Jackson Kelly History 101: The Founding Members and Framers
In the first of a three part series, we look at one of our founding members, James H. Brown
July 27, 2022
By: Emmanuel Backus
Founding Jackson Kelly member James H. Brown was born in Cabell County on December 25, 1818. Brown played an instrumental role in the formation of the state of West Virginia by serving as a member of the Constitutional Conventions in Wheeling, West Virginia. The grandson of Revolutionary War veteran Major Nathaniel Scales, Brown attended Marietta College in Ohio and Augusta College in Kentucky before returning to the Mountain State in 1848 to practice law. Prior to West Virginia statehood, Brown presided over the 18th judicial circuit of Virginia from 1861-1862. During his time on the circuit court in Virginia, it was claimed that Brown was “courteous, firm, and fearless.” During his time on the bench, Brown was forced to quickly leave after many of his court proceedings as he was a known supporter of the Union and faced capture by Confederate forces. During his term as circuit judge, no appeal was ever filed against any decision he ruled upon.
Following the creation of the Restored Government of Virginia and the naming of Francis H. Pierpont as provisional governor, Brown took an active role in the formation of West Virginia by serving as both a legislator for the Restored Government of Virginia and as a delegate for Kanawha County at the Constitutional Conventions in Wheeling, the state’s provisional capitol at the time, starting in December 1861. At the outset of the Convention, fellow delegates moved for Brown to be appointed as Chairman of the Convention, as many believed he would be a “good presiding officer,” but Brown humbly refused to accept the nomination, believing there to be delegates better suited for the position.
While a member of the Constitutional Conventions, Brown participated in spirited debates regarding the framework of the new constitution. One of the constitutional issues most dear to Brown’s heart was the issue of the new state’s sovereignty, especially with regards to voting rights. Fearful of outside interference, James Brown fought to ensure that outside forces played a minimal role in West Virginia elections, especially in panhandle counties where individuals from out of state could have easily crossed the border to vote in West Virginia elections. In support of his argument, Brown claimed he that wished for “citizens to come to the State of West Virginia to reside; not to vote merely but to vote as one of the rights of residence there.”
Prior to admittance into the Union, the issue of choosing a name for the thirty-fifth state arose. Wishing to cut all ties with their mother state, James Brown led the charge to remove the name of Virginia from the new title altogether. Rather, Brown and many other delegates in Wheeling wished for the new state to carry the name of “Kanawha.” While the convention eventually decided to select the name “West Virginia,” Brown and eight other delegates still voted for Kanawha as they believed that the majority of the citizens of the new state wished for that name.
Finally, on May 28, 1863, just a month shy of West Virginia’s official admittance into the Union, James Brown was elected to serve as one of first justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Brown continued to serve as a justice until December 31, 1870, employing the same characteristics of fairness and courtesy he did while riding circuit while serving at the highest level of the West Virginia judiciary. Following his time on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Brown returned to practicing law full-time, but now with his son James Fredrick Brown, who had been admitted to the West Virginia State Bar in 1875. Father and son continued this partnership until James H. Brown’s retirement. In 1892, Brown joined forces with Malcom Jackson and Edward Knight. This firm would take the name of Brown, Jackson, and Knight, an early predecessor of Jackson Kelly, PLLC. James Brown passed away on October 28, 1900, at his home in Charleston, West Virginia at the age of 88.
J. W. Vandervort, "Supreme Court of West Virginia I, The," Green Bag 12, no. 4 (April 1900): 190-191.
Manuscripts of the Debates and Proceedings of the First Constitutional Convention of WestVirginia, Courtesy of the West Virginia Archives.