Virginia's Finest

The 10 Best U.S. Senators from Virginia:

  1. Richard Henry Lee
  2. James Monroe
  3. James Barbour
  4. John Randolph
  5. John Tyler
  6. William Cabell Rives
  7. James Murray Mason
  8. Robert M.T. Hunter
  9. Carter Glass
  10. Harry Flood Byrd

A re-reading of the Pulitzer Prize-winning JFK tome Profiles in Courage prompted the author to investigate why none of the prominent Americans included was from Virginia. Given the Old Dominion’s paramount role in the formation of our country and in its first few decades (four of our first five Presidents) one would expect that any number of the Commonwealth’s leaders would sufficiently fit the bill to be so honored. This was indeed found to be true.

Richard Henry Lee, a scion of the prominent Lee family from the Northern Neck was the first U.S. Senator elected (over James Madison) after an-already distinguished career which saw him serve as the President of the government under the Articles of Confederation, one of the two mainstays (along with John Adams) of the Continental Congress, and the author of the resolution that authorized the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Second only to Patrick Henry as an orator, Lee was a public policy workhorse and, as is often the case, his effectiveness garnered him as many enemies as friends.

James Monroe is well-known as having served as U.S. President (and the only Chief Executive after Washington to run unopposed for that office), but he also served as Governor of Virginia (four times), a member of the House of Delegates (the oldest continuously elected body in the world), Congressman, Senator, and Vice President. The Era of Good Feelings was indicative of the satisfaction and comfort the populace felt under his leadership resulting in his running unopposed for re-election.

James Barbour (who had both a brother and a cousin who served as Congressmen from Virginia) first served as a deputy sheriff in Orange County, VA, and then as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates for 16 years, serving as Speaker for three, as Virginia Governor for two years, and in the U.S. Senate for ten. He was appointed Secretary of War by President John Quincy Adams and served for three years when he resigned to assume the position as Ambassador to England from May 1828 to September 1829. He served as the chairman of the 1839 Whig National Convention that nominated William Henry Harrison and John Tyler for president and vice president. Barbour was a political nationalist who grafted to the dominant political philosophy of the day those elements of the Hamiltonian Federalist creed necessary for governing a dynamic, changing nation.

John Randolph was the biggest surprise uncovered in the author’s research. The most eloquent speaker of his contemporaries, Randolph was the center of any action taking place during his Senatorial tenure. Very eccentric, he would appear on the Senate floor with his hunting dogs and a slave or two. When he was scheduled to speak, whether in the Senate or in the Virginia constitutional convention, the venue would be packed by the public to hear his orations, and woe to any colleague who would oppose him. No one could match his quick wit, vocabulary, or knowledge of history and politics.

Not only did the 54 gentlemen represent a distinguished group, but they also span the gamut of political parties, philosophical beliefs, and backgrounds.

John Tyler, like Monroe, served as a congressman, senator, vice president, and president. Additionally, he served in the House of Delegates twice and as Virginia governor. A Senator for nine years, he was elected vice president and ascended to the presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison (also born in Virginia although elected from Ohio), the first Whig President. The cabinet thought that they would run the country and were startled when Tyler demurred and became his own man. He made many tough and unpopular decisions, that for the good of the country were determined to prove him correct, but he could not be nominated for re-election. He was unanimously elected to chair the February 1861 national peace conference in Washington to try to head off the commencement of a civil war. When the conference failed he was elected a member of the Confederate House of Representatives but passed prior to taking office.

William Rives, a distinguished attorney from Charlottesville, was elected thrice to the House of Delegates, four times to the U.S. Congress, and twice to the U.S. Senate for non-consecutive terms, the first time as a Democrat and the second as a Whig. Twice he was named minister to France. He served in the national peace conference prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and subsequently was elected to the second Confederate Congress.

James Murray Mason, a grandson of George Mason, was elected thrice to the House of Delegates and once to the U.S. Congress before being selected by the legislature to fill an unexpired term in the Senate, serving for 14 years. He wrote the (second) Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, enacted on September 18, 1850 as a part of the Compromise Measures of that year. Mason represented the majority view in leading the Senate committee which investigated the John Brown raid on Harper's Ferry of October 1859. Mason was one of the two Confederate ministers to England and France aboard the HMS Trent that was captured by the U.S. Navy, causing a serious diplomatic split with England that almost resulted in a war between the U.S. and the U.K.

Robert M.T. Hunter was elected to the House of Delegates and five times to the U.S. House. He was the youngest-ever House speaker, serving from 1839-1840. He served in the Senate for 14 years, being the author of the Tariff Act of 1857. He twice refused appointment as Secretary of State by Presidents Pierce and Buchanan and was a candidate for U.S. President in 1860. He was Confederate Secretary of State from July 1861 to February 1862, served in the Confederate Senate for three years (often serving as President pro tem), and was one of the three Confederate peace commissioners who met with President Lincoln in February 1865 that attempted to negotiate an end to the war. He ended his career as the Virginia State Treasurer.

Carter Glass, one of the few non-lawyers on this list (he was a reporter and newspaper publisher), served four years in the state Senate and 16 years in the U.S. House (writing the bill that created the Federal Reserve system) before being named by President Wilson as the Treasury Secretary. He resigned in two years after being elected by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate. He served in the Senate for 26 years, serving as chairman as the Appropriations Committee and authoring the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, separating commercial and investment banks, and also was the prime creator of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. He declined FDR’s invitation to become his Treasury Secretary.

Harry Flood Byrd, also a newspaper editor, inherited Thomas Stapleton Martin’s Democratic machine and fashioned the loyal “courthouse system” into one of the most powerful and effective political machines ever seen in this country. After serving ten years as a state senator and as governor from 1926-30, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1933 and served until 1966 when he was succeeded by his son. Policy-wise he is best known for his “pay as you go” policy showing his conservative nature with respect to public spending, as well as for his strict segregation of the races. He was a powerful member of the Armed Services Committee and chaired the Senate Finance Committee with authority over taxes.