On this day in 1803, an unsung Revolutionary War hero passes away. This man was not inclined to support the American cause of independence when our conflict with Great Britain first began. But once he’d decided to join the cause, he never looked back!
Did your history books ever teach you about Edmund Pendleton?
He was born in rural Virginia to a family of modest means, but he suffered a few setbacks early on. His father died before he was born, and Pendleton did not receive much in the way of a formal education. Fortunately, be obtained an apprenticeship with a court clerk when he was a teenager. He began climbing the ladder in the legal world. When he was about 20, he’d passed the Virginia bar and was practicing as a lawyer.
Opportunity! He grabbed it. How American.
Pendleton became a skilled lawyer and was the “ablest man in debate I ever met with,” according to Thomas Jefferson. He was soon serving his community in many ways: He was a justice of the peace, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and a member of the First Continental Congress. His biographer notes: “Once on the stage of Virginia public life, Pendleton never left it. He attained every office he aspired to, and, as far as we know, never lost an election in his life.”
He didn’t immediately see the need for independence. To the contrary, he sometimes feared that “violent and fiery” sentiments were “plunging us into rash measures.” He changed his mind, though. By 1776, he was fully supportive of the move to independence. In fact, he was President of the Virginia Convention when that body directed its representatives to present a resolution calling for independence.
Pendleton is known for his continued public service both during and after the Revolution. He helped write new laws for the Virginia state government, and he helped to establish its independent judiciary. He served as President of the Virginia Ratifying Convention, and he sat on the Virginia Court of Appeals.
After the new United States government was established, Pendleton became worried about how some aspects of the Constitution were playing out. In 1801, he published a piece entitled “The Danger Not Over,” warning readers about changes that needed to be made if America was to maintain her liberty.
He observed that “much mischief may be done under an unwise administration; and that even the most valuable parts of the constitution, may be evaded or violated.” He proposed a few amendments, such as presidential term limits, subjecting Senators to removal by their constituents, and “forming some check upon the abuse of public credit, which tho’ in some instances useful, like Fleets & Armies, may, like those, be carried to extremes dangerous to liberty, and inconsistent with economical government.”
As you know, most of his suggestions were never taken, although presidential term limits were implemented in the mid-1900s.
Pendleton passed away not too long afterwards, in October 1803. Congress resolved to wear “a badge of mourning for thirty days,” expressing “their regret that another star is fallen from the splendid constellation of virtue and talents which guided the People of the United States, in their struggle for independence.”
Yet another forgotten Patriot who deserves to be remembered.
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Primary Sources & Further Reading:
David John Mays, Edmund Pendleton 1721-1803, A Biography (1952)
John R. Vile, Great American Judges: An Encyclopedia (2003) (Vol. 1)
John R. Vile, Great American Lawyers: An Encyclopedia (2001) (Vol. 1)
The Life of Edmund Pendleton, of Virginia (American Jurist & Law Magazine; Jan. & April 1833) (Vol. IX)
The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law (Roger K. Newman ed., 2009)
Walter P. Armstrong, Jr., Edmund Pendleton: The Conservative of the Revolution (ABA Journal; Jul 1953)