Forgotten Statesman of Illinios
By Dr. J. F. Snyder
The article here is from Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year 1908. It presents a very interesting look at the life and times of James Harvey Ralston. James Ralston and two of his brothers and one sister were residents of Quincy in the 1830’s and 40’s. The author of the article, Dr. J. F. Snyder, mentioned many people and events in his writing. The result is a lot of history of Quincy, Adams County and the state of Illinois in its infancy.
Early in the eighteenth century the Ralston and Neely families emigrated to the United States from Londonderry, one of the nine counties constituting the province of Ulster, in the northern part of Ireland. They stopped temporarily in the state of New York; then moving to the western wilderness settled permanently in the region now known as Bourbon county in Kentucky. They were the progeny of intermingled Scotch and Irish-the Ralstons tracing their descent, according to their family records, “from Ralph, son of MacDuff who slew Macbeth and restored the rightful monarch to the throne of Scotland,” while the Neely’s “sprung from the Clan MacNeil, known in Scottish history and romance as the ‘Lords of the Isles,’ the histories of these families filling a large space in the annals of Scotland. Many marriages have occurred between them in succeeding generations, and their kinship and clanship are marked by strong physical resemblances, and similar trails of character.” Among the products of the American interblending of those families in our recent history were Gen. John J. Neely, Judge James H. Ralston, J Neely Johnson who was elected Governor of California in 1854, and others who served their country with distinction both in civil and military life
One of the several intermarriages mentioned of members of those noted families was that of John Ralston, a young Kentucky farmer and Miss Elizabeth Neely, who were united in Wedlock, in Bourbon county, near the close of the eighteenth century. Though environed from their birth by the institution of slavery, young Ralston and wife were not of the patrician class, or included in the blue-grass aristocracy, as they owned no slaves, or possessed, besides their farm, little more than sound health, industry and contentment. From their prolific union were born, as the years went by, fourteen children-four sons and ten daughters-an exuberant fulfillment of their sole mission of life. To rear and properly train that swarm severely taxed the resources of the parents; but the youngsters, as they grew up, scattered away to search out for themselves their destined sphere in the world wherein to achieve their individual fortunes. Occupying no higher station himself than that of an ordinary farmer, John Ralston seems to have been ambitious that his sons should rise to a higher intellectual level than mere tillers of the soil. Or, it may be that he perceived in them indications of superior talents that he considered it his duty to develop at the cost of any reasonable sacrifice to himself it might involve. Possibly, and very probably, he may have been influenced in so doing by the boys giving free expression to their aspirations to higher mental culture, and more refined vocations than his. At any rate, after duly discussing the matter with his wife, he determined to give his son, Thomas Neely Ralston, a thorough education which would prepare him for the ministry. In that course he was doubtless guided by the boy’s natural predilection for the church, inherited from some far-back Scotch Presbyterian ancestor. In his limited financial circumstances, with a rapidly increasing family, principally of girls, to give the boy a collegiate education was really a grave undertaking for John Ralston. However, by diligent labor, economy and frugality, he accomplished it. Thomas graduated at Transylvania, was ordained, attained the degree of Doctor of Divinity and for many years was a famous pulpit orator and divine of Lexington, Kentucky. Another son, Joseph Neely Ralston, born January 25th, 1801, was also educated at Transylvania University, choosing for his calling in life the profession of medicine. He left Kentucky in 1832 and located in Quincy, Illinois where he continued the practice of medicine until his death, in June, 1876. Of Dr. Ralston, Hon. Wm. A. Richardson says, “He was one of my patron saints, a fine gentleman and noble man, respected and loved by every one.” He is thus mentioned in the History of Adams County, Illinois, published in 1876, “Of his eminence in the profession, it is sufficient to say that for more than forty years he held a leading position among the physicians of Quincy and Adams county. He was one of the founders, and the first president of the Adams County Medical Society, and was at several subsequent periods re-elected to that position. Weighed down through his long life with the cares and anxieties of the most exacting of professions he never forgot the duties of a citizen, maintaining to the last his interest in public affairs. Identified with every movement promising to promote the public welfare, he was keenly alive to the educational interests of his adopted home, enjoying a leading social position, and maintaining always a large practice. He was rather tall and spare in figure, dignified in carriage, courteous almost to punctiliousness in manner, clean and precise in speech, self-poised, quick in his perceptions, steadfast in his convictions, sagacious in counsel-the sturdy virtues which commanded for him universal respect and confidence.”
William H. Ralston, a third and younger son of John and Elizabeth (Neely) Ralston, was a lawyer, who also resided for awhile in Quincy, then moved to Leavenworth, in Kansas, where he became quite eminent in his profession, and was a very prominent citizen.
James Harvey Ralston, the subject of this sketch, was born in Bourbon county, Kentucky, on the 12th of October, 1807. His boyhood years were passed on his father’s farm, not in luxury and idleness; but early initiated in the arts and toil of agriculture, he grew up to manhood as an ordinary farm laborer, industrious, energetic and self-reliant. A prominent trait of his youth was pride of character, inciting a desire to learn, in order to improve his mental and social condition. But he could only occasionally be spared from his post on the farm for a few weeks in the winter time to attend the country schools in his neighborhood where little more than the simplest rudimentary branches were taught. What he acquired there increased his yearning for more learning; but he understood his father’s situation well enough to know that the paternal resources would be totally exhausted by the heavy expenses incurred in education his brothers, Thomas and Joseph, so that no assistance for himself could be expected from that quarter, or cessation of his farm work be permitted, to advance his own schooling. Driven, therefore, to depend upon his own efforts, he resolutely applied himself to study at home, taking advantage of every spare moment-by fire-light at early dawn, and aid of the grease lamp, or tallow dip, at night when the day’s drudgery was ended-to enlarge his store of knowledge from the few books within his reach. With such restricted opportunities, and no systematic instruction, his education was necessarily very defective. That drawback, however, occasioned no depression of his ambition, or of faith in his own abilities. Having one brother in the ministry and another in the medical profession, neither of whom, in his estimation, was his superior, notwithstanding their higher education, and unwilling that he should in any way cast discredit upon the family, he aspired to rank with them in literary and social position. Thereupon, without the essential foundation of scholastic training he embarked in the study of law.
Arriving at the age of legal emancipation from servitude to his father, he left Kentucky in the fall of 1828, and made his way to Quincy, Illinois to begin there the shaping and upbuilding of his own career. One of his sisters, married to a Kentuckian named Stamper, who preceded him to Quincy, was probably the influence that induced him to settle in that frontier village. History is silent regarding the occupation he engaged in for that first two years after getting there-if in any; but that during that time he steadfastly kept his high aims in view, and persistently continued his legal studies there, must be inferred from the following record in Vol. B. of the Law, Chancery and People’s Records in the circuit clerk’s office of Adams county, Illinois: “At a circuit court begun and held at the court house in Quincy for the county of Adams and State of Illinois on Thursday, the twenty-first day of October in the year of our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred and thirty. Present, the Hon. Richard M. Young, judge of the fifth judicial circuit of the State of Illinois. On motion of George Logan, Esq, an attorney of this court, James H. Ralston, Esq. appeared and was sworn as an attorney and counselor at law, he having presented a license according to law, signed by two of the judges of the Supreme Court.”
A short time before his admission to the bar, Mr. Ralston was elected a justice of the peace in and for the county of Adams, and served in that capacity for three or four years, or until he became well established as a lawyer in the higher courts. Responding, in the spring of 1832, to the call of Gov. Reynolds for a force of armed men to repel the hostile incursion of Black Hawk and his band, Mr. Ralston at once volunteered and was enrolled, along with Orville H. Browning, a brother attorney of Quincy, as a private in Captain Wm. G. Flood’s company of mounted riflemen, which subsequently was incorporated in the second brigade commanded by Brigadier General Sam. Whiteside. On the company’s roster he is reported, “Absent on duty,” and was honorably mustered out of the service, at the mouth of Fox river, on the 28th of May, 1832. His career as an Indian fighter was brief and not very eventful, but from another record at Quincy it is learned that a few months later he again enlisted, in a more peaceful cause and for a longer period of service. That record states that on the 11th day of October, 1832, James H. Ralston was united in marriage with Miss Jane Alexander, Daughter of Col. Sam. Alexander, a well known substantial citizen of Adams County. She was born on the 6th day of October, 1811, and was at the time of her marriage, a sprightly intelligent, and very attractive girl. Before the approaching winter had set in, Attorney Ralston and bride were settled down to housekeeping on their own account in a modest home near the northeast corner of Eighth and Hampshire streets, in Quincy, were the residence of Mr. Nehemiah Bushnell now stands, adjacent to the post office. They were, for the following fourteen years among the most conspicuous and highly esteemed members of Quincy’s best society, taking a leading part in all social gaieties and entertainments, as well as in every public movement for the improvement of the town and welfare of its citizens.
Esq. Ralston began the practice of law in the courts presided over by Judge Richard M. Young, whose circuit originally embraced all the territory between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers from the mouth of the Latter to Lake Michigan. Of that bar he was for many years, excepting when in public office, one of its busiest and most successful practitioners. For some time he was in partnership with Almeron Wheat, and later with Joseph Warren, Quincy lawyers of marked ability. In the terrible epidemic of Asiatic cholera brought west by General Winfield Scott’s troops about the close of the Black Hawk war, which visited Quincy as it spread down the Mississippi the next year (1833) with appalling fatality, about its first victim in that village was Mrs. Sarah Stamper, sister of Dr. Joseph and J. H. Ralston.
In August, 1836, James H. Ralston and George Galbraith were elected to represent Adams county in the lower house of the tenth General Assembly-that historic legislature made famous by its enactment of the wild system of internal improvements that proved such a disastrous failure. Mr. Galbraith died during the first session, (which convened at Vandalia on December 5, 1836, and adjourned March 6, 1837) and his vacancy was supplied by election of Archibald Williams at a special election in the spring. That legislature is also famous for the number of its talented members who later achieved high distinction in the public affairs of Illinois and of the nation. In the senate were Orville H. Browning, Cyrus Edwards, Wm. J. Gatewood, Archer G. Herndon, Henry I. Mills, William Thomas, John D. Whiteside and John D. Wood. With Mr. Ralston in the house were James Semple, James Shields, Robert Smith, Edward D. Baker, Milton Carpenter, Newton Cloud, Richard M. Cullom, John Dougherty, Stephen A. Douglas, Jesse K. Dubois, Ninian W. Edwards, Abraham Lincoln, Augustus C. French, Wm. L. D. Ewing, Wm. A. Richardson, John A. McClernand, Usher F. Linder and John Moore; names interwoven everlastingly in the fabric of our State and national history, an aggregation of intellectual strength seldom, if ever equaled (sic) and never surpassed, in any other legislative assembly of Illinois. And yet, the State, with all its immense resources, was forty years in recovering from results of the stupendous folly of their legislation in that one session.
Mr. Ralston, of course, voted for the internal improvement measures. He would have been ostracized by his party and by the community he represented had he opposed them. As was the result with all his eminent associates in that legislature who voted, as he did, for the crazy scheme, its total and disastrous failure subjected him to no public censure or loss of popularity. On the 14th of December, 1836, the tenth General Assembly in joint sessions elected Hon. Richard M. Young U. S. Senator for the full term of six years to succeed Hon. W. L. D. Ewing who was elected by the preceding legislature for the unexpired term of Hon. Elias K. Kane deceased. Up to the time of his promotion to the national senate Judge Young had presided over the old fifth, or Quincy, judicial circuit since his election to that position in 1828. His resignation immediately after the senatorial election left the Judgeship vacant, which the Legislature proceeded to supply, by ballot, in joint session on the 14th of January, 1837, with the following result: Sixty-three ballots were cast for James H. Ralston, forty-two for Wm. A Minshall and nineteen for George P. W. Maxwell. The commission for Judge Ralston’s new office, the duties of which he at once entered upon, was dated February 4, 1837. If he resigned his seat in the legislature when elevated to the circuit bench no record of that fact can be found; no one was elected to succeed him in that General Assembly, and his name does not appear in the house journal of its second session, held for the purpose of legalizing suspension by the banks of specie payments, which met at Vandalia on the 10th and adjourned on the 22d of July, 1837.
Judge Ralston was but twenty-nine years and three months old when elected to the Judgeship-a young man of striking personality, six feet tall, straight and well-formed, with auburn hair, blue eyes and faultless features. Polite and agreeable in address, he was as courtly and dignified in bearing and manners as the Virginia gentleman of colonial days. In disposition he was sociable, kind and generous, though impulsive, spirited and ambitions. Strictly honest in personal affairs and the discharge of public duties, actuated in every relation of life by a high sense of honor, he was an eminently respectable citizen, moral, sober, and of unblemished character. In some instances, no doubt, his judgment was at fault but in the main his motives were pure, and he perhaps never willfully violated his conceptions of right and justice. He was a plausible, showy, man in public, entertaining in conversation, and a fluent impressive speaker, though, not invariably grammatical in his language, or exactly correct in his logic or rhetoric. As before stated, his early education was only rudimentary, and tho greatly improved in after years by promiscuous reading and desultory study, he probably never was a student of close, systematic application, consequently his learning in some directions had advanced little beyond general principles and common-sense deductions. A prominent characteristic of Judge Ralston is said to have been his firmness and determination of purpose, yet, he was weak in resisting flattery and blandishments; and was easily influenced by those in whom he had implicit confidence.
He was a member of the Masonic Order, but not attached to any church, having very liberal views on the subject of man’s so-called spiritual nature and future responsibilities. He was fond of music, of gay lively society, and had quite a taste for literature; poetry particularly, which he often quoted. One of his favorite quotations, consonant with his own sentiments, from the tragedy entitled “Pizarro,” was this:
“Should the scales of justice poise doubtfully, let mercy touch the beam and turn the balance to the gentler side.”
As all contemporaries of Judge Ralston of that period have long since gone to their final rest, the only means accessible for forming an estimate of his ability as a jurist are the records of his court. The unavoidable inference to be drawn from them, notwithstanding the scurrilous criticism of Gov. Ford,Ford’s History of Illinois, p. 307
is that he acquitted himself as a judge with credit and honor. During the two and a half years he presided over the Quincy circuit very few of his decisions were taken to the Supreme Court on error or appeal and of those few, only two were reversed.First and Second Scammon Reports He may in some instances have erred too inflexible adherence to forms and technicalities; but certainly nothing can now be found in the history of the old fifth judicial circuit to sustain the malignant strictures of Gov. Ford. The annual salary of circuit judges at that time was seven hundred dollars, a sum less than the wages received by some of the skilled mechanics. Dissatisfied with that meager (sic) pay, and assuming that he could earn a larger revenue by the practice of his profession, Judge Ralston resigned his position on the bench, on the 31st of August, 1839, and resumed his place at the bar.
Gov. Ford’s vilification of Judge Ralston evidently did not express the estimate placed upon him, at the time, by the people of Adams county. His judicial services, instead of disparaging him in public opinion, seem to have increased his popularity in that community. In 1838 a majority of Whigs were elected in both branches of the Illinois Legislature and that party came nearer electing its State ticket than it ever did before or afterwards, Thomas Carlin, the candidate of the Democrats for Governor, being elected over Cyrus Edwards the Whig, by the majority of only 996. Two years later, in 1840, the Whigs made stupendous efforts to retain their ascendancy gained in 1838, and also to carry the State for their national ticket, Harrison and Tyler. The Democrats were as equally determined to regain their lost supremacy in the Legislature and to secure the electoral vote of the State for their presidential candidate, VanBuren. In order to sway the people in their favor both parties presented their strongest and most available men for local candidates in each of the several counties. In Adams county the Whigs brought out Archibald Williams to head their county ticket as their candidate for State Senator. He was an able man, well known all over the Military Tract; was a volunteer in the Black Hawk war, stood high in the esteem and confidence of the people of Adams county whom he had served well as Senator in the eighth and ninth General Assemblies and as a member of the House in the tenth General Assembly in which he received a respectable vote for U. S. Senator, but was defeated by Hon. Richard M. Young.
After mature deliberation the Democrats of Adams county selected Judge Ralston to oppose him. The political campaign of 1840 far surpassed any in the previous history of the State for strenuous exertions and excitement, for expensive and spectacular displays, and impassioned oratory, particularly by the Whigs. In Adams county the fury of the contest centered in the race for State Senator. In their eagerness to elect Williams the Whigs exceeded all bounds of legitimate party contention, carrying their opposition of Judge Ralston to the extreme of personal enmity. He was invulnerable however, to all their attacks and at the election, on Aug. 3, 1840, was elected receiving 1, 546 votes to 1, 447 cast for Williams, a clear majority of 99. At the November election of that year he was also elected presidential Elector for that district.
The first, or called session of the twelfth General Assembly convened at Springfield on the 23d of November, and adjourned December 5th. The second, or regular session commenced on the following Monday, December 7th and adjourned March 1, 1841. Judge Ralston was there again in company with many of the leading politicians and statesmen of the State, some of whom, as himself, had been promoted since their service in the House, four years before, to seats in the upper chamber. With him in the Senate were Edward D. Baker, Richard M. Cullom, Wm. J. Gatewood, John Moore, Archer G. Herndon, Wm. A. Richardson, Adam W. Snyder and John D. Woods. Among the great commoners in the House were Wm. H. Bissell, John J. Hardin, John Dougherty, Cyrus Edwards, Joseph Gillespie, W. L. D. Ewing, Wickliffe Kitchell, Abraham Lincoln, John A. McClernand, Lewis W. Ross, Lyman Trumbull and David M. Woodson. There was in each branch of the Legislature a decided majority of Democrats. The Governor, Thomas Carlin and Lieutenant Governor, Stinson H. Anderson, were Democrats, and of that party General W. L. D. Ewing was elected Speaker of the House defeating Abraham Lincoln the Whig candidate. Three of the justices of the Supreme Court, however, were Whigs, and but one a Democrat.
In the seventy working days of that regular session of the twelfth General assembly a surprising amount of legislation was enacted, which comprised some measure of weighty importance to the public, and others of questionable policy. Political parties at that time were divided chiefly upon the bank question. As a part of the great internal improvement scheme of 1836 the State was made a stock holder in the State bank to the amount of $3,100,000.Ford’s History of Illinois p. 299 et seq.
The banks were prohibited by law from issuing notes of less denomination than five dollars; and the law of 1838 provided that any bank having suspended specie payments, and failed to resume such payments before adjournment of the next session of the Legislature thereafter, would forfeit its charter and close its doors unless that session of the Legislature sanctioned the suspension and permitted it to continue. All the banks had suspended specie payments, and had not resume the paying of specie when the twelfth Legislature came together. The Democrats, supreme in that body, were divided on the State banking system. The radicals among them favored enforcing the forfeiture penalty and closing up the banks at once; but the other faction, know by the radicals as the “week-kneed” (sic) voted with the Whigs, not only to legalize suspension of the banks, but to permit them to issue bills of less denomination than five dollars. Judge Ralston was one of the “week-kneed” and in that matter voted with the Whigs.
Though really hostile to the banks, and loyal to all the main principles of the party, Judge Ralston and the other “bolting” Democrats very plausibly justified their course by the reason that the woeful depression of business, extreme scarcity of money, and unprecedented hard times generally, rendered the leniency they extended to the banks absolutely necessary for relief of the commercial interests of the country, and for averting further hardships to the people. And the end, in that emergency, certainly did justify the means.
Party lines were not observed in much that was accomplished by the Legislature at that session. The member of both parties voted together in desperate attempts to provide ways and means for paying the semi-annual interest on the enormous State debt, and for trying to devise plans to extricate the State from its crushing embarrassments. They were also united, actively or passively, in granting the infamous Mormon charters, neither party daring , by its opposition, to offend that new powerful voting element.Adam W. Snyder and his Period in Illinois History 1906. pp. 406-408 ct seq. The crucial test of party fealty, however, was “Reorganizing the judiciary” an audacious scheme for converting the Supreme Court from a Whig to a Democratic tribunal by an addition to it of five Democratic justices, and legislating the circuit judges out of office, which was passed by a constitutional majority of both houses, and passed again over the Council of Revision’s veto. There is no better proof of Judge Ralston’s fidelity to his party than the fact that he voted with it throughout for that high-handed revolutionary measure. He was an active, vigilant and influential senator, a member of the judiciary committee and chairman of the Committee on Public Accounts and Expenditures, on all occasions watchful of his constituents interests as well as those of the public.
At that time the State was apportioned into three Congressional districts, the first comprising the western half, and the second the eastern half, of southern Illinois, the third embracing the balance of the State north of Greene county, from the Mississippi to the Wabash. In the third district the numerical strength of the parties was very nearly equal, Major John T. Stuart, the Whig candidate, having defeated Stephen A. Douglas for Congress at the August, 1838, election by only thirty-five majority, receiving 18, 248 votes to 18, 213 for Douglas. The act of February 15, 1839, changed the date of the next Congressional election from its regular biennial time in 1840 to August 2, 1841, and biennially thereafter. It was known that Major Stuart would be a candidate for re-election. Douglas could not again be his competitor, having been elevated by the “Reorganization of the judiciary” to the Supreme Court bench. Upon consultation, the Democrats choose Judge Ralston for their candidate to oppose Stuart. He made the race, and was defeated by the surprising plurality of 2,164 with 19,562 votes for him in the district, 21,726 for Stuart, 507 for Frederick Collins (Abolitionist), and twenty-six scattering.
Governor Ford attributes that overwhelming defeat of Ralston to his course in ignoring the Democratic policy regarding banks, and voting in the Senate with the Whigs to legalize the bank suspensions.Ford’s History of Illinois, p. 303 That explanation is in part correct, but only in part. Opposition to banks was a Democratic article of faith, fixed and sacred as the dogma of a high protective tariff is with the Republican party of today. But there was another, and far more potent, factor responsible for the failure of Ralston’s election, overlooked, or purposely ignored by Governor Ford. That was the votes of the Mormons given as a unit for the Whig ticket. In the three years, from 1838, when a total of 36,461 votes were polled in the district, to 1841, when the number of votes was 41, 821, an increase of 5, 360-there had been an astonishing influx of Mormons into Hancock and adjoining (sic) counties of the district. They had been driven out of Missouri by the Democrats in power, and on coming to Illinois voted solidly for the Whigs in retaliation. All white males among them, over the age of 21, voted (constitutionally) after a residence here of six months, and many voted in less than six weeks after their arrival, as none were challenged, and all voted for Major Stuart. Hence Judge Ralston’s Waterloo.
At the general election in August, 1842, the Democrats, aided by the Mormons who then had turned against the Whigs, swept the State, electing the Governor, Thomas Ford, with a plurality of 8,317, the entire State ticket, and a large majority in both houses of the Legislature. In the thirteenth General Assembly, that met at Springfield on December 6th, Judge Ralston, not having resigned to run Congress, was, with E. D. Baker, Richard M. Cullom and others, one of hold-over senators industriously attentive to his duties, as before. The earnest work of that session, proving of inestimable value to the people, marked the beginning of a new era for Illinois.
The law-makers had re covered from their lunacy of 1836, and returned to methods of sanity and sound common sense. Getting together, regardless of party differences, they passed a bank adjustment bill, a bill for completion of the canal, one for securing the State’s portion of proceeds of public lands sales, another for redemption of outstanding Macallister and Stebbins bonds; they appointed the Governor the State Fund Commissioner, and, as a crowning act of wisdom, provided a “two mill” tax (20 cents on the $100.00) on all property, which ensured the prompt payment of maturing interest, and placed the gigantic state debt in process of ultimate honorable extinction. The bank adjustment bill was a “compromise” entered into by Gov. Ford and the bank directors, whereby the banks agreed to go into liquidation, call in their circulating “shin plasters” and surrender to the State their bonds to the amount of $2,050,000.00 in exchange for an equal amount of bank stock held by the State. That was Gov. Ford’s pet measure. He claimed that he wrote the bill, and that it passed by his personal influence.
Although it was adopted by the Legislature almost unanimously, for some reason not now apparent, Judge Ralston opposed it. Lyman Trumbull, then Secretary of State, did all he could to defeat it, and Stephen A. Douglas, Supreme Court Justice, as one of the Council of Revision, voted to veto it after it had passed both houses.
Governor Ford was one of the ablest jurists in the State, a man of singularly clear, philosophical mind, largely endowed by nature with vigorous, comprehensive intellect which was reinforced by a fair education and much study. In stature he was small with thin, homely features, deep-set gray eyes, and long, sharp nose turned slightly at the point to one side. Well supplied with vanity and self-esteem, his prejudices were invincible, and his arrogance at time, intolerable and ludicrous. As insignificant in body and sour as he was admirable in mental power, lacking in physical and moral courage, vindictive, obstinate and spiteful, he hated those whom he could not control, and when opportunity offered, caused them to feel the sting of his resentment. His spirit of vengeance outlived the lapse of time. He might forget a benefaction, but never forgave an injury. Of those who opposed his bank compromise bill, Douglas was beyond his reach, but Trumbull who was at his mercy, was immediately dismissed from the office of Secretary of State and replaced by Thompson Campbell. Having no chance to punish Judge Ralston, he “nursed his wrath to keep it warm” until he wrote his History of Illinois several years later, in which he fully vented his pent-up malice. However, expecting to publish the book soon, and knowing that Judge Ralston was still living, he was too cowardly to designate him by name in his contemptible vilification (sic).Ford’s History of Illinois, pp. 307-308. When General Shields published Fords History in 1854, Ralston was on the Pacific slope, and probably never saw in what terms his fellow Democrat, whom he had helped to make Governor of Illinois, had so meanly maligned him.
When the Legislature adjourned Judge Ralston again took his accustomed place at the Quincy bar, giving to his profession his undivided attention. It is not to be presumed, however, that he abjured further interest in politics, or renounced all political ambition. Few, indeed, in this great Democratic republic who have once enjoyed the subtle charm of office-holding voluntarily relinquish it, or lose the ardent desire to regain it. The Judge was doubtless at all times, as all politicians are, in a receptive mood, willing to “make the sacrifice for the public good,” but was not openly a candidate for any position. Yet, he was accused in 1845 of coquetting with the Mormons, his erstwhile foes, who still voted the Democratic ticket, and held the balance of power in that district, but he stoutly denied the (Whig) impeachment.Quincy Whig of Sept. 24th, 1845. It is though, altogether probable that his hold on popular favor had waned, and the fickle public was fawning upon new idols, as it often does.
To the class of “has been”, or of “would like to be” politicians, the war with Mexico in 1846 opened up grand vistas of glowing opportunities. It also stirred the martial spirit of thousands of worthy citizens who only saw that their country’s honor was at stake. Of that multitude Judge Ralston’s patriotism was so aroused that he offered his services to the Polk administration, which were accepted by his appointment, June 26, 1846, to the position of Assistant Quartermaster General for the Illinois Volunteers, with the rank of Captain, and he was ordered to San Antonio, Texas. Closing up his business at Quincy, he left Illinois and arrived at his destination on the 13th of October. After resting a few days he started for the seat of war in Mexico, but his train was overtaken before it had gone far by an order from headquarters, at Washington, assigning him to duty at San Antonio. Returning there he relieved Captain Wall, the officer in charge, and remained there until the war closed. Though never within three hundred miles of the fighting line, the work Captain Ralston did was of more value to the army, and the cause it was engaged in, than the services of many officers in the field of higher rank. Vast quantities of supplies obtained upon his requisitions from New Orleans and elsewhere, droves of beef cattle, hundreds of horses, mules and oxen, wagons, harness, and other property of our army in Mexico, purchased by his disbursement of many thousands of dollars, were forwarded from his post and distributed to the soldiers beyond the Rio Grande.
He employed for his chief clerk Mr. Edward Everett, a young man of education and very superior business qualifications, a nephew of the distinguished Massachusetts statesman of the same name, and at the time a sergeant in Captain Morgan’s Quincy riflemen in Colonel Hardin’s regiment, who was then incapacitated from active military service by a severe wound in the knee inflicted by a drunken Texan ruffian. Quartermaster Ralston took possession of the historic Alamo buildings, then in a ruinous condition, and converted them into a depot for supplies, storehoues, quarters for his men, and offices for himself and clerks. Assuming that he would probably be stationed at that post for some time, he sent for his wife who joined him there early in March 1847. Not of robust constitution, her health failed as the heat of summer advanced, and she soon fell a victim of that enervating climate. She died on the 3rd of July, 1847, at the age of 35 years, eight months and twenty-seven days., and was buried there. She had lost four children in their infancy, there remaining but one left to her, a daughter named Elizabeth, who subsequently married Marcellus Tilden, a lawyer of Sacramento, California.
Captain Ralston’s clerk, Mr. Everett, was, in politics, as his illustrious uncle, a staunch Whig, passing in later years by easy transition into the ranks of Illinois Republicans. In his highly interesting “Military Experience”-donated by him to the Quincy (Illinois) Historical Society, he says of his superior, “Captain James H. Ralston was a Kentuckian who had settled in Illinois, tall in person, and sallow complexion, with that formality of address, and assumed dignity so often seen in the western lawyer. In politics he was a Democrat, and as he termed it, a strict constructionist, though moderate and non-partisan in his views. He was mild and pleasant in his intercourse, and was quite popular with the citizens of the place, and no unkind word ever passed between us-though on occasion, as a delinquent once observed after a reprimand, “he could use a fellow up in very few words.'” From this last sentence it must be inferred that the Captain when provoked employed harsh expletives to emphasize his utterances; yet, he was not usually profane in conversation. He was addicted to the use of tobacco, as all Kentuckians are; but, though a native of Bourbon county, very seldom tasted liquor of any description. Mr. Everett adds, “He was occasionally called on to make speeches on public occasions, as his delivery was good and his manner impressive, but as his early education had been very deficient he would make out a rough draft of what he had to say, and then hand it to me to improve the language and write it out clearly. His letters and reports to the heads of the departments at Washington were gotten up in the same manner.”1905-Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, p. 216.
In November, 1848,1905-Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, p. 228. Captain Ralston was relieved of his duties as Assistant Quartermaster at San Antonio by Captain M. Morris, A. Q. M.. U. S. A. Then followed for several weeks the work incident to turning over to the new officer the military stores, and settling up the business of the post. That transfer and settlements completed, Captain Ralston, with Mr. Everett, departed for Port Lavacca; thence took steamer to New Orleans, from there up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to Wheeling, Virginia, and on to Washington. “Here,” says Mr. Everett, “we made our final accounts and explained such points as were objected to by the auditors. The sum of public money expended by Captain Ralston while in Texas was a very large one, besides which the property, mostly means of transportation, passing through our hands, not included in the above, was very considerable. The accounts passed a very rigid examination and everything was finally allowed and Captain Ralston and myself honorably discharged.” In the meantime, the gold discovered by Jim Marshall in the tail-race of Capt. Sutter’s mill at Coloma, California, Jan. 4, 1848 had frenzied the nation with the lust for riches. Captain Ralston received his discharge from military service on the 3d of March, 1849 and hastened back to Quincy. He was much disheartened by the changes time had wrought there in his former domestic and social surroundings during his absence of almost three years. His wife dead, his home desolate, his law business gone, many old and cherished friends passed away and replaced by strangers, saddened and discouraged, he concluded to join the mad rush of Argonauts for the New Eldorado, and there commence life anew. Quickly disposing of his property, and making provision for his daughter, he set out on the long and unknown journey. Arriving there at the age of forty-two, in the prime and vigor of manhood, he found himself in a strange world of infinite possibilities, teeming with people of all races and stations, wildly scrambling for sudden wealth. Shunning the gold mines, so attractive to the multitude of immigrants, the Judge located at Sacramento City, where, in partnership with Thomas Sunderland, he engaged in the practice of such law as was then recognized to be in force. Making a specialty of protecting and defending the rights of miners and squatters against those who claimed titles to their properties by virtue of Spanish grants, he gained wide popularity and prospered.
The civil government of California was at that period in chaotic condition, with no one in authority, and without so much as territorial organization. Its American populationCitizens of the United States, in contradistinction to the natives of Spanish descent. was daily increasing by thousands, and already a horde of hungry politicians were clamoring for its admission as a state into the union. In pursuance of a call issued, they selected delegates who met in convention in Colton’s hall at Monterey, on Sept. 1, 1849, and framed a State constitution which expressly excluded the institution of slavery. By its provision a legislature was elected which convened at San Jose on December 15th and petitioned Congress for a State government. In response to their appeal Mr. Clay, early in that winter, introduced in the U. S. Senate his celebrated omnibus bill, or “Compromise” by the terms of which California was admitted as a state and New Mexico and Utah were organized as territories. That measure passed the lower house of Congress on the 7th and was approved by President Fillmore on the 9th of September, 1850.
The political turmoil preceding and attending the birth of the new state (Sept. 9, 1850), awakened in Judge Ralston the old office-seeking instinct that for a few years past had been semi-quiescent. He was again an active politician, keenly interested in watching the machinery of the young state set in motion, and also watching incidentally for his opportunity. It came in 1852, when he was nominated and elected by the Democrats to represent Sacramento county in the State Senate, that county constituting a senatorial district. The legislature of California then met annually. Representatives were elected for one year, and senators for two. The state’s capitol had not yet been located, the several towns were making strenuous efforts to secure it, occasioning much jealous and ill-feeling, with some scandal. The third General Assembly to which Judge Ralston was elected, convened at Vallejo on the 5th of January, 1852, and on the 12th of that month moved to Sacramento, remaining there until it adjourned on the 4th of May. Senator Ralston was make chairman of the Standing Committee on Corporations, and a member of the Committees on State Library and Enrolled Bills.
In its then formative stage the infant state required much careful legislation to regulate its many diversified interests, define its land tenures, and establish constitutional government in place of the capricious exercise of authority by Alcaldes and priests to which as a province of Mexico it had long been subjected. Judge Ralston was one of the most attentive members of the Senate, taking an active and conspicuous part in all the important work of the session. The estimate in which he was held by that body may be inferred by the fact that in the election of joint ballot of a U. S. Senator, though not a candidate for the position, he received eight votes on the first and second ballots, and nine votes on the third, when he withdrew his name. The contest then narrowed down to David C. Broderick and John B. Weller, with selection of the latter on the eighth ballot.
The extraordinary amount of rain that fell in upper California during the winter of 1851-52, by raising the Sacramento river over its banks, inundated a large area of its valley. No levee having then been thrown up to protect Sacramento City from the annual overflows of the river, it was for several weeks another Venice, its traffic and business carried on by boats over the streets covered with water from two to six feet deep. The writer of this sketch went down to Sacramento from the mines in March, 1852, and while there visited the legislature on several occasions in a canoe or skiff, the means of transportation employed by the legislators, state officials, and others, from their hotels or residences to the building use temporarily for a state house.
The fourth general assembly of California was convoked at Vallejo on the 3d of January, 1853, and moved from that place to Benecia on the 4th of February, continuing there its deliberations until it adjourned on the 19th of May. Those towns, built on low sand flats on Napa Bay, are six miles apart, and twenty-three miles northeast of San Francisco. Each town was in succession made the State capital, General Vallejo’s offering to the state a large quantity of land and $350,000.00 in money as an inducement to locate it in his town, Vallejo; but, it was totally unsuitable and without houses or other requisites in either town for a state capitol, the seat of government was, in 1854 permanently fixed at Sacramento, a more central point, seventy-five miles in direct line east of San Francisco. Upon organization of the legislature, in recognition of Senator Ralston’s ability and party leadership, he was given the post of highest honor and responsibility, that of Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He was also place on the important committees on Finance and Corporations. For fidelity to his duties, for industry, capability, and influence, during that session he was not surpassed by any member of either branch of that assembly.
He was not an applicant for office that year having in consideration a matter of much weightier concern to engage his personal attention. For seven years he was a widower, solaced in a measure for his great loss by the care and affection of his only child, his daughter Elizabeth. But the inevitable occurred. A rising young lawyer of Sacramento found favor in her eyes, married her, and took her to a new home. Realizing then the dreary loneliness of his situation, he decided that the wisest course to pursue would be to look around for another life companion to replace the one taken from him by death in Texas. With that view he went to New York City, having doubtless arranged all necessary preliminaries by correspondence, and there, on the 20th of October, 1853 was united in marriage with Miss Harriet N. Jackson, daughter of Rev. Aaron Jackson, a Baptist minister of that city, who several years before had been stationed in charge of a church at Quincy, Illinois.
Returning with his bride to Sacrament, he applied himself with renewed diligence to his profession, having apparently exorcised for all the ignis fatuus of political ambition he had so long been chasing. Its fascination was, however, too strongly entrenched in his nature to be permanently shaken off by such a trivial affair as marriage. Yielding to the persuasion of friends, he again entered the arena in 1856 as a candidate for chief justice of the Supreme Court on the Democratic ticket. Up to that time the old-line Democrats had dominated California politically; but the disaffection, and disintegration, of the party in the eastern states, owing to repeal of the Missouri Compromise and its consequences, in 1854, had spread to the Pacific slope with the result of arraying against it the united elements of all opposition, including the Whigs, Free-Soilers and Know-Nothings. Still, the Democrats carried the state for Buchanan in 1856 though routed in many of the counties and for most of the state offices. Judge Ralston was one of the victims of the Douglas heresies, and went down in defeat before the forces of the political revolution that, rapidly gaining strength, in a few years swept the country. In 1860 and 1864 California gave its electoral vote to Lincoln, and assumed its place in the column of Republican states.
That disaster to his party was intolerable to Judge Ralston. On receiving the official returns of the 1860 election he immediately settled up his business and left the state, going over the mountains to Virginia City in Nevada, where he once more established himself in the practice of law. Nevada then had a population of about 15,00, which, upon development of the amazing deposits of silver and gold in the Comstock and other mines, quickly grew to nearly 50, 000. Politicians were there early and in force, having some time before begun, and continued, agitation for territorial organization, which Congress granted in March, 1861. That act, instead of allaying political ebulition, stimulated it to increased activity in the direction of a demand for admission of the territory into the union as a state. In futherance of that object a call was issued in 1863 for a convention to frame a state constitution. In that call was presented to Judge Ralston a tempting opportunity he could not resist. Offering his services to the people he was elected a delegate to represent Storey County, of which Virginia City is the county seat, in that conventions. In a private letter received from Mr. Wm. Epler, at present a citizen of Jacksonville, Illinois, he says, “During the fall of 1863 it was my good fortune to become intimately acquainted with Judge James H. Ralston. We first met as members of the first constitutional convention of Nevada, he a delegate from Storey county, and I a delegate from Humboldt county. For the forty days of the convention we occupied seats and desks with arms length of each other.
“The fact that he formerly resided in Quincy, Illinois, and I in Jacksonville, brought us in close touch at once. In that convention Judge Ralston won the respect and esteem of the entire body by his dignified, modest and gentlemanly manners, his evident ability, and close attention to business. He came over to Nevada territory from California, as did nearly all the other members, my own case being an exception, as I never lived in California before becoming a citizen of Nevada. Not long after adjournment of the convention, early in 1864, he moved from Virginia City to Austin, in Lander county, near the center of the territory, and there resumed his practice of law; but, which was destined not to continue long:”
At that period Judge Ralston was physically and mentally vigorous and active, with every prospect of many years of exertion and usefulness in store for him. Of optimistic temperament he looked forward with cheerful expectancy to the admission of Nevada into the Union in the near future, and perhaps was planning to play an important part in the political affairs of the new state. The human family surely has few greater blessings than that impenetrable veil excluding the future from its vision. Nevada was made a state by Act of Congress in October of that year (1864); but five months before that event the public was shocked and saddened by the melancholy death of Judge Ralston. The mournful story of its occurrence, learned from various sources, was published in full in the Quincy Whig (Illinois) of June 26, 1864, and is in substance as follows:
About the 1st of May (1864) the Judge, with another man, left Austin on horseback to visit his ranch in Smoky Valley, thirty miles distant. They soon separated, his companion going to some other point, and he went on alone. Mrs. Ralston says “he was caught in a blinding snow storm on the desert,’ and no doubt lost his way. When he did not return after the lapse of two or three days, his family and friends, apprehensive that he may have met with some accident, organized a party to go in search of him, but without success, having ascertained at his ranch that he was not there. A number of experienced plainsmen then, with a skillful Indian guide, starting from Austin, upon going some distance struck his trail, and followed it in the direction of San Antonia for a distance of ninety miles, then crossing Smoky Valley at the Indian Wells opposite Coyote Springs, keeping a southern course, passing Link Barnes’ ranch, a few miles farther fell in with some Indians who told them that Judge Ralston was dead, and directed them to his body which they found but eight miles northeast of San Antonio, and five miles from the Barnes’ ranch.” Lost and bewildered he traveled for days without food or water until finally he fell from his horse exhausted and there expired. From all the ‘signs’ and circumstances observed it was concluded that his tragic death occurred on the 8th of May (1864) when 56 years, 6 months and 26 days of age.
Some Shoshone Indians (Root Diggers) were the first to discover the dead body, which was considerably mutilated by the coyotes. To prevent its further mutilation by those little wolves, the Indians in accordance with their tribal custom of cremating their dead, piled dry sage brush over the remains and burned them. The searching party gathered up all that remained of the dead statesman and jurist, placing them in a sack for transportation on horseback, and conveyed them to his home in Austin. With his remains were found some gold coins he had in his pockets, together with his spectacles and watch, the latter ruined, of course, by the fire, ‘but valuable as melancholy relics of his sad fate.’
His body upon its arrival in town was taken in charge by his brother Masons, of which order he had attained the rank of Knight Templar. At an early hour yesterday, the members of the legal fraternity met at the court house and resolved to attend in a body the funeral of the honored deceased. The procession formed in front of the court house at one o’clock and headed by the Austin brass band, followed by the Masons in regalia, members of the bar, firemen, hearse, the family of the deceased, citizens on horseback and in carriages, the cortege marched to the cemetery. This was the most imposing funeral that has yet occurred in Austin. The worth, position and high esteem, the melancholy circumstances attending the death of Judge Ralston, gave a solemn and universal interest to the occasion. After the interment the procession returned, marching to a lively tune, to the court house and dispersed.Austin Star, May 12th, 1864.
In publishing the foregoing account, the Quincy Herald of June 29, 1864, said: “The old settlers of this part of the State, and indeed of the whole State, will regret to learn of the death of Judge Ralston. The particulars concerning his death we give in this article below, copied from the Whig. He was one of the early settlers of this part of the State, where he earned a high reputation as a lawyer, and achieved distinction as a leading politician. He was universally respected for his integrity and candor, both as a public man and a private citizen, and was sincerely beloved as a citizen and neighbor” The dreary, sandy waste in which Judge Ralston so wretchedly died was then named “Ralston’s Desert” a name it still bears, and is so designated on the government maps.
From the marriage of Judge Ralston and Miss Jackson two children were born, a daughter, Mary Aurora Ralston, who died in early life, and a son, Jackson H. Ralston, now and for several years past, an eminent attorney of Washington, D. C., “who was counsel representing the United States in the Pious Fund case, the first tried before the Hague tribunal. He was also the umpire between Italy and Venezuela in the court of Arbitration at Caracas a few years ago.” Mrs. Harriet N. Ralston, the Judge’s widow, is also at present (1909) a resident of Washington.
It is not certain that any relationship existed between Judge Ralston and William Chapman Ralston of San Francisco, though Mrs. Harriet N. Ralston asserts they were second cousins. Wm. C. Ralston, a native of Plymouth, Ohio, and a “Napoleon of Finance,” it may be remembered, was for three years president of the great Bank of California at San Francisco, until deposed from that position by the directors, and the bank closed its doors about noon on the 26th of August, 18785. That afternoon the dethroned president took his customary bath in the Bay at North Beach. Swimming far out from shore he “seemed to be taken with a fit” and drowned before a boat could reach him. The cause of the bank’s suspension, it was soon known, was the abstraction of four and a half millions of its funds by Resident Ralston, which he converted to his own use and lost it all in wild speculation.History of San Francisco. By John S. Hittell 1877, pp 407-408.
[To Mrs. Harriet N. Ralston of Washington, Hon. Wm. A. Richardson of Quincy, Illinois, and Hon. James A. Johnson of Oakland, California, I am greatly indebted for special information, without which the foregoing biographical sketch of Judge Ralston could not have been written—-J. F. S.]
Special thanks to Katie Haensel for finding, transcribing, indexing and sharing this article.
Source: Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year 1908, pp. 215-232. Illinois State Journal Company, State Printers, Springfield, 1909.
|↑1||Ford’s History of Illinois, p. 307|
|↑2||First and Second Scammon Reports|
|↑3||Ford’s History of Illinois p. 299 et seq.|
|↑4||Adam W. Snyder and his Period in Illinois History 1906. pp. 406-408 ct seq.|
|↑5||Ford’s History of Illinois, p. 303|
|↑6||Ford’s History of Illinois, pp. 307-308.|
|↑7||Quincy Whig of Sept. 24th, 1845.|
|↑8||1905-Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, p. 216.|
|↑9||1905-Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, p. 228.|
|↑10||Citizens of the United States, in contradistinction to the natives of Spanish descent.|
|↑11||Austin Star, May 12th, 1864.|
|↑12||History of San Francisco. By John S. Hittell 1877, pp 407-408.|