William Waller Hening

Imagine my surprise at discovering I not only have an ancestor buried at Shockoe Hill Cemetery, but that he was a rather well-known attorney. I have a copy of a family tree from many years ago, so it was common knowledge in my family who was related to whom, but I’d never researched any of these ancestors.

By way of explanation, I should let you know that William Waller Hening married Agatha Banks in Richmond in 1790, and they had seven children. Their daughter, Agatha Matilda Banks Cabaniss, produced, with her husband James Cabaniss of Williamsburg, Virginia, several children. One of the surviving daughters, Julia Anne Cabaniss, wed James Drew Wilson as her first husband, and that marriage produced a son, Charles Hening Wilson. Charles and his wife, Etta Parker, produced my great-grandmother, Sarah M. Wilson. Miss Sarah, as she was known in my family, with her husband George Fenton Batten, gave the world my grandmother, Elizabeth Henrietta Batten Dunham (she hated her middle name). Miss Sarah was alive when I was born, and her portrait, the spitting image of my brother, resides in his house.

The Hening descendants produced several lawyers and doctors, including J. G. Hening of Chesterfield County, the namesake of Hening Elementary School where one of my children was a student. But certainly, the most famous lawyer was William Waller Hening. Born on the family farm outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1767, he began his practice of law in Fredericksburg, sharing offices with the like of James Monroe and John Marshall. From there he moved on to Albemarle County, which he would represent in the House of Delegates from 1804-1828.Thomas Jefferson appointed him the Federal Bankruptcy Commissioner for Virginia, and he served on the Virginia Council of State (1805-1812), and during the War of 1812, as deputy Adjutant General (1808-1814). He was Clerk of the Superior Chancery Court for Richmond District from 1810 to 1828.

He became a Freemason in 1796, where he was very busy for several years, and also joined the Amicable Society, an organization dedicated to the relief of strangers and wayfarers.

His publications were prolific and ground-breaking. In 1808, he published “The Military Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States,” which I find astounding. Research seems to have been his specialty, as he was asked to compile all the laws of Virginia by the General Assembly. The Archives contains a fascinating trove of letters between Hening and Thomas Jefferson, concerning the borrowing and copying of books from Mr. Jefferson for the work with which Hening was tasked. As a side note, in 1823 the General Assembly passed an act allotting all proceeds from the sale of Hening’s Statutes at Large to the establishment of a State library. Hence, the foundation of the Virginia State Library can be traced to Hening’s work.

Hening’s “The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All of the Laws of Virginia From the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619” comprised thirteen volumes that were published from 1809-1823. He also wrote “New Virginia Justice,” a handbook for justices of the peace, for which four editions were in print. He produced a two-volume “American Guide to Pleadings”; American editions of three English works of legal maxims and precedents; four volumes of court reports, including the First Advance sheet system in Virginia; as well as assisted in the Virginia Code’s printing. Hening’s professional publications spanned every year of his professional life at the rate of one a year. What an amazing accomplishment for the times.

His finances, however, were never a strong point. Seven children were expensive, and just before his death, he mortgaged all his properties, as well as his library and his legal fees. When he died in 1828, his wife survived him by only nine days. She too is buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery, but her grave is unmarked. William Waller Hening’s gravestone was placed by the Virginia Conservation Commission in 1948.

Tracy Dunham