Assembly."

Henry Alexander Wise was governor from January 1, 1856–January 1, 1860. John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry occurred during Wise's administration. Wise decided not to commute Brown's death sentence.

John Letcher served January 1, 1860–January 1, 1864. Virginia seceded in May 1861. From that June there were two state governments: one under the Confederate States and one under the United States.

From 1865 to 1900
Following the Civil War, Virginia had three provisional governors: Francis Harrison Pierpont (served May 9, 1865–April 4, 1868), Henry Horatio Wells (April 4, 1868–September 21, 1869), and Gilbert Carlton Walker (September 21–December 31, 1869). Walker was then elected governor in 1869. 

In addition to being a post-war provisional governor, Francis Harrison Pierpont served as governor of the Restored government of Virginia under the United States from 1861-1865. He is shown here on the portico of the Executive Mansion.

The first set of governors’ portraits came into the state collection in 1873, during Gilbert Carlton Walker's term (January 1, 1870–January 1, 1874). Walker's own portrait was added the following year.

James Lawson Kemper, who served January 1, 1874–January 1, 1878, was a Confederate general during the Civil War. During his administration, he supported the repayment of Virginia's wartime debt.

Frederick W. M. Holliday was governor from January 1, 1878–January 1, 1882. His monumental portrait is the largest governor’s portrait in the state’s collection at over four-and-a-half feet tall.

Holliday's inauguration on January 1, 1878 was a break from the simpler ceremonies of his predecessors. After a parade, he gave his inaugural speech to a large crowd assembled at the Capitol.

William E. Cameron was governor from January 1, 1882–January 1, 1886. His administration was marked by political turmoil, and he left Virginia politics briefly after his term ended.

Fitzhugh Lee was governor January 1, 1886–January 1, 1890. He was the nephew of Robert E. Lee and himself served as a Confederate general during the Civil War.

Philip W. McKinney was governor from January 1, 1890–January 1, 1894. During his term, the General Assembly passed the Olcott Act, which reorganized Virginia's state debt into a more manageable form.

Charles Triplett O'Ferrall was governor from January 1, 1894–January 1, 1898. Prior to becoming governor, he served five consecutive terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

James Hoge Tyler served January 1, 1898-January 1, 1902. He was Virginia's last governor of the 19th century and its first governor of the 20th century.

The Office Transformed
By the time this photograph was taken at the end of the 19th century, the governorship of Virginia had taken on the form we know today. The 20th and 21st century governors whose portraits currently hang in the Capitol gallery served non-consecutive, four year terms and were elected by the popular vote. They inherited an office and a state shaped by a century of change.
Credits: Story

Research, text and arrangement by Meghan Townes with assistance from Sonya Coleman.

Imaging by Mark Fagerburg and Paige Buchbinder, Photo & Digital Imaging Services department.

All images from Manuscripts & Special Collections (State Art Collection, Map Collection, Prints and Photographs Collection, Rare Book Collection) and State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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