“It has been our happiness to believe, that in the partition of powers between the general [Federal] and State governments, the former possessed only such [powers] as were expressly granted, or passed therewith as necessary incidents, while all the residuary powers were reserved by the latter [the State].” Spencer Roane
“Twenty-seven of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were college-educated. Moreover, of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, 30 were college graduates. That is an impressive feat given the challenging entrance requirements of the 18th-century universities.” Joe Wolverton II
Joe Wolverton II, The New American, February 5, 2018, p.33f
From the print edition of The New American
“It has been our happiness to believe, that in the partition of powers between the general and State governments, the former possessed only such as were expressly granted, or passed therewith as necessary incidents, while all the residuary powers were reserved by the latter.”
— Spencer Roane
Had one-time friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson not had such a high-profile and historic falling out, Spencer Roane would have been chief justice of the Supreme Court. He was Jefferson’s pick, but Adams tapped his fellow nationalist John Marshall to occupy that powerful position.
As it was, Spencer Roane served on the highest court in his home state of Virginia, and became one of Jefferson’s staunchest allies and one of the ablest defenders of federalism and the Constitution, including the concept commonly called “states’ rights.”
Spencer Roane was a member of the Founding Generation who preached and practiced the doctrine of a federal government whose powers were few and defined, with state governments retaining the lion’s share of the authority. It is perhaps for that reason that he has been relegated to the Forgotten Founders file, and it is definitely for that reason that this article is being published.
Roane was born on April 4, 1762 in Essex County, Virginia. Roane’s father was a member of the House of Burgesses until the War for Independence, at which time he joined the militia of the Old Dominion, rising to the rank of colonel.
In a way similar to most young men of his station, Spencer received his first years of formal education at home. His tutor was a Scot named Bradfute. Roane’s studies focused on the heroes of Greek and Roman antiquity, endowing the young man with a patriotic passion and an appreciation of self-government that would remain with him for the rest of his life.
Studying the stories of Greece and Rome was the core of the colonial curriculum. The Founders learned very early in life to venerate the illuminating stories of ancient Greece and Rome. They learned these stories, not from secondary sources, but from the classics themselves. And from these stories they drew knowledge and inspiration that helped them found a republic far greater than anything created in antiquity.
Classical training usually began at age eight, whether in a school or at home under the guidance of a private tutor. One remarkable teacher who inculcated his students with a love of the classics was Scotsman Donald Robertson. Many future luminaries were enrolled in his school: James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John Tyler, and George Rogers Clark, among others. Robertson and teachers such as him nourished their charges with a healthy diet of Greek and Latin, and required that they learn to master Virgil, Horace, Justinian, Tacitus, Herodotus, Plutarch, Lucretius, and Thucydides. Further along in their education, students were required to translate Cicero’s “Orations” and Virgil’s Aeneid. They were expected to translate Greek and Latin passages aloud, write out the translations in English, and then re-translate the passages back into the original language using a different tense.
Whether at home or in a schoolhouse, the goal of education in the early days of our nation was to instill virtue in the students. The Founders were taught that free societies were sustained by a virtuous populace, and that, if a society were to abandon a study of the classics, that same society would eventually abandon the virtues championed by the classical authors.
There was a more pragmatic side to the Founders’ classical education as well. Twenty-seven of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were college-educated. Moreover, of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, 30 were college graduates. That is an impressive feat given the challenging entrance requirements of 18th-century universities. Fortunately for the young Founding Fathers, the teachers of the day exercised their students in Greek and Latin so that their pupils could meet the rigorous entrance requirements of colonial colleges. Those colleges stipulated that entering freshmen be able to read, translate, and expound the Greco-Roman classical works.
When Roane was only 13 years old, the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” was fired on Lexington Green, and the world would change forever.
Along with his lectures on the heroes of Athens, Sparta, and Rome, Roane devoted hours to reading and pondering the proclamations and pamphlets produced in defense of American liberty and in condemnation of the crown and Parliament.
In his biographical essay on Roane published in 1896, T.R.B. Wright described the indelible effect the revolutionary writings had on young Spencer Roane:
The power of simplicity with which in these state papers the wrongs of America were described, the determined resolution which they displayed to defend the rights of the people and to resist the encroachments of Parliament and the Crown, the patriotism and magnanimity of sentiment which breathed throughout these admirable compositions, fired his young bosom with the spirit of republicanism, and fanned there the holy flame of liberty — that flame which continued to burn with undiminished lustre like the sacred fire on the vestal altar to the very day of his death.
With such ardent devotion to freedom burning brightly within the young scholar, Roane matriculated at the College of William and Mary, the choice of most of Virginia’s gentry. While at William and Mary, Roane chose law as his course of study; accordingly, the inimitable George Wythe — known as the “Teacher of Liberty” — was his first professor.
Here again, Roane benefited from an exceptional education, and after reading the works of the renowned English jurist Sir Edward Coke (Coke would become his favorite legal writer), Roane was deemed ready to sit for the bar exam.
Doubting his own preparation, Roane set off for Philadelphia to spend some time studying law and attending law society meetings. These lessons and associations with the learned men of his chosen vocation convinced Roane that he was finally ready to take the bar exam in his native Virginia, to leave the study of law, and to begin the practice of it.
Spencer Roane wouldn’t spend much time in the law office, though. At the age of 21, he followed in his father’s footsteps, serving as the representative of Essex County to the Virginia House of Delegates.
Roane impressed his colleagues in the House of Delegates and was appointed to serve in the executive branch of Virginia’s government, the Executive Council. He would serve two years in this body before being elected by his neighbors to represent them in the Senate of Virginia. His exemplary service as a senator would bring him additional accolades and advancement.