James Brown, Kentucky’s first Secretary of State, was born September 11, 1766, near Staunton, Virginia. He was the son of the Reverend John Brown and Margaret (Preston) Brown. His brother was the distinguished lawyer, John Brown, of Liberty Hall, Frankfort, Kentucky.
James Brown attended an academy in Lexington, Virginia, which later developed into Washington College (now Washington & Lee University). It is surmised by many historians that he also attended, and may have graduated from, William & Mary College. He later studied law and was admitted to the Bar. He moved to Kentucky, probably in the fall of 1786, and established his law practice. At various times he resided in or near Maysville, Danville, and Harrodsburg. He was a member of the prestigious Political Club, which existed from 1786 to 1790, in Danville. He settled in Lexington in 1789.
In 1791 Brown commanded a company of Lexington riflemen in an expedition against the Northwest Indians.
On June 5, 1792, with the consent of the Kentucky Senate, Governor Isaac Shelby appointed James Brown the first Secretary of State for the Commonwealth. He served until October 13, 1796.
By January 10, 1798, Brown had returned to Danville where he assumed his brother’s law practice while he (John) served in the United States Senate. On October 18, 1799, James Brown was named law professor at Transylvania University.
On October 1, 1804, he was appointed Secretary of the Louisiana Territory and subsequently became District Attorney. In 1806 he and Moreau Lislet were appointed a commission to prepare a civil code for the use of the Territory. Their work, “A Digest of the Civil Laws Now in Force in the Territory of Orleans with Alterations & Amendments Adapted to the Present System of Government”, published in 1808 in French & English, was eventually replaced by the Livingston Code. Brown was a member of the convention which framed the first constitution of Louisiana in 1812.
While in Louisiana, Brown was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democratic Republican to fill a vacancy; he served from February 5, 1813, to March 3, 1817. He was defeated for re-election, but upon the death of Senator Claiborne, Brown was elected, as an Adams-Clay Republican, to fill Claiborne's unexpired term, serving from December 6, 1819, to December 10, 1823. He resigned to accept President Monroe’s appointment as United States Minister to France. He served as Minister for the remainder of Monroe’s second term as President and through the term of President John Quincy Adams.
As Minister to France (1823-1829), Brown delivered the Monroe Doctrine to the French Government. He also delivered the letter to Marquis de Lafayette from President Monroe, informing him that by Congressional resolution he had been invited to visit the United States, and that a frigate would be sent to convey him on the trip. As General Lafayette was a French political prisoner at the time, the King of France demanded a hostage be held until the General returned. James Brown became the demanded security.
President Adams described Brown as “a man of large fortune, respectable talents, handsome person, polished manners, and elegant deportment.” Lewis Collins in his “History of Kentucky, Vol. II”, said Brown was “admired for his ability as a diplomatist, and beloved for his munificent hospitality.”
During his residency in Lexington, Kentucky, Brown married Ann “Nancy” Hart, a daughter of Col. Thomas Hart and a sister of Mrs. Henry Clay. The Browns had no children.
Brown died of apoplexy on April 7, 1835, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Biographical Encyclopedia of Kentucky of the Dead & Living Men of the Nineteenth Century,” published by J. M. Armstrong & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio (1878), pg 14;
Levin, ed., “Lawyers and Lawmakers of Kentucky,” (1897), pg 493;
“Browns of Liberty Hall,” pamphlet available at Liberty Hall, Frankfort, Ky.;
Johnson, ed., “Dictionary of American Biography,” pg 126;
Glenn, ed., “Early Frankfort, Kentucky, 1786-1861,” pg 102;
Collins, ed., “History of Kentucky,” 1882, pg 253.