Born in Dracut, Massachusetts on December 17, 1748, James Mitchell Varnum was a descendant of Samuel Varnum who came to the Massachusetts colony in 1635. During his short lifetime, he gained an exceptional reputation as a lawyer, jurist, and military officer. As a young man, he first attended Harvard and then transferred his studies to the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (later to be known as Brown University) where he graduated in 1769 at the age of 20. In Rhode Island, he met and married Martha Child and started his career as an attorney. Varnum also had an early interest in military affairs and on settling in East Greenwich in the home he built on Pierce Street, became a member (and then first commander) of the Kentish Guards militia also serving with Nathaniel Greene.
At the outbreak of hostilities with the British, Varnum was commissioned by the Rhode Island General Assembly as a Colonel of the First Regiment of Infantry. He was then commissioned as a brigadier general in the Continental Army and went on to become one of George Washington’s most trusted officers, serving from 1777 to 1779. During this time, he advocated for the admission of African Americans into the ranks that resulted in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment as an all-Black unit. He served with distinction in the siege of Boston, the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Red Bank (New Jersey), at Valley Forge (where his headquarters still stands) and the Battle of Rhode Island.
Varnum resigned his commission in 1779 and returned to Rhode Island for personal and business reasons. However, he was shortly named major general of the state militia and returned to active duty in July and August of 1780 under French General Rochambeau.
He returned to his active law practice at age 33 and soon won his place in legal history as the defending attorney in the case of Trevett vs. Weeden, in which an act of a legislative body, the General Assembly, was declared unconstitutional. Varnum was elected twice to the Continental Congress (1780-81 and 1786-87). He was an original member of the Rhode Island Society of the Cincinnati and served as its president from 1786 until his untimely death three years later. In the company of George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, Thomas Pinckney and several others he became a founding member of the national Society of the Cincinnati.
In 1787, his life took an important but ultimately fatal turn when he was named as one of the original founders of the Ohio Company of the Northwest Territory. He was named a judge of the Supreme Court in the newly established town of Marietta. Barely a year later, Varnum became ill with consumption and died at the age of 40. He was buried at the Oak Grove Cemetery in Marietta.
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