J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Young Representative Claiborne

This month a New York district made Elsie Stefanik, at age thirty, the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. (The previous holder of that record was Elizabeth Holtzmann, also from New York.)

That news prompted a Boston 1775 reader to ask me who was the youngest man ever elected to Congress. We guessed that representative came closer to the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that members of that house be at least twenty-five years old.

It turns out the youngest Congressman in U.S. history was William Charles Cole Claiborne of Tennessee, who served two terms in the 1790s. (He was also elected to the Senate from Louisiana in 1817, but died before attending a session.) What’s most notable about Claiborne is that he took his seat in 1797, before he turned twenty-five.

There’s some disagreement about Claiborne’s birth date. Congress’s official biography says he was born in 1775. His gravestone in Louisiana boasts that he was “Representative in Congress at 23”; that suggests he was born in late 1773 or 1774. That gravestone also says that he died on 23 Nov 1817 at age forty-two, pointing back to 1775.

In 1905 the William and Mary Quarterly published records from Sussex County, Virginia, that listed “William Cole, son of William Claiborne,” as born in August 1773. That might have been the future Congressman, or might have been an older brother who died young. Even if Claiborne was born in 1773, he still would have been only twenty-four years old when he took office in 1797.

The young representative benefited from being a nephew of Rep. Thomas Claiborne of Virginia and from having assisted the Clerk of the House in New York and Philadelphia when he was studying law. And of course Tennessee, as a new state on the frontier, didn’t have a lot of gentlemen to choose from in 1797.

Claiborne’s service in the House in the 1790s—less than ten years after the Constitution had been adopted, and alongside many men who had played a role in writing it—shows us how the Founders were willing to bend the rules they had written.

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