Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Nathaniel Lasley portrays James Innes.
- Born in 1754
- A graduate of William & Mary
- Lieutenant colonel of Virginia’s 15th Regiment in Revolutionary War
- Saw action at Battles of Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine and Germantown
- President and clerk of Virginia’s Board of War
- Eloquent supporter of Constitution at Virginia’s ratifying convention
- Multiple terms in House of Delegates
- Served 10 years as Virginia attorney general
- Died in 1798
His friends considered Williamsburg resident James Innes to be extraordinary. One called him “the most elegant belles-lettres scholar and the most eloquent orator I ever heard.” His wit was legendary.
But Innes was also a military man, serving as an officer in the Continental Line, as well as in Virginia’s militia. He held several key positions in the state’s wartime bureaucracy and was Virginia’s attorney general in the postwar years.
Physically, Innes was imposing, even immense. Well over 6 feet tall, he was also large, and in his later years said to be the biggest man in Virginia. At the same time, he was described as active and graceful. His close friend St. George Tucker of Williamsburg wrote that Innes’s “way was like that of an Eagle through the air, grand, lofty, and celebrated to delight and astonish the beholder, without leaving a Trace behind.”
James Innes was born in 1754, the son of the Rev. Robert Innis, a Scottish clergyman and rector of Drysdale Parish. He attended the school of Robert Donaldson (where James Madison and George Rogers Clark, among others, also were schooled) from 1759 until 1765, when his father died.
In 1770, young Innes moved to the College of William and Mary and in 1772, he became assistant usher of the grammar school. He received his degree the next year and continued at the college as the grammar school’s head usher.
In the spring of 1775, still employed at the college, Innes responded to the early stirrings of war by forming a volunteer company in Williamsburg, made up partly of students from the college. This group was ordered by the House of Burgesses to guard the Magazine in June and, led by Innes, the company marched to the defense of Hampton in September. The faculty resolved to remove him as head usher because of his many absences.
In the spring of 1776, Innes assisted in forming and training an artillery company, but the Continental Congress appointed Dohickey Arundel as the Captain of Virginia’s artillery company. Innes solved the problem by resigning “very handsomely in favour of Captn. Arundel,” and his reward was the rank of major in Col. Fleming’s Battalion of the 9th Regiment. In November 1776, Innes became lieutenant colonel of Virginia’s 15th Regiment, which joined Washington’s army by Christmas.
Innes saw action at Trenton, Princeton and Brandywine, where he distinguished himself, and Germantown, where he courageously rallied his troops. His early experiences in battle left their mark on him.
On a brief journey to Fredericksburg, Va., in May 1777, Innes wrote his friend St. George Tucker, “All the moral Lessons I ever rec’d at school never so clearly taught me the instability, uncertainty & insignificancy of Life as some late Events have done—And while I call forth all my fortitude, to support myself under them as a philosopher . . . I feel them so sensibly as a man, that, I often find myself inclin’d to shrink back—from that load of human woe.”
Innes was also in love with a Williamsburg girl, Elizabeth Cocke, and he continued, “I know my present perilous occupation destroys the quietude & tranquillity of my Eliza â€” yet the Sacred obligations of honor and the love of my Country forbid me to decline it.” The following year he would change his mind.
Early in 1778, Innes came back to Virginia and, by George Washington’s order, helped with recruitment, but unhappy with the “partialities” in the Continental Line, he was hoping for a post or position in Virginia. He overstayed his leave and wrote his letter of resignation to General Washington in June. By this time, it was rumored that he was about to be married. Soon he did marry his Eliza, at last completing “that happy Connexion—which I form’d early in Life—with one of the most virtuous & amiable of women.”
Board of War service
Following his resignation from the Continental Army, Innes continued to serve the interests of his country in Virginia’s state government and the militia. In the fall of 1778, Innes was appointed Virginia’s Commissioner of the Navy, a position he resigned the following April. He served as a delegate for York County in the House of Delegates beginning in May 1779. By midsummer, he was serving as both president and clerk of Virginia’s new Board of War.
The Board of War’s responsibilities were recruiting, the inspection of military stores, provisioning of prisoners, overseeing hospitals, and all other “matters and things within the department of war.” Its organization was unwieldy, however, and when the capital moved to Richmond in April 1780, the board ceased to function.
It was replaced by three commissioners, and Innes was out of a job. He was then elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from James City County. By this time, he was probably practicing law in Williamsburg. From Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Virginia at the end of December 1780 until Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Col. Innes was active with the militia to defend eastern Virginia from British raids.
After the war, Innes continued to be active, despite bouts of illness. He practiced law in the county courts of Tidewater Virginia, an occupation he called his “laborious and disagreeable profession.” His practice concentrated more and more on the superior courts in Richmond.
Innes represented Williamsburg in the House of Delegates for several terms in the 1780s, and he was the city’s delegate to the Virginia Convention for the ratifying of the Federal Constitution in June 1788.
Innes’s eloquent speech in favor of ratification closed the debate. The party for ratification considered him the only possible rival of the orator Patrick Henry, who strongly opposed the Constitution.
Henry nonetheless praised Innes’s skill: “… eloquence splendid, magnificent and sufficient to shake the human mind! He has brought the whole force of America against this State.”
Virginia ratified the Constitution and Innes served as Virginia’s attorney general from 1786 to 1796. Ill health plagued him in his later years and caused him to decline federal office. He did, however, accept temporary appointments.
While serving as a commissioner to examine details of citizens’ claims for damages under the Jay Treaty, he died suddenly in Philadelphia on Aug. 2, 1798. St. George Tucker, wrote the epitaph that appears on his friend’s tombstone:
To the Memory of
James Innes Esqr.
formerly Attorney General of that State.
by a cultivated Education;
with pre-eminent Dignity of Character
and greatness of Soul,
Early attracted the notice
and obtain’d the Confidence
to whose Service he devoted
those conspicuous Talents
which, to describe,
would require the powerful Energy
of his own nervous eloquence.
His domestic & social virtues
equally endear’d him to
His family & friends
his Patriotism and Talents to his Country.
James Innes, “the thunderbolt of war, the prince of modern wits,” and the untiring servant of his home state of Virginia, was laid to rest in Philadelphia.