Virginia is the birthplace of eight US presidents and many famous statesmen, noted scientists, influential educators, distinguished writers, and popular entertainers.
The first president of the US, George Washington (1732–99), also led his country's armies in the Revolutionary War and presided over the convention that framed its Constitution. Washington—who was unanimously elected president in 1789 and served two four-year terms, declining a third—was not, as has sometimes been assumed, a newcomer to politics: his political career began at the age of 27 with his election to the house of burgesses.
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the nation's 3rd president, offered this as his epitaph: "author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia." After serving as secretary of state under Washington and vice president under John Adams, he was elected president of the US in 1800 and reelected in 1804. Honored now as a statesman and political thinker, Jefferson was also a musician and one of the foremost architects of his time, and he has been called the first American archaeologist.
Jefferson's successor, James Madison (1751–1836), actually made his most important contributions before becoming chief executive. As a skillful and persistent negotiator throughout the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he earned the designation "father of the Constitution"; then, as coauthor of the Federalist papers, he helped produce a classic of American political philosophy. He was more responsible than any other statesman for Virginia's crucial ratification vote. Secretary of State during Jefferson's two terms, Madison occupied the presidency from 1809 to 1817.
Madison was succeeded as president in 1817 by James Monroe (1758–1831), who was reelected to a second term starting in 1821. Monroe—who had served as governor, US senator, minister to France, and secretary of state—is best known for the Monroe Doctrine, which has been US policy since his administration. William Henry Harrison (1773–1841) became the 9th president in 1841 but died of pneumonia one month after his inauguration; he had been a governor of Indiana Territory, a major general in the War of 1812, and a US representative and senator from Indiana. Harrison was succeeded by Vice President John Tyler (1790–1862), a native and resident of Virginia, who established the precedent that, upon the death of the president, the vice president inherits the title as well as the duties of the office.
Another native of Virginia, Zachary Taylor (1784–1850), renowned chiefly as a military leader, became the 12th US president in 1849 but died midway through his term. The eighth Virginia-born president, (Thomas) Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), became the 28th president of the US in 1913 after serving as governor of New Jersey.
John Marshall (1755–1835) was the third confirmed chief justice of the US and is generally regarded by historians as the first great American jurist, partly because of his establishment of the principle of judicial review. Five other Virginians—John Blair (1732–1800), Bushrod Washington (1762–1829), Philip P. Barbour (1783–1841), Peter V. Daniel (1784–1860), and Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (1907–98)—have served as associate justices.
George Washington's cabinet included two Virginians, Secretary of State Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph (1753–1813), who, as governor of Virginia, had introduced the Virginia Plan—drafted by Madison and calling for a House of Representatives elected by the people and a Senate elected by the House—at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Among other distinguished Virginians who have served in the cabinet are James Barbour (1775–1842), secretary of war; John Y. Mason (1799–1859), secretary of the Navy and attorney general; Carter Glass (1858–1946), secretary of the treasury, author of the Federal Reserve System, and US senator for 26 years; and Claude Augustus Swanson (1862–1939), secretary of the Navy and earlier, state governor and US senator.
Other prominent US senators from Virginia include Richard Henry Lee (1732–94), former president of the Continental Congress; James M. Mason (b.District of Columbia, 1798–1871), who later was commissioner of the Confederacy to the United Kingdom and France; John W. Daniel (1842–1910), a legal scholar and powerful Democratic Party leader; Thomas S. Martin (1847–1919), US Senate majority leader; Harry F. Byrd (1887–1966), governor of Virginia from 1926 to 1930 and US senator from 1933 to 1965; and Harry F. Byrd, Jr. (b.1914), senator from 1965 to 1982. In 1985, Virginia was represented in the senate by Republican John W. Warner (b.District of Columbia, 1927), former secretary of the Navy, and Republican Paul S. Trible, Jr. (b.Maryland, 1946), a US representative from 1976 to 1982.
Some native-born Virginians have become famous as leaders in other nations. Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1809–76) was the first president of the Republic of Liberia, and Nancy Langhorne Astor (1879–1964) was the first woman to serve in the British House of Commons.
Virginia's important colonial governors included Captain John Smith (b.England, 1580?–1631), Sir George Yeardley (b.England, 1587?–1627), Sir William Berkeley (b.England, 1606–77), Alexander Spotswood (b.Tangier, 1676–1740), Sir William Gooch (b.England, 1681–1751), and Robert Dinwiddie (b.Scotland, 1693–1770). Virginia signers of the Declaration of Independence, besides Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee, were Carter Braxton (1736–97); Benjamin Harrison (1726?–1791), father of President William Henry Harrison; Francis Lightfoot Lee (1734–97); Thomas Nelson, Jr. (1738–89); and George Wythe (1726–1806). Wythe is also famous as the first US law professor and the teacher, in their student days, of Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, and Tyler, and Chief Justice Marshall. Virginia furnished both the first president of the Continental Congress, Peyton Randolph (1721–75), and the last, Cyrus Griffin (1748–1810).
Other notable Virginia governors include Patrick Henry (1736–99), the first governor of the commonwealth, though best remembered as a Revolutionary orator; Westmoreland Davis (1859–1942); Andrew Jackson Montague (1862–1937); and Mills E. Goodwin, Jr. (b.1914). A major historical figure who defies classification is Robert "King" Carter (1663–1732), greatest of the Virginia land barons, who also served as acting governor of Virginia and rector of the College of William and Mary.
Chief among Virginia's great military and naval leaders besides Washington and Taylor are John Paul Jones (b.Scotland, 1747–92); George Rogers Clark (1752–1818); Winfield Scott (1786–1866); Robert E. Lee (1807–70), the Confederate commander who earlier served in the Mexican War and as superintendent of West Point; Joseph E. Johnston (1807–91); George H. Thomas (1816–70); Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson (1824–63); James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart (1833–64); and George C. Marshall (b.Pennsylvania, 1880–1959). Virginians' names are also written high in the history of exploration. Daniel Boone (b.Pennsylvania, 1734–1820), who pioneered in Kentucky and Missouri, was once a member of the Virginia general assembly. Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838), both native Virginians, led the most famous expedition in US history, from St. Louis to the Pacific coast (1804–6). Richard E. Byrd (1888–1957) was both an explorer of Antarctica and a pioneer aviator.
Woodrow Wilson and George C. Marshall both received the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1919 and 1953, respectively. Distinguished Virginia-born scientists and inventors include Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806–73), founder of the science of oceanography; Cyrus H. McCormick (1809–84), who perfected the mechanical reaper; and Dr. Walter Reed (1851–1902) who proved that yellow fever was transmitted by a mosquito. Among educators associated with the state are William H. McGuffey (b.Pennsylvania, 1800–1873), a University of Virginia professor who designed and edited the most famous series of school readers in American history; and Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), the nation's foremost black educator.
William Byrd II (1674–1744) is widely acknowledged to have been the most graceful writer in English America in his day, and Jefferson was a leading prose stylist of the Revolutionary period. Edgar Allen Poe (b.Massachusetts, 1809–49), who was taken to Richmond at the age of three and later educated at the University of Virginia, was the father of the detective story and one of America's great poets and short-story writers. Virginia is the setting of historical romances by three natives: John Esten Cooke (1830–86), Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922), and Mary Johnston (1870–1936). Notable 20th-century novelists born in Virginia include Willa Cather (1873–1947), Ellen Glasgow (1874–1945), and James Branch Cabell (1879–1958). Willard Huntington Wright (1888–1939), better known as S. S. Van Dine, wrote many detective thrillers. Twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography and often regarded as the greatest American master of that genre was Douglas Southall Freeman (1886–1953). Other important historians were Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853–1935), son of President Tyler and also an eminent educator; Philip A. Bruce (1856–1933); William Cabell Bruce (1860–1946); Virginius Dabney (1901–95); and Alf J. Mapp, Jr. (b.1925). Some contemporary Virginia authors are television writer-producer Earl Hamner (b.1923); novelist William Styron (b.1925); and journalists Virginia Moore (1903–1993) and Tom Wolfe (Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., b. 1931).
Celebrated Virginia artists include sculptors Edward V. Valentine (1838–1930) and Moses Ezekiel (1844–1917), and painters George Caleb Bingham (1811–79) and Jerome Myers (1867–1940). A protégé of Jefferson's, Robert Mills (b.South Carolina, 1781–1855), designed the Washington Monument.
The roster of Virginians prominent in the entertainment world includes Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878–1949), Francis X. Bushman (1883–1966), Freeman Gosden (1899–1982), Randolph Scott (1903–1987), Joseph Cotten (1905–94), Margaret Sullavan (1911–60), John Payne (1912–1989), George C. Scott (1927–99), Shirley MacLaine (b.1934), and Warren Beatty (b.1938).
Outstanding musical performers include John Powell (1882–1963), whose fame as a pianist once equaled his prominence as a composer. Virginia's most eminent contemporary composer is Thea Musgrave (b.Scotland, 1928). Popular musical stars include Kathryn Elizabeth "Kate" Smith (1907–1986), Pearl Bailey (1918–1990), Ella Fitzgerald (1918–96), June Carter (1929–2003), Roy Clark (b.1933), and Wayne Newton (b.1942).
The Old Dominion's sports champions include golfers Bobby Cruickshank (1896–1975), Sam Snead (1912–2002), and Chandler Harper (b.1914); tennis star Arthur Ashe (1943–1993); football players Clarence "Ace" Parker (b.1912), Bill Dudley (b.1921), and Francis "Fran" Tarkenton (b.1940); and baseball pitcher Eppa Rixey (1891–1963). At age 15, Olympic swimming champion Melissa Belote (b.1957) won three gold medals. Helen Chenery "Penny" Tweedy (b.1922) is a famous breeder and racer of horses from whose stables have come Secretariat and other champions. Equestrienne Jean McLean Davis (b.1929) won 65 world championships.