John White Brockenbrough

John White Brockenbrough (December 23, 1806 February 20, 1877) was a Virginia lawyer, federal judge, educator, and the founder of the Lexington Law School, now known as Washington and Lee University School of Law.


Brockenbrough was born in Hanover County, Virginia. His parents were William Brockenbrough and Judith Robinson White Brockenbrough. His sister was Judith White Brockenbrough McGuire, who wrote Diary of a Southern Refugee, During the War, By a Lady of Virginia. He was a first cousin of William Henry Brockenbrough.

He attended the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia before he studied at the Winchester Law School under Henry St. George Tucker. Others studying with Tucker at that time included William L. Goggin and Henry A. Wise.[1] Brockenbrough was born in Hanover County, Virginia and served briefly as Commonwealth's Attorney for Hanover County.

In 1837, he published two volumes of reports, containing the decisions of John Marshall's federal circuit court opinions. He was also the editor of the Lexington Valley Star in Rockbridge County, Virginia.

Brockenbrough established the Lexington Law School in 1849. His law students included John J. Davis, John Goode and Robert Murphy Mayo. In his introductory address to the first class of incoming students, Brockenbrough offered this advice:

Sooner or later the occasion will arise when you will appear before the dread tribunal of the public. Let us suppose that the time for the trial of your strength has now arrived. You are called to participate in the management of a cause which excites a profound public interest. A natural curiosity is felt to hear the maiden speech of the young lawyer! People have scarcely yet learned to look upon you as a man. Little is therefore expected of you, but you have had time for preparation, and you have used it well. You have anticipated every possible phase which the case can assume, and you are ready with your authorities to sustain all your positions. The eager crowd closes around you. They listen with surprised delight at the display of your learning and ingenuity, now enraptured with your splendid bursts of indignant eloquence, now melted into pity by some master stroke of touching pathos. With what a greedy ear they drink in those "words that burn, those thoughts that breathe!" You sit down overpowered by your own emotion. An audible murmer of approbation runs through that delighted throng! The cause is ended, the victory is won! Clients now pour in upon you, who before had none. You have made a great impression. Your reputation is now established on a firm basis, and the voice of hissing envy shall not retard your onward march. My friends, this is no fancy sketch. We are told by Mr. Butler in his "Reminiscences," that a celebrated English lawyer of the last century had said, that so sudden was his rise at the Bar, that he never knew the difference between having no income at all, and one of £3,000 sterling a year. A single great speech had established his reputation on an imperishable foundation. Who shall say that a like brilliant destiny may not be reserved for some of you, in the unwritten history of the future?[2]

In 1852, Brockenbrough was elected to the board of trustees of what is now Washington & Lee University (then Washington College), which had previously honored him with a Doctor of Laws degree in 1851.[3] As Rector from 1865–1872, he was the one to approach Robert E. Lee with the trustees' proposal to make Lee president of the College.

Brockenbrough was nominated by James K. Polk on December 23, 1845, to the seat vacated by Isaac S. Pennybacker on the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on January 14, 1846, and received commission the same day. He was also a professor of law at Lexington Law School, Lexington, Virginia, from 1849 to 1861.

Along with John Tyler, William C. Rives, James Seddon, and George W. Summers, Brockenbrough represented Virginia at the peace conference of 1861. When the War began, Brockenbrough resigned from his judicial position. Abraham Lincoln nominated John Jay Jackson, Jr., to replace Brockenbrough in the Western District in 1861. During the War, Judge Brockenbrough served as the Confederate district judge for Western Virginia, and was a member of the Congress of the Confederate States.

After the War, he returned to teaching law. In 1866, Robert E. Lee, as president of Washington College, invited Judge Brockenbrough to join his Lexington Law School with Washington College, and continue to teach as Professor of Law and Equity.[4] In 1870, John Randolph Tucker, son of Henry St. George Tucker, was hired to teach law along with Brockenbrough. Brockenbrough resigned in 1873, in a dispute over salary. He died four years later in Lexington, at the age of seventy.

Notes and references

  1. "The Winchester Law School, 1824–1831, by W. Hamilton Bryson and E. Lee Shepard". Law & History Review. Retrieved October 5, 2007.
  2. "Introductory Address, October 31, 1949". Washington & Lee University. Retrieved October 5, 2007.
  3. "Honorary degrees conferred, by date of award". Washington & Lee University. Retrieved January 27, 2008.
  4. "School of Law Overview :: News :: W&L Law School". Washington & Lee University. Retrieved September 24, 2007.


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