Joseph Henry Lumpkin

Joseph Henry LumpkinThe great judicial family of Georgia is the austere but appropriate distinction which belongs to the Lumpkins and the tribunal of justice with which this noted Georgia household is most indissolubly associated is the Supreme Court of the State. Not less than three members of the family have worn the ermine of this lofty seat. The great Chief Justice Joseph Henry Lumpkin was called to the bench when the court was first organized in 1846, and almost without interruption until his death in 1867 Judge Lumpkin was the central figure of the judiciary system of Georgia. In 1890 his grandnephew, Samuel Lumpkin, became an associate justice and held the office by successive legislative elections until his death, some twelve years later; while similar honors have now clothed his distinguished grandson, the present incumbent, who inherits not only the name but also much of the genius of his illustrious forbear.

But the Supreme Court of the State of the State has not monopolized the achievements of the Lumpkin family. the famous Wilson Lumpkin who was a nester of the whole clan was twice Governor, several time Congressman and once United States Senator. John Henry Lumpkin, who was judge of the Cherokee circuit, also attained congressional honors, and was the most popular candidate for Governor before the Democratic convention of 1857, which, becoming deadlocked, eventually nominated the compromise candidate, Joseph E. Brown. John Henry Lumpkin was a nephew of the Chief Justice, and also of the Governor. Colonel E. K. Lumpkin, of Athens, is one of the ablest lawyers in the State. He won an immense reputation during the first decade of his practice by forcing the Southern Mutual Insurance Company to distribute an accumulated surplus of one million dollars. Across the Savannah River W. W. Lumpkin, of South Carolina, is illustrating the family name in the Palmetto State, and the political seers have already assigned him in prophecy the senatorial toga. The late Porter King, of Atlanta, who served the city as mayor and who took high rank at the Georgia bar, was a grandson of Chief Justice Joseph Henry Lumpkin.

Soon after the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, in 1783, the household goods of the Lumpkin family were transferred from Pittsylvania county, in Virginia, to Wilkes county, in Georgia, the immigrants locating in that part of the county which was subsequently made into Oglethorpe. The party of settlers included George Lumpkin, who must have been well past middle life, and his son, John Lumpkin, the father of Wilson and Joseph Henry Lumpkin. But the early records justify the assumption that there must have been several other Lumpkins among the number. For example, Joseph Lumpkin, for whom the Chief Justice was probably named, as well as for his maternal uncle, Colonel Joseph Hopson, appears on the frontier soon after the Revolution in the role of a pedagogue; and this country schoolmaster must have been George Lumpkin's brother.

Since the pioneer Toombs came to Georgia about the same time and settled in the same portion of the State, the idea presents itself that possibly some member of the Lumpkin family was also among the distinguished soldiers of the Virginia line whose services to the revolutionary cause in Georgia were recompensed with handsome land-grants. This conjecture is supported by the early commonwealth records which show that along with Robert Toombs in the list of war veterans who received large bounty-warrants from Georgia at the close of the Revolution was William Lumpkin. It is well known that Major Toombs received three thousand acres of rich Georgia uplands, and this military scion of the house of Lumpkin may have been equally as fortunate.

The family which had now come to Georgia was of English extraction, and the Lumpkins for generations back had been identified with the colony which Captain John Smith had planted upon the James River and named in honor of the virgin queen. An examination of the primitive files will no doubt disclose the fact that the Lumpkins in Virginia were stout cavalier planters whose fidelity to the king ever stopped sort of oppression, but it was reserved for Georgia to elevate the escutcheon and to render an already honored name still more illustrious. And so to Georgia the Lumpkins moved after the struggle for independence.

Wilson Lumpkin was an infant in arms when his father crossed the State lines, having been born at the old Lumpkin homestead in Virginia on January 14, 1783. It was an unsettled wilderness in which the stroke of the pioneer's axe now began to ring; and the Creeks and the Cherokees were near enough at hand to suggest the wisdom of keeping the rifle in easy reach. But in spite of the perils which usually infest the Indian frontier, the future Governor of the State managed to retain his scalp unmolested; and judging from the duties which he was subsequently commissioned by the Federal government to perform in connection with the red men, it was not unlikely that his acquaintance with the tribes was born of adventurous enterprises which often led him to penetrate into the forbidden arcanum.

The educational advantages of the frontier are none too liberal at best, and just after the Revolution even the old-field school was wanting in the wilds of upper Georgia. But Joseph Lumpkin was not content to inhabit a region which was destitute of the rays of knowledge, and without waiting for some foreigner to light the torch he became himself a dispenser of the rudiments; and among his pupils was Wilson Lumpkin. Later on the young student enjoyed the benefit of special instruction under some one who taught him surveying, and he became in time an accomplished master of the rod and chain, like his distinguished fellow countryman of Mount Vernon.

But except for such elementary instruction as he received in the immediate neighborhood the tutors of the future Governor were mainly the solitudes of the forest; but the effects of an outdoor course of instruction in the bush-arbor university of the backwoods have often proved most salutary not only in laying broad and deep the foundations of robust health, but also in rooting firmly the principals of stalwart and sturdy character. Nor is it seldom the case that the inspirations which overtake the youthful toiler upon the verdant hillsides are only the prophetic messengers whose office it is to anoint the obscure guardians of the sheepfold for the royal honors of the kingdom.

The nearest grammar school, which was twenty miles distant, might as well have been in one of the horns of the moon for the modicum of light which it dispensed to Wilson Lumpkin; and having exhausted by the time he was sixteen all the resources of knowledge which the immediate settlement afforded, he entered his father's office at Lexington. The elder Lumpkin, besides tilling his acres, had become clerk of the superior court of the new county of Oglethorpe, and the documents which he kept on file were the elementary text-books which prepared the young disciple of Blackstone for admission to the bar. The atmosphere of the court-house, the forensic tilts between the great lawyers and the political news which the circuit-riders brought from all parts of the district, furnished the intellectual pabulum on which his genius rapidly strengthened and developed.

But, without loitering too long in the biographical nooks, it suffices to say that the career of distinguished usefulness which Wilson Lumpkin now commenced was surpassed by few of his contemporaries. He celebrated his majority by taking his seat in the State Legislature, and from 1805 to 1815 he was repeatedly returned to the legislative council halls. It was during his first term of service that the seat of government was transferred from Louisville to Milledgeville. In 1815 he was elected to Congress, but when his commission expired he returned home and resumed his professional activities.

However, he had too well proven his abilities for serving the public to escape further political honors and obligations. In 1823 he was chosen by President Monroe to define the boundary line between Georgia and Florida: while in 1835 he was appointed by President Jackson commissioner under the last treaty made with the Cherokees; both of which compliments from the executive chair of the nation attested the proficiency with which he had plied his incidental pursuit of civil engineering.

Between the dates above mentioned Wilson Lumpkin had twice resumed his seat in Congress, and had twice been honored with the chief executive chair of the State. He had again taken his seat in Congress in 1827 and had been reelected in 1829. Much against his inclinations he had been drafted into the race for Governor in 1831, on the Clarke ticket; and having been successful, he had made another winning fight in 1833. Soon after resigning the executive reins Governor Lumpkin was elected in 1837 to succeed John P. King in the United States Senate; but he did not care to succeed himself when his term of office expired.

Unlike most of the public men of the day, he seems to have assumed political responsibilities less from the dictates of ambition than from the convictions of duty; but he accepted no official trust at the hands of the people of Georgia without giving it the utmost fidelity of which he was capable.

Mention has already been made of the fact that Governor Lumpkin was an accomplished surveyor. Sometime during the twenties he was commissioned to survey a route for a canal connecting the Tennessee and the Chattahoochee rivers. After completing this survey he reported adversely upon the proposed waterway, but strongly advocated along the identical route now covered by the Western and Atlantic Railway. This was in the skeptical days when the iron horse was superstitiously invested with all the concealed terrors of the Trojan prototype, and it shows the far-sightedness of Governor Lumpkin. On account of his subsequent interest in the building of the line between Atlanta and Chattanooga the future metropolis of the State, which was first called Terminus, was afterwards christened Marthasville, in honor of his daughter, Martha Lumpkin.

On retiring from public life in 1841, Governor Lumpkin took up his abode near Athens, where his brother, Chief Justice Lumpkin, already lived; and, resigning himself largely to agricultural pursuits, he remained in dignified retirement upon his farm until the end came in 1870, when he was not far from his ninetieth mile-post. He had been as far above the average of his countrymen in the allotment of years as upon the score of his honors; for his cradle had been literally rocked among the reverberations of Yorktown, while his grave had not been dug on the slopes of Georgia until his bleared eyes had witnessed the last of reconstruction and he could at length depart like Simeon, having witnessed the consolation of Israel.

Governor Lumpkin, like his younger brother, was an exceedingly handsome man, especially in his old age, when his long white locks fell pendant from his massive head in snowy ringlets. He must have possessed and iron constitution reenforced by the most rigid observance of the Levitical code to have compassed the patriarchal age, if not indeed the equivalent burdens, of the renowned Mr. Gladstone. He was an ardent believer in State rights and, feeling that the election of Mr. Lincoln imperiled the constitutional liberties of the South within the Union, the last formal message which the old man ever sent from his hermitage on the banks of the Oconee sounded an unequivocal note for secession.

Joseph Henry Lumpkin -- clarum et venerable nomen -- was an undisputed judicial potentate in Georgia. He literally made the supreme bench his imperial throne. But this distinction implies none of the arrogance of the despot. Without arbitrary or autocratic leanings his original force of genius and his long tenure of service united to give him preeminent rank among the occupants of the bench.

From time to time distinguished jurists, like Eugenius A. Nisbet and Hiram Warner, were associated with him in presiding over the scales of justice; but, while the personnel of the court was constantly changing, Judge Lumpkin retained his seat uninterruptedly from 1846 to 1867, covering what in the life of an individual embraces the while period of adolescence. He may therefore be said to have reared the Supreme Court of Georgia from cradledom to manhood, resigning the solemn responsibility only when the infant had become and adult who no longer required parental guardianship.

But the figure of the imposing sovereign is somewhat more suggestive. It embodies the molding process as well as the governing principle. Moreover, it sketches Judge Lumpkin as he actually appeared upon the bench. Broad-shouldered, full-statured, ample-browed, he was in every respect magnificently formed and featured. Indeed, it is said that in his prime there was no handsomer man in Georgia than Joseph Henry Lumpkin. He wore his hair long; and his wavy locks enhanced his impressive demeanor without suggesting even remotely the artificial wig of the Lord Chancellor. He was more like the royal Charles if resemblance may be restricted to mere externals; for he pictured the very definition of majesty.

Substituting plain English for metaphorical language Judge Lumpkin largely fashioned the Supreme tribunal of Georgia. He received valuable assistance from his associates, who joined him from time to time, but he was himself the master architect in unbroken commission, who laid the beams and fastened the joints and lifted the columns, giving it outline and symmetry and strength. The part which Judge Lumpkin took in in rearing the judicial edifice was fundamental; and, while other judges of the Supreme Court may be quoted more widely in the literature of the profession, it nevertheless remains that of all the jurists who have presided over the deliberations of this august court Judge Lumpkin is the only one whose undisputed preeminence has caused him to be christened by universal consent: "The Great Chief Justice."

What John Marshall was to the judiciary of the Union Joseph Henry Lumpkin was to the judiciary of the State: the presiding oracle of the Constitution. He expounded the organic law of the commonwealth and fixed the standards of interpretation. Judge Bleckley estimates roughly that he rendered some two thousand decisions, touching almost every vexed problem of the law. The first decision of the first volume of Georgia Reports and the last decision of the thirty-first volume are from the pen of Judge Lumpkin. Such an unbroken file of opinions can hardly be duplicated in the judicial archives of any State in the Union; and when the far-reaching effect of the issues adjudicated is taken into account, the emotional outbursts, the imaginative touches, the rhetorical efflorescences, it may be solemnly asserted that no richer caravan ever bore the spices of the Orient.

But the essential charm which characterized Judge Lumpkin upon the bench is not to be found upon the printed pages. There are individualisms and peculiarities which refuse to wed the devices of rhetoric and which altogether reject the friendly offices of printer's ink. Among the varied accomplishments of Judge Lumpkin which were not transferable were first of all his unsurpassed powers of oratory. He possessed the compete outfit of the orator. He presence was both imperious and magnetic. His musical voice could sound almost any note in the harmonic scale. His knowledge of the human heart was almost Shakespearean. Before he was elevated to bench he is said to have surpassed even Judge Colquitt in causing jurors under the excitement of the moment to give audible responses to his dramatic appeals. He seldom made use of trivial jokes or trite illustrations. He captivated his hearers by what may be termed the mesmerism of pure eloquence.

Under the code of procedure which the Supreme Court of Georgia to-day observes no provision is made for the exercise of this gift; but during the days of Judge Lumpkin the court was peripatetic, and wherever the judges held proceedings the judicial chambers were thronged with spectators eager to hear the decisions which were orally rendered. The scene of the crowded court-room was well calculated to awaken the orator within the judge, especially if some vital principle of justice needed to be impressed upon the masses.

Unfortunately, the decisions of Judge Lumpkin recorded in the Supreme Court Reports convey no adequate impression even of his rich literary gifts; for written in tranquil after-moments when the glow of enthusiasm was gone he lacked the inspiration which commanded his best efforts. It was never the policy of Judge Lumpkin to write out his decisions in advance of delivery, but to fix thoroughly in his mind the principle which he wished to elucidate and then wait for the contact of occasion to supply words. And he never waited in vain. It seldom happened that the subject was too intricate or technical to admit of eloquent treatment, but whenever the circumstances were peculiarly favorable the genius of the orator in ermine fairly soared. The spectators frequently sat spell-bound. It was not unusual for applause to punctuate the opinion. But sometimes the effect was too profound for such an expression and it seemed as if the spokesman on the bench was actually an inspired prophet unfolding divine law.

Not was this disposition on the part of Judge Lumpkin to be oratorical on the bench allied either, on the one hand, to the vanity which loves to display an accomplishment or, on the other hand, to the demagoguery which delights in plaudits. If there ever lived a man whose blameless life was spent upon the mountain-tops and whose character was as free from the cavils of suspicion as it was rich in the embellishments of piety it was Joseph Henry Lumpkin. He was simply an orator of the old Athenian brood; and even when he woke the deepest thrill he was only sounding the infant prattle of his mother mother-tongue.

Born near Lexington, in Oglethorpe county, Georgia, on December 23, 1799, Joseph Henry Lumpkin after receiving his elementary instruction in the common schools near by, matriculated first at Athens and then at Princeton; and graduating with honor from what was then known as the College of New Jersey, he began to prepare at once for the bar under Judge Thos. W. Cobb at Lexington. Even from the start the bent of his mind was distinctly legal, but it was hardly less literary. He was passionately fond of the classics. This characteristic not only lettered itself in his chaste and elegant diction, but later on in life when broken in health he sought rest and diversion on the European continent he found his greatest satisfaction not in reveling among the monuments of Roman law, but in paying homage at the tomb of Virgil.

Some curiosity may be entertained to know why Joseph Henry Lumpkin received such marked educational advantages while his brother Wilson Lumpkin fared much more frugally in the halls of learning. The explanation is not supplied by positive information, but may be derived from conjecture. The days which followed the removal of the Lumpkin family from Virginia to Georgia were, strictly speaking, pioneer days. Acres may have been plentiful, be shekels were no doubt scarce. Moreover there was no higher educational institution in Georgia. Franklin College was not then in existence. Besides, Wilson may have been needed at home. But sixteen years can measure immense strides, not only in the life of a colony which has just commenced to taste the sweets of freedom, but also in the life of a household whose regnant virtues are industry and thrift. Joseph Henry Lumpkin was born sixteen years later than Wilson. During this time the wilderness around Lexington had no doubt been subdued. Franklin College had sprung up some eighteen miles distant. Money was more plentiful, and when Joseph Henry Lumpkin had shown his aptitude for text-books at Athens the family resources were abundantly sufficient for sending him to Princeton.

Admitted to the bar in 1820, he was soon afterwards twice chosen to represent Oglethorpe county in the State Legislature; but in spite of his pronounced oratorical equipment his inclinations impelled him more decidedly toward law than toward politics. It speaks in unequivocal terms of his prestige at the bar that he was chosen in 1833 one of the three commissioners appointed to frame the Penal Code of Georgia. Even at this early period he had no superior before the courts as an advocate; and he continued to advance in his profession, multiplying his revenues and his honors alike until ill health overtook him in 1844 and necessitated temporary retirement, which he occupied in part with foreign travel.

Returning home in 1845, completely restored to health, he was about to resume the practice when the Legislature of Georgia, having provided for the organization of the Supreme Court by formal enactment, elected him to sit upon this august bench with Hiram Warner and Eugenius A. Nisbet. Accepting the tendered judicial office he began the illustrious career of service which ended only with his death some twenty-one years later. He rendered his first decision at Cassville, Georgia, in March, 1846, and his last decision at Milledgeville, Georgia, in December, 1866. The chief justiceship was not created in the original Act; and the three judges elected were all of equal rank and designated simply as judges. Judge Nisbet and Judge Warner soon retired; but Judge Warner eventually returned. In the course of time the distinction of rank was created; but Judge Lumpkin had become the chief justice by right of preeminence long before he was officially declared to be the chief justice by right of election.

Having accepted this great judicial responsibility as his life's work, Judge Lumpkin allowed nothing to swerve him from his official obligation. Twice he was sorely tempted. In 1846 he was elected to the chair of oratory and rhetoric in the University of Georgia, and in 1860 he was elected to the chancellorship. He was devoted to the State University. He had taken up his residence in Athens. He was wedded to the republic of letters. But he refused to relinquish the scales of justice. In 1855 the President of the United States tendered him a seat on the Federal bench; but it cost him less to decline this high offer than to refuse his alma matter.

Nevertheless, when the University of Georgia opened the Lumpkin Law School he became one of the lecturers and helped to lay the foundations of what has since become one of the most flourishing departments of the institution. In this connection it is also of interest to state that the Phi Kappa Society was organized by Judge Lumpkin in 1820 to challenge the Demosthenean in stimulating the spirit of rivalry and the passion for debate among the students. Too heavily taxed by his judicial responsibilities to enjoy the measure of years which his constitution had promised under normal conditions, Judge Lumpkin gave way at last under the burden of overwork and died at his home in Athens on June 4, 1867; but he could now afford to rest since he had successfully launched the Supreme Court of Georgia upon the judicial seas.

Judge Lumpkin was an ardent friend of temperance, and while he permitted others to wrestle for political victories upon the hustings he unfurled the banner of this humane reform. He was also deeply devout; and was a Presbyterian while his brother was a Baptist. Joseph Henry Lumpkin and Wilson Lumpkin were both great friends of the State University and both members of the board of trustees for many years; but they are no less mated in the affections of the whole people of Georgia.

Judge Iverson L. Harris, in the thirtieth volume of the Georgia Reports, has preserved an outline sketch of Judge Lumpkin. "The contour of the face," says he, "was highly intellectual; the forehead high, broad and fully exposed. He had dark-gray eyes, restless and constantly varying in expression, and quivering lips. His voice was clear and melodious -- a rich baritone -- obedient to his will and modulated with consummate art. This control was no doubt owing very much to the distinctiveness of his articulation. He used little gesture but it was graceful and expressive. Add to all this his large encyclopedic knowledge and some estimate can be made of the resources from which his oratory was supplied. His tropes were the corruscations of the glowing axle in rapid motion. His illustrations were drawn from the bright and golden thoughts of Shakespeare and Milton, from the sacred poetry of Job and David, from the prophetic inspirations of Ezekiel and Isaiah, and from the wisdom of Solomon. It required a person of his precise mental constitution, unaffected piety and cultivated taste to employ this high poetic thought without irreverence; but this was done with such marvelous skill that even hypercriticism could not venture to condemn."

The estimate of Judge Lumpkin on the judicial side has been pronounced by Judge Bleckley, who says that "he discovered, organized and developed those germs of the law which have inherent vitality and which require no artificial aid to enable them to live. He devoted himself to the labor of stripping off whatever might conceal the core of justice. He was by nature a reformer. No man had more veneration; but he refused to squander it on antiquated trifles. In the spoken word he surpassed any other Georgian living or dead I have ever known; and he so blended gentleness with justice that, since he has joined the immortals, he may be idealized as our judicial bishop enthroned in Georgia skies."

Judge O. A. Lochrane at the State University in 1879 wove into his address before the literary societies and eloquent tribute to Judge Lumpkin with which this sketch may be fittingly closed. Said the brilliant ex-chief justice: "Judge Lumpkin was in all his affections as fragrant as young flowers. Words of sunny kindness were always ripe for utterance upon his lips. His sympathies were as warm as the loves of the angles. His addresses were thick to the very top with roses, but the solidity of the mountain was found underneath. In his powers of oratory he had few equals; for he lifted himself to a throne of light and grandeur from which he scattered words sweeter than the Arabian myrrh. My memory to-day fills with the light his first words flashed upon my pathway of life; and if there was but one flower upon the earth I would gather it to lay upon his grave."

Reminiscences of Famous Georgians
Embracing Episodes and Incidents in the Lives
of the Great Men of the State
Vol. I
by Lucian Lamar Knight, M. A.
Atlanta, Georgia
Franklin-Turner Company

For more information on Judge Lumpkin please visit the Digital Library of Georgia.

Contributed by Jeanne Arguelles