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Excerpt from: Stories of Crimes, Trials and Appeals in Civil War Era Missouri
Frank O. Bowman, III

James S. Rollins was born in Kentucky in 1812, and educated in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. He not only “read law” under a prominent practitioner, but somewhat unusually for the time, also graduated from a law school.20 He entered practice in Columbia, Missouri, in 1834, was elected to the state legislature as a representative in 1838 and 1840, and served as state senator from 1846 to 1850. 21 He was the (unsuccessful) Whig candidate for governor in 1848, and the leading (though again unsuccessful) Whig candidate for U.S. Senate in the same period.22 By the time of Hiram’s arrest in 1853, Rollins had also been a newspaper owner and editor, real estate speculator, and railroad booster.23 In 1854, Rollins was again elected state representative, and in 1857 he lost the race for Missouri governor by only 230 votes.24 Although a significant slave owner himself,25 Rollins opposed extension of slavery to the territories26 (by no means a popular view in antebellum central Missouri), and as the threat of southern secession loomed in 1860, Rollins placed himself firmly in the unionist camp.27

The tension between Rollins’ economic interests as a wealthy owner of real and human property and his allegiance to the federal Union was a microcosm of the stresses tearing at Missouri generally and Boone County in particular in the late 1850s. Missouri was the only slave state north of the Mason–Dixon line and west of the Mississippi. Boone County, situated roughly thirty miles north of the state capital of Jefferson City and in the agricultural zone created by the flow of the Missouri River across the state from Kansas City to its junction with the Mississippi at St. Louis, was a part of “Little Dixie,” so-called because it was settled primarily by immigrants from the slave south who brought with them their peculiar institution and the peculiar culture built around it.28 By 1860, Boone County had the third- largest number of slaves among the state’s 114 counties, with 5,034.29 On the other hand, Columbia, the Boone County seat, being close to the capital and home to the state university, was a relatively cosmopolitan place for the time and its leading citizens were not unaware that the state’s economic future was tied just as closely to the urbanizing and industrializing northern states as to the slave south. When the secession crisis broke in 1861, the governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, and the state legislature tried to take Missouri into the Confederacy. After a series of pitched battles between pro-Union and pro- Confederate citizen armies, the secessionist governor and legislators were run out of the state and Missouri’s allegiance to the Union was precariously upheld.30

In 1860, Rollins, a unionist Whig, was elected to the first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1861 to 1864.31 After the Civil War, he returned to civic activism and state politics, securing election to the Missouri state senate in 1868.32 While there, he was instrumental in ensuring that the University of Missouri, which opened in 1841 but had fallen on hard times during the war,33 would remain in Columbia.34 As a result, Rollins is known as the “Father of the University of Missouri.”35 Throughout his long, successful, and lucrative career,36 Rollins continued to practice law in both criminal and civil matters, though he was known to fret that the routine of law practice did not give adequate scope to a man with broad interests and ambitions.37


20. Rollins attended Washington College, Pennsylvania, for three years, transferred to and graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1830, read law for two years with a practitioner, and then attended and graduated from Transylvania Law School in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1834. Id. at 934.

21. GENTRY, supra note 1, at 51, 53.

22. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935. At the time, U.S. Senators were selected by the state legislature and not by popular vote. See Senators—United States, ch. 147, § 1, Mo. Rev. Stat. 1460 (1856), available at http://books.google.com/books?id=MTETltYSr-EC&dq=Revised+Statutes+ of+the+State+of+Missouri+1835&source=gbs_navlinks_s. Rollins’ candidacy for the Senate occurred within the legislature and indicated his stature in the legislative wing of the Whig party.


24. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935; WILLIAM BENJAMIN SMITH, JAMES SIDNEY ROLLINS 28 (New York, DeVinne Press 1891). Another source puts the margin of defeat at 334 votes. The Late Elections in Missouri, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 10, 1857, at 4.

25. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 936–37. One source maintains that Rollins held thirty-four slaves at his home in Columbia in 1860. Missouri’s Little Dixie, http://littledixie.net/Slave%20Housing.htm (last visited June 7, 2010). Another claims he was one of the largest slave owners in the entire state. 2 STEVENS, supra note 23, at 704.

26. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935. Rollins’ views on slavery were convoluted. He owned slaves, but seems to have viewed the institution as an evil. He opposed the extension of slavery to the territories as a matter of policy, id., but appears to have supported the “popular sovereignty” approach of allowing the citizens of each prospective state to choose whether slavery should be permitted, id. at 381 (recounting the events of an 1855 public meeting in Boone County called to debate the events in Kansas, in which Rollins supported resolutions endorsing the popular sovereignty approach of the Kansas–Nebraska Act and opposed resolutions that, in effect, supported extension of slavery into the territories regardless of the views of the inhabitants). A possible indicator of Rollins’ personal views on slavery is an 1860 letter to William F. Switzler in Rollins’ papers, and apparently in his hand, noting that the author is “opposed to all kinds of human merchandise” and observing that the Founders viewed slavery as a “cankerous ulcer, baleful to the body politic where ever it existed,” but implicitly defending the constitutional right of states to adopt or reject slavery within their own boundaries. Western Historical Manuscripts Collection, University of Missouri, Collection No. C1026, file 191 (on file with author).

27. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935.


29. Slaves in Missouri in 1860, HOWARD COUNTY ADVERTISER, Jan. 9, 1903, available at http://www.usgennet.org/usa/mo/topic/afro-amer/slavesinmo.html. Howard County, which adjoins Boone to the west along the Missouri River, had the second-largest slave population in 1860, with 5,886. Id.

30. This two-sentence summary of the events in Missouri at the outset of the Civil War is a tremendous oversimplification of a complex history. For the full story, see 3 WILLIAM E. PARRISH, A HISTORY OF MISSOURI 1–86 (1973).

31. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935, 937.

32. Id. at 937; see also GENTRY, supra note 1, at 53.


34. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 937.

35. OLSON & OLSON, supra note 33, at 3 (describing Rollins’ contributions to the rescue of the university and noting that in 1872, the board of curators of the university recognized him formally as “Pater Universitatis Missouriensis”).

36. In 1858, Rollins had the second highest tax bill in Boone County, second only to Eli Bass. By 1881, Rollins was the largest taxpayer in the county. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 392.

37. “Major Rollins, of Boone County, was a member of the bar, but, like [Thomas Hart] Benton, preferred political to a professional life . . . .” John W. Henry, Personal Recollections, in THE HISTORY OF THE BENCH AND BAR OF MISSOURI 388 (A.J.D. Stewart ed., St. Louis, The Legal Publishing Co. 1898) [hereinafter BENCH AND BAR OF MISSOURI].

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