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John Norvell

In office
January 26, 1837 – March 3, 1841
Preceded by (none)
Succeeded by William Woodbridge

Born December 21, 1789
Danville, Kentucky, USA
Died April 24, 1850
Detroit, Michigan, USA
Political party Democratic-Republican
Profession Politician, Lawyer, Journalist, Editor
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Battles/wars War of 1812

John Norvell (December 21, 1789 – April 24 (sometimes given as April 11), 1850) was a newspaper editor and one of the first U.S. Senators from Michigan.


Norvell was born in Danville, Kentucky, then still a part of Virginia, where he attended the common schools.

He was the son of Lt. Lipscomb Norvell, an officer of the Virginia Line in the American Revolutionary War and Mary Hendrick. Lipscomb Norvell was taken prisoner by the British when they captured Charleston, South Carolina in 1781 and later was an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati. Lipscomb is buried in the Nashville City Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.

Lipscomb descended from Captain Hugh Norvell (1666–1719), one of the original trustees of the City of Williamsburg in the 17th century and a Vestryman at Bruton Parish Church. Interestingly, Mary Norvell, Lipscomb's daughter, married James Walker, the father of William Walker (1824–1860) a soldier of fortune or filibusterer in Nicaragua in 1857.

In 1807, Norvell wrote to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson:

"It would be a great favor, too, to have your opinion of the manner in which a newspaper, to be most extensively beneficial, should be conducted, as I expect to become the publisher of one for a few years.

Accept venerable patriot, my warmest wishes for your happiness.

John Norvell"

He received a reply in which Jefferson first recommended authors to read on government and history, then issued a scathing critique of newspapers:

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, `by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.' Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. . . . I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.

Despite Jefferson's highly skeptical appraisal, Norvell apparently took his words as a challenge to reform newspapers and decided to learn the printing trade. Norvell did not publish this letter until after Jefferson's death in 1826, the original letter is now lost, but was in his son's possession as late as 1880.

Norvell edited the Baltimore Whig 1813-14. He also studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1814, and began a private practice in Baltimore, Maryland. He enlisted as a private in the War of 1812, serving in the Battle of Bladensburg.

Norvell’s adventures during the War of 1812 were chronicled in the “Some Account of the Life of Spencer Houghton Cone, A Baptist Preacher in America.” Norvell and his brother in law Spencer Cone were partners in Baltimore and together at the Battle of Bladensburg. After the battle, they returned to Washington to rescue their wives, who had been left there.

In Washington a scene of terror greeted Norvell and Cone. Catherine Cone Norvell was 8 months pregnant and could only travel by wagon. They attempted to walk out of the city, but Cone’s feet were badly blistered and he found it impossible to move. Norvell found a pony in a neighboring field and caught him. Cone mounted him and they were once again on their way. Stopping at the White House, they asked one of the servants for a drink. Thus refreshed, they crossed the Potomac and proceeded out of the city for three miles. They were so exhausted that they fell asleep even before they had finished their meager meal, sleeping on the bag of clothes spread out on the floor. While the men slept, Amelia, Cone's wife, awoke and went out into the garden—in the distance she could see the burning White House and Capitol building.

After the war, Norvell worked at various newspapers in several cities, including: the Baltimore Patriot 1815-17. Norvell stayed with the Patriot almost two years before abruptly moving back to Kentucky, possibly with the encouragement of Henry Clay, where he took over the state's oldest newspaper, the Lexington Kentucky Gazette in 1817. For nearly the next two years, he maintained Clay's support at home, which earned Norvell apparently no great pecuniary rewards. By early in that year, he was again applying for clerkships in Washington, and soon moved east to Philadelphia, where he became editor of an Anti-Federalist newspaper. By 1819, he joined the Franklin Gazette, which he published with Mr. Richard Bache, the son of Benjamin Franklin Bache, and grandson of Benjamin Franklin. The Franklin Gazette, which supported Jefferson politically, was published in offices "at 180 the first door on the left hand side of Carpenter's lane, leading from the Post Office to the Bank of the United States."

In June 1829, Norvell and John R. Walker co-founded the Pennsylvania Inquirer, which was to become The Philadelphia Inquirer, although they had to sell the paper in November to Jesper Harding. Norvell continued to work in newspapers when he was appointed to an office in the Treasury Department by his friend Alexander J. Dallas, who was secretary of the treasury for President James Madison. Norvell was awarded the post because of his support of U.S. President Andrew Jackson, as were many other printers who had supported the Republican (democratic) party.

In 1831, he moved to Michigan Territory after being appointed postmaster of Detroit by Andrew Jackson. He served as postmaster until 1836. The people in the Michigan Territory had approved a constitution and elected state officials in 1835, although it was not admitted as a state until 1837 because of a conflict known as the Toledo War with neighboring Ohio. Norvell was selected to be Senator in 1835. However, because the state of Michigan had not been recognized, he was only granted "spectator" status.

Norvell was an influential and active participant in the first constitutional convention in 1835 also in the convention at Detroit in 1837 that accepted the compromise offered by Congress in which Michigan could become a state if it dropped its claims over the Toledo Strip in exchange for the western portion of the upper peninsula. He was a member of the Board of Regents of the university of Michigan from 1837 to 1839.

Upon the admission of Michigan as a State into the Union, Norvell entered the U.S. Senate with the Jacksonian wing of the Democratic-Republican Party. He served one term in the 24th, 25th, and 26th Congresses from January 26, 1837, to March 3, 1841. He did not seek reelection and resumed the practice of law in Detroit.

Norvell was a member of the State senate in 1841 and of the State house of representatives in 1842. He served as United States district attorney in Michigan from 1846-1849. In recent years, he has been characterized as being self serving for his efforts to secure patronage positions in the 1840s. This, however, is far from the truth. He simply needed the income to support his very large family, and as man of less means than most who had served in the Senate, used his connections to secure employment after his term was over in Washington.

Norvell had eight sons by three wives. His third wife, Isabella Hodgkiss Freeman (1804–1873) was the adopted daughter of Tristram B. Freeman, a noted Philadelphia printer and founder of the Freeman auction house. Her parents were Michael Hodgkiss and Sarah DeWeese. With Isabella, he had one daughter and five sons, three of whom fought in the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. One, Colonel Freeman Norvell, was a Marine Officer who fought at the Battle of Chapultepec in September 1847, and at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Freeman's younger brother Lt. Dallas Norvell served on the staff of General George Custer. Another son, Colonel Stevens Thompson Norvell was an officer with the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers after the war, and at the Battle of San Juan Hill with Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish American War.

Norvell died in Detroit on April 24, 1850, the day that news came from Washington that he had been appointed US Consul to Turkey. He is interred in Elmwood Cemetery.

Norvell Township in Jackson County, Michigan is named for him.


  • Goodwin, William A., The Record of Bruton Parish Church, Richmond, Virginia, 1941.
  • Hemans, Lawton T., The Life and Times of Stevens Thompson Mason, Lansing, Michigan, 1920.
  • Streeter, Floyd Benjamin, Political Parties in Michigan 1837-1860, Lansing, Michigan, 1918.
  • Pasley, Jeffrey, The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.
  • Pasley, Jeffrey, "The 'Indiscreet Zeal' of John Norvell: Newspaper Publishing and Politics in the Early Republic." Paper read at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Atlanta, Ga., April 14, 1994.
  • Norvell, Colonel Freeman, "History and Times of the Hon. John Norvell" Michigan Pioneer Collections, Lansing Michigan, 1881.

External links

United States Senate
Preceded by
United States Senator (Class 2) from Michigan
Served alongside: Lucius Lyon, Augustus S. Porter
Succeeded by
William Woodbridge


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