Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Joseph Bryan (13 August 1845–20 November 1908), industrialist and newspaper publisher, was born at Eagle Point in Gloucester County, the son of John Randolph Bryan and Elizabeth Tucker Coalter Bryan. His Georgia-born father was the godson, namesake, and foster child of John Randolph of Roanoke, and his mother was Randolph's favorite niece. John Bryan owned Eagle Point as well as another plantation, Carysbrook, in Fluvanna County, and by 1860 he held more than a hundred slaves. As a youth Joseph Bryan viewed the world through a planter's eyes, and his perspective subsequently underwent few changes. In 1897 he wrote to a friend that "the older I get, the more I admire the old civilization that made patriots and heroes out of the white people, and civilized human beings out of the cannibals of Africa."

Civil War
Bryan attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria from 1856 to 1861, and his budding states' rights sentiments led him to support the Southern Democrats in the 1860 election. The Civil War, more than any other event, shaped his life. With great reluctance, Bryan deferred to his father's wish that he not enter the military until he was eighteen and instead matriculated at the University of Virginia. When he reached eighteen he joined the niter and mining bureau but took leave in May 1864 to serve briefly with the Richmond Howitzers. In October 1864 Bryan joined Mosby's Rangers and that same month was wounded twice in a clash near Upperville. He returned to action in December and served until the end of the war. The defeat of the Confederacy hardened Bryan's loyalties to the Southern cause while impoverishing his family. His father lost Eagle Point and eventually Carysbrook as well.

Bryan reentered the University of Virginia after the war and studied law under John B. Minor during the 1867–1868 session. He practiced in Fluvanna County until 1870, when he moved to Richmond. On 1 February 1871 Bryan married Isobel Lamont Stewart, of Brook Hill, daughter of a Scottish merchant who had become one of the city's foremost capitalists. Bryan blended his planter heritage with the Stewart wealth to establish himself as a rising influence in Virginia's economy and society. They had six sons, five of whom reached adulthood.

Lost Cause Commemoration
Throughout his life Bryan labored to reverse the dramatic changes unleashed by emancipation and Reconstruction. He deplored the democratic provisions of the Virginia Constitution of 1869 and supported the Conservative Party. Bryan opposed the reform program of William Mahone and the Readjusters, but he failed in 1873, 1875, and 1877 to win a seat in the House of Delegates from Henrico County, defeats he attributed to the unscrupulous workings of mass democracy. The active participation of African Americans in the Readjuster and Republican Parties deeply offended Bryan. He openly violated the Readjusters' debt payment laws and challenged them in court, making a name for himself and earning large legal fees.

No sooner had the Readjusters been defeated than Bryan confronted the popular democracy of the People's (or Populist) Party. He feared its program of empowering the masses and challenging the traditions of social hierarchy, political conservatism, and laissez-faire economics that characterized Virginia's culture. Bryan led a drive to create a Gold Democratic Party in Virginia after the national party adopted the Populists' inflationary platform in 1896. Caught in the middle of this unsettling discord, he subsequently lent his weight to those who demanded that Virginia restrict its electorate, pass sweeping segregation laws, and revise its constitution to restore the old order as far as possible.

Committed to local rule and elite leadership, Bryan opposed the increased federal powers associated with the Reconstruction amendments to the United States Constitution, the Populist platform, and the Republican Party. "A Virginian is first and foremost a Virginian," he told Richmond Times readers on 17 May 1901. "This sentiment is distinctly Southern and it should be preserved as one of the bulwarks of the rights of the States against the constant aggression of centralized power." Bryan's advocacy of cultural traditionalism buttressed his states' rights philosophy. At every opportunity he aided the commemoration of the Lost Cause and believed that trends following the Civil War proved the righteousness of the Confederacy. Bryan accordingly endorsed the study of Virginia's history and served as president of the Virginia Historical Society (later Virginia Museum of History and Culture) from 1892 to 1902 and again from 1906 to 1908. He was also an influential adviser to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (later Preservation Virginia), of which his wife was president. Bryan sought and found in Virginia's history inspiring role models, values, and traditions whose preservation could guide the future. His wife was equally committed to the same goals and in her own right exerted a powerful influence in behalf of preserving traditional values.

Newspaper Publisher
Bryan feared that Virginia would lose not only its political and social identity but also its economic independence. By the end of the century he was Richmond's preeminent capitalist. A refined and cultured gentleman, Bryan symbolized the transition from planter to industrialist. As Virginia's economy was transformed by New South development, he often battled workers and farmers to implement his industrial agenda. In the 1870s Bryan had established his legal career by representing corporate bondholders, and as an investor he purchased defaulted bonds and joined with the tobacco magnate Lewis Ginter to parlay them into valuable holdings. In 1887 he bought the failing Richmond Times and introduced new printing technology to break the printers' union. Bryan transformed the newspaper into an energetic booster of industry, conservative politics, and traditional culture. He hired William L. Royall, a notorious opponent of the Readjusters, of African American participation in civic life, and of labor unions, as editor of the paper. In 1896 Bryan secretly acquired the Manchester Evening Leader. Seeking a monopoly to guarantee his newspapers' profitability, Bryan in a complicated maneuver then divested himself of the Leader (which merged with the evening News to become the Richmond News Leader) and purchased instead the rival morning Richmond Dispatch, which in 1903 he merged with the Times into the Richmond Times Dispatch. His acquisition by 1908 of the Richmond News Leader made him the owner of both of the capital's major daily papers.

Bryan's entrepreneurial activity reflected his belief that through economic growth and diversification Virginia could reestablish its traditional hierarchy and regain much of the independence it had lost at Appomattox. In pursuit of that dream he purchased an insolvent machine company late in the 1880s and turned it into the Richmond Locomotive Works. At its height, the factory produced 200 locomotives a year and employed 3,000 workers. Through his advocacy of the piece-rate system and the open shop Bryan followed management trends common at other American locomotive works and maintained practices that supported his conservative views on labor. He also invested heavily in the iron industry of Alabama and in the construction of a Nicaraguan canal. Bryan served as director and first vice president of Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company of Birmingham beginning in 1887. In 1881 he helped organize the Georgia-Pacific Railway and served as its president, and when it was absorbed into the Southern Railway he became a director of that line. Through this wide-ranging economic activity Bryan labored to develop a southern economy that could stand free from northern interference. The Spanish-American War, which he initially regarded as an unwarranted act of American aggression, gave him hope that his Birmingham iron and his Richmond locomotives, together with other southern products, would find new markets far away through an isthmian canal. Bryan therefore abandoned his anti-imperialism and embraced expansionism.

In each case, however, northern capital undermined Bryan's efforts. His promotion of southern-owned railroads faltered during the hard times of the 1890s, and the region's railroads came under northern control. Wall Street's tight credit policy and favoritism toward northern factories forced Bryan to sell the Richmond Locomotive Works to northern investors in 1900. He remained as chief operating officer of the American Locomotive Company's Richmond factory, but it closed shortly after his death. Moreover, Bryan's iron foundry in Alabama fell victim to a combination of competition from better-financed northern concerns and the panic of 1907. The Nicaraguan canal venture fell victim to a rival plan for a canal through Panama. Bryan's dreams of an economically independent South faded.

Still wealthy and respected, Bryan built Laburnum, a luxurious residence near Richmond. It burned in 1906, and he replaced it with an even more luxurious building with the same name. Bryan also purchased and restored Eagle Point. He and his wife were prominent members of Richmond society, and their five sons who lived to maturity all had successful careers. The eldest, John Stewart Bryan, took over management of the family's newspapers after Bryan's death and served as president of the College of William and Mary.

Bryan's interests extended beyond business. The family perceived no contradiction between its religious beliefs and practices on the one hand and its hard-headed approach to business on the other, and Bryan's youngest brother, Corbin Braxton Bryan, was a prominent Episcopal clergyman. Bryan was a vestryman of Emmanuel Episcopal Church near Richmond for thirty-six years, a vestryman of Abingdon Episcopal Church in Gloucester County, and a lay delegate to the Episcopal General Convention several times between 1886 and 1907. He served on the board of visitors of the University of Virginia and held such diverse positions as president of the Virginia Good Roads Association, governor of the Society of Colonial Wars, and director of the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in 1907.

Joseph Bryan died of heart failure at Laburnum on 20 November 1908. His funeral, befitting a man of his sentiments, harkened back to the past. Eight family servants bore his coffin to his grave in the yard of Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Bryan was buried in his old Confederate uniform, and his casket was draped with a Confederate flag. In 1949 the Bryan family gave the Laburnum estate to Richmond Memorial Hospital and donated land to the city of Richmond for creation of Joseph Bryan Park.

Sources Consulted:
W. Gordon McCabe, Joseph Bryan: A Brief Memoir (1909); National Cyclopędia of American Biography (1891–1984), 31:519; "Joseph Bryan: A Model Character for His Fellow-Men," Confederate Veteran 18 (1910): 164–166; John Stewart Bryan, Joseph Bryan: His Times, His Family, His Friends (1935), birth date on 19; Richmond Times-Dispatch anniversary edition supplement, 15 Oct. 2000; Joseph Bryan Letter Books and Papers (first quotation in Bryan to Thomas Pinckney, 22 May 1897), Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond; Bryan Family Papers, Accession 24882, Library of Virginia; Bryan's published addresses include "The Physical and Industrial Resources of Virginia," Addresses Delivered at the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, New York, on Virginia Day, August 23, 1901 (1901), 7–27, and Christian Stewardship: An Address Delivered before the Y.M.C.A. of Richmond College on February 20, 1908 (1909); James M. Lindgren, "'First and Foremost a Virginian': Joseph Bryan and the New South Economy," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (VMHB) 96 (1988): 157–180 (portrait on 158); Lindgren, "The Apostasy of a Southern Anti-Imperialist: Joseph Bryan, the Spanish-American War, and Business Expansion," Southern Studies, new series, 2 (1991): 151–178; W. David Lewis, "Joseph Bryan and the Virginia Connection to the Development of Northern Alabama," VMHB 98 (1990): 613–640; Lewis, Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic (1994); Virginius Cornick Hall Jr., Portraits in the Collection of the Virginia Historical Society: A Catalogue (1981), 37; obituaries and accounts of funeral in Richmond News Leader, 21 Nov. 1908 (with incorrect birth month), Richmond Times-Dispatch, 21 Nov. 1908 (with incorrect birth month), 22 Nov. 1908, and Confederate Veteran 17 (1909): 606–607.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by James M. Lindgren.

How to cite this page:
James M. Lindgren,"Joseph Bryan (1845–1908)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001, rev. 2018 ({url}, accessed [today's date]).

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