The son of Colonel William Claiborne and Mary Leigh, William Charles Cole Claiborne was born in Sussex County, Virginia during 1775. He received his education at Richmond Academy, then transferred to William and Mary College. From there, he went to Richmond Academy. While studying law, 16-year-old Claiborne worked for John Beckley, clerk of the US House of Representatives, at which time he returned briefly to Virginia to pass his bar exam.
In 1794, Claiborne moved to the Tennessee frontier to open a law practice. During his years in Tennessee, he played an instrumental part in the writing and ratification of the state’s constitution, after which he was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court by Governor John Sevier.
Claiborne served in this position until 1797, then resigned to run for the seat in the US House of Representatives previously vacated by Andrew Jackson. Though he won, Claiborne’s age was not in keeping with the requirements stated in the US Constitution: “No person shall be a representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty five years.” When he took his seat, Claiborne was thought to be 24; however other sources speculated his age to be 22 and his gravestone later stated he was 23.
The following year he ran for reelection and won a full term. Due to a tie in the Electoral College, the presidential election of 1800 was decided by the House of Representatives. Claiborne's vote was instrumental in awarding the victory to Thomas Jefferson, rather than his opponent, Aaron Burr.
In 1801, Jefferson sent Claiborne to the Mississippi Territory as appointed governor and superintendent of Indian affairs. He served here until 1803, where he favored the idea of acquiring some of the land belonging to the Chickasaw and Choctaws. Possessing a conciliatory and sympathetic nature towards the Indians, Claiborne worked tirelessly to iron out differences, in addition to helping increase the Indians’ material well-being. During the spring of 1802, a smallpox epidemic broke out. Claiborne acted quickly and was instrumental in accomplishing the first mass vaccination program in the territory, the result of which saved the Natchez from the disease.
In 1804, a new appointment by Jefferson sent Claiborne to be the Territorial Governor of Louisiana. Commissioned to take possession of the Louisiana Purchase from France, the young and inexperienced Claiborne spoke no French. With the help of Major General James Wilkinson, he preside over the transformation of the Louisiana Purchase beginning in 1803 and continuing through to statehood in 1815. Once this was accomplished, Claiborne’s scope narrowed as he became governor of Orleans, the portion of the Purchase which was later transformed into the state of Louisiana. During this time, the parishes west of the Perdido River were not included. They were added five years later.
Prior to Claiborne’s appointment, Andrew Jackson had petitioned Jefferson for the position. Jefferson considered the Marquis de Lafayette and James Madison better choices; however, both turned down his offer. The Marquis’ efforts during the American Revolution offered him a hero’s standing with the Americans, in addition to Louisiana’s French colonists. Jefferson eventually offered Claiborne the appointment after becoming impressed with various reports he received regarding Claiborne’s prior service.
As governor, Claiborne’s greatest concern revolved around incorporating the Louisiana Purchase into the United States, in addition to mitigating the conflict which occurred between the influx of American settlers with the resident Creoles. In a report he sent Jefferson, Claiborne stated he sensed the inhabitants of Louisiana were “uninformed, indolent, luxurious – in a word, illy (sic) fit to be useful citizens of the Republic.” At first, the Creoles did not consider Claiborne worthy of trust, but in time, those feelings changed as Claiborne became involved in a number of the state’s matters, including the return of property belonging to the Roman Catholic Church which had previously been seized by Napoleon.
A number of US immigrants proved to be Claiborne’s most vocal critics, specifically over the speed at which he moved with respect to statehood. One of their leaders, Daniel Clark, challenged Claiborne to a duel and in the process, inflicted a severe wound on the governor.
Claiborne was also actively involved in welcoming French refugees who fled the slave revolt in Saint Domingue (Haiti). The specter of the rebellion was equally troubling to both Creole and American settlers. When Claiborne discovered race relations in Louisiana to be relatively lax in comparison to those of other slave states, he quickly tightened the French colonial law known as the Code Noir, which relegated the interactions between blacks and whites. In addition, he strengthened the militia in preparation for an anticipated uprising, which later occurred in 1811. At that time, approximately 500 slaves rose up against their masters in St. John the Baptist Parish. Claiborne acted swiftly to quell the riot and executed those who led the rebellion. The conflict was later labeled as the largest slave revolt to take place in the US and the final one to occur in Louisiana.
On April 30, 1812, following Louisiana’s admission to the United States, Claiborne was elected the state’s first governor, using the two-tiered system of ballots being cast by the male property owners, followed by a vote in the legislature. Though he ran against a Creole, Claiborne’s victory included a large amount of support from the French population.
The War of 1812 brought about the need for Claiborne to raise a number of militia companies, in addition to negotiating help from Pirate Jean Lafitte in an effort to protect New Orleans from the British in 1815. In the process, a battle of wills erupted between the governor and Major General Andrew Jackson, resulting in Jackson imposing martial law on the city. Following the defeat of the British, Claiborne wrote, “Among the blessings which the news of Peach have brought to the inhabitants of this city is a restoration of their constitutional rights.”
In 1817, William Claiborne was elected to represent Louisiana in the United States Senate; however, before he could claim his seat, he died of a liver ailment on November 23, 1817. Governor Claiborne was originally laid to rest in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery #1. This served as a controversial honor, due to the fact the cemetery is Roman Catholic and Claiborne was a Protestant. His body was later moved to the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans.
A skillful politician, Claiborne possessed an intense understanding of local conditions. He married into the Creole elite and received immense praise for the role he played in bringing republican institutions to Louisiana, in addition to the successful addition of Louisiana to the United States.
Though popular with Louisiana residents, Claiborne did go against the grain with them on one specific issue; the acceptability of Pirate Jean Lafitte. The majority of Louisiana’s residents loved the pirate, due to the fact he provided them with a number of goods, albeit stolen, at a lower price than they could obtain anywhere else, if at all. Governor Claiborne was disappointed with the Louisiana legislature due to the fact they would not honor his efforts to establish a reward for Lafitte. As a result, he put up $500 of his own money for the reward. Not to be outdone by Claiborne, the brazen buccaneer offered a $15,000 reward for the governor.
Several well-known Americans trace their lineage directly back to William Claiborne. Among them are fashion and fragrance designer Liz Claiborne. US Representative Lindy Boggs (Corinne Claiborne) of Louisiana’s 2nd District, is his great-great-great-grandniece. Lindy’s daughter is American journalist Cokie Roberts.