William Barry Grove (1764-1818)

Written By Jeff Broadwater

William Barry Grove was a Federalist politician who represented North Carolina in the United States Congress from 1791 until 1803.

Grove was born on January 15, 1764 in Fayetteville, the son of Richard and Susanna Grove.  Grove’s father died while Grove was a child, and his mother married a prominent planter, Colonel Robert Rowan.  Grove and Rowan more than likely developed a close relationship, for Grove inherited his stepfather’s Hollybrook plantation and stately mansion at the corner of Rowan and Chatham streets in Fayetteville.

As a young man, Grove was admitted to the bar and, shortly thereafter, he entered politics.  In 1784, Grove became register for Cumberland County (then called Fayette County).  He spent the next twenty years in public office.  The young lawyer represented Cumberland County in the House of Commons, the lower house of North Carolina’s legislature in 1786, 1788, and 1789.  As a member of the legislature, Grove helped Fayetteville secure a new courthouse, its own superior court, and its own seat in the House of Commons.

Fayetteville, with a population of approximately 1,500 people, was a thriving market town serving the Cape Fear River Valley.  It was one of the few points in North Carolina from which staple crops could be exported to out-of-state markets.  It had been settled by Scotch Presbyterians, many of whom had been Loyalists during the American Revolution.  Most became Federalists during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, and so did Grove.  He served as a delegate in the Hillsborough Convention, which refused to ratify the Constitution, and in the Fayetteville Convention, which finally did.

In 1791, Grove defeated Anti-Federalist Timothy Bloodworth for a seat in Congress representing the Cape Fear District and thereafter remained in the national spotlight.  For the next ten years, Grove rarely faced serious opposition, retaining his seat even when the Democratic – Republican Party dominated North Carolina politics. Grove became a thorn in the side of arch Republican Nathaniel Macon.  Along with Thomas Blount, Grove may have been the only member of the North Carolina delegation interested in commercial development and internal improvements.  In Congress, Grove proved to be a solid Federalist whose views could be tempered by sectional interests.  He generally supported the fiscal polices of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.  Pro-British and anti-French, Grove’s views on foreign policy issues seemed to reinforce his party orthodoxy.  He was the only member of North Carolina’s delegation to vote for Jay’s Treaty, a controversial agreement with Great Britain.  Deteriorating relations with France, the XYZ Affair, and the prospect of war in the late 1790s seemed to unnerve him. Alone among the state’s delegation, Grove voted for the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were aimed at critics of Federalist foreign policy, and he suggested military force might be necessary to suppress pro-French sentiment in his home state.

After the 1796 elections, Grove was the sole Federalist among North Carolina’s delegation, for Fayetteville remained a Federalist stronghold.  In that year’s presidential election, North Carolina had cast six electoral votes for the enigmatic Aaron Burr.  Federalist John Adams won the election, but Grove complained that the North Carolina vote reflected “no great judgment or respect of a Proper character to fill so important an office.”  The war scare produced a brief surge in Federalist strength.  In 1800, Grove faced an opponent, but defeated moderate Federalist Samuel Purviance by better than three to one.  The 1800 presidential election produced a tie in the Electoral College between two Democratic-Republicans, Burr and Thomas Jefferson.  The election went to the House of Representatives, where Grove, despite his earlier criticism of Burr, supported the New Yorker in an attempt to prevent the election of the supposedly more doctrinaire Jefferson.

Jefferson’s eventual victory, the new Republican majority in Congress, and the growing strength of the Republicans could not have been welcomed by Grove.  He was unsurprisingly defeated when he ran for reelection in 1802.   The historian David Hackett Fischer has described Grove as a “transitional figure” between an older generation of public-spirited Federalists who eschewed political parties and a younger generation who attempted—unsuccessfully—to use partisan politics to promote conservative ends. 

Records of Grove’s life are sparse, but the picture that emerges from them is of a fairly conventional politician.  Contemporaries remembered Grove as gracious and hospitable, handsome but not especially forceful.  He was not a great orator. He followed the party line, yet made allowances for local interests.  He was distinguished but not pretentious, smart but not intellectual.  Although he made little impact on national policy, he reflected the views of his constituents, and they rewarded him repeatedly at the polls.

After his retirement from Congress, Grove returned to Fayetteville and remained busy as a trustee of the University of North Carolina. He died on March 30, 1818.