Beverley Browne Douglas

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Beverley Browne Douglas  


Beverley Browne Douglas (21 December 1822–22 December 1878), member of the Convention of 1850–1851 and of the House of Representatives, was born in Providence Forge, New Kent County, and was the son of William Douglass and Elizabeth Christian Douglass. His uncle John Beverly Christian served briefly on the Council of State, and his aunt Letitia Christian married John Tyler (1790–1862), later president of the United States. Although his contemporaries rendered his first and last names in a variety of ways, autograph signatures show that he preferred the spelling Beverley and that by the mid-1850s he had dropped the second s from his surname. Douglass attended the College of William and Mary during the 1839–1840 academic year and then visited a relative in Scotland, intending to pursue medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. After one session of lectures on agriculture, chemistry, and civil law, he returned to study at William and Mary from 1842 to 1844. In the latter year he began practicing law in New Kent County and in the city of Norfolk.

On 6 April 1847 Douglass married Eliza Dandridge Pollard, of King William County. Before her death on 21 November 1867, they had three daughters. Several months after his marriage Douglass purchased Cownes, a 687-acre King William County property near the town of Aylett and adjacent to his father-in-law's estate, on which he had completed construction of a red brick mansion by 1857. Douglass built a successful law practice and farmed. He owned twenty slaves in 1850 and a decade later paid taxes on sixteen slaves age twelve or older.

Campaigning as a conservative who favored a tax requirement for voting, Douglass finished fourth among eleven candidates for five seats representing the district of Caroline, Hanover, King William, and Spotsylvania Counties at a convention that met from 14 October 1850 until 1 August 1851 to revise the state constitution. He held the lowest-ranking seat on the Committee on the Legislative Department of the Government. Douglass proposed that the Committee on the Bill of Rights consider what provisions might be necessary concerning the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indians, whose reservations lay in his district. When the convention debated the propriety of printing some of its documents and proceedings in German, he expressed the sarcastic hope that the members would also recognize the Indians by printing in Mattaponi and Pamunkey. On 16 May 1851 in the committee of the whole Douglass opposed a key compromise on the basis of apportioning the General Assembly that shifted the balance of power away from slaveholding easterners. He voted on 31 July for final passage of the constitution.

From January 1852 until March 1865 Douglas represented Essex, King and Queen, and King William Counties in the Senate of Virginia. In addition to sitting at various times on the Committee of General Laws and on the Committee of Roads and Internal Navigation, he chaired the Committee of Finance and Claims during the 1853–1854 and 1857–1858 sessions and was ranking member during the extra session in 1861.

During the presidential campaign of 1860, Douglas vigorously canvassed the Eighth District as an elector for the Southern Democratic ticket of John C. Breckinridge and Joseph Lane. After Abraham Lincoln's victory, Douglas quickly came to support secession. On 8 March 1861 he addressed a Richmond crowd that had raised a palmetto-tree-and-rattlesnake secessionist flag and the flag of the Southern Confederacy, and during the next two weeks he spoke at similar meetings in Chester and Petersburg. Douglas entered Confederate military service on 10 June 1861 as a lieutenant in Company H, 9th Virginia Cavalry (later popularly called Lee's Rangers) and became a captain on 17 July. His service in the General Assembly forced him to take a leave of absence from the regiment between November 1861 and February 1862. Douglas began recruiting a company of rangers in March 1862 and became major of the 5th Virginia Cavalry on 24 June. He tendered his resignation on 22 December 1862, effective 8 January 1863, because of his continuing legislative duties. From 1861 until 1865 Douglas chaired the important Senate Committee on Military Affairs, and during the 1861–1862 assembly and its extra session in 1862, he also served on the Joint Committee on the Armory. On 12 June 1863 he organized and became captain of a company of King William County Local Defense Troops.

In the summer of 1865, Douglas entered a tight five-man race for election to the United States House of Representatives from the First District, embracing twenty counties of the Eastern Shore, the Northern Neck, and the Tidewater. Although he could not honorably have taken a prescribed test oath affirming that he had not supported the Confederacy, he nevertheless carried King and Queen and King William Counties and finished third in the overall balloting. Douglas attended the 1868 Democratic National Convention in New York. In the next year's pivotal gubernatorial campaign, he employed fiery oratory and behind-the-scenes lobbying to build support for the new Conservative Party against the Republicans, whom he portrayed in a speech in Luray as "animated by the deadly and unrelenting hostility to the white race." After an unsuccessful bid for the Conservative nomination for the First District seat in the House of Representatives in 1872, Douglas secured the nomination in 1874. He stumped hard across the sixteen-county district in a series of joint appearances with his Republican opponent, the incumbent congressman James Beverley Sener. At one debate at King William Court House late in the campaign, Douglas answered an accusation that he was a liar by hurling a glass tumbler at Sener, who responded in kind. In the ensuing fracas Sener's arm and nose were broken. Douglas eked out a victory at the polls with 50.7 percent of the vote to Sener's 49.3 percent, a margin of only 295 votes. He won reelection two years later by a more comfortable margin of 3,288 votes of 25,168 cast.

During the Forty-fourth Congress (1875–1877), Douglas sat on the Committees on Patents and on Revision of the Laws of the United States, and during the Forty-fifth Congress (1877–1879), he served as ranking member of the Committees on Patents and on the Militia. He chaired a nine-member select committee that investigated and in May 1876 reported on the collapse of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company. Retrenchment of public expenditures and civil service reform were two of his major concerns. Although one Republican pamphleteer feared him as a Confederate leader of "a Democratic counter rebellion, conquering the Union they failed to destroy," Douglas seldom spoke in the formal House debates and made little impression on his colleagues. He proved diligent in introducing dozens of constituent-service bills and resolutions.

A granddaughter believed that Douglas drank alcohol in excess, which may have fueled a hair-trigger temper. In May 1858 several acquaintances had to negotiate a settlement to avert a duel between Douglas and Obadiah Jennings Wise after an exchange of sharp editorials and letters to the editor, and on another occasion a public volley of insults between Douglas and his neighbour and fellow attorney William Roane Aylett required the mediation of three friends to avoid an appointment on the field of honor. Beverley Browne Douglas died at the National Hotel in Washington, D.C., on 22 December 1878 of paralysis and inflammation of the bowels. The Washington Post reported the rumour that injuries sustained in an altercation with a former Virginia congressman several days earlier had precipitated his death. A congressional delegation conducted Douglas's remains to Zoar, his wife's family estate in King William County, where his gravestone proclaims him "an honest politician."

He died in office on 22 December 1878 and is buried in a private or family graveyard, King William County, Virginia.



Sources for this article include:
•  National Cyclopædia of American Biography
•  Gravestone inscription in J. Jarvis Taylor and Helen Taylor Mazza, eds., Old King William County Cemeteries
•  Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Beverly B. Douglas, (A Representative from Virginia), Delivered in the House of Representatives and in the Senate . . . (1879).

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