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Richard Coke (1829-1897)

Associate Justice, Texas Supreme Court, 1866-1867

Born to a prominent family in Williamsburg, Virginia, in March 1829, Richard Coke was one of eight sons. One of his brothers died in childhood, but Richard and his six remaining brothers all received good educations and became either doctors or lawyers. Richard Coke entered William and Mary College in 1843 at the age of fifteen, studying law. Following his graduation in 1848, he visited his uncle and namesake, Richard Coke, a former U.S. Congressman, in Washington, DC. There he was introduced to Senator Sam Houston of Texas, who encouraged him to go to Texas and gave him a letter of introduction to former Texas Gov. Henderson.

The twenty-one-year-old Richard Coke arrived in Texas in 1850. At Henderson 's suggestion, he settled in Waco, the county seat of McClennan County. He was admitted to the bar in 1851 and set up a law practice specializing mostly in land title disputes, though he also practiced some criminal law. Soon he took M.D. Herring and James Anderson as law partners. In 1852 Coke married, and he and his fifteen-year-old bride built a home and started a cotton plantation along the Brazos River. By 1860 the couple had some 2,700 acres of land in McClennan County. They raised cotton and pigs, with fifteen slaves providing the labor.

In 1859 Gov. Runnels appointed Coke to the Texas Peace Commission, a group charged with finding a peaceful solution to increasingly violent conflicts between white settlers and Indians in reservations on the Texas frontier. The commission's recommendation resulted in the removal of nearly 1,500 Indians from Texas "for their own protection." It was a move that pleased the settlers greatly.

In January 1861 Coke was elected as a delegate to the Texas Secession Convention, representing McClennan and Bosque Counties. Chief among the delegates' concerns was the protection of the institution of slavery. They issued complaints that northern states were providing safe havens to runaway slaves, and that the federal government was failing to protect Texans from marauding Indians and Mexicans, all as part of a scheme to force the ruin of Texas due to its status as a slave state. Finally, they called for the repeal of annexation and the removal of Texas from the Union.

When the Civil War broke out, Coke volunteered in the Confederate Army, formed a company of infantry soldiers, and served as its captain. He was wounded in action in late 1863 but eventually returned to service until war's end. When Coke was discharged from the Confederate Army in May 1865 he returned to his family and his law practice in Waco. On June 19, 1865, the date known as Juneteenth, he freed his slaves as prescribed by law.

On September 1, 1865 Coke was appointed district judge of the Nineteenth Judicial District by Provisional Governor A. J. Hamilton. In August 1866 he was elected to the Texas Supreme Court. He served until being ousted along with Governor Throckmorton, all the supreme court justices, and other high-ranking public officials when Texas came under military command under the Reconstruction Acts in July 1867. By November, authority had been restored to the State, but none of the previous officials were reinstated. Coke returned to private practice until he ran for governor as a Democrat against Republican Gov. E.J. Davis in 1873.

The Coke/Davis election was one of the most notorious political contests in Texas history. The election was held on December 2, 1873. Coke won by a wide margin. Davis, whose governorship had been marked by his abuse of power, subsequently enlisted the help of Texas Supreme Court Justices Wesley Ogden, Moses B. Walker, and J.D. McAdoo, all of whom he had appointed, in an attempt to maintain control of the position. They became known as the "Semicolon Court" when they focused their attention on the meaning of the semicolon in Article 3, Section 6 of the state's constitution to declare the election invalid. Coke sought the aid of the Democrat-controlled legislature. The crisis reached its apex when both men arrived at the Capitol with armed men to claim the governorship. While Gov. Davis' troops patrolled the first floor, where the governor's office was located, the Democrats sneaked onto the second floor, locking the doors. The votes were recounted by a joint session of the legislature, Coke was declared the winner, and was sworn in as governor on January 13, 1874.

As governor, Coke turned his attention to education and tax reform, established a funding system for schools, and opened Texas A&M University. Frontier security was also a major concern. He sent forces to the border to protect Texans from marauding Mexican bandits, and he also enlisted federal help with Indian problems and organized troops in areas where Indian raids were frequent. He was reelected governor in February 1876, but was elected by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate later that year. He served eighteen years in the U.S. Senate before retiring due to ill health in 1894. He returned to Waco, where he died at his home on May 14, 1897. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Waco.

Notable opinions

O'Connell v. Duke, 29 Texas reports 299 (Tex. 1867) (affirming judgment for plaintiff in land conveyance dispute, following equitable doctrine that unexpected excessive surplus remains with grantor in lease by acre).

Cleveland v. Williams, 29 Texas reports 204 (Tex. 1867) (ruling sale of corn invalid since goods not "clearly identified" or measured separately before death of conveyor, and thus subsequent measurement and delivery by agent was unauthorized).

Stroud v. Springfield, 28 Texas reports 649 (Tex. 1866) (affirming judgment for defendant in trespass action, documents showing location of land properly rejected for not fitting ancient writings exception to hearsay since genuine nature was questionable due to lack of corroborating circumstantial evidence. Plaintiff's witness testimony also properly excluded for discussing reputation of boundary in community without limiting to a particular time. Defendant's patent evidence was properly admitted. Refusal to instruct jury that defendant's held the burden of proof was also without error. Finally, though noting that the jury found against the weight of the evidence, rejected claim of insufficient evidence since jury are exclusive judges of credibility).

Sources

Rosser Coke Newton and Mary Ann Casey. Texas Governor Richard Coke (Unpublished manuscript, 1992?).

Payne, John W., Jr. Coke, Richard, Handbook of Texas Online (last updated June 6, 2001). http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/CC/fco15.html

Extended bibliography

Baker, DeWitt Clinton. A Texas Scrap Book Made up of the History, Biography and Miscellany of Texas and Its People 297 (Austin, Texas: The Steck Co., 1935).

Biographical Encyclopedia of Texas 17 (New York, New York: Southern Publishing Co., 1880).

Biographical Souvenir of the State of Texas 186 (Chicago, Illinois: F. A. Battey & Co., 1889).

Daniell, Lewis E. Personnel of the Texas State Government (San Antonio, Texas: Maverick Printing House, 1889).

Daniell, Lewis E. Texas, the Country and Its Men 105 (Austin?, Texas: 1924?).

Davenport , Jewette Harbert. The History of the Supreme Court of the State of Texas 82 (Austin, Texas: Southern Law Book Publishers, 1917).

DeShields, James T. They Sat in High Place 285 (San Antonio, Texas: The Naylor Co., 1940).

Johnson, Francis White. 2 A History of Texas and Texans 1086 (Chicago, Illinois & New York, New York: The American Historical Society, 1914).

Johnson, Sidney Smith. Texans Who Wore the Gray 82 (Tyler?, Texas: 1907).

Kittrell, Norman Goree. Governors Who Have Been and Other Public Men of Texas 55 (Houston, Texas: Dealy-Adey-Elgin Co., 1921).

Lynch, James Daniel. The Bench and Bar of Texas 285 (St. Louis, Missouri: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1885).

Shuffler, R. Henderson. Son, Remember (Texas A&M Press, 1951? 52?).

Speer, Ocie. Texas Jurists 42 (Austin, Texas: the author, 1936).

Fett, B. J. Early Life of Richard Coke, 10(4) Texana (1972).

Radicals Ousted: Coke's Victory Ends Reconstruction Days, Texas Good Roads Assn. Newsletter (Dec. 1970).

Additional information available in Southwestern Historical Quarterly as follow:
Volume 2, page 17
Volume 5, page 134
Volume 11, page 56, 281
Volume 14, page 88
Volume 27, page 153
Volume 29, page 118
Volume 44, page 49
Volume 45, page 2
Volume 47, page 14
Volume 48, page 224, 357n, 449, 456, 457, 466
Volume 49, page 293, 463
Volume 50, page 162, 485
Volume 55, page 5
Volume 56, page 267, 421, 438, 506
Volume 57, page 349
Volume 58, page 106, 401, 422
Volume 60, page 6, 17, 28, 32, 309, 502
Volume 62, page 114, 143, 149,156, 333
Volume 63, page 385
Volume 66, page 68, 507
Volume 71, page 54, 358, 365
Volume 72, page 442, 468, 504, 505, 521 passim
Volume 74, page 152, 153, 157, 563
Volume 75, page 71
Volume 77, page 432
Volume 78, page 69
Volume 81, page 288, 292n, 294

Additional information available in Texas Bar Journal as follow:
Volume 26, page 855

Brown, Frank. Annals of Travis County and of the City of Austin 482, 527. Archives Division, Texas State Library (Austin, Texas).