McDowell was born at "Cherry Grove," near Rockbridge County, Virginia, on October 13, 1795. He attended a classical school at Greenville, Virginia, a private school at Brownsburg, Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), Lexington, Virginia, and Yale College He graduated from Princeton College in 1817 and studied law. He was admitted to the bar but did not practice. He was a member of the State house of delegates 1831–1835 and again in 1838. He was chosen as Governor of Virginia in 1843. He was elected as a Democrat to the Twenty-ninth Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of William Taylor. He was reelected to the Thirtieth and Thirty-first Congresses and served from March 6, 1846, to March 3, 1851. McDowell died on his estate "Col Alto" near Lexington, August 24, 1851. He was interred in Presbyterian Cemetery.
This article incorporates public domain material from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress website http://bioguide.congress.gov.