William Branch Giles

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William Branch Giles
Representative in Congress
In office
1790-1798, 1801-1803
Preceded by
Succeeded by Theodorick Bland
In office
Preceded by
Succeeded by Abraham B. Venable, Wilson C. Nicholas
Delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates
In office
1798-1800, 1815-1816, 1826-1827
Preceded by
Succeeded by
24th Governor of Virginia
In office
Preceded by Governor John Buchanan Floyd
Succeeded by Governor John Tyler
District Representative to the Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830
In office
Preceded by
Succeeded by
In office
Preceded by
Succeeded by
In office
Preceded by
Succeeded by
In office
Preceded by {{{8thofficepreceded}}}
Succeeded by {{{8thofficesucceeded}}}
Personal details
Born August 12, 1762
  Amelia County, Virginia
Died December 4, 1830
Resting place his estate of "Wigwam" in Virginia
Education Hampden-Sydney College
College of New Jersey
College of William & Mary
Alma mater The College of William & Mary
Profession Lawyer and politician
Spouse(s) Martha Peyton Tabb
Frances Ann Gwynn
Known for Anti-Federalist policies
Signature [[File:|left|200px]]

William Branch Giles (August 12, 1762 – December 4, 1830) was a prominent Virginian lawyer, congressman, senator, and governor who studied law under George Wythe at the College of William & Mary. He was an adamant anti-Federalist who advocated for the purity of the original Constitution and states' rights.

William Giles was born on August 12, 1762 in Amelia County, Virginia, the youngest child of William Giles and Ann Branch. The Branch family traces its roots back to 15th century England, where members ranged from woolen drapers to town mayors. To escape a crushing financial situation, Giles' ancestors left England for the promise of the new land, settling in the Piedmont section of Virginia. Giles' father was influential in the county and a vestryman of the parish church. Giles' older brother, John, served in the Revolutionary War and received land in Kentucky.[1]

Giles attended Hampden Sydney College, and graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1781 with such prestigious classmates as James Madison, Henry Lee, and Edward Livingston.[2] "Anxious to lose not a moment in fitting himself for the stirring scenes of active life," Giles' obituary from 1830 states,

he entered at once as a Law Student, the venerable Alma Mater of Virginia's great men, the College of William and Mary, where he soon gave evidence of that great legal discrimination, which, notwithstanding, his constant avocations from its professional exercise, ever after distinguished him.[3]

Giles decided to study law at William & Mary Chancellor George Wythe, the first law professor in America as well as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Giles was admitted to the bar on March 23, 1786, and then practiced law for several years in Petersburg, Virginia.[4]

In 1790, Giles was elected to the First Congress, where he served in the House of Representatives until his resignation in 1798.[5] During this time, Giles continued his legal practice and was referred to as "a lawyer of eminence" by his contemporary, Thomas Jefferson — another former student of Wythe.[6]

From 1798 to 1800, Giles served as an elected member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Upon the resignation of Abraham B. Venable, Giles was appointed to the United States Senate for the year of 1803. He was elected to the Senate following the resignation of Wilson C. Nicholas, and served there from 1804 to 1815.

After serving another term in the Virginia House of Delegates (1815-1816), Giles was elected Governor of Virginia where he served from 1827 to 1830.[7] Giles retired from politics in 1830, and died on his estate in "Wigwam" nine months later.[8]

Throughout his legal and political career, William Branch Giles was known for his "hard-hitting political attacks on individuals in the executive branch;" particularly concerning the Federalist policies of Alexander Hamilton. Giles even went so far as to accuse Hamilton of misconduct in office, and led an unsuccessful resolution for an inquiry that could have led to Hamilton's impeachment. During his time in Congress, Giles worked with James Madison to build up the Republican party against the administration and the Federalists in the House of Representatives. After the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Giles felt that the rights to free speech were becoming criminalized, and subsequently left Congress in protest. Returning triumphantly to Congress during the "Revolution of 1800," Giles was disappointed in what he felt was lack of action by the Republicans. He consequently led a separate anti-Federalist Republican faction in the Senate until his retirement after the War of 1812.[9]

In the General Assembly, as Governor of Virginia, and as a member of the State Constitutional Convention, Giles "stood for localism and states' rights, agrarianism, and preserving the interests and power of the gentry." [10] But above all else, Giles championed the purity of the Constitution and his anti-Federalist policies. Upon his death in 1830, Thomas Ritchie of the Richmond Enquirer commented that, "Mr. Giles, in point of native ability, was one of the first men of his country, and of his age. His views were extensive, the moral force of his character equal of that of any man we have ever known, and he was one of the first parliamentary debaters of his time. He has been in public life for nearly forty years, distinguished in every station which he filled; in the executive chair, and in the Convention of Virginia, he has always been in the first rank — and has left traces of his great talents upon the history of his country." [11]

William Branch Giles married Martha Peyton Tabb in 1797. After her death, he married Frances Ann Gwynn in 1810. Between his two wives, Giles fathered seven children.[12]

See also


  1. Dice Robins Anderson, William Branch Giles: a biography, by Dice Robins Anderson (Menasha, Wisconson: George Banta Publishing Company, 1915), 1-2, accessed August 24, 2015.
  2. American National Biography Online, s.v. "Giles, William Branch," by F. Thornton Miller, accessed August 24, 2015; Anderson;William Branch Giles: a biography, by Dice Robins Anderson, 5.
  3. Richmond Enquirer, 16 December 1830, 1.
  4. Anderson, William Branch Giles: a biography, by Dice Robins Anderson, 5.
  5. Library of Virginia, s.v. "William Branch Giles," accessed August 26, 2015.
  6. Thomas Jefferson, Letter of Jefferson, May 6, 1792, the Library of Congress cited in Dice Robins Anderson, William Branch Giles: a biography, by Dice Robins Anderson, 6.
  7. Library of Virginia, "William Branch Giles."
  8. "National Governors Association: The Collecive Voice of the Nation's Governors," (2011), accessed August 26, 2015.
  9. Miller, "Giles, William Branch."
  10. Ibid.
  11. Thomas Ritchie, Enquirer, Dec, 9, 1830 cited in Anderson, William Branch Giles: a biography, by Dice Robins Anderson, 209.
  12. Library of Virginia, s.v. "William Branch Giles."

Further reading

  • The Annals of Congress — Giles' speeches and resolution in Congress.
  • The Journal of the House of Delegates — Giles' speeches as a state legislator and messages to the General Assembly during his time as Governor.
  • Kevin R. C. Gutzman, "Preserving the Patrimony: William Branch Giles and Virginia vs. The Federal Tariff," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 104 (Summer 1996), 341-72.