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John Chambliss

Union or Secession
John Randolph Chambliss (1809–1875)
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JOHN RANDOLPH CHAMBLISS (1809–1875)

John Randolph Chambliss (5 March 1809–3 April 1875), member of the Convention of 1850–1851, of the Convention of 1861, and of the Confederate States House of Representatives, was born in Sussex County and was the son of James Jarred Chambliss and Lucy Rives Newsom Chambliss. After studying law at the College of William and Mary during the 1829–1830 term, he was admitted to the bar in Greensville and Sussex Counties in June 1830. He settled in the former county and practiced in the town of Hicksford (later incorporated as part of Emporia). On 25 December 1830 he married his cousin Sarah John Rives Blow, also of Greensville County. Of their three sons and at least four daughters, one son and two daughters died in childhood.

The Convention of 1850–1851

From 1840 to 1841 Chambliss was clerk of the county and later in the decade was a county school commissioner. Appointed commissioner in chancery in 1845, he served until September 1847, when he became commonwealth's attorney. In 1850 he owned about a thousand acres of land in the county and twenty-two taxable slaves above age twelve. In August of that year Chambliss, a Whig, received the second-highest vote total of seven candidates campaigning for four seats representing Greensville, Isle of Wight, Nansemond, Southampton, Surry, and Sussex Counties in a convention summoned to revise Virginia's constitution. He served on the Committee on the Judiciary. Chambliss agreed with western reformers that property qualifications should be removed from the suffrage, but he sided with eastern delegates who insisted on a mixed formula of population and property as the basis for apportioning seats in the General Assembly and in opposition to western reformers who wanted seats allocated solely on the basis of the white population. He spoke twice on the latter subject and voted against a compromise, later adopted, that allowed eastern counties, where slave ownership was heaviest, to maintain a majority of seats in the Senate of Virginia but allocated the majority of seats in the House of Delegates to western counties, where slavery was economically less important. Chambliss also opposed westerners' demand that slaves be taxed according to their market value rather than at the lesser per capita rate established by the former constitution, and on that question he and the other eastern delegates prevailed. Chambliss voted on 31 July 1851 against the draft constitution that the convention adopted by a vote of 75 to 33 and submitted to the voters for ratification.

The Convention of 1861

In 1857 Chambliss attended the Southern Commercial Convention in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was elected one of ten vice presidents. Like many other Virginia voters in 1860, by which time he owned twenty-seven taxable slaves, he supported the Unionist candidate, John Bell, for president. After Abraham Lincoln's victory at the polls, Chambliss, believing that the slave states should remain united, changed his mind and reluctantly advocated secession as a last resort. In February 1861 he won election to represent Greensville and Sussex Counties in the convention called to craft the state's response to the secession crisis and served on the Committee on Elections. On 4 April 1861, when the convention defeated a motion for secession, he paired in favor, and on 17 April he voted with the majority to secede and submit an ordinance of secession to the voters for ratification. Chambliss continued to oppose western delegates who reintroduced the subject of taxing slaves according to their market value and voted against a constitutional amendment on that subject that the convention submitted to a referendum.

Confederate States House of Representatives

Chambliss returned to Richmond in June and November for the brief second and third sessions of the convention. During the former session he chaired a special committee to report on measures concerning the stores and machinery at the Harpers Ferry arsenal. From 5 August to 2 December 1861 he served again as commonwealth's attorney for Greensville County. On 6 November 1861 Chambliss won election to the Confederate States House of Representatives from the district comprising the counties of Greensville, Isle of Wight, Nansemond, Norfolk, Princess Anne, Southampton, Surry, and Sussex and the city of Norfolk. Between 18 February 1862 and 17 February 1864 he attended all four sessions of the First Confederate Congress. A member of the Committee on Naval Affairs and during the final weeks of his term of a special committee on the veteran soldiers' home, he introduced designs for a national flag on three occasions and offered resolutions or amendments on such topics as the navy and terms of enlistment for the army. Refugees from areas under Union occupation and tax relief for persons living in areas under occupation were among his other interests, probably because portions of his district were under Union control during part of the Civil War. In 1863 he declined to seek reelection.

Chambliss took an oath of allegiance to the United States in the summer of 1865 and petitioned for a presidential pardon, granted on 16 October of that year. He commented on Andrew Johnson's administration in a speech at Lawrenceville, in neighboring Brunswick County, at the end of September but took no further recorded part in electoral politics. He lived at Hicksford with his wife and the widow and children of his son, John Randolph Chambliss (1833–1864), who had been killed while serving as a Confederate brigadier general. After almost six months' illness John Randolph Chambliss died at his Greensville County residence on 3 April 1875 of what was described as nervous debility and was buried with Masonic honors in the family cemetery on his estate, a site in present-day downtown Emporia.

Contributed by Barbara Smith

This biography, with a bibliographical note, appears in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 3:154–156.

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