New States of the South-West

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter XXIV.

New States of the South-West—Hon. W. R. King—Judge Phelan—The Sharkeys—Irish Millionaires—Beirne of Virginia, Mullanphy of Missouri, M'Donogh of New Orleans, Daniel Clarke—Arkansas

WITHIN the memory of the present generation, seven states have been admitted into the confederacy, from what was at the south, Indian, or foreign territory. These states, from their tropical situation and their earliest origin, being cultivated chiefly by slave-labor, have not attracted a very numerous Irish emigration. The white race, however humbled by oppression at home, will not compete with the born slave, for work or wages, in the tobacco and cotton fields of that productive region. Hence, south of the Potomac, the history of the Irish settlers is rather a series of family anecdotes, than the various record of a widely diffused population. These families, however, are neither few nor undistinguished.

For the most part, such families removed into the southern from the old midland states. This was the case with the Butlers, of both branches, and also with the Kings, of Alabama. The emigrant founder of this family first lived near Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he came from the North of Ireland. William Duffy, a lawyer of some celebrity, also a native of Ireland, was his neighbor and friend. In Fayetteville, April 7th, 1786, was born William R. King, who, after studying law with Duffy, removed to Alabama. For that state he sat as senator of the United Sates, from 1823 to 1844, without intermission. In the latter year he was sent as minister to France, from which he returned in 1846, and in 1848 was reflected to the Senate. In 1850, upon the death of President Taylor, and the consequent advancement of Vice-President Fillmore to the chief magistracy, Mr. King was unanimously chosen President of the Senate, in which position he acts as Vice-President of the United States. During the stormy debates of 1850, known in congressional annals as "the Compromise Session," Mr. King's excellent qualities of mind and temperament were of most essential service to his country. The number of his years and honors will probably be even yet increased.

Alabama has another distinguished family, at the head of which is John Dennis Phelan, one of the judges of its Supreme Court. John Phelan, father of the judge, was a native of Queen's County, in Ireland, who settled at New Brunswick, New Jersey, where the Costigans and other families of his old neighbors had preceded him. During the war of 1812-15, he was cashier of the Bank of New Brunswick. He afterwards removed, first to Richmond, Virginia, and, in 1817, to what was then the Alabama territory. His son graduated with honor, at Nashville, in 1828; became the editor of a Democratic newspaper, in Huntsville; was elected in 1833 and the six succeeding years to the State Legislature; in 1841 was appointed circuit judge, and in 1852, at the age of forty-two, a judge of the Supreme Court.[1]

Among the first settlers in Tennessee was Patrick Sharkey, a native of the West of Ireland, some of whose descendants still remain in Tennessee, while a more distinguished branch descend from Patrick Sharkey, junior, a soldier of the Revolution, who, about the beginning of this century, removed into the State of Mississippi, then belonging to Spain. William Louis Sharkey, one of the sons of this emigrant, was born August 12th, 1798, and, at the age of fifteen, lost both his parents. He spent the first years of his orphanage picking cotton in the fields in the busy season, and obtaining instruction with the proceeds in the intervals. In 1821, he was enabled to enter a law-office at Natchez, and in 1825, we find him established as a lawyer at Vicksburg. In 1827, he was elected to the State Legislature, and in the two following years was its speaker.

In 1831, Gerard C. Brandon, born in Ireland, was governor of the state. He was a man of fine attainments and most upright character. By him the foundations of Mr. Sharkey's legal fortune were laid, in appointing him to fill the place of a circuit judge who had resigned. A well-informed periodical gives the following account of his honorable career as a judge, during twenty years of office:

"Judge Sharkey presided as Circuit Court judge only one term in each county of his district. His appointment only qualified him till the Legislature should elect a successor, and, greatly to the disappointment of the people of the district and the bar, the Legislature, which soon afterwards assembled, elected over him Alexander Montgomery, Esq., then comparatively obscure, but who, during his judicial term, acquired the respect of the bar and community, and, after his retirement, reaped a plentiful harvest in the practice of law.

"The evidences which Judge Sharkey had given of his capacity and learning induced the people of the First Judicial District to elect him, under the constitution of 1833, one of the judges of the High Court of Errors and Appeals. In 1833, he took his seat with Daniel W. Wright (since deceased) and Cotesworth Pinckney Smith, the two judges elect from the other judicial districts. Judge Sharkey was appointed chief justice by his associates. He drew the short term of two years, it being required by the constitution that a new judge shall be elected every two years.

"In 1835, Judge Sharkey was re-elected without opposition, and again appointed by his colleagues chief justice. Six years afterwards, his term having expired, he was re-elected over E. C. Wilkinson, Esq., by an overwhelming majority, after an arduous canvass, during which he visited and addressed the people of every county in his district, embracing an area of two hundred miles in length by one hundred in width. It will, doubtless, appear strange to those not accustomed to a constitution which makes the judiciary elective by the people, and not acquainted with the circumstances existing in 1841, which rendered it necessary for Judge Sharkey to 'take the stump,' that such means should have been resorted to by candidates for a high judicial station, one of whom wore the ermine at the time. But the exigency demanded it; and it is only an additional evidence of his intrinsic worth and dignity, that, by so doing, Judge Sharkey lost none of the veneration and regard which he had previously acquired. The people found the man as worthy of their homage as the chief justice had been.

"A question vitally affecting the fortunes of numerous families, growing out of their indebtedness, either as principals or sureties, to the banks, agitated the public mind, and, it was supposed, would materially bias popular suffrage. It was known that Judge Sharkey was in favor of enforcing payment by the debtors, notwithstanding the disfranchisement of the banks; it was, on the other hand, supposed that Judge Wilkinson entertained different views, and to the election of the latter, the debtors of the banks, their friends and relatives, looked forward with intense solicitude. Men acting under such an influence would not be over-scrupulous in their choice of the means of accomplishing their end. Combinations were secretly formed, money was liberally subscribed, pamphlets and newspapers teeming with misrepresentation were profusely disseminated where their poisonous influence could not be counteracted, and to that end runners were dispatched into quarters inaccessible by the usual avenues of communication. All this was done without the consent of Judge Wilkinson, who would have spurned any other than the most honorable warfare; but, nevertheless, it became necessary for Judge Sharkey to take the field in person, and disabuse the minds of the people of the false and injurious impressions which his enemies had produced. Everywhere he drew vast assemblies, and, in all his addresses, exhibited a style of lofty and persuasive eloquence, which, united with his venerable appearance and benignant manners, rendered him irresistible. He well merited the compliment paid him by his generous opponent, who said that 'he considered it a high honor to have been pitted against such an adversary.'

"This victory virtually extinguished the hopes of the debtors of the banks, to whose want of punctuality the failure of those institutions was mainly attributable, and who, as was wittily observed by S. S. Prentiss, Esq., 'not content with having sucked all the eggs, were now anxious to break up the nests.'

"Judge Sharkey was again elected chief justice, and resumed the arduous duties of his station with the same fidelity that had always characterized him, and with a moral influence greatly augmented by his recent triumph.

"On another and more trying occasion, in the exercise of his judicial functions, Judge Sharkey had violated the wishes of a majority of the people of the state, by deciding that the supplemental charter of the Union Bank, under which the bonds of the state had been issued by A. G. McNutt, and known as the 'Union Bank Bonds,' was constitutional. The effect of this decision was to establish, in theory at least, the validity of these bonds; but as, without an appropriation by the Legislature of sufficient funds out of the public treasury, they could not be paid, the decision was of little use to the bondholders. The recollection of this obnoxious opinion might, nevertheless, have defeated his re-election, but that he was elected by the people of a district, and not by the whole state, and in that district the repudiating class was not as numerous as in others. It was fortunate for the state, that this circumstance prevented the election to the Supreme Bench, in lieu of Judge Sharkey, of an individual of opposite sentiments, and thus excluded from the fountain of justice the contaminating doctrine 'that the debtor shall be the judge of his own liability to the creditor.' Those desirous of learning the reason of the Supreme Court on this long-mooted and agitating question, may be gratified by referring to the case of Campbell vs. Mississippi Union Bank, 6 Howard, Miss. Rep. 625."

In 1850, the excitement in the South, and in Mississippi especially, in relation to "the Compromise Measures" and "the Wilmot Proviso," was such as to fill our wisest statesmen with alarm. Governor Quitman, whose influence and popularity were paramount, committed himself strongly to the views of secession promulgated by South Carolina. Senator Davis, and the state delegation to Congress, except Senator Foote, were, almost to a man, secessionists. In the midst of this excitement the famous Nashville Convention assembled, on the action of which so much depended. Chief Justice Sharkey was called on to preside, and by him the resolutions and address were drafted. His patriotic counsels moderated the ardor of the South, restored the discussion to legal limits, and, more than any one cause, prevented the formation of a treasonable Southern Confederacy. While, by his firmness and discretion, he exposed himself to the hostility of the Hotspurs of his own section, he won, by the timely exercise of the same qualities, a place among the statesmen of the Union, by whom the pacification of 1850 was effected.[2]

The national administration, conscious of these services, and of his abilities, firmness and judgment, has lately appointed him consul at Havana; an office which, from our relations with Cuba and Spain, is one of great delicacy and importance.

The neighboring states of Tennessee and Mississippi have been, from the first, congenial homes for Irishmen. The influence of the Jacksons, Carrolls, Coffees, Brandons, and Sharkeys, has justly rendered the Irish name honorable on this bank of the great river. In the commerce of the South, many emigrants from Ireland have made immense fortunes. The Irish merchants of Baltimore and Charleston have ranked among the foremost for enterprise and probity. In Virginia, the largest fortune ever made by commerce was that of Andrew Beirne, who was as remarkable for his munificence in prosperity, as he had been for his sagacity and industry. In Missouri, the largest fortune was, perhaps, that of Bryan Mullanphy, of St. Louis, whose eccentricities furnish as many anecdotes to that neighborhood, as those of Girard and Astor to Philadelphia and New York. Mr. Mullanphy left one son, a lawyer and judge, who died unmarried, at St. Louis, in 1850. He bequeathed the princely sum of $200,000 for the relief of emigrants entering the Mississippi. At New Orleans, the same year, died John M'Donogh, born in Baltimore, of Irish parents, who, by a long life of penurious and unnatural parsimony, acquired the largest single property in the Southern States. He left an unamiable character, a doubtful will, and legacies which seem more likely to be inherited by the lawyers than those for whom he designed them. If mere wealth, unrefined by the graces, and uninspired by the charities of life, was respectable, this man would merit more of our space. But the hardy pioneer, the brave soldier, the close student, and the faithful public servant, are those we can freely honor. All the wealth of John McDonogh cannot purchase him a better name than his life deserved.

A very different character was Daniel Clarke, a wealthy merchant, of Irish birth, who settled at New Orleans, in the year 1795. He acquired immense estates, which he was ever ready to use for the public service. At the time of his migration from the United States to New Orleans, (Louisiana then belonged to France,) he became, or was sent out as, United States consul. In the quasi-French war he offered his entire property for the defence of the Mississippi against the threatened invasion. He died at New Orleans, in 1813, leaving a princely estate, which has also been in great part dissipated through litigation.[3]

In Arkansas there has been recently some emigration from Ireland, partly induced by the establishment of the diocese of Little Rock, over which the Rt. Rev. Andrew Byrne, a native of Dublin, so worthily presides. A large number of farmers from Wexford county, some three years back, made their homes in that state, under the guidance of their pastor, Father Hoar. The colony, we believe, has not been very successful.

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[1] A characteristic anecdote of his entry into public life has been related to us, by one who had it from the Judge himself, and who tells it in his own words: "The first gathering I went to," he would say, when speaking of that canvass, "was at Cloudtown, and I found that all the old candidates were for ground-talking, but did not care about making speeches. I knew a speech was my only chance, so I said, modestly, to one or two about the grocery, where they were all drinking and talking, that if I could get the attention of the people, I would like to speak. Nobody noticed me. Thinks I, this will never do. There was a tall fellow, named Bill Sartain, who had the end of his nose bit off, then in the grocery, 'half slewed,' making great fuss, and bantering any one to dance with him for a treat. I stepped in: says I, 'Sartain, I am a candidate here, as little as you may think of it, and I want to make a talk to these people; now, if you'll engage that, should I beat you, by the judgment of this crowd, at a jig, you'll fix me a box at the door, and make them give me their attention while I speak to them, I'll go in with you, and treat to boot.' 'Good,' says he; 'spread out, men, and make room for me and the little squire.' They made a good large circle, and several fell to patting 'Reuben Reed, the cedar breed,' and Bill Sartain and I went at it. I don't know whether I did outdo him or not, although, as most of my friends understand, I am not bad at double 'troulle.' However, the crowd gave it in my favor, and, after a laugh and a treat, Bill Sartain was as good as his word. He got me a box, and I got an attentive hearing, and made a pretty good speech about the 'Union,' and 'Nullification,' and the 'Monster,' which were the themes of that day. In a word, I got a breeze in my sail by my jig with Bill Sartain, that finally carried me safe into harbor."

[2] "He was nominated a candidate for the Convention called in conformity to an act of the Legislature, and was elected. During the canvass he spoke frequently to immense assemblies, composed of individuals from remote quarters, many of whom declared that, having heard Judge Sharkey's opinion, they would return home without any further doubts on the subject. To no man is the cause of the Union more indebted for the immense majority by which the disunion party was defeated in Mississippi, than to Judge William L. Sharkey." —American Whig Review, May, 1852.

[3] The celebrated "Gaines case," arose from Mrs. Gaines' claims against the property of Daniel Clarke.