Many of America’s second generation of political/ military leaders experienced the American Revolution as children. Some incubated in the new nation’s political environment through their connection to family members who served as leaders during the Revolutionary period, the Confederation era, or during the early days of the Republic. Such was the case for Robert Barraud Taylor, of Norfolk, Virginia. Taylor’s services to his nation include stints as a military commander, a jurist, and as a politician. He was accomplished at each.
Born on March 24, 1775, his family enjoyed some prominence in Virginia. His mother, Sarah Curle Barraud, descended from a line of Huguenot immigrants that came to Virginia after religious persecutions in France. His father, Robert Taylor, was active in politics and eventually served multiple terms as Norfolk’s mayor. Often accompanying his father, Robert Barraud Taylor was reared in an environment of legal/ political thought. Robert B. Taylor enrolled at William and Mary College, his studies there ended in a dueling incident that also involved John Randolph. He did however; find his way to the law offices of John Marshall, and eventual admission to the bar.
Although a Federalist in the age of the Jeffersonian Revolution, the younger Taylor attained respect as a representative in the Virginia Assembly. Not one to cower from an unpopular position, he argued unsuccessfully for the necessity of the Alien and Sedition Act, and against the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. With the rise of Republicanism, he left the State Legislature and returned to the court. Taylor was part of the jury that indicted Aaron Burr for treason. In 1807 HMS Leopard, a British ship, stopped an American ship, the USS Chesapeake, and impressed three sailors. Treason charges were brought against the Chesapeake’s Captain Barron for surrendering without a fight. Taylor again took on the unpopular task of providing counsel for Captain Barron. As a result of the court martial, Barron suffered a suspension from service for a period of five years.
With the outbreak of war with Great Britain in 1812, it was clear that Norfolk would be a target of British action. When British warships appeared off the Virginia coast, Governor James Barbour promoted Robert B. Taylor from the rank of Colonel to Brigadier General in the State Militia. Barbour placed Taylor in command of Norfolk area militia, and charged him with providing the city’s defense. Taylor, a Federalist, had opposed going to war with Britain. Barbour, a Republican, nevertheless believed Taylor to be capable of success. Barbour’s assessment of Taylor proved accurate. After establishing sound training practices for his militia forces, Taylor then assumed command of all forces in the Norfolk region in March of 1813. Taylor’s soldiers built and strengthened fortifications in the approaches to Norfolk. Their preparations paid off when the British attack on Craney Island on June 22, 1813 failed. Taylor resigned in 1814 having helped save Norfolk from a British invasion. Offered a commission in the United States Army by President Madison, Taylor declined and returned home. There he remained at the center of Norfolk’s social and political life. Taylor hosted the Marquis de Lafayette on his tour of the United States, and the two men exchanged correspondences. In one such letter Lafayette wrote Taylor lamenting Thomas Jefferson’s death.
As he had done at several instances in his earlier life, Taylor came to take another unpopular stand later in his life. National growth in early 19th century saw western populations grow. In this regard, Virginia provided a microcosm of the nation. Although Virginia had already ceded its western most lands for the creation of the State of Kentucky, another group of settlers had migrated into the western valleys that lay between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Ohio River. This area, often referred to as the trans montane, developed radically a different culture and economy from their fellow Virginians in the east. Politically, easterners held power. The franchise extended to freeholders and property qualifications excluded most westerners because the size of their holdings were typically smaller than those of the large eastern plantations. Slavery was not prominent in west, and the existing tax laws benefitted slave production. Representation in state legislative bodies also favored easterners, although western populations were growing at a much faster rate than were eastern populations. However, maintaining slavery necessitated that easterners control the political system. After several efforts to redress western concerns were thwarted, a state-wide call to redraw the State’s Constitution occurred in 1829.
Virginia was divided into 24 Districts, with each district consisting of several counties. Each district elected 4 men to represent them at the Convention. Taylor was elected as a member of the delegation from the District that included Norfolk. Virginia’s Constitutional Convention of 1829-30 provides a picture of America’s first and second generations of political leaders working to further define the concepts of republican governance. Other delegates to the Convention included founding patriots such as James Madison, James Monroe, and John Marshall. Also present were a new generation of civic leaders including Philip Doddridge, Alexander Campbell, and Robert B. Taylor.
From the beginning of the debate it was evident that easterners were not open to an expansion of the franchise to include the small hold farmers of the west. Nor were they open to establishing a system of representation that might one day benefit the west. Taylor however, entered the Convention with no predeterminations. As the debates progressed Taylor came to believe that republican concepts would be upheld only with the adoption of white manhood suffrage. With this determination he came into direct opposition with both his district delegation and his constituency. His fellow delegates whipped up opposition to Taylor at home, providing direct instruction for Taylor to follow. Unable to justify his belief that a representative of a people should reflect the will of their constituency with the decision of his conscience, Taylor resigned his seat at the Convention. His replacement, Hugh Blair Grigsby, dutifully supported eastern interests which prevailed at the Convention. Though suffrage was extended to some, enough concessions were made to settlers in the Blue Ridge region to peel them away from the reform movement. While the Convention resulted in few meaningful reforms, it did provide a forum for the continued debates concerning suffrage, representation, and slavery.
Taylor’s decision was announced in newspapers throughout the world. His letter which detailed his decision was reprinted widely. So great was many people’s admiration for Taylor that when James Monroe was forced to resign his seat the Convention because of poor health, the other delegates from Monroe’s delegation nominated Taylor to take the former president’s place. Taylor declined the offer, not because he did not believe he could vote his conscience, but because he did not reside in that district. After he returned home, Taylor continued on the bench. Taylor also served on the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors. He died from pneumonia on April 13, 1834.
Taylor’s behavior at the Convention offers a point of debate. It begs this question: In a republican system to what is a political representative beholden, their own conscience, or to the consensus of their constituency? When the two are in harmony, a representative’s decision making should be less complicated. However, when the two are in conflict, which will should hold prominence? General Robert Barraud Taylor represents one of America’s lesser known figures. His life however, demands recognition.
Butler, Stewart L. “Defending Norfolk.” Prologue, 2013: 10- 18.
Deane, William Allen Lesueur. “HUGH BLAIR GRIGSBY; A DELEGATE TO THE VIRGINIA C0NSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1829-30.” A Thesis Submitted to the University of Richmond. Richmond, VA, August 1955.
Elliott, W.B. The John P. Branch Historical Papers of Randolph-Macon College. Edited by Charles H. Ambler. Vol. III. Richmaond, VA: The Department of History; Randolph-Macon College, 1909.
Proceedings and Debates of The Virginia State Convention of 1829-30. Richmond: Richie & Cook, 1830.
Stewart, Col. William H., ed. History of Norfolk County, Virginia, and Representative Citizens. Chicago: The Biographical Publishing Company, 1902.
The Torchlight and Public Advertiser. “Virginia Convention: Noble Conduct Nobly Rewarded.” November 19, 1829: 2.