John Norvell

John Norvell

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


He was born in Danville, Kentucky, though it was then still a part of Virginia. He attended the common schools. He was the son of Lt. Lipscomb Norvell, an officer of the Virginia Line in the American Revolutionary War. 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) the 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:

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 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.

After the war, he worked at various newspapers in several cities, including: the Baltimore Patriot 1815-17, the Lexington Kentucky Gazette 1817-19, and the Philadelphia Franklin Gazette 1819-28. 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 until 1831, when he moved to Michigan Territory after being appointed postmaster of Detroit by U.S. President 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.

He 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.

He 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. Norvell married Isabella Hodgkiss Freeman, she 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.

Norvell had eight sons by three wives. With Isabella, his third wife, 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 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.

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