Romulus Mitchell Saunders

Romulus Mitchell Saunders (1791-1867)

Romulus Mitchell Saunders
  • Born 1791 near Milton in Caswell County, NC
  • Lawyer
  • NC State Legislator
  • US Congressman
  • US Minister to Spain 1846-1849
  • Died 21 April 1867 Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Buried Old City Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina
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Biographical Sketch

Romulus Mitchell Saunders was born March 3, 1791, near Milton in Caswell County to William Saunders and Hannah Mitchell Saunders. He attended local schools (Hyco and Caswell Academies) and the University of North Carolina. At age 24, after becoming a member of the bar, he was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons, serving two years as speaker. Between 1821 and 1827 Saunders represented North Carolina in the United States House of Representatives. His career also included North Carolina State Attorney General, holding the position as a North Carolina Superior Court Judge, and running for the North Carolina governorship in 1840 (unsuccessfully). Saunders was the United States Minister to Spain 1846-1849 and was on the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees for forty-five years. On December 27, 1812, he married Rebecca Payne Carter and they had at least four children. Upon the death of his first wife, he married Anne Hayes Johnson on May 26, 1823, with at least four children resulting. One of these children was Jane Claudia Mitchell, who married Civil War Brigadier General Bradley Tyler Johnson (1829-1904). Saunders Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina is named for him.

Mary Yarbrough McAden Satterfield (1911-2003), an astute Caswell County historian reported the following on Romulus Mitchell Saunders in The Heritage of Caswell County, North Carolina, Jeannine D. Whitlow, Editor (1985) at 468 (Article #630, "Romulus Mitchell Saunders"):

Romulus Mitchell Saunders was born in Caswell County, March 3, 1791. He was a son of William Saunders and Hannah Mitchell Saunders. He was educated at Hyco and Caswell Academies and attended the University of North Carolina two years, 1809-8111. He studied law with Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee and was licensed to practice in that State in 1812. He returned to North Carolina and was elected to the House of Commons in 1815, to 1820, and was Speaker of the House in 1819 and 1820. In 1821, he was elected member of Congress and served until 1827. In 1828, he was elected Attorney-General of the State.

In 1833, he was appointed by the President one of the Board of Commissioners to decide and allot the amounts due citizens of the United States for injuries by France, as settled by the Treaty of 4th of July, 1831. This was a most important commission. The amount to be distributed, as secured by treaty, was twenty-five million francs; it was to be distributed among thousands of claimants. Such were the patient and laborious habits of Saunders, the acumen of his intellect and the clearness of his decisions, that he won for himself the respect and esteem of all in this arduous duty.

He served again as a member of the House of Representatives from 1841 to 1845. He was Judge of the Superior Court, 1835-1840 and 1852-1865. He was unsuccessful candidate for Governor on the Democratic ticket in 1840, defeated by John M. Morehead.

In 1846, he was appointed Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary from the United States to Spain, where he remained until 1850, when he was recalled at his own request. He was the second person in North Carolina who ever received such a distinguished mark of high honor at the hands of the federal government.

In 1850, he was elected a member of the House of Commons from Wake County.

He married, first, Rebecca Paine [Payne] Carter of Person County, a granddaughter of Dr. James Paine [Payne]. She died at the age of twenty-seven and is buried at Paine's [Payne's] Tavern, in Person County. He married, second, Anna Hayes Johnson, daughter of Judge William Johnson of Wake County.

He lived in Milton until about 1831 when his political career made it necessary for him to move to Raleigh. There he purchased Elmwood on Boylan Avenue. Earlier owners had been Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin and Judge William Gaston.

During the time he lived in Milton, Senator William H. Crawford of Georgia, Secretary of the Treasury, was a presidential candidate. Mr. Saunders exchanged his home, Longwood, with Dr. John T. Garland, owner of Fairview, in order to entertain Senator Crawford.1 On March 20, 1827, the Raleigh Register announced that John C. Calhoun visited Milton and attended a dinner given by the citizens to honor Saunders upon his return from Washington. An ad in the Milton Gazette and Roanoke Advertiser, Feb. 28, 1829, stated that "Romulus M. Saunders, Congressman, will speak. The Vice-President will be in town at that time."

He continued to make his home in Milton until his career caused him to move to Raleigh and purchased a home there. Elmwood was former home of North Carolina's first Chief Justice, John Taylor. Even though Raleigh remained his home for the rest of his life, his various governmental posts took him far away a good portion of the time. He died at Elmwood in 1867, and is buried in an imposing vault in Raleigh's old City Cemetery.

Romulus Mitchell Saunders had at least one son, Colonel William Johnson Saunders. When he went to Spain in 1846, this son accompanied him on his mission. Colonel William Johnson Saunders was an officer in the Confederate Army and bore an honorable part. He opened up much of the land in the northwestern section of the city of Raleigh and was much interested in the growth of the city. He was married to the former Miss Jacqueline Bacot and they were the parents of several children, among them were Bradley Johnson Saunders, Mrs. Wiles Bacot, and Mrs. Lee A. Denson.


1Saunders purportedly had to include 100 acres of woodland to make the deal sufficiently attractive to Dr. Garland. See: Milton, North Carolina: Sidelights of History, Charles B. Motley (1976) at 75.

According to biographer H. G. Jones in Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, William S. Powell, Editor (1994) at 286:

He was a man of considerable ability and talent, but he was rough-hewn in his appearance and speech, often intemperate in his statements, and intensely partisan in his associations. He was popular among the rank-and-file Democrats, but his inveterate pursuit of public office eventually diminished his influence among party leaders. Early in his career he lived at Longwood in Milton, North Carolina.

Here is Professor William Powell's description of the life of Romulus Saunders (When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977, William S. Powell (1977) at 144-145):

Romulus Mitchell Saunders, just seven years [Bartlett] Yancey's junior, enjoyed a career similar in many respects to Yancey's but Saunders lived a long life and filled a greater variety of positions. He was a native of Caswell County, but his mother died soon after his birth and his father moved to northwestern Tennessee. As a youth Romulus returned to Caswell County and studied at Caswell and Hyco academies before entering the University of North Carolina in 1809. In the spring of 1810 he was expelled by the trustees "for firing a pistol in the College and throwing a stone at the faculty." He returned to Tennessee, studied law under Tar Heel-born Hugh Lawson White, and was licensed in 1812. By the end of the year he had settled near Milton where he began to practice law. In 1815, at the age of 24, he was elected to the state House of Commons and the next year to the Senate. Returning to the House in 1818, he served three more terms and was Speaker in 1819 and 1820, at the same time Caswell's Yancey was Speaker of the Senate. Saunders was then elected to the United States House of Representatives for three terms, serving from 1821 to 1827. In Congress he was strongly Democratic and worked closely with Nathaniel Macon and other congressional leaders. Returning home, he served as Attorney General of the state from 1828 until 1834, when he was appointed a member of the commission on the French Spoliation claims resulting from the seizure by France of American ships and cargoes earlier in the century. He worked diligently and effectively in this assignment and added considerably to his reputation. In 1835 he was elected a judge of the Superior Court in which post he served well until his resignation in 1840 to accept the nomination of his party as a candidate for governor. The incumbent governor was the first elected under the constitutional revisions of 1835, and the campaign in which Saunders participated was the first in which a statewide canvass for votes was mounted. Saunders' opponent was John M. Morehead, and although Morehead won, largely because of the popularity of his party (Whig), it was generally agreed that Democrat Saunders campaigned more effectively and discussed the issues more realistically. The victory, it appears went to the party, and not to the man. His ability was recognized the next year, however, when he was again elected to Congress where he served during the period 1841-45. His bid for a seat in the United States Senate in 1842 was not successful. Nevertheless, in 1844 he was a delegate to the national Democratic convention where he moved the adoption of the two-thirds rule which defeaated Van Buren. The two-thirds rule was adopted permanently by the party as part of its nominating machinery.

President Polk, in 1846, appointed Romulus Saunders minister to Spain, a post he filled until his resignation in the spring of 1849, when he returned to North Carolina and to his home in Raleigh where he had moved in 1831. In 1853 he returned to the bench of the Superior Court and served until 1867.

Saunders was elected to the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina in 1819, just nine years after he had been expelled, and served until 1864. He apparently was the first University Trustee from Caswell County. Saunders died in 1867.

One of the longest lived schools in the county was the Milton Female Academy, incorporated by the General Assembly in 1818 under the direction of a board of trustees composed of Bartlett Yancey, Henry M. Clay, Thomas McGehee, Warner Williams, Bedford Brown, Romulus M. Saunders, William Irvine,John McAden, James Rainey, and James Holder. Saunders was secretary of the board and it was he who announced in early December, 1819, that the building for the academy was almost completed and that students would be received in January. . . . (Powell at 360)

The General Assembly incorporated the Milton Male Academy at the 1823 session at the behest of Romulus M. Saunders, John T. Garland, Archimdedes Donoho, Philip H. Thomas, James Holder, and Stephen Dodson who were named trustees. The school was located on the road to Cherry Hill, but exactly when it began operation is not known. . . . (Powell at 363-364)

In some cases the building of bridges was very expensive and the county justices did not feel that it was proper to spend public funds for this purpose. Toll bridges, then, were acceptable. In 1822 the General Assembly incorporated the Milton Toll Bridge Company to build a bridge over the Dan River there and empowered Commissioners Alexander Henderson, Romulus M. Saunders, John Raglin, James Holder, and David Ryle to sell shares. The sum of $10,000 was authorized and a schedule of fees for use of the bridge was specified . . . (Powell at 495)