Essex County History
James Mercer Garnett

Of all the Essex County natives' contributions to the state and nation, few if any have had more lasting impact than James Mercer Garnett. Born at Mount Pleasant in 1770, he was brother to Robert Selden Garnett Sr. of Champlain, also a state delegate (1816-1817) and congressman (1817-1827). James served in the Virginia House of Delegates (1800-1801) and two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1805 - 1809).

Garnett's greatest contributions, however, were in farming and education. He strongly supported the improvement of farming knowledge, techniques and practices for all planters. Garnett knew that few Virginians would actively follow and implement the scientific farming literature of the age on their own. Instead, he favored the establishment of organizations to educate planters in a relaxed and often social atmosphere. To this end, Garnett helped establish the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair, one of the earliest and longest running in America. He was elected its first president and served for 20 years. Encouraging a relaxed and competitive environment, Garnett helped establish agricultural fair traditions such as food and sewing competitions, tractor pulls and shooting contests. Garnett advocated establishing the Virginia Board of Education and became its first president. And finally, at the national level, he was elected the first president of the U.S. Agricultural Society in 1841 at the age of seventy-one. The Essex Agricultural Society and the strong farming tradition in Essex can thank James Mercer Garnett for much of their inspiration.

In addition to his agricultural interests, Garnett had progressive views on women's education. Contrary to opinions of that time, Garnett felt that women had just as much right and capacity for intellectual development as men. Mary Mercer Garnett, James' wife, operated the Elmwood Girl's School at their home. He also published their progressive views in his 1824 book, Seven Lectures on Female Education. .


1. Settlers, Southerners and Americans: The History of Essex County, Va.. 1985. by James B. Slaughter (available at the Essex County Museum and Historical Society)

2. Essex County Virginia: Historic Homes, 2002. by Anita and Gordon Harrower and Robert LaFollette (available at the Essex County Museum and Historical Society)
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