Spencer Roane

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Spencer Roane (1762-1782), Judge and political writer, was born in Essex County, son of William Roane, a burgess for Essex. Spencer Roane received his early education from Scottish tutors and enrolled in the College of William & Mary.[1] There, he attended George Wythe’s law lectures, became active in Phi Beta Kappa, and developed a taste for literature.[2] Roane was considered a “prodigy of his generation” and “one of [George Wythe’s] most brilliant pupils.”[3] He continued his legal studies with instruction in Philadelphia and by reading Coke in his free time. He was admitted to the bar in 1782.[4]

Roane became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1783-84, where he worked closely with Richard Henry Lee and was in committees with Patrick Henry and John Marshall.[5] He later served as an advisor to Governor Patrick Henry and as a State Senator.[6] Throughout his political career, he remained a staunch Jeffersonian Republican and was opposed to the new Constitution, preferring instead a revision of the Articles of Confederation.[7]

In 1789 Roane began his judicial career when he became a judge of the General Court, a position he held until 1794 when the Virginia legislature elected him to the Supreme Court of Appeals.[8] There he was known for “attack[ing] each case eagerly and penetratingly” and for “clear and vigorous opinions.”[9] Roane’s decisions reflected his progressive, liberty-driven political ideology.[10] He was known for penning opinions that were “mindful of precedent and the law as science, but also keenly alert to the public policies of his own progressive age.”[11] Although Jefferson desired Roane to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, this was made impossible when John Marshall was appointed in 1800.[12]

Spencer Roane furthered his political ideologies in 1804 when he founded the Richmond Enquirer.[13]In it, under several different pen names, Roane advanced his opinions in articles that were “lengthy and not without extreme and abusive language.”[14] Although his articles were well-received by Jeffersonian Republicans, they greatly bothered the Federalists and “reinvigorated the extreme states-rights theory.”[15]Nevertheless, Roane did not consider his vision of powerful individual states as incompatible with union.[16]

Roane died in 1822 in Warm Springs, Virginia, but not before his son, William H. Roane, was seated as a United States Senator.[17]


  1. C. C. Pearson, Roane, Spencer in vol. VIII, part 1 of Dictionary of American Biography ed. Dumas Malone (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963),642.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Alonzo Thomas Dill, ‘’George Wythe Teacher of Liberty’’ (Williamsburg, Virginia: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979), 51.
  4. C. C. Pearson, “Roane, Spencer,” 642.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 643
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Lyon G. Tyler, “Roane Family,” William and Mary Quarterly Historical Magazine 18, no. 4 (April 1910), 267.