The prelude to conservatism, 1781-1822; an account of the early life first ventures into politics and legal career of Benjamin Watkins Leigh

Steiner, Bruce E, Department of History, University of Virginia
Mayo, Bernard, University of Virginia
Abernethy, T. P., University of Virginia

Contemporaries, when treating of Benjamin Watkins Leigh's politics in obituary notice, memoir, or private letter, invariably noted the peculiar cast--decidedly conservative, perhaps even obsolete--of the principles he forcefully championed, "Conservative and moral in the highest degree" was the judgment of his public character set down in the autobiography of a friend of forty years, Winfield Scott. General Scott's summation had been anticipated by a eulogist, William H. MacFarland, who labeled Leigh "in a true and large sense a conservative," and by colleagues in the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society, who declared that they loved "to recall his image now as that of a true patriot of the old Roman, or, we would rather say, of the old Virginian stamp." Sympathetic, understanding, respectful, these writers nevertheless would have admitted, without much hesitation, that Leigh's principles, even in his own lifetime, were somewhat outmoded, and his political enemies savagely and repeatedly underlined this point, "He may represent for aught I know the Medes and the Persians," the ardent Jacksonian Democrat, Peter V, Daniel, heatedly declared in a letter written in 1835 to Martin Van Buran. "Certain I am he does not represent present living Virginia.î To both friend and foe Leigh's conservatism was immediately apparent, as was that conservatism's tinge of the antique.

That both contemporaries and historians have seized upon the proper touchstone, extreme conservatism, in examining Leigh's politics I have no doubt; neither, I suppose, will anyone who develops any acquaintance with the Virginian's speeches and letters. Entitling my account of the first part of his life The Prelude to Conservatism, 1731-1822, I have not done so with any thought of depleting the young Leigh as a stalwart political liberal. Certain departures from the conservative norm, notably a championing of Jeffersonian principles in his college days, an idealistic espousal of Old Republican doctrines, and a trenchant defense of human rights and the law as against the arbitrary conduct of Andrew Jackson; these are instances of a certain liberality of spirit, but there are no others to lay with them. Essentially, from the cradle on, Leigh was politically conservative, and after 1822 attacks upon the established institutions of government he cherished and upon property (which he termed, in a letter written that year to Henry Clay, "the ballast of the vessel of state,") brought his conservative principles to the fore. It is because of them that he occupies the modest niche in American history which is rightfully his.

But although it is his career as a vigorous spokesman for conservatism in 1820's and 1830's which has attracted the casual attention of historians, an examination of the first forty years of Leigh's life is not without its own interest.
That interest does not lie in the uniqueness of his career. It is to be found rather in the very typicalness of the elements which comprised it. A man born during the years of the Revolution, of a family of lesser Virginia gentry, and educated at the College of William and Mary, began the practice of law in a provincial Virginia town, took an active part in politics, entered the Assembly, prospered, moved to Richmond, became an outstanding lawyer and a political figure of state importance: such was the pattern of Benjamin Watkins Leigh's early life, a pattern repeated again and again in early nineteenth-century Virginia. An examination, therefore, in some detail, of Leigh's career will illumine, it is hoped, various aspects of this basic configuration, as well as provide for it one set of lights and shadows.

Charlottesville, Virginia
March 28, 1959

MA (Master of Arts)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:34:47.

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