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J. D. B. De Bow engraved by William G. Jackman
J. D. B. De Bow engraved by William G. Jackman

James Dunwoody Brownson De Bow (July 20, 1820 – February 27, 1867) was an American publisher and statistician, best known for his influential magazine De Bow's Review, who also served as superindendant of the U.S. Census from 1853 to 1855.[1] He always spelled "De Bow" as two words.


J.D.B. De Bow was born on July 20, 1820 in Charleston, South Carolina, the second son of Mary Bridget Norton and Garret De Bow. James' father, Garret, was born in New York City, New York about 1775 to a Dutch-Huguenot father who immigrated to the United States at an unknown date. His mother, Mary Bridget, was born into an elite planter family from South Carolina. Her grandfather was Capt. John Norton, an early settler on the Carolina Coast. Her father, William, was a Revolutionary Soldier.

A resident of New Orleans, De Bow used his magazine to advocate the expansion of Southern agriculture and commerce so that the Southern economy could become independent of the North. He warned constantly of the South's "colonial" relationship with the North, one in which the South was at a distinct disadvantage.

De Bow became nationally known for an editorial he penned about the status of the territory obtained from the Mexican Cession of 1848. He claimed that the federal Union could collapse once the North's number of representatives exceeded those of the Southern states in the United States House of Representatives. Moreover, one additional free state at the time would have tipped the balance in the United States Senate to the North, which had the large majority of the population.

De Bow hence proposed a legislative compromise to guarantee Southern rights in a Northern-majority Union. U.S. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky took up the cause and cemented together a five-part Compromise of 1850, which permitted the admission of California into the Union as a free state. However, Southerners were given a concession: a stronger Fugitive Slave Law, contrary to the Constitution. De Bow later opposed the fugitive slave measure on the grounds that runaway slaves could likely gain freedom in the North from sympathetic anti-slavery juries for reasons including that slavery was unconstitutional and/or that no laws authorized slavery (cf. jury nullification).[2]

On January 2, 1861, De Bow joined fellow Fire-Eater Lieutenant Governor H. M. Hyams at the Orleans Theatre in urging immediate Southern secession from the Union. Some of the speeches were delivered in French because of the Creole members of the audience. Voters went to the polls five days later to choose delegates to a state convention to consider secession. The secessionists prevailed by an eight-to-five margin. Two days after that election, Louisiana proceeded to seize the federal arsenal at Baton Rouge.[3]

Among authors who contributed to De Bow's Review was the Southern surgeon and medical writer Samuel A. Cartwright, who was an authority on the establishment of sanitary conditions and also an advocate of the pro-slavery argument.

In 1866, he became the first president of the proposed Tennessee and Pacific Railroad, a business venture that he would not live to see fulfilled. Less than a year later, De Bow died of peritonitis, which he contracted on a trip to visit his brother in New Jersey.


  1. ^ United States Census Bureau: Directors, 1840-1865
  2. ^ Johanna Nicol Shields and Eric H. Walther. The Fire-Eaters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
  3. ^ John D. Winters, The Civil War in Louisiana, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963, ISBN 0-8071-0834-0, p. 9

Further reading

Preceded by
Joseph Camp Griffith Kennedy
Superintending Clerk of the United States Census
Succeeded by
Joseph Camp Griffith Kennedy