Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Francis Corbin (1759 or 1760–23 May 1821), member of the Convention of 1788, was born probably at Laneville, the King and Queen County plantation of his parents, Richard Corbin, for many years a member of the governor's Council and deputy receiver general of the colony, and Betty Tayloe Corbin, daughter of another member of the Council, John Tayloe (1687–1747). His much-older brother, Gawin Corbin, later served on the governor's Council as well, and his sister Elizabeth Corbin married Carter Braxton, who signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1773 Corbin's family sent him to England for his education. He may have attended schools at Canterbury and Cambridge, and he was admitted to study law at the Inner Temple on 23 January 1777. Unable to return home during the American Revolution, Corbin petitioned the king in 1779 for funds to pay his debts because his Loyalist father could no longer provide assistance.

After returning to Virginia in 1783, Corbin settled in Middlesex County and in the spring of 1784 was elected to represent the county in the House of Delegates. Reelected for ten consecutive one-year terms through 1794, he served on the Committee of Propositions and Grievances in 1784, 1786–1788, and 1791–1794 and chaired the committee in 1792. Corbin also sat on the Committees of Commerce (during two sessions designated the Committee of Trade) in 1784 and 1786–1788, for Courts of Justice in 1784, 1786, 1789, and 1791–1794, for Religion in 1786, of Privileges and Elections in 1787–1789 and 1791–1794, and of Claims in 1793 and 1794.

When the General Assembly met in October 1787, Corbin introduced a resolution calling for a state convention to consider ratification of the proposed constitution of the United States. After some debate a similar resolution was adopted unanimously, and the following spring Corbin was one of two delegates elected to represent Middlesex County in the convention. He served on the Committee of Privileges and Elections. A strong supporter of the Constitution, he ably supported James Madison, John Marshall, and Edmund Randolph in promoting its passage. On 7 June 1788 Corbin delivered a detailed rebuttal of Patrick Henry's objections to the Constitution. He spoke at length on the necessity of adopting a new framework for a federal government and argued that only through a strong union could the country survive. On 25 June, Corbin voted against requiring prior amendments to the Constitution and then voted with the majority to approve the Constitution, after which he was named to a five-member committee to prepare a form of ratification. Two days later he joined the minority in voting to prevent the states from limiting the taxing power of Congress. Declaring himself "no enemy to general amendments," Corbin worked to ensure that in 1791 the House of Delegates ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

In January 1789 Corbin declared himself a candidate for the new House of Representatives from the Seventh District but lost to John Page (1744–1808). He also ran unsuccessfully in the congressional elections held in September 1790 and March 1793. One of three candidates in October 1792 to replace Richard Henry Lee in the United States Senate, Corbin received only about 20 percent of the votes cast in the General Assembly.

Corbin's increasingly poor health led him to move to Caroline County about 1795. Other than a quixotic attempt to curry support for the federal government during the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, he retired from public life and focused on managing the Reeds, his plantation that by 1811 had expanded to more than 3,700 acres. At the time of his death Corbin was paying taxes on seventy slaves age twelve or older, but for much of his adult life he objected to slavery on both moral and economic grounds and frequently expressed anxiety about a future rupture of the Union over the issue. In 1797 he confided to his friend Madison that he was considering moving his family to Connecticut or Rhode Island as a consequence of his aversion to the institution.

Corbin was elected to the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary in 1788 and served as rector in 1790. He volunteered his services to George Washington as a secretary or regimental officer in July 1798 when it was rumored that the former president would become head of the army during the Quasi-War against France, but Washington declined his offer because Corbin lacked field experience. In April 1816 President James Madison named Corbin one of the commissioners to oversee subscriptions to constitute the capital of the Second Bank of the United States, and at the time of his death Corbin was a director of the bank's Richmond branch.

On 3 December 1795 Corbin married Ann Munford Beverley, daughter of the Essex County planter Robert Beverley (ca. 1740–1800). They had two daughters and seven sons. Francis Corbin died suddenly of gout at his Caroline County plantation on 23 May 1821 and most likely was buried there.

Sources Consulted:
Biography, with erroneous death date of 18 June 1821, in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 30 (1922): 315–318; Exchequer and Audit Department Papers 13/28, Public Record Office, National Archives, Kew, England; Corbin correspondence in James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (including age at death of sixty-one on 23 May 1821 in son Robert B. Corbin to James Madison, 1 May [June] 1821), in Harold C. Syrett et al., eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (1961–1987), 16:611–613, in William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (1962–1991), esp. vols. 14 and 16, and in W. W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series (1998–1999), 2:389–391, 430–431; John P. Kaminski et al., eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution: Ratification of the Constitution by the States, vols. 8–10: Virginia (1988–1993), esp. 8:112–115, 9:1007–1015, 10:1391–1397, 1538–1541, 1556–1557; Merrill Jensen et al., eds., The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections: 1788–1790 (1976–1989), 2:267–269, 353–355 (quotation on 354); marriage recorded in The Parish Register of Christ Church, Middlesex County, Va., from 1653 to 1812 (1897), 302; Richmond Virginia Gazette, and General Advertiser, 6 Jan. 1796; portrait privately owned (2005); death notice in Richmond Daily Mercantile Advertiser, 25 May 1821 (died "on Tuesday last," 22 May 1821); obituary written by James Madison in Washington, D.C., Daily National Intelligencer, 9 June 1821 (with death on 23 May 1821 at age sixty-two), reprinted in Richmond Enquirer, 15 June 1821.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Mary A. Hackett.

How to cite this page:
Mary A. Hackett,"Francis Corbin (1759 or 1760–1821)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Corbin_Francis, accessed [today's date]).

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