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Biography: William Henry Graves – a gentleman scholar born September 7, 1833

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By Robert R. Rea1

(Transcribed from The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 01 & 02, Spring and Summer Issue 1955)

The roll of Alabama authors contains many proud names but perhaps none more remarkable than that of William Henry Graves, lawyer and investor, soldier and scholar, a son of the Old South and a maker of the New South. Few men may boast such marked success as his in their chosen careers, but rarer still the man whose literary claims date from his ninth decade. In his person and for his writing William Henry Graves deserves a place among the ranks of honored Alabamians.

William Henry Graves was born September 7, 1833. Although apparently a native of Virginia, his early years were passed in Knoxville, Tennessee, where his parents made their home.2 The early deaths of both father and mother returned the child to the shelter of his grandparents’ farm in Wythe County, Virginia. Here he was educated and grew to manhood.

Shortly after his twenty-first birthday Graves took up residence in the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, Virginia. From October 12, 1854, when his name first appeared upon the college records, until the summer of 1857, Graves diligently pursued his studies. On July 4, 1856, he delivered a graduation oration on the Star Spangled Banner and received the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He was at this time a member of the Virginia Alpha Chapter, Phi Beta Kappa, and was at one time president of his fraternity, Theta Delta Chi.3 After completing the regular course of study at William and Mary, Graves read for the baccalaureate in law, and on July 1, 1857, he was awarded his second degree.4

The young lawyer embarked upon his career in Knoxville, Tennessee, and by the time of the outbreak of the Civil War he was enjoying considerable professional success. He had become the master of several slaves and all, save one body-servant who accompanied him throughout the conflict, were prudently dispatched to Georgia for safety when Graves volunteered for military service. Graves was first assigned to Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry but was later appointed captain of artillery by General Simon Bolivar Buckner. As ordnance officer of Crew’s Brigade he was present at the battle of Chickamauga, and in 1865 he laid down his arms with Johnston’s army at Greensboro, North Carolina.5

At the conclusion of hostilities Captain Graves found himself sharing the common hardships of the Confederate veteran. Though his personal servant absconded with one animal, Graves still possessed a riding horse and a mule. The latter he traded to a farmer for a buggy, and thus made his way south into Georgia. At the plantation where his slaves had been placed for the duration of the war, Graves received a most welcome surprise. The slaves’ labor as sawmill hands had netted their master $500 in gold which had been providentially hoarded in anticipation of his return. With this money as a reserve he proceeded to Montgomery, Alabama, and, selling horse and buggy for $150, set out to establish a new life and a new fortune.6

The Alabama legal profession readily opened its doors to William Henry Graves. In 1866 he was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court and rapidly gained the esteem of his associates.7

A promising future broadened still further when, on October 27, 1869, Graves married Miss Florida Whiting, the beautiful daughter of John Whiting, president of the South & North Alabama Rail Road Company.8 The birth of a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1870, marked the initial expansion of the Graves family which came ultimately to include two other daughters, Virginia and Florida. The children inherited their mother’s grace and charm, and the Graves home became a prominent center of Montgomery social life

In 1884 Graves established his residence in the renovated Thomas Merriwether Cowles house. Built by slave labor in 1856, at a cost of over $100,000, the ornately decorated and classically pillared mansion overlooking the Alabama River was one of the show places of the capital city.9

Business interests, however, drew the Graves family away from Montgomery. In the early days of its growth William Henry Graves had foreseen the future of Birmingham, and in the 1880’s he invested wisely in its real estate development. He was also a prime mover in the Birmingham Trust and Savings Company and was chosen its second president. In 1890 he transferred his residence to Birmingham, but because of ill health was unable to take up his duties with the Trust and Savings Company and therefore tendered his resignation from the executive position.10

In the succeeding years Graves returned to the practice of law in Birmingham, but the returns from his property investments encouraged a gradual retirement from such activity. His family continued to play a brilliant role in Birmingham society. Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, became the bride of Harrison S. Matthews of Birmingham; the second daughter, Virginia, married Frederick Gunster of New York; and the romance of the youngest child, Florida, became an affair of national interest. As a guest of the Bankheads in Washington, D.C., Florida’s beauty and vivacity attracted the attentions of a galaxy of admirers. Her name was linked romantically with that of Richmond P. Hobson and a host of celebrities both foreign and American, but the most persistent, and finally successful, suitor was Edward D. Smith of Birmingham, who won his bride in 1904 in San Francisco, California.11

The success of his investments and the dispersal of his family gave William Henry Graves the opportunity of pursuing a variety of hobbies and interests. An active mind pursued the study of poetry from Shakespeare to Burns, and found a challenge in the libertarianism of a boyhood hero, Thomas Paine. Feeling that the complexities and inhumanity of the twentieth century threatened the life of freedom which his generation had known and fought to maintain, Graves renewed his youthful interest in eighteenth century political liberalism as exemplified by Paine in America and the British pamphleteer who wrote over the pseudonym of Junius. This study was by no means sedentary; in 1914 Graves visited the Paine homestead and museum at New Rochelle, New York, and vigorously supported the work of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association.12 The results of these endeavors appeared in 1917 in the volume to be discussed in detail subsequently.

As the passage of the years removed his contemporaries from the American scene Graves’ knowledge and personal experiences proved of unique value and interest to a new generation. He was visited by the Williamsburg Restoration Committee “with a view of ascertaining certain architectural details of college buildings” as they had existed in his Youth.13 In the summer of’ 1930, as -his ninety-seventh birthday approached, he attended the convention of his fraternity, Theta Delta Chi, at Richmond, Virginia. On this visit to the Old Dominion Graves was honored as the senior alumnus of William and Mary College, the last member of the class of 1856.14

The Virginia tour was William Henry Graves’ last gesture. On Wednesday, July 29, 1931, he succumbed to pneumonia while resting at his summer home in Asheville, North Carolina. The final rites of the Episcopal Church, of which he was a lifelong member, were read in Birmingham on Saturday, and he was buried with his wife, who died in 1922, in Elmwood Cemetery.15 To his surviving children and grand-children Graves left an estate which was estimated at half a million dollars in securities and downtown Birmingham property.16

The character of William Henry Graves won the respect of all who knew him. Perhaps the finest tribute paid at the time of his death was that by Judge William Vaughan who described Graves as “able, intellectual, cultured, great dignity in manners, sometimes thought austere in his intercourse with his fellow men. . His exalted ideas of right and – wrong were correct in the abstract . . . and in practice unimpeachable.”17

The editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald rightly observed that “few men, even of Capt. Graves’ generation, and an infinitesimal number today, devoting their major energies as he did to material interests, could find themselves so much at ease in a recreated England of the days of George the Third’1718

As a lawyer and capitalist Graves’ fame rests upon sound foundations, but by his remarkable invasion of the field of literary and historical criticism, he sought a place in a still wider realm. For Graves stands as the most recent, and perhaps also the earliest exponent of the claims of Thomas Paine to the authorship of the Junius letters. The subject of his study was a series of letters published between 1769 and 1772 in the London periodical press. The unknown author who signed himself Junius hurled some of the most bitter invectives in the English language, couched in the finest eighteenth-century polemic style, at the person and government of King George the Third. Though unsuccessful in bringing about the downfall of the royal system of government by influence, Junius raised a hornet’s nest which stung both king and ministers and won enduring fame for the author. But Junius kept the secret of his identity so well hidden that full half a hundred candidates for his laurels have today been pushed forward by hopeful investigators of the best kept literary secret of the eighteenth century. William Henry Graves awarded the prize to Thomas Paine who, shortly after Junius ceased his work in England, came to this country, took up the cause of liberty, and became the foremost pamphleteer of American independence.

Graves’ interest in the Junian mystery dated from the year 1853 when, as a young man having just completed high school, he passed a six-month vacation on the farm of an uncle living in Indiana. There, in a “large and well-selected library” he made his first eager acquaintance with Junius’ attacks upon corruption and Paine’s diatribes against tyranny. “Being very fond of reading, I spent much of my time with the books,” Graves later wrote, and “. . . discovered the great similarity of the style and subjects in both works. I soon became convinced that they were written by one and the same person/ who, in my opinion, was Thomas Paine.”19

The inspiration of his youth did not receive further development until some sixty years had passed and the retired Birmingham financier enjoyed leisure in which to pursue his dream. The search for Juriius was renewed about 1914, and with the assistance of New York and London book agents Graves assembled in his home a considerable library of Junian materials. The collection passed upon Graves’ death to A. Fred Whiting of Montgomery and was subsequently lost in a fire. A survey of the citations and text of Graves’ published study of Junius indicates that, in addition to material relating exclusively to Thomas Paine (which may be deleted as Juniana), Graves’ library included the following items, several of which may be described as exceedingly rare.

Edmund H. Barker, The Claims of Sir Philip Francis, K.B. to the Authorship of Junius’ Letters Disproved. London, 1828.

Beata Francis and Eliza Keary, eds., The Francis Letters. New York, 1901. 2 vols.

Henry R. Francis, Junius Revealed by his Surviving Grandson. London, 1894.

Thomas B. Macaulay, “Warren Hastings.” Joel Moody, Junius Unmasked. Washington, D.C., 1872.

Joseph Parkes and Herman Merivale, eds., Memories of Sir Philip Francis. London, 1867. 2 vols.

W. Eraser Rae (a series of four articles in Athenaeum, 1888-1891, though Graves cites an 1898 issue).

Leslie Stephen, Annual Biography, IV. (Probably a reprint of his article on Philip Francis in the Dictionary of National Biography).

John Taylor, The Identity of Junius with a Distinguished Living Character Established. 2nd ed., London, 1818. John Wade, ed., Junius. London, 1850? 2 vols. Bohn Standard Library Edition,

It would seem safe to assume that Graves’ collection included many more titles than can be accurately presented here It certainly represented a considerable expenditure of time, effort, and money, and was one of the finest private collections of its kind in the state of Alabama.

Drawing upon a century of scholarly research and his own, keen intellect, William Henry Graves brought into conjunction the lives of the unknown Englishman and the great American. With care he demolished the arguments supporting the popular claims of Philip Francis’ authorship of the Junius letters and set forth those of Thomas Paine. He conscientiously sought to consult every volume pertinent to his subject and by the spring of 1916 was well on with the preparation of his manuscript. That year saw the work completed, and in 1917, from the press of the Dispatch Printing Company, Birmingham, came a 193- page volume entitled Junius Finally Discovered.

According to one writer, 300 copies of the book were published and most of these were distributed by the author to college libraries, newspapers, and periodicals in the United States and Great Britain. “The book was cordially received and excited a large number of reviews and press notices and comments, all of which unite in praising Captain Graves’ careful labors’19 20

Without doubt Junius Finally Discovered is a remarkable production in many ways. The very fact of accomplishment is noteworthy in an author at the age of eighty-four. In mastering the complexities of his subject Graves was certainly no less successful than many others who have attempted to unmask Junius. The argument for Thomas Paine, though unconvincing in many respects, displays keen discernment as well as the enthusiast’s fervor.

As he pursued the topic, Graves became aware that he was not alone in maintaining the Paine-Junian theory. In 1872, Joel Moody published Junius Unmasked: or, Thomas Paine the Author of the Letters of Junius (Washington, D. C.: John Gray & Co.). This work was known to William Henry Graves, but he was not dependent upon Moody’s anonymous book nor the successive pamphlets drawn from it by William Henry Burr.21 . As a rival in upholding the Paine-Junius thesis, Burr may be dismissed as a publicist without originality.22 Moody’s volume, however, antedates the Alabamian’s “arguments in print, though it is not as effective in countering the arguments in favor of Philip Francis. The case for his own priority and originality may best be put in William Henry Graves’ personal assurance to his readers, on this honor

. . .that I never heard of, or saw the book, (by Moody) until several months after I commenced writing my discussion on the subject. .. . I claim to have discovered that Thomas Paine was the author of the Letters, in 1853, which was nineteen years before Junius Unmasked’ was written. I will further state that I never had any information or intimation, from any source whatever, that Paine was Junius. Therefore, the discovery of Paine was original with me.23

It might further be pointed out that both Moody and Burr supported the theory that Thomas Paine wrote the Declaration of Independence. Their advances were rejected by Graves who believed that, if true, such a secret would have “leaked out,” and that the great Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, would never have taken improper credit from his fellow-patriot, Tom Paine.24

In summary, it must be recognized that the efforts of the Paine-Junian school have failed to convince the scholarly world; .the mystery of Junius is yet unsolved. But pride of place must be given to Alabama’s William Henry Graves who was dismissed by a recent critic as having “weakly echoed” the arguments of Moody and Burr in “a thin pamphlet.”25Junius Finally Discovered is, on the subject, almost page for page equivalent to Moody’s volume, and, certainly represents the original and independent research of one whose integrity and Accomplishments in every field mark him as a man of parts and a gentleman scholar.

1Dr. Rea of the History Department of Alabama Polytechnic Institute

2George M. Cruikshank, A History of Birmingham and Its Environs (Chicago, 1920), II, 73, states that Graves was a native of Knoxville. According to the Montgomery County Census of 1870, p. 15, he^ was born in Virginia, probably in Wythe County. There is also some confusion as to the date of Graves’ birth. He speaks of himself as “about eighteen’ ‘in 1853 (in Junius Finally Discovered (Birmingham, 1917), p. 115), and the Montgomery Census describes him as thirty-three in 1870

3Birmingham News, May 31, 1930, feature story by Dolly Dalrymple (Orlie Arnold)

4William and Mary College Matriculation Book and Faculty Minutes, William and Mary College Library, transcribed through the courtesy of H. L. Gantner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts

5Cruikshank, op. cit., II, 73-74; Birmingham News, May 31, 1930.

6Birmingham News, May 31, 1930

7Walter B. Jones, “Alabama Lawyers, 1818-1948,” Alabama Lawyer. IX (1948), 147.

8Clipping from Birmingham Age-Herald, August 1, 1931, in Alabama State Department of History and Archives, Montgomery; and the conflicting Montgomery County Census. See also Birmingham News, January 17, 1922, and May 31, 1930.

9Montgomery Advertiser, December 14, 1913, and November 14, 1930.

10“Graves would have succeeded Henry M. Caldwell, and was replaced by Paul H. Earle in 1890. Cruikshank, op. cit, I, 321; II, 74.

11Undated clipping from American Journal-Examiner (1904), and wedding announcement in State Department of History and Archives, Montgomery

12Junius Finally Discovered, dedicated to the Association, incorporated a plea for public support as a patriotic duty (pp. 124-126).

13Birmingham News, May 31, 1930.

14Ibid., and June 21, 1930

15Birmingham News, July 30, 1931, and July 31, 1931; Birmingham AgeHerald, July 31, 1931; and notice of the death of Mrs. Graves in Birmingham News, January 17, 1922.

16Birmingham News, August 18, 1931

17Voice of the People,” in ibid., August 4, 1931.

18Birmingham Age-Herald, August 1, 1931.

19Graves, Junius Finally Discovered, pp. 115-116,

20Cruikshank, op. cit., II, 74-75.

21For a review of these publications see Francesco Cordasco, “Thomas Paine and the History of ‘Junius’: A Forgotten Cause Celebre,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, LII (1953), 226-228.

22This fact Burr readily admitted in Thomas Paine: Was He Junius? (San Francisco, 1890), p. 12. The 200 pages of Moody’s book demoted to the Junian controvery are summarized by Burr in eight pages.

23Junius Finally Discovered, p. 117.

24lbid., pp; 126-127.

25Cordasco, op. cit, LII 1953), 228.

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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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