Varnum, painted posthumously in 1804 by Charles Willson Peale
James Varnum was an early American political leader and one of the first judges of the Northwest Territory in the years after the American Revolution.
Varnum was born at Dracut, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1748. He attended Harvard College, but the school expelled him. He then enrolled in Rhode Island College (modern-day Brown University) and graduated in 1769 in the college's first graduating class. The college required its students to complete a thesis. In his thesis, Varnum argued that America should not rebel against Great Britain. Upon graduation, he first taught school and then studied law, passing the Rhode Island bar exam in 1771. Varnum served in the Rhode Island militia before the American Revolution, and enlisted in the Continental Army once hostilities began with Great Britain. He was present at the struggle for Boston and fought in the battles in and around New York City. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general in 1777. He retired from military service in 1779 and resumed his law practice. Varnum served in the Continental Congress representing Rhode Island in 1780 and in the Confederation Congress on several different occasions in the 1780s. He also was one of the original members of the Society of Cincinnati.
In 1787, Varnum became a director of the Ohio Company of Associates. Due to his extensive legal background, the Confederation Congress appointed Varnum to a judgeship in the Northwest Territory. He arrived in Marietta in June 1788, and assisted Governor Arthur St. Clair in adopting laws for the Northwest Territory. The judges commonly disagreed with Governor St. Clair. Tensions between the judges and St. Clair dominated politics in the Northwest Territory in the late eighteenth century. Varnum died at Marietta on January 10, 1789, and he was buried at Campus Martius.