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James Cowardin

Union or Secession
James Andrew Cowardin (1811–1882). Engraving in <em>National Cyclopedia of American Biography</em> (1892), volume 2.
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James Andrew Cowardin (1811–1882). Engraving in National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1892), volume 2.
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JAMES ANDREW COWARDIN (1811–1882)

James Andrew Cowardin (6 October 1811–21 November 1882), journalist, was born in Bath County and was the son of John Lewis Cowardin and Polly Rhodes Cowardin. At age thirteen he became a printer's apprentice at the Roanoke Sentinel, published in Danville. Cowardin moved to Lynchburg about 1827 to become foreman of the Jeffersonian Republican (in 1830 retitled the Jeffersonian), where he came under the influence of the newspaper's editor, Richard Kenner Crallé, a staunch supporter of John C. Calhoun's doctrine of states' rights and secessionism. Late in 1831 or early in 1832 Crallé moved his paper to Richmond, where Cowardin joined him at the renamed Jeffersonian and Virginia Times. After that newspaper ceased publication, Cowardin was chief clerk to Thomas Ritchie, publisher of the Democratic Richmond Daily Enquirer, from 1834 until about 1837. By 1 January 1838 he had purchased an interest in the Richmond Compiler (after 1844 the Richmond Times and Compiler). On 25 July 1838 Cowardin married Anna Maria Purcell, who died of consumption (probably tuberculosis) on 20 October 1878. They had four sons and two daughters.

The Richmond Daily Dispatch

Cowardin remained co-editor of the Times and Compiler until about 1848, when he left journalism temporarily to engage in banking with his brother-in-law. In October 1850 Cowardin helped establish the Richmond Daily Dispatch and installed Hugh Rose Pleasants as editor. The appearance of the Dispatch heralded the beginning of a new age of newspaper publishing in Virginia. The first daily penny press published south of Baltimore, the Dispatch proclaimed itself nonpartisan. Envisioned as the primary source of information on local news and state and national economic developments for Richmond's commercial and industrial elite, the Dispatch departed from most contemporary newspapers, which functioned mainly as vitriolic propaganda organs for their respective political parties.

Cowardin's approach to publishing reflected his own political and economic philosophy. Despite the Dispatch's officially nonpartisan editorial line, he was a southern Whig who numbered among the civic boosters advocating the development of industry and commerce in order to gain economic independence in a time of growing sectional tension. In 1853 Richmond voters gave Cowardin the opportunity to promote his views when they elected him to the House of Delegates. He sat on the Committee on Finance and did not seek reelection at the end of his two-year term.

Cowardin devoted his efforts to encouraging industry and commerce in the city and state. He believed that one of the most important prerequisites for Virginia's economic independence was the creation of a skilled, educated class of artisans and mechanics. In 1854 he supported the organization of the Virginia Mechanics Institute, which established an apprenticeship program and public library, and he served as first vice president on its inaugural board of managers. Believing also, however, in the compatibility of slavery and industrialization, Cowardin contended that it was possible to build an industrial city in the image of New York or Philadelphia with slave labor. His fight against attempts to abolish Sunday labor at the Dispatch created tension with white artisans in Richmond, as did his use of several slaves to help produce and distribute his newspaper.

The Secession Crisis

Cowardin reported $12,000 in real estate and $77,000 in personal property to the census enumerator in 1860 and maintained that the Dispatch boasted a circulation of 18,000, by far the largest among the city's dailies. Although a Whig and Unionist, he came to support secession after South Carolina withdrew from the Union in December 1860. With the formation of the Confederate States of America early in February 1861, Cowardin believed that Virginia faced the stark choice between becoming an economically marginalized region in a Northern-dominated Union or an economic and industrial powerhouse of the new Southern nation. If Virginia joined the Confederacy, he argued, it "would become the chief merchant and the manufacturer of the South. Her waters would be filled with sails and her rivers be indicated by the ever rising smoke of the fast-moving steam vessels actively conducting her commerce with all nations."

The Civil War

During the Civil War, the Richmond Daily Dispatch ardently defended the Confederate cause. Cowardin did not serve in the military; his pen was certainly mightier than any fifty-year-old with a rifle could be. At various times the Dispatch's pages described Abraham Lincoln as a vulgar tycoon and portrayed Union soldiers as thieves and cutthroats. Despite his rhetoric, Cowardin maintained contact with Northern newspaper friends, and on at least one occasion in 1863 he delivered provisions and money to Union prisoners in Richmond on behalf of a Baltimore publisher. The Dispatch defended the city's Jewish population against common accusations of usury and extortion during the economically harsh war years.

The publication of a daily newspaper in a city short of everything, including paper, ink, and printing presses, became more and more difficult. The Dispatch suspended publication beginning on 16 March 1865 because all its employees had been impressed into military service. On 3 April a fire set by the retreating Confederates that destroyed much of the business district also consumed the newspaper's office. Cowardin took the amnesty oath on 1 July and spent most of the remainder of the year farming in Halifax County. The value of his property required that he apply for a presidential pardon, which he received on 13 July 1865.

When the first postwar issue of the Dispatch appeared on 9 December 1865, Cowardin plunged headlong back into Virginia politics. Converted into a staunch conservative Democrat, he left his nonpartisan past behind as his paper attacked Radical Reconstruction and lashed out against those who cooperated with federal authorities. In 1869 Cowardin supported the efforts of the so-called Committee of Nine, which met with the president-elect to arrange a compromise by which to end Reconstruction in Virginia. Its terms permitted the state electorate to vote separately on the ratification of the constitution prepared by the Convention of 1867–1868 and on its clauses that would have disfranchised many former Confederates. Cowardin accompanied the group to Washington and sent dispatches about the proceedings to his newspaper's office. His advocacy of the committee's work helped sway voters to ratify the constitution and defeat the disqualification clauses.

Throughout the postwar era Cowardin remained active in civic affairs. In March 1874 he helped found the Virginia Press Association and two years later was elected president for the first of two consecutive terms. In October 1879 he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed and that effectively ended his editorial career. His son, Charles O'Brien Cowardin, took over the day-to-day management of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. James Andrew Cowardin died at his son's home in Richmond on 21 November 1882 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery.

Contributed by Werner Steger

Quotation in Richmond Daily Dispatch, 14 Feb. 1861.

This biography, with a bibliographical note, appears in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 3:492–494.

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