Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Richard Corbin (1713 or 1714–20 May 1790), member of the Council, was born in Middlesex County and was the son of Gawin Corbin (1669–1745) and the second of his three wives, Jane Lane Wilson Corbin, who was herself a widow when she married Gawin Corbin. Richard Corbin grew up in Middlesex County and in King and Queen County, where his mother and her family held property. He probably attended the College of William and Mary late in the 1720s. He was appointed to the King and Queen County Court in 1735 but by 1738 was residing on his father's property in Middlesex County, where he also served on the county court. In July 1737 Corbin married Betty Tayloe, daughter of John Tayloe (1687–1747), a member of the governor's Council. Their three daughters and five sons included Gawin Corbin (1739–1779), who sat on the governor's Council at the end of the colonial period, and Francis Corbin, who served in the Convention of 1788.

From his father Corbin acquired and inherited valuable land in Caroline, Essex, King and Queen, Middlesex, and Spotsylvania Counties. He later distributed portions of his property to his sons, but at the end of his life his landholdings still ranked among Virginia's largest. Corbin moved back to King and Queen County in 1745, resumed his position on the county court, and replaced his father on the vestry of Stratton Major Parish. As a capable and prosperous man with excellent family connections, he was soon considered for appointment to the governor's Council. In 1747 Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch placed his name at the bottom of a list of potential appointees. The following year Corbin won election to the House of Burgesses from Middlesex County, but his service in the lower house of the General Assembly was brief, because on 19 January 1750 the king appointed him to the Council. He took office in Williamsburg on 7 May 1750.

By the 1750s Corbin was a successful planter who speculated in western land and acted as a collection agent for British mercantile firms. He also had begun to build Laneville, his magnificent residence in King and Queen County. There is no evidence that Corbin ever visited England, but like many other Virginians he sent his sons there to be educated. Clearly his feelings about the mother country were warm and his respect for the British government strong. This attachment was apparent in the 1750s when he supported Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie's imposition of a fee of one pistole for signing land patents, an action that the leading members of the House of Burgesses and some other Council members strongly opposed.

Corbin opposed a bill to print paper money during the French and Indian War and to make it legal tender, in part because he feared the bill's effect on creditors. The bill passed both in the House of Burgesses and in the Council. On 30 July 1762 Corbin became deputy receiver general of Virginia, responsible for collecting quitrents that were payable to the Crown. In lieu of a salary he annually received 5 percent of the money he collected. This tax was payable in paper currency, which meant that Corbin would lose money if paper currency depreciated in value. His opposition to paper money was not popular in Virginia, and when he warned the Council's agent in London of the House of Burgesses' efforts to hire its own agent, who presumably would provide firmer support for the use of paper currency, he asked that his name not appear. Corbin continued to lobby London officials against paper money and got his wish when Parliament passed the Currency Act of 1764, which effectively prohibited the colonies from issuing paper money and making it legal tender for all private and public transactions.

Corbin emerged as a force to be reckoned with during his first fifteen years on the Council. George Washington turned to him for help when seeking appointment as a lieutenant colonel in the expedition he was planning to lead against the French. Corbin was also close to Dinwiddie and after the lieutenant governor returned to England collected debts that Virginians owed him. Such positions and associations reveal something of Corbin's personality and beliefs. He was a self-confident man of convictions, especially in avoidance of debt; unlike many of his contemporaries, he was never heavily indebted.

Corbin's political influence declined after the mid-1760s. He was unable to get his eldest son appointed to the profitable post of collector of customs for the district of upper James River, and he took an unpopular stand against the colony's opposition to the Stamp Act. When the imperial crisis deepened in the 1770s, Corbin refused to sign the Virginia Association of 1774 unless a majority of the Council did. After the royal governor, John Murray, earl of Dunmore, removed gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg in April 1775, Patrick Henry raised a troop of volunteers and marched toward the capital threatening to retake the powder unless the receiver general compensated the colony for its value. Corbin offered his personal note for the value of the powder, but Henry refused to accept it. Instead, he accepted a note from Thomas Nelson Jr., and Corbin repaid him.

That summer, the king believed that the worsening political condition of the colony might compel Dunmore to return to Great Britain and leave Virginia without a loyal chief executive. On 29 July 1775 George III issued a commission appointing Corbin lieutenant governor. Corbin was the only native Virginian ever commissioned to so high an office in the colony. Dunmore did not depart Virginia for more than a year, however, and he began hostile actions in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Respected by both Loyalists and Revolutionaries, Corbin was the only man in Virginia who was trusted enough by both sides to act as an emissary in January 1776 when Dunmore and the Virginia Committee of Safety unsuccessfully tried to open negotiations. Corbin then retired to Laneville, where he lived throughout the Revolutionary War, unmolested by either side. His daughter Elizabeth Corbin married Carter Braxton, who signed the Declaration of Independence, but most of the rest of his family remained loyal to the Crown.

Corbin's retreat from public life was complete, and he lived nearly fifteen more years as a wealthy but private man. His wife died on 13 May 1784, and Richard Corbin died at Laneville on 20 May 1790. They were buried at Buckingham, the family's ancestral residence in Middlesex County. In 1941 the surviving family gravestones were moved to Christ Episcopal Church in that county. The author of a remarkably generous obituary of a man who had remained loyal to the king wrote of Corbin that "no man had the true interest of his native state more sincerely at heart, if he differed with the majority of his countrymen about the means of promoting it…. If he was too little of an American, it was, in truth, owing to his being too much of a Virginian."

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in Elizabeth C. Johnson, "Colonel Richard Corbin of Laneville," Bulletin of the King and Queen County Historical Society of Virginia 22 (Jan. 1967), unpaginated, printing text of gravestone inscription with death date at age seventy-six, and Robert Doares, "The Man Who Would Not Be Governor," Colonial Williamsburg 22 (winter 2000–2001): 74–78; marriage in Williamsburg Virginia Gazette, 29 July 1737; Richard Corbin Papers, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va. (including Corbin Letter Book, 1758–1768), Virginia Museum of History and Culture (VMHC), Richmond, and Swem Library, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg; other Corbin documents and references in Edmund Jennings Letter Book (1753–1769), VMHC, Henry R. McIlwaine, Wilmer L. Hall, and Benjamin J. Hillman, eds., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (1925–1966), vols. 46, W. W. Abbot et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series (1983–1995), William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L. Scribner, and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia, the Road to Independence: A Documentary Record (1973–1983), esp. vols. 3 and 6, C. G. Chamberlayne, ed., The Vestry Book of Stratton Major Parish, King and Queen County, 1729–1783 (1931), R. A. Brock, ed., The Official Records of Robert Dinwiddie… (1883–1884), Louis Knott Koontz, ed., Robert Dinwiddie: Correspondence Illustrative of His Career in American Colonial Government and Westward Expansion (1951), George Reese, ed., The Official Papers of Francis Fauquier, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, 1758–1768 (1980–1983), and John C. Van Horne and George Reese, eds., The Letter Book of James Abercromby, Colonial Agent, 1751–1773 (1991); appointments to Council in Colonial Office Papers (CO) 324/38, 142, Public Record Office (PRO), National Archives, Kew, England, as deputy receiver general in Executive Journals of Council, 6:229, and as lieutenant governor in PRO CO 324/43, 209–210; Alexander Wilbourne Weddell, ed., A Memorial Volume of Virginia Historical Portraiture, 1585–1830 (1930), portrait facing 199; transcription of will printed in Beverley Fleet, Virginia Colonial Abstracts, vol. 4: King and Queen County. Records Concerning 18th Century Persons (1939), 63–66; obituary with date of death "in the 77th year of his age" in Richmond Independent Chronicle and General Advertiser, 26 May 1790 (quotation).

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Emory G. Evans.

How to cite this page:
Emory G. Evans,"Richard Corbin (1713 or 1714–1790)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 ({url}, accessed [today's date]).

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