Wyndham Robertson

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Wyndham Robertson

Governor of Virginia
State Representative
Portait of Wyndham Robertson ca. 1880 by L.M.D. Guillaume
Governor of Virginia
In office
1836 – 1837
Born January 26, 1803
near Manchester, Chesterfield County, Virginia
Died February 11, 1888
Abingdon, Virginia
Residence Richmond, Virginia
Abingdon, Virginia
Virginia House of Delegates
In office
1838 – 1841
Constituency Richmond, Virginia
Virginia House of Delegates
In office
1859 – 1865
Constituency Richmond, Virginia
Political party Whig
Spouse Mary Trigg Smith

Wyndham Robertson ( January 26, 1803 – February 11, 1888) was Governor of the U.S. state of Virginia from 1836 to 1837. He also served twice in the Virginia House of Delegates, the second time during the American Civil War.

Robertson was a Whig, and was a advocate for Union during the secession crisis that precipitated the Civil War. However, after Lincoln's call for troops, he advocated secession. After the war, he was a member of the Committee of Nine that helped usher Virginia back into the Union.

Robertson, a descendant of Pocahontas, published a book near the end of his life in her defence.


Early life and family

Robertson was born near Manchester, in Chesterfield County, Virginia, the son of William Robertson and Elizabeth Bolling, a descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. His father was a member of the Virginia Council of State. Robertson attended private schools in Richmond and was graduated from William and Mary College in 1821. He then married Mary Trigg Smith, daughter of Captain Francis Smith. Robertson's brother was Thomas B. Robertson, a Governor of Louisiana, and John Robertson, a U.S. Congressman.

Robertson studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1824. In 1827, he made a short trip to Paris and London, and in 1830 he was made Counciller of State.


Robertson was re-elected to the Council of State in 1833, and on March 31, 1836, he became the senior member of this body, and therefore Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia. When Governor Littleton Waller Tazewell resigned that same day, Robertson became Governor. Since the Virginia Legislature, which elected the Governor, was Democratic, and he, being a Whig, was not, Robertson was not elected when his term was up in 1837, and he was replaced by David Campbell.

Robertson was then elected to the Virginia House of Delegates for the 1838 session. He was then re-elected for three successive sessions, ending his service in 1841.

He moved to his wife's home south of Abingdon, in southwest Virginia in 1841. He was made a Justice of Washington County on July 25, 1842, and was appointed a trustee of Abingdon Academy in 1843. In 1850, he leased the King Saltworks for five years. In 1858, he returned to Richmond. In 1859, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates for the 1859-1861 session. When Virginia was struggling with the idea of seceding from the United States, Robertson was a staunch Unionist and tried to prevent its secession. He later wrote of himself as a "friend to peace and the Union" and that he had actively opposed South Carolina's call for a Southern Convention in 1859. In fact, he was present at the Henry Clay banquet in April of 1860, at which former President John Tyler was present, and Robertson was called on to give "The Union" toast, which he did, followed by a short speech. He then proposed the following toast:

"The Constitutional Union of the States" - The Union of the States is the harmony of the spheres. While obedient to the laws of their creation, they sing ever as they go 'glad tidings of great joy' to all the world. Rebelling against them, light and joy are swallowed up in darkness, and order falls back into primordial chaos.

After South Carolina and several other states started seceding in the winter of 1860-61, he still advocated that Virginia not follow suit. On January 7, 1861, he presented a resolution known as the Anti-Coercion Resolution, which rejected secession, but stated that if the Federal government used coercion against the seceded states, Virginia would fight, which was duly adopted. However, when President Abraham Lincoln made his call for troops on April 15, 1861, he was "from that time forth zealously active in all measures for the defence of his State." The call for troops was precisely the scenario detailed in their Anti-Coercion Resolution and Virginia seceded.

"And now, after twenty years' experience of yet unripened results, I have no regrets, nor repent a single act of my State, or myself, in these unhappy affairs - welcoming the end of slavery, but still believing it would have been reached without the horrors of war."
Wyndham Robertson

Robertson was re-elected to the House of Delegates for the next two sessions, ending in 1865. In 1863, he opposed and helped to defeat a bill to fix the prices of food, which he believed was "fraught with the direst mischief". When a committee of citizens presented a resolution asking their representatives to support a similar bill or resign, Robertson refused. When he found that his colleagues had already acquiesced, he resigned so as not to misrepresent his constituents. The House, however, requested that his resignation be withdrawn until the wishes of his constituents could be determined. A formal poll was held and it was determined that a majority did not support the bill and Robertson retained his seat.

After the war, he moved back to Abingdon. During Reconstruction, Robertson was a member of the Committee of Nine, led by Alexander H. H. Stuart, that sought Virginia's readmission to the Union. At issue was the new state constitution, which included disenfranchisement of many white males. The committee successfully negotiated with the Federal government to have that clause voted on separately, so that Virginians would accept and ratify the new constitution and so rejoin the Union.

He died on February 11, 1888, and was buried at Cobbs, Chesterfield County.

Legacy and writings

Robertson was an early donor to Emory and Henry College, the interest of which furnished the Robertson prize medal for "encouraging oratory".

After the American Civil War, Northern writers began questioning the validity of the rescue story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, attacking the accounts of the historical role played by both, as well as that of her husband John Rolfe. The movement was led by Henry Adams, a descendant of John Adams whose rival was John Randolph of Roanoke, was a descendant of Pocahontas. Several Virginians replied, one of whom was Robertson. "Northern attacks disturbed him so much that he prepared a detailed study" and wrote Pocahontas alias Matoaka and Her Descendants through Her Marriage with John Rolfe. He traced her descendants, who included the Bollings, Branches, Lewises, Randolphs, and Pages, as well as him. His argument was that since her descendants were notable, so was she. "History, poetry, and art," wrote Robertson, "have vied with one another in investing her name from that day to the present with a halo of surpassing brightness."

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