Edmund Pendleton

The American political leader Edmund Pendleton (1721-1803) became a liberal among the Virginia gentry, of which he was a part.

Edmund Pendleton was born into the Virginia colony's elite on Sept. 9, 1721. However, his father's early death and the subsequent loss of the family's property left Pendleton to shift for himself. His upper-class origins eventually served him well, but his early years were ones of struggle. His education came through apprenticeship to a county clerk, and his law degree was similarly gained. Only in 1752, on his election to the House of Burgesses, did his pedigree become significant. Thereafter, as he recouped his family's lost wealth, he took his place among Virginia's gentlemen.

As the Colonies' rupture with England widened, Pendleton emerged as a staunch opponent of the mother country. This role had carried him to the forefront of Virginia politics by the outbreak of the Revolution. He was designated a member of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence in 1773 and of the Continental Congress a year later, and he rose to the presidencies of both the Virginia Revolutionary Convention and the Committee of Safety in 1775. The last-mentioned post effectively placed Pendleton at the head of the Revolutionary government in the Old Dominion.

After a period of retirement from politics, Pendleton was elected president of the Virginia convention of 1788, called to ratify the Federal Constitution. His key efforts in the debates of that body, and his friendship with George Washington, should have caused this now eminent lawyer to gravitate toward the Federalist party. However, his early struggles and his admiration for Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were changing his political philosophy. A newly cultivated democratic bent led the Virginia aristocrat to espouse the equality of all men under law and the avoidance of government by the upper classes only; once Pendleton embraced these liberal views, his political course was set.

After declining George Washington's offer of a U.S. district judgeship in 1789, Pendleton went to work for the Jeffersonian Republican party. He was president of the Virginia Court of Appeals from 1779 until his death. In 1793 he led a public meeting in Virginia devoted to criticizing Federalist foreign policy. In 1799 Jefferson and John Taylor persuaded Pendleton to write a pamphlet which was of considerable importance in the Republican campaign of 1800. The aged Pendleton, however, was far too feeble to partake of the victory he had helped forge, and he died on Oct. 26, 1803.

Further Reading on Edmund Pendleton

The preeminent work on Pendleton is David J. Mays, Edmund Pendleton, 1721-1803: A Biography (2 vols., 1952). An older study is Robert L. Hilldrup, The Life and Times of Edmund Pendleton (1939). For an appraisal of Pendleton in the context of his times see Noble E. Cunningham, The Jeffersonian Republicans: The Formation of Party Organization, 1789-1801 (1957).

Additional Biography Sources

Mays, David John, Edmund Pendleton, 1721-1803: a biography, Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1980, 1984.

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