Major General James Mitchell Varnum

Inducted: 1999
Born: 1748 - Died:
1789

James Mitchell Varnum (1748-1789), lawyer, Revolutionary War general, and judge, was born in Dracut, Massachusetts, the eldest son of affluent farmer Major Samuel Varnum and his second wife, Hannah Mitchell. He attended Harvard for a year, but his involvement in a student protest prompted him to enroll at Rhode Island College (Brown), where he earned his bachelor’s degree with honors in 1769 in that school’s first graduating class. He followed this success with a master’s degree from the same college in 1772.

Varnum briefly returned to Dracut to teach, but he then decided to reside in Rhode Island and pursue the profession of law. After initial misgivings about independence, he strongly espoused the rebel cause. In 1774, he became an officer of the Kentish Guards, and in May 1775, he gained command of the First Rhode Island Regiment. In December 1776, after several military engagements, he attained the Continental Army rank of brigadier general, and he served for a year and a half with Washington in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Having made a recruitment proposal to George Washington in January 1778 that led to the creation of Rhode Island’s “Black Regiment,” Varnum fought in the Battle of Rhode Island with that new unit.
Varnum’s criticism of commanding General John Sullivan after the unsuccessful siege of Newport prompted his resignation from service in the Continental Army on March 5, 1779, but he was eventually elevated to the rank of major general in the Rhode Island militia.

In 1780, Varnum was elected to Congress, where he served in 1780, 1781 and 1787. He used his terms as congressman to uphold hard money and creditor’s rights in financial matters, and he advocated a stronger, highly centralized national government. His national service sparked Varnum’s interest in the newly created western territories.

When many businessmen balked at accepting the paper money issued by Rhode Island’s Country party in 1786 to relieve rural debtors, the General Assembly passed a “force act” imposing criminal penalties on anyone who refused this legal tender. This punishment was to be inflicted by a special court without the benefit of trial by jury. After Revolutionary War marine hero John Trevett tendered a bill to his Newport butcher John Weeden, and Weeden declined it, the stage was set in 1786 for Trevett v. Weeden, the most important case in Rhode Island’s judicial history. The cause was heard before the highest court in the state, and it concluded when the court refused jurisdiction and dismissed Trevett’s complaint.

In the course of the trial, Varnum, one of Weeden’s defense attorneys, advanced a learned and eloquent argument urging the court to exercise its hitherto unused power to review legislation and declare the force act unconstitutional for depriving those accused of trial by jury, which Varnum termed “a first, a fundamental, and a most essential principle, in the English constitution” and a “sacred right” transferred from England to America by numerous royal charters, including Rhode Island’s basic law of 1663.

Although the court did not act on this plea, Varnum’s brief was widely disseminated. It was printed and advertised in several issues of the Pennsylvania Packet on the eve of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. While the convention was in progress, Varnum expounded his theory of judicial review to George Washington in a letter dated June 18, 1787, and James Madison alluded to the Trevett v. Weeden case on July 17, 1787, during the debates on the “judicial negative” of state laws. It was clearly one of the influences on Chief Justice John Marshall when he established the principle of judicial review in the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803.

Having become a director of the Ohio Company in August 1787, the ambitious Varnum left Rhode Island shortly after the trial to seek his fortune in the newly created Ohio Country. There he was appointed a United States territorial judge and assisted in drafting the territory’s first code of laws. Although he was of powerful build and a physical culturist, his health failed in the frontier environment after he contracted tuberculosis.

On January 10, 1789, Varnum’s death at the age of forty cut short his highly promising career. Contributing to the family’s prominence, however, his younger brother Joseph, who remained in Massachusetts, became a Democratic-Republican congressman (1795-1811), Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Tenth and Eleventh Congresses, one of the few New England leaders to support “Mr. Madison’s War” of 1812, and, finally, a United States senator (1811-1817).

Despite the existence of a family cemetery in Dracut and a house in East Greenwich, General Varnum was buried in Marietta, Ohio.
His wife, Martha Child of Warren, whom he married in 1770, remained in Rhode Island and survived her husband by forty-eight years. The couple had no children. Despite Varnum’s expatriation, he is amply remembered in Rhode Island. His historic home survives today in East Greenwich as a house museum, and a local Rhode militia group, the Varnum Continentals, was established in 1907 to honor his memory. This unit maintains the Varnum Memorial Armory, erected on Main Street in East Greenwich in 1914, which contains a fine military and naval museum. In addition, the general is memorialized by Camp Varnum in Narragansett, the main educational center of the Rhode Island Army National Guard.

Major General James Mitchell Varnum was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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