top of page
  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

Negotiator, Lawyer, Representative, Senator, and Commissioner - Littleton Waller Tazewell.

Littleton Waller Tazewell was born in Williamsburg, Va. on December 17, 1774, almost 150 years after his first ancestor left England for Virginia. He was the son of Henry and Dorothea Waller Tazewell, and his maternal grandfather was Benjamin Waller, a well-known lawyer, judge, and one of the most powerful members of the Virginia House of Burgesses in the years leading up to the American Revolution. His father, who was also a lawyer, devoted his adult life to public service, serving as a clerk of the revolutionary conventions in 1775-76 and ultimately serving as President Pro Tempore of the United States Senate.

After his mother's death in 1777, Tazewell's father became immersed in revolutionary politics, leaving Dorothea's father, Benjamin Waller to raise Tazewell. Waller, also a lawyer, tutored his grandson in Latin. At the age of ten, Tazewell attended Walker Maury's school in Williamsburg. While there, "he caught the eye" of George Wythe.

George Wythe
George Wythe

For the next three years, Wythe functioned as Tazewell's private tutor, teaching him Latin, Greek, and mathematics to prepare Tazewell for entering the College of William & Mary. In 1791, Tazewell graduated from William & Mary with a B.A. degree. He then traveled to Richmond to study law under John Wickham and passed the bar in 1796. Tazewell returned to Williamsburg to practice law.

In 1798, Tazewell won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in part thanks to his father, who was now a U.S. Senator. He held this position for three consecutive terms (1798-1800). While there, Tazewell strongly supported James Madison's Virginia Resolutions against the Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts. After John Marshall was named Secretary of State, Tazewell filled Marshall's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives until the end of its session in 1801.

Rather than seek another term, Tazewell moved to Norfolk where he married Anne Stratton Nivison. Tazewell represented Norfolk in the Virginia Assembly from 1804 to 1806, where he worked to promote Norfolk's business community and fund state-authorized roads and canals. A "Jeffersonian at heart" due to his distrust of powerful men and strong government, Tazewell was more of a political independent; he consistently avoided party identification and detested partisan conflict. His independence was shown when, due to strong commercial interests and financial connections, he attacked the United States' (Jefferson’s) embargo policy and advocated a Federalist-Republican coalition ticket over Madison's. In short, he supported policies and interests that conflicted with both U.S. Partys.

Following the incident of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair in June of 1807, there was a feeling of outrage across the United States. In Norfolk, the immediate result was the citizens of Norfolk, acting in a manner reminiscent of a Revolutionary War era Committee of Safety and without state of federal sanction, decided that all communication between the town and British warships would cease at once, and that any local resident violating this order would be considered an enemy of the United States. The board also forbade local pilots from guiding any British naval vessel into the Chesapeake Bay or Hampton Roads. Finally, the committee called on the mayor to summon the local militia to defend the town and to enforce the resolutions passed by this extra-legal committee.

In addition to these moves, the group appointed a second committee and charged it with spreading word of the attack to local communities, like the way Committees of Correspondence did in the Revolutionary era, which had been so effective in uniting the colonists against the crown. As a final measure, the panel asked the local port collector (customs collector) to use revenue cutters to disrupt communication between the British consul in Norfolk and the British squadron positioned in nearby waters.

The prohibition of the British fleet communicating with the British consul in Norfolk caused the Captain Douglas of the HMS Bellona, the senior captain of the British ships anchored in Lynnhaven Bay, to send a letter to Norfolk Mayor Richard Lee threatening to blockade Hampton Roads and possibly the Chesapeake Bay, until he was instructed otherwise by his commander in Halifax NS. Based on this, he was moving the fleet to Hampton Roads to await an answer.

On July 4, the Mayor held a meeting of the Norfolk Council and wrote a response to Captain Douglas. The letter was both defiant and conciliatory. The mayor pointed out that the resolutions Captain Douglas referred to were the actions of individuals and not sanctioned by any governmental body and the British would need to address any complaints through the judicial process of the United States. At the same time, he made it clear that if the British chose to act against Hampton Roads that he would find the people of Virginia ready to respond in kind. In his response he wrote:

“If you, Sir, please to consider this act of individuals as a measure 'extremely hostile,' and shall commence hostility without waiting the decision of our two governments, although you yourself acknowledge that it properly belongs to them alone to decide, the inhabitants of Norfolk will conform to your example, and protect themselves against any lawless aggression which may be made upon their persons or property; they therefore leave it with you, either to engage in war, or to remain on terms of peace until the pleasure of our respective governments shall be known."

The job of conveying this letter to Captain Douglas was given to Littleton Waller Tazewell. Tazewell reported on his mission to the British fleet in a letter addressed to Mayor Lee as follows:

"In pursuance of your request, I this day went down to the British squadron, lying in Hampton Roads, for the purpose of delivering the letter with which I was charged to Captain Douglas. On arriving along-side his ship the Bellona, I was invited on board, and received by Captain Douglas himself at the gang-way, and conducted to his cabin, where I found assembled all the captains of the squadron. I immediately informed him, that you had yesterday received a letter from him, the answer to which I had been requested to deliver, and placed it in his hand. He read the letter very attentively, and then handed it to Captain Hardy, from whom it passed to the other captains in succession. When they had all perused it, Captain Douglas observed to me, 'I presume Sir, you are acquainted with the contents of this letter.' I told him I was perfectly so. He then stated that his letter must have been misapprehended, that it contained no expression of menace which he recollected, and that certainly it was not his intention to use language which could be construed to convey such ideas. He referred to Captain Hardy, saying, that he had shown him the letter previously to it being sent, and had requested his opinion as to its sentiments. Captain Hardy concurred with Captain Douglas in the opinion and objects of the communication. I then remarked to them the particular expressions in the letter, which I considered as the language of threat, and adverted to the circumstance of the words 'immediately annulled,' being underscored. He said, that this underscoring must have been done by his clerk, without his direction, and had escaped his observation; but again assured me, upon his honour, that if any expression in the letter wore the appearance of a threat, it was not to be so understood."

"Captain Douglas next adverted to the conclusion of the letter, in which the alternative of peace and war is left to himself. He said upon this subject, that he had no orders to commit any act of hostility, and there was no man from whose intention or wishes such an object was more remote; that he was anxious to preserve the relations of amity which had existed between the two governments, and that no act of his should tend to interrupt their harmony, unless he was ordered by his superiors to perform such acts, in which case, as an officer, he must do his duty. He repeated, however, that he had no such orders, nor did he expect to receive such. He stated, that he had it in his charge generally, to guard his flag, and those under its protection, from insult or assault of any kind, and that this in all situations he must unquestionably do; but that any further measure he was not at present authorized, nor was it his intention to take. I here stated to him that the many insulting menaces which had been communicated in Norfolk, as coming from him. He positively denied ever having uttered such; declared, if they had been used by any of his officers, that they were unauthorized, and disapproved of by him, remarking, at the same time, that he hoped all who knew him, would do him the justice to believe, that he was not in the habit of using the language of threat. He here too again referred to all the officers to say, if they had ever heard him at any time, even while speaking confidentially to them, utter such expressions; and they united in declaring that they had not. . . .

In the course of this conversation, I described to them, as well as I am able, the sentiment which universally prevailed through the country at this time, the cause from which it proceeded, and the effects it would produce, provided any efforts on their part should be made to oppose the public resolves, as to intercourse or supplies. I explicitly declared, that we had as yet received no authority from our government to proceed to acts of aggression, but that we were authorized, and were prepared for defence, and for the protection of ourselves and property; to prove which, I placed in the hands of Captain Douglas, an extract from the letter of Governor Cable, to Brigadier General Mathews, which I had made for that purpose. I concluded by warning him again not to send any of his officers or people on shore; for that if he did, the arms of the civil authority, I did not believe, would be able to protect them from the vengeance of an enraged people; that this might lead to consequences which might possibly yet be averted; and if he was sincere in the sentiments he had expressed, he would be anxious to prevent such results. Captain Douglas, and all the captains, declared, that they were aware of the present state of the public feelings, and deplored the circumstances which had excited it; that they did not intend to expose any of their people to the resentment of ours, which they could conceive was highly inflamed; that as to supplies they did not want any at present, but when they did, they should not attempt to procure them in any way which would excite the opposition of the citizens of this country."

"Upon the subject of intercourse, he did not expect to hold any with the people of this country, nor was there any occasion for it. He only wished to be permitted freely to communicate with the accredited officer of his government here, who had been formally received and recognized by our executive, and whose functions he presumed none but the government had a right to put down. As to the particular manner in which this communication might be carried on, it was a matter quite indifferent to him. He had no objection to that being regulated by ourselves, in any way which is judged proper, and that he would certainly pursue the mode which might be suggested as most agreeable to us, provided the channel of communication was kept free and open. To this I stated, that I had no authority from any person to enter into any engagement with him; but that as an individual I would state, that the letters he had forwarded under cover to you had been safely delivered, and that therefore, I presumed any other dispatches of a like kind would be treated in the same way. But upon this subject, I could only refer him to you and your associates for information. He then stated that he would to-day write an answer to your letter, which he would forward as before, and I left his ship, Captain Douglas again repeating the substance of what I have already stated.

From the moment I approached the Bellona, to that on which I left her, my treatment from Captain Douglas, and all his officers, was marked by as much attention, politeness, and respect, as any gentleman ever received from others. My particular friend Mr. James Taylor, jun. Accompanied me on board the British ship, for reasons that will at once suggest themselves to you, when you remember the delicate and embarrassing situation in which I might be placed. He remained on board the whole time with me, and was a witness to everything which passed. I have read to him this communication, Sir, in order to ascertain if my recollection was correct, and he accords with me in every statement here made."

Tazewell’s ability to show strength of conviction while avoiding any actions or statements that might inflame the situation must be credited with having a large part in diffusing a situation that cold easily have spiraled out of control and resulted in loss of life or even the opening of war with England five years before it happened historically. Following this, Tazewell again represented James City County in the House of Delegates from 1809 until 1812. Norfolk voters elected him to represent the Borough again in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1816 to 1817.

After the War of 1812, Tazewell, General Taylor, George Newton, and others formed the Roanoke Commercial Company. This company’s purpose was to expand traffic through the Dismal Swamp Canal and allow goods from as far away as mountainous Bedford County to ship through Norfolk.

The Treaty with Spain that ceded Florida to the United States absolved Spain from all claims made by Americans against them. The United States assumed responsibility for these claims on a “not to exceed” $5 million dollars basis. The Treaty set up a Commission whose purpose, as defined in the Treaty was to “receive, examine, and decide upon the amount and validity of all American claims. On May 9, 1821, President Monroe appointed Tazewell as one of the Commissioners of Claims, with a salary of $3,000 per year.

In 1824, Tazewell was elected to the U.S. Senate to replace John Taylor. While there he served as chair of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and as President Pro Tempore. Tazewell did not support Andrew Jackson's presidency. In particular, he despised Jackson's handling of the 1832 Tariff Crisis and Jackson's decision in 1833 to withdraw public revenue from the U.S. Bank. In disgust, Tazewell left the Senate in 1832. Tazewell served as Norfolk's delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829–1830.

In 1834, Tazewell was elected as Virginia's 26th Governor. During his two years as governor, Tazewell had to address abolitionism. He became an advocate of wholesale colonization and, as Governor, asked Virginia's legislature to formally ask that Northern states suppress abolitionist groups and asked Congress to suppress delivery of such literature through the U.S. Post Office. Additionally, Tazewell's governorship saw an expansion of the James River Canal, which was to connect to the Kanawha Canal and thus the Ohio River. Under his leadership, the Assembly instructed Virginia's U.S. Senators to support internal improvements, protective tariffs, and a national bank supporting Henry Clay's American System. As Governor, he helped Virginia recover $400,000 in settlement of Revolutionary War claims.

Tazewell retired from political life in 1836 to manage his plantations. He died of pneumonia at his Norfolk residence in 1860 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Norfolk.

We hope you enjoyed today's post on Littleton Waller Tazewell. We hope this article will spark your interest in learning more about the people and events of late-18th and early-19th century America. Please join us again in two weeks when we will return once again to our occasional series on the techniques of Living History interpretation and discuss “Francis Cabot Lowell and the Beginnings of American Industrial Manufacturing”

Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


Grigsby, H. B. (1860). Discourse on the Life and Character of the Hon. Littleton Waller Tazewell. Norfolk, VA: J. D. Ghiselin, Jun.

Heaton, L. R. (1967). Littleton Waller Tazewell's Sketch of His Own Family 1823: Transcribed and Edited. Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary.

Heaton, L. R. (1981, Apr). "This Excellent Man": Littleton Waller Tazewell's Sketch of Benjamin Waller. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, pp. 143-152.

Historic Forrest. (N.D.). Governor Littleton Waller Tazewell, Sr. Retrieved from Historic Forrest:

Moore, J. B. (1898). History and Digest of the International Arbitrations to Which the United States has Been a Party (Vol. V). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Naval History and Heritage Command. (2020, April 16). Naval Anecdotes Relating to HMS Leopard Versus USS Chesapeake, 24 June 1807. Retrieved from Naval History and Heritage Command:


bottom of page