Joseph Carrington Cabell (1778-1856)

joseph c cabellJoseph Carrington Cabell was part of the flowering of the Cabell political genius in the nineteenth century. Unlike his more well-known kinsmen, William Cabell Rives and John Cabell Breckinridge, who exercised their gifts on a national stage, Cabell devoted his energies to his native state of Virginia. An early adherent to Jefferson’s party and well-traveled for his day–having completed a tour of Europe November 1802-May 1806–Cabell had opportunities to serve in the administrations of Presidents Madison and Monroe. He declined even to run for a congressional seat, preferring Richmond to Washington. He served for decades in the Virginia General Assembly not because he was incapable of attaining a higher station, but because his service there well-positioned him to advance his two great interests, the University of Virginia and the James River & Kanawha Canal.

Thomas Jefferson recruited Cabell’s aid in the earliest stages of planning for the University of Virginia. Jefferson first raised the issue with his friend in a letter of 5 January 1815, and Cabell thereafter served as the University’s most faithful advocate in the state legislature. He was the prime mover first behind the incorporation of Central College in 1817 and second behind the selection of Central College as the official state university in 1819. In that year, Cabell joined Jefferson, his best friend John Hartwell Cocke, and several other of the Commonwealth’s most distinguished citizens on the University’s first Board of Visitors. When Cabell’s energy faded and he considered resigning his post in the state legislature, Jefferson begged his friend in the strongest possible terms not to abandon his post as the institution’s most capable friend in Richmond. “Nature will not give you a second life wherein to atone for the omissions of this. Pray then, dear and very dear sir, do not think of deserting us,” he pined in January 1821. Cabell found some hidden reserve of energy and served the University of Virginia longer than any of its original founders, as a Board member until his death in 1856 and as a member of the General Assembly until 1835.

In addition to his remarkable contributions to the University, Cabell spearheaded the drive for internal improvements in the state of Virginia. He doggedly pursued his goal of connecting the James and Kanawha Rivers–thereby linking the Chesapeake watershed and the Mississippi River–and demonstrated perseverance and political acumen that even his opponents admired. Editor of the Richmond Whig, John Hampden Pleasants, marveled in 1842 at Cabell’s ability to keep the project afloat despite the disapprobation of a majority of his fellow citizens. “To keep this majority passive, and not merely passive, but to impel them into active co-operation,” he wrote, “argues a great knowledge of mankind, and a great talent for influencing them.”

Cabell died at his Nelson County estate, “Edgewood,” in February of 1856, survived by his wife of forty-nine years, Mary Walker Carter Cabell. Cabell left no children to mourn his passing, but the Faculty and Visitors of the University each passed resolutions honoring him. His grateful successors on the Board further commemorated his sacrifices on their behalf by naming the University’s new academic center Cabell Hall in 1895.

Additional Sources Consulted:
[Nathaniel Cabell], Early history of the University of Virginia (1856)
Langhorne Gibson, Cabell’s Canal: The Story of the James River and Kanawha (2000)
“The Late Joseph C. Cabell,” Southern Literary Messenger (1856)
John S. Patton, Jefferson, Cabell, and the University of Virginia (1906)
Carol M. Tanner, “Joseph C. Cabell, 1778-1856” (1948)