Virginia has been called a kingmaker when it comes to the highest office in the land: The commonwealth’s unusual position of holding statewide elections a year after the presidential election draws lots of interest from the national media. From Thomas Jefferson to Tim Kaine, our governors have made prominent names for themselves nationally. Dazzle your next dinner party with these bits of trivia on Virginia governors who have made headlines beyond the commonwealth’s borders
Virginia’s first governor, Sir Walter Raleigh, ruled from 1585 to 1590 and never actually saw our land. He was an absentee governor who financed several attempts at colonizing the New World — one of them was the famed “Lost Colony.” He had better luck suppressing Irish rebellions at home. That is, until he was beheaded for treason.
In more modern times — 1776 — the first official governor was Patrick Henry, 1776–1779. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the Founding Father whose exclamation, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” fired up the Second Virginia Convention and propelled Virginia into the Revolutionary War. Fellow Virginian George Washington was on hand to hear those famous words.
You know who else was there? Virginia’s second governor, Thomas Jefferson (1779–1781). After leaving the office, he served as minister to France before becoming President George Washington’s secretary of state. If you’ve seen Hamilton, you know how much grief the other Founding Fathers gave him for missing the Revolutionary War.
Edmund Randolph’s (1786–1788) claim to fame involves another character from Hamilton. (There’s a lot of Virginia in that show.) After leaving office, Randolph returned to practicing law and ended up as lead counsel in the trial of Aaron Burr — not for shooting Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel, but for treason.
Three other Randolphs served as governor: Beverley Randolph (1788–1791), the first to be elected after the Constitution was ratified; Peyton Randolph (1811–1812), technically acting governor (he served all of nine days); and Thomas Mann Randolph (1819–1822), Thomas Jefferson’s son-in-law.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s father, Henry “Light Horse-Harry” Lee III, served as the state’s ninth governor, from 1791 to 1794, representing the Federalist Party. At George Washington’s 1799 funeral, Lee described the deceased president as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
It’s remarkable how little the 50th governor, Harry Flood Byrd (D, 1926–1930) is remembered these days. What is remembered is his opposition to any form of desegregation (he called for “massive resistance”), his obstructions to voting (poll taxes, literacy tests), and his defunding of educational programs and closing public schools.
Sixty years after Byrd’s racist reign, Richmond native L. Douglas Wilder (D, 1990–1994) became the first Black governor of not just the commonwealth, but of any U.S. state. After Gov. Glenn Youngkin won in 2021, Wilder was the only Democrat on his transition team.
Two former governors are sitting U.S. senators: Mark Warner (D, 2002–2006) and Tim Kaine (D, 2006–2010). You might remember that Kaine also came close to becoming vice president in the 2016 election, when he was on Hillary Clinton’s presidential ticket.
Robert McDonnell (R, 2010–2014) almost left the Executive Mansion for the big house after he and his wife, Maureen, were convicted on federal corruption charges for accepting gifts from a donor. Despite the conviction and two-year sentence being vacated by higher courts, he is Virginia’s first and only (so far) governor to be indicted during office.
Terry McAuliffe (D, 2014–2018) has served as the chair of the Democratic National Committee and has had a longstanding personal and fundraising relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton. He ran for a second term in 2021 but lost to Youngkin.