THE ALMOST FORGOTTEN PASS IN REVIEW – THOMAS RUSK
For the many years I lived in Dallas, I would often pass by Rusk Middle School on Inwood Road. I could vaguely recall that this fellow Rusk was somehow involved in the struggle for Texas Independence but I could not remember just how. Worse, I could not find any one of my associates who knew any more than I did. Once, on a very pleasant ride through the Fall scenery on the Texas State Railroad , we pulled into the East Texas town of Rusk and even there found out little more as to the man himself. Now I suppose that I must plead guilty to laziness of the mind for not going to the library, where they stock proven remedies for ignorance. The question currently before us is how we can get the “sick child” to take the pill in this respect? Perhaps putting a little enjoyment into it can help.
I was impressed recently by a movie I saw on cable TV by the name of “Gone To Texas”. What I thought was unusual about this movie was the fact that the writers went considerably beyond the trite old practice of “rounding up the usual suspects” in presenting a story about Sam Houston and his times. By this I refer to the meny characters given speaking roles commensurate with their roles in the events that actually occurred. One really needs to see this movie twice for, unless you are a professor of history, you are apt to miss something on the first viewing. Most folks in these modern times seem to associate Texas History with only Austin, Houston, Travis, Bowie and Crockett and yet these, as deserving as they were, were just the tip of an historical iceberg made up of one of the most diverse and interesting group of adventurers that ever rallied to a common cause. One should not assume from my writing of this, that I consider myself an authority in this field for I most assuredly do not. No , perhaps I am better than that – I am proud to be an “amateur” historian. That much maligned term, amateur, has an aristocratic pedigree from it’s derivation from the Latin words meaning “for the love of it”. It is my purpose in these writings to draw out other amateurs who share this love. Please correct my mistakes as we go along for, in so doing, you will give this work an ongoing heartbeat that will benefit us all. If I can manage to raise salience on Texas History, even by honest mistake that gets corrected as we go, then I will view this effort as successful.
The following article on Thomas Rusk is taken from the Google page of the Tarlton Law Library of the University of Texas as it appears on Google. One incident that is not mentioned is one that I thought of timely interest. It seems that there was considerable disagreement over Houston’s handling of the “Runaway Scrape” and his battle plans , if any , for what was to become the Battle of San Jacinto. Houston kept his plans completely to himself, fearing the Mexicans would find out through leaks, until the last moments before the battle. Just minutes before he ordered the charge, he took Rusk aside in his capacity of then Secretary of State, revealed the plan to him and secured his approval, thus handing the politics for the benefit of critics had the plan not succeed. Not unlike how US presidents have sought to handle modern conflicts. Clever man , that Sam Houston and also clever was Thomas Rusk who has been in virtual anonymity for far too long.
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.
(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 inHunter and Hyde v. Bernard Oelrich, which sought recovery of a horse or its value, alleged to be $350.)
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).