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Thomas Jefferson Rusk (1803-1857)

Chief Justice, Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas, 1838-1840

Thomas Jefferson Rusk, hero of the Texas Revolution, signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, and first chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court to perform active service, was born in the Pendleton District of South Carolina on December 5, 1803. Rusk was raised in modest surroundings: his father was an Irish immigrant who worked as a stone mason, and Thomas was the eldest of seven children. The family lived on land owned by John C. Calhoun, whose various political offices included Secretary of War, Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, and Vice-President of the United States. Although Rusk's formal education was minimal, he was mentored by Calhoun, who lent him books and secured a position for him in the office of the district clerk. While working there Rusk studied law and prepared himself for the bar.

Following his admission to the bar in 1825, Rusk relocated to Clarkesville, Georgia, where he practiced law and invested in a gold mine. He married in 1827 and began a family that grew to include seven children.

In 1834, after the managers of his gold mine embezzled company funds, Rusk chased them to Nacogdoches, Texas, only to find they had gambled away all the money. He was befriended there by Sam Houston, and seeing great potential in Texas, he decided to stay. With Houston himself as a witness, Rusk took the oath of allegiance to Texas. His family joined him in Texas the following year.

Rusk's arrival in Texas on the eve of the revolution positioned him to become an important force in the state's development, and his contributions were many. The six-foot, 200-pound Rusk distinguished himself in the military arena, and rose quickly to the rank of brigadier general. He was named Secretary of War for the Republic in 1836.

Rusk was elected to represent Nacogdoches at the Constitutional Convention of 1836. He often served as a mediator when tensions flared, and on more than one occasion was the first to suggest "a scoop of whiskey" to soothe the tempers of his fellow delegates.

Rusk served as a member in the First and Second Congresses of the Republic from 1837-1838. Military service was paid with land, and Rusk accumulated a sizeable amount of it in East Texas. He also gathered one of the finest libraries in Texas; eventually it included more than 1,000 books, including a fine law library. He was a slaveholder, and at the time of his death he had twenty slaves.

In February 1839, Thomas J. Rusk was elected by Congress to the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas. Although technically he was Texas' third chief justice, Rusk was the first to perform active service in that role. At ten o'clock in the morning on January 13, 1840, Rusk called the court's first session to order. The location was the home of Major Asa Brigham, Treasurer of the Republic, at Second Street and Congress Avenue in Austin, at the time no more than a frontier town established the previous year. Despite facing harsh physical conditions, few books, confusing and contradictory laws, and an ever present danger of Indian raids, the court heard eighteen cases during the January 1840 term.

Following his service on the bench, Rusk served as President of the Constitutional Convention of 1845 and as a U.S. Senator from 1846 until his death in 1857.

Rusk's beloved wife, Mary, died of tuberculosis in 1856, and Rusk never recovered from the loss. Meanwhile, his own health was failing; he had developed a tumor in his neck. He committed suicide by shooting himself with a rifle at his home in Nacogdoches on July 29, 1857. He was remembered by his peers for his integrity, courage, and important leadership role in the formation of Texas. The U.S. Senate resolved to wear crepe on the left arm for thirty days in his memory.

Notable opinions

(only 5 in number; listed in Dallam's Digest) the very first case was the Republic of Texas v. McCullock, et al, in which jurisdiction was denied in an opinion by Chief Justice Rusk. (The first opinion was written by Justice Jones, affirming the Brazoria County district court's decision in Hunter and Hyde v. Bernard Oelrich, which sought recovery of a horse or its value, alleged to be $350.)

Republic of Texas v. McCulloch, Dallam 357 (Tex. Jan. 1840) (holding no appellate jurisdiction over criminal proceedings not involving discharge, commitment, or bail of prisoners).

Goode v. Cheshire, Dallam 362 (Tex. Jan. 1840) (remanding case for new trial upon lower court's irregular certification of record).

Whiteman v. Garrett, Dallam 374 (Tex. Jan. 1840) (allowing for an action of specific performance in a bond of mutual obligations).

Yeamans v. Tone, Dallam 362 (Tex. Jan. 1840) (affirming lower court's judgment in land-clearing action in absence of reason for reversal).

Sources

3 Texas Bar Journal 6 (1940).

Benham, Priscilla Myers. Rusk, Thomas Jefferson, Handbook of Texas Online (last updated June6, 2001). http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/RR/fru16.html

Clarke, Mary Whatley. Thomas J. Rusk: Soldier, Statesman, Jurist (Austin, Texas: Pemberton Press, 1971).

Ericson, Joe E. Judges of the Republic of Texas (1836-1846) 247 (Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1980).

Hemphill, John. Eulogy on the life and character of the Hon. Thomas J. Rusk, late U.S. Senator from Texas: delivered in the hall of the House of Representatives of the state of Texas, on the seventh of November, 1857. Austin, 1857. The Making of Modern Law. Gale. 2006. Thomson Gale. 01 June 2006.
http://tinyurl.com/395djy (access restricted to University of Texas community).

Lynch, James Daniel. The Bench and Bar of Texas 65 (St. Louis, Missouri: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1885).

Extended bibliography

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

Biographical Encyclopedia of Texas 40, 233 (New York, New York: Southern Publishing Co., 1880).

Biographical Souvenir of the State of Texas 739 (Chicago, Illinois: F. A. Battey & Co., 1889).

Brown, John Henry. Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas 635 (Austin, Texas: L. E. Daniell, 189-?).

Clarke, Mary Whatley. Thomas J. Rusk: Soldier, Statesman, Jurist (Austin, Texas: Pemberton Press, 1971).

DeShields, James T. They Sat in High Place 30, 31, 33, 36, 71, 74, 81, 99, 100, 122, 123, 150, 167, 169, 171, 174, 235 (San Antonio, Texas: The Naylor Co., 1940).

Fulmore, Z. T. The History and Geography of Texas as Told in County Names 117 (Austin, Texas: The Steck Co., 1915).

Hemphill, John. Eulogy on the Life and Character of the Hon. Thomas J. Rusk, Late U.S. Senator of Texas. Delivered in the House of Representatives of the
State of Texas, on the Seventh of November, 1857 (Austin, Texas: printed by J. Marshall & Co., 1857).

Houston, Cleburne. Towering Texan, a Biography of Thomas J. Rusk (Waco, Texas: Texian Press, 1971).

Kemp, Louis Wiltz. The Signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence 304 (Salado, Texas: The Anson Jones Press, 1959).

Speer, Ocie. Texas Jurists 26 (Austin, Texas: the author, 1936).

Sterrett, Carrie Belle. The Life of Thomas Jefferson Rusk (Master's thesis, University of Texas, 1922).

Cravens, John N. Death of Thomas Jefferson Rusk, East Texas Historical Journal (March, 1966).

Ruffin, Thomas F. Invasion of Caddo Parish by General Thomas Jefferson Rusk's Republic of Texas Army, 1838, North Louisiana Historical Society Journal (Spring, 1971).

Additional information available in Southwestern Historical Quarterly as follow:
Volume 1, page 42, 71, 103, 132
Volume 2, page 80
Volume 3, page 154
Volume 4, page 249, 264, 282, 286, 320, 330, 333, 341, 342
Volume 6, page 166
Volume 7, page 194
Volume 9, page 253
Volume 10, page 152
Volume 11, page 34, 183, 190
Volume 12, page 64
Volume 13, page 136
Volume 14, page 116, 335
Volume 18, page 46, 52, 53, 56, 386, 397
Volume 21, page 46, 198
Volume 23, page 87, 160, 163, 168, 253, 255
Volume 24, page 50, 322
Volume 25, page 35, 38, 42, 43, 49, 54, 60
Volume 26, page 14, 136, 257, 265
Volume 28, page 271
Volume 30, page 226, 227
Volume 31, page 72, 74, 182, 196, 287, 379
Volume 32, page 89, 175, 257
Volume 33, page 8, 168, 233, 235, 316, 323
Volume 34, page 160, 182, 264, 271, 340, 341
Volume 35, page 17, 79, 317
Volume 36, page 69, 71, 227, 229
Volume 38, page 58, 59
Volume 39, page 274
Volume 40, page 116, 268, 274, 280
Volume 41, page 219, 327
Volume 43, page 27, 518
Volume 44, page 470
Volume 45, page 127, 241
Volume 48, page 5
Volume 49, page 98, 103, 111, 275, 277n, 378, 389, 668
Volume 50, page 56, 162, 426
Volume 52, page 43, 178
Volume 54, page 170, 180, 184, 406
Volume 55, page 306, 439, 450
Volume 56, page 74, 95, 400, 404, 490, 521, 539
Volume 57, page 450, 451
Volume 58, page 13, 296, 379
Volume 59, page 347, 350, 488, 489, 496, 500
Volume 60, page 17, 464, 525
Volume 61, page 279, 285, 442, 461
Volume 62, page 179, 182, 189, 302, 303
Volume 63, page 293, 296
Volume 64, page 398
Volume 65, page 90n, 94, 95, 105, 222, 553, 559
Volume 66, page 113
Volume 67, page 120, 123, 333
Volume 69, page 146n, 306, 311, 315
Volume 70, page 89, 462, 656
Volume 72, page 352, 375, 376, 378
Volume 73, page 179, 181, 191
Volume 74, page 406
Volume 75, page 392
Volume 76, page 3, 4, 10, 12, 13, 124, 125, 153, 164
Volume 78, page 131, 134, 232
Volume 79, page 305

Additional information available in Texas Bar Journal as follow:
Volume 3, page 5

Friend, Llerena. Sam Houston and Thomas J. Rusk, 31 West Texas Historical Association Yearbook 15 (1955).

Thomas Jefferson Rusk Papers. Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas (Austin, Texas).