Henry Jefferson Samuels

by Fred B. Lambert


On July 12, 1825, more than three quarters of a century ago, Henry J. Samuels was born in Barboursville in what is now Cabell County, West Virginia. As he grew up he attended the schools of his native town and later Marshall Academy which began its existence in 1838. As the schools of those days were not supported by law to the extent they now are one would naturally suppose that his education was somewhat limited. However, I am told by those who knew him best that he was quite a scholar, that he made himself acquainted with what is best in the literature of all time. In fact as Prof. Shaw of Barboursville says, "He could quote poetry by the hour."

Born as he was just at the close of the "Era of Good Feeling", and living throughout the long period of agitation preceding the outbreak of the Civil War, he early formed those traits of character which ever afterward distinguished him as a man of decided opinion and of prompt and vigorous action.

While yet a young man he went over the Alleghenies into the "Valley of Virginia" and studied law under an Uncle - another Judge Samuels - who lived in Shenandoah County Virginia and was then or later became a judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals. After finishing his law course he returned to Cabell County, Virginia where he practiced law with Elisha McComas who afterward became Lieut. Governor of the "Old Dominion." He was also a partner of James H. Ferguson who was one of the greatest, if not the greatest legal lights that West Virginia ever produced. At least this is the opinion of the older settlers in this part of the State.

Perhaps his early association with such eminent lawyers had much to do with his later opinions. Being a Constitutional lawyer he always sought the constitutional side of every public question, and hence we find him opposing forcible secession in Virginia, but favoring the secession of West Virginia from the Mother state and her formation into a separate state by peaceable and constitutional methods.

His political views were no doubt the result of a combination of circumstances among which may be mentioned his legal training, and the geographical position of his native place. The western part of West Virginia was situated on the "Border" and although it is probable the majority of the people of South- western and Southern West Virginia emigrated from Virginia and brought with them their sectional prejudices and slave property, yet it is a fact that many persons from Ohio also settled there and helped to soften these counteracting influences. Therefore, we need not be surprised to find Judge Samuels a bitter opponent of slavery and of secession.

It will be remembered that slavery never was very profitable in West Virginia.

The Judge was a "War Democrat" and was in Richmond at the time of the Richmond Convention - possibly he was a delegate (I have since learned that he was a member of the Virginia Legislature and therefore I suppose was called to Richmond by Letcher with the special session and was not a delegate.). At any rate he hurried home from Richmond and at once went to Wheeling where no doubt he did his part in forming the new state. It wasn't a comfortable place in Barboursville for Union sympathizers in those days and sometimes it wasn't comfortable for anybody. However, southern West Virginia may be called "Rebel West Virginia."

After removing to Wheeling he was appointed Adjutant General and served in that capacity until the close of the War. It is related that on one occasion while here he was instrumental in securing the release of some Rebel prisoners - citizen acquaintances I suppose. He couldn't consistently treat Rebels very harshly as he had two brothers, LaFayette and Alexander, in the Rebel army, his brother Alex. being killed while doing scouting duty in Virginia. Besides his father was a slave-holder and it may have been the practical working of this system may have made of him an opponent of this institution.

After the War he was appointed Circuit Judge of his home district he having removed to Barboursville where he resided until the close of the War. His decisions were marked by fairness to all parties. Naturally of a conservative nature he did not believe in waving the bloody shirt and hence, all classes were his friends. He was married Oct. 10, 1848 to Miss Rebecca Bartram of Pennsylvania, at that time a resident of Lawrence County, Ohio. The couple spent to-gether a long and happy life. Two children survive him, Mrs. Bailey Thornburg, and Mrs. Dr. Peters. He died June 27, 1898. Had he lived until Oct. 10th after his death he might have celebrated his golden wedding.

He is buried on the "Thornburg Place" about two miles from Barboursville and now sleeps beside his earthly partner.

I have twice had the pleasure of hearing Judge Samuels make an address. The first time I heard him was at a teacher's institute held at Blue Sulphur Springs when I was a mere body. He discussed the early struggle of our people in establishing free schools. It is needless to say that he held his audience spell-bound for the teacher's passed a resolution thanking him for what he had done for the cause of education in our State (Prof. Shaw states that he was a member of the Committee on Education while in Legislature after the War.).

A year or two before his death he addressed the teachers of Barboursville. He stated that the true history of West Virginia had never been written - referring I suppose to the Civil War period.

On this occasion he seemed to let loose all his powers of "wit and repartee." The teachers seemed to delight in asking him questions and he brought down the house with every reply. Speaking of the Richmond Convention he said that those "were the times that tried men's souls," that when things got pretty well warmed up they told him and others to "get" and he "got." It was at this juncture that he found it convenient to make a hurried visit to Barboursville and on to Wheeling.

I presumed from his talk that he would leave important papers bearing on the formation of the State but a careful inquiry among his friends and relatives has failed to find any. He always claimed he was influential in getting to Convention to put in the Constitution the clause establishing free schools.

He said he informed them (I don't know whether he meant Convention or Committee) that he had at his back several thousand of their constituents (13000 I think). Whether he referred to votes, or to force, I do not know) [sic]

As a conversationalist Judge Samuels was unexcelled. He filled his mind with the greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers and was always ready to pour them upon his listening friends.

Intensely patriotic, unique in his ideas, commanding in appearance, and witty in his conversation, he never failed to command attention in any crowd and at any time.

He was a man of character as well as reputation; a man of moral courage as well as physical courage; never an opportunist in its narrow sense, he ever sought an opportunity to do good to all men. He was the kind of man whom the poet meant when he said

God give us men (I cannot quote it exactly. Please correct.).
Men who their duties know and knowing dare maintain.

He was a member of the M. E. Church South and Prof. Shaw relates that he often came all the way from Charleston when a member of the Legislature to be with his class in Sunday School. This class was composed of young ladies and he was very proud of it. I can do no better than to close by quoting as near as I can from Prof. Shaw of Barboursville College who was an old acquaintance and served with him in the Legislature after the War.

He says: "I have known Judge Samuels nearly all my life. He was, I believe, one of the leading factors in the organization and incorporation of Barboursville College. He drew the carter in such a way that it can never be used for anything but educational purposes. He was a typical Virginian of the old stock and was fully equipped in manner and diction peculiar to the best men of that type. He was in its fullest sense a literary man. He talked with ease and could quote poetry by the hour. While serving in the Legislature, it was no uncommon thing during intermissions to see him surrounded by a crowd of men listening to his stories or to his recitations of literary gems of which he seemed never to tire. He was a brilliant conversationist and had a most wonderful memory. He was never at a loss in a speech or els[e]where to find a quotation to polish and strengthen his utterances. While serving in the Legislature he would not stand to the dictates of a caucus but was always ready to vote for and to support whatever measures he believed to be right regardless of party affiliations or party expediency."

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