James Mitchel Varnum was born on December 17, 1748 in Dracutt Massachusetts, one of twelve children of Samuel Varnum, a longstanding farmer and town clerk of Dracutt. At the age of sixteen, Varnum entered Harvard University, but for unknown reasons withdrew two years before graduation. After teaching school in Dracutt for a year, he enrolled at Rhode Island College (now Brown University) on May 23, 1768. In 1769, at the age of twenty, Varnum graduated from college with honors. While in college he had fallen in love with Martha Child, from Warren, Rhode Island, whom he married on February 2, 1770.
At the age of twenty-two (1771), he was admitted to the bar and moved to East Greenwich, Rhode Island with his wife. He then proceeded to build an extensive legal practice throughout the colony.
A good deal of information concerning Varnum can be found in Wilkins Updyke’s memoirs of the Rhode Island Bar. Updyke describes Varnum as “an intense student, [who] would be secluded for weeks at a time. His habits were those of intense study and boisterous relaxation. He was master of his cases, and all the facts were well arranged and digested for trial.” At the time James Varnum practiced law it was the fashion to dress for the most impressive appearance possible. The following court scene was described by W. Updyke:
General Varnum appeared with his brich-colored coat trimmed with gold lace, buck skin and small clothes, with gold lace knee bands, silk stockings and boots with a high delicate and white forehead, with a cowlick on the right side; eyes prominent and of a dark hue. His complexion was rather florid – somewhat corpulent, well proportioned and finely formed for strength and agility, large eyebrows, nose straight and rather broad, teeth perfectly white, and a profuse head of hair, short on the forehead, turned up some and deeply powdered and clubbed. When he took off his cocked hat he would lightly brush up his hair forward; while with a fascinating smile lighting up his countenance he took his seat in court opposite his opponent. No one thought himself in a trial without him.
Varnum additionally took an active interest in military affairs, since he felt a conflict with Great Britain was inevitable. He studied the art and science of war with the same enthusiasm and grim determination characteristic of his law practice. In October 1774, at the age of twenty-six, he became a charter member and commander of the Kentish Guards, and infantry militia company residing in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. While serving in this unit he became good friends with Nathaniel Greene, who later became a Major General in the Continental Army.
Varnum assembled the Kentish Guards when news of the battles of Lexington and Concord reached East Greenwich, and within several hours the armed men started their march to Boston. A rider intercepted the company at Pawtuchet, Rhode Island with news that the British had returned to Boston, so the Guards returned home. In May 1775, the General Assembly commissioned Varnum Colonel of the 1st Regiment of Rhode Island. In 1776 the regiment was incorporated into the Continental Army as the 9th Continental Foot under the command of Brigadier General Greene. From June 1775 to March 1779, Varnum and his Rhode Islanders participated in six major engagements including the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of Rhode Island.
In the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, Varnum, corresponding with his home state and Congress, attempted to procure provisions for his troops. His administrative skills caused Washington to refer to Varnum as “the light of the camp”. In June, Varnum left his troops to return home to Rhode Island for special duties. Varnum suggested to Washington that Rhode Island raise a battalion of negro troops. After General Washington sent the proposal to the governor of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island General Assembly promptly passed legislation authorizing the enlistment of negroes and Indians. In March 1779, at the age of thirty-one, Varnum resigned his commission to take a commission as Major General of the Rhode Island militia which fought in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1779.
Upon returning home to East Greenwich after the war, Varnum was elected to the Continental Congress in 1780, 1782, and 1786. His name appears frequently in the Congressional Journals indicating his great influence. Despite interest in politics, Varnum’s skills as a brilliant attorney were not neglected and continued to grow as he resumed his practice. At the age of thirty nine, Varnum was appointed Judge in the newly opened Ohio Territory. He died in Ohio on January 10, 1789 at the age of forty of tuberculosis.