Biography of James Sidney Rollins

James Sidney Rollins, lawyer and statesman, distinguished for extraordinary public services, was born April 19, 1812, at Richmond, Kentucky, and died at Columbia, Missouri, January 9, 1888, in the seventy-sixth year of his age. His parents were Anthony Wayne and Sallie Harris (Rodes) Rollins. The father was a native of Pennsylvania, a graduate of Jefferson College in that state and an eminent physician. He was a son of Henry Rollins, who was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, emigrated to America during the Revolutionary war, enlisted in the Continental army and fought in the battle of Brandywine. The mother, a lady of refinement and beautiful character, was a native of Madison county, Kentucky.

James Sidney Rollins was educated in Washington College of Pennsylvania and in the University of Indiana at Bloomington, being graduated from the latter institution in 1830 with the highest honors and as valedictorian of his class. His parents having removed to Boone county, Missouri, he followed them after his graduation, taking charge of the large farm upon which they had located. During the same time he read law under the instruction of Judge Abiel Leonard of Fayette. During the Black Hawk war, in 1832, he acted as aide-de-camp on the staff of Major General Richard Gentry and was actively engaged for six months on the Des Moines river, deriving from this service the title of major. He then entered the law department of Transylvania University at Lexington, Kentucky, from which he was graduated in 1834. Among his classmates were Lewis V. Bogy and John C. Miller, both of Missouri, who subsequently served in congress, the former as a senator and the latter as a representative. He then returned to Columbia, Missouri, and entered upon a law practice which was successful and gained him distinction from the outset. In 1836 he was leading counsel for Conway, a negro indicted for the murder of Israel Grant. His defense was masterly and his plea before the jury was a gem of eloquence, exciting the admiration of the bar of the state. For some years, without abatement of effort in his professional work, he was associated with his law partner, Thomas Miller, in the ownership and management of the Columbia Patriot, a whig newspaper. In 1836 he was a member of the first railroad convention held in the state, at St. Louis, and as chairman of a committee in which his colleagues were Ed Sates and Hamilton R. Gamble, he drafted the memorial to congress praying for a land grant in aid of construction. This marked the beginning of a life of great usefulness. In impulse and thought, the public well-being was his greatest desire, and the people whom he sought to serve, recognizing his sincerity and ability, afforded him their confidence and support. In 1838, at the age of twenty-six years, he was elected to the legislature. To this time that body had failed to locate and establish a state university, as contemplated in the act of congress making a land grant for that purpose nearly twenty years previous. Moved by a desire to advance the cause of education and hoping to benefit his own county, he introduced and secured the passage of a bill for location in that one of six central counties named which would provide the largest building fund and afford the greatest advantages. He now devoted his effort to win the prize for his own county of Boone and for months he did little else than address the people upon the subject. A wonderful interest was created and a popular subscription of one hundred and seventeen thousand, nine hundred dollars was made, including a liberal contribution of his own. This sum, and his able presentation of its material advantages, made Columbia the university seat. He was returned to the legislature in 1840 and in 1846 was elected state senator, in both positions devoting his energies untiringly to the development of the state through railway building and river improvement. He was also the leading advocate for the establishment of the insane asylum at Fulton. In 1844 he was a delegate to the national whig convention and went before the people in support of Henry Clay for the presidency. In 1848 he was unanimously chosen as the whig candidate for governor and made a vigorous canvass, receiving the largest vote ever cast for a candidate of that party, but was defeated by Austin A. King, the democratic nominee. In 1854 he was again elected to the legislature, where he opposed slavery extension. In 1857 he was again the whig candidate for governor to fill the unexpired term of Governor Trusten Polk, elected United States senator, and was defeated by Robert M. Stewart. The majority against him was but three hundred and thirty-four and many maintained that an impartial count would have shown his election. In 1860 he was elected to congress on the Bell and Everett ticket, defeating John B. Henderson on the Douglas and Johnson ticket. Both candidates engaged actively in the canvass and an unusually large vote was polled. He was reelected in 1862, defeating Krekel, republican, by four thousand, nine hundred and three majority. During his congressional service he displayed practical wisdom in his methods and at times thrilled his hearers with the brilliancy of his oratorical powers. During his first term he served on the committees on commerce and on expenditures in the war department, and during the second term on the committee on naval affairs. He was a stanch Unionist and gave hearty and efficient support to every measure for the suppression of the rebellion. He introduced a bill for railroad and telegraph construction from the Missouri river to the Pacific coast, under which, with added amendments, the Union Pacific, Central Pacific and Kansas Pacific railways were built. Upon the passage of the bill providing for agricultural colleges in the various states, through donations of public lands, he received from Senator Morrill, its author, a letter acknowledging that but for his intelligent and able support it would have been defeated in the house. Under the provisions of this measure Missouri received three hundred and thirty thousand acres and founded the agricultural college at Columbia. He also advocated in an able and eloquent speech, which was widely published, the thirteenth amendment to the constitution, abolishing slavery, although at the time he was probably the largest slave owner in his district. In 1864 he declined candidacy for reelection to give his attention to long neglected business interests. In 1866 he was again elected to the legislature, receiving nearly the total vote cast. In this session his prominence as a leader devolved upon him much labor and grave responsibility in formulating and securing the enactment of measures necessitated by the changed conditions consequent upon the abolition of slavery and the abnormal status of a great class which had borne arms against the government. He was deeply interested in perfecting the common school system and in the restoration of the university, which had suffered severely during the war. He introduced and brought to passage the bills for rebuilding the president’s house, destroyed by fire, and to establish a normal department of the university, the latter being stoutly opposed. In 1868 he was again elected to the senate, much against his desire and personal interest. In this session he introduced and secured the passage of the bill establishing an agricultural and mechanical college in connection with the university and advocated and aided in the passage of the bills establishing normal schools at Kirksville and Warrensburg, providing for aid to Lincoln Institute and establishing the insane asylum at St. Joseph. In 1872 he was presented to the democratic state convention for the nomination for governor. On the first ballot he received a larger vote than any competitor, but in the end a compromise candidate, Silas Woodson, was chosen. Major Rollins had been unable to take part in the canvass before the people owing to the long continued illness of a daughter, who afterward died. This marks the close of his political life, in which he might have continued had he been so inclined. He maintained interest, however, in the local concerns of his county and city, rail, plank and turnpike roads, improved streets, electric lights, waterworks, banks, churches and schools, some of which he had projected and all aided with effort and means. In the years which followed frequent evidences came to him of the high esteem in which he was held by those who knew most of his life work. In May, 1872, at a meeting of the board of curators of the University of Missouri, a resolution was unanimously adopted, declaring that James S. Rollins “has won the honorable title of Pater Universitatis Missouriensis and that the thanks of this board are hereby tendered to him for his great efforts to promote the prosperity, usefulness and success of this institution.” The adoption of the resolution was moved by Professor Edward Wyman, of St. Louis, and addressesin line with its sentiment were made by members of the board and others. The title bestowed upon Major Rollins was merited. Reduced to money value, the sums hehad secured from individuals and through legislation for the university, including six scholarships endowed by himself, have amounted to five hundred and eight thousand two hundred and sixty-one dollars and bring an annual interest return of over sixty thousand dollars. In addition to this he was the author of legislation which insure the permanency and inviolability of this and other funds, amounting in aggregate to nearly one million five hundred thousand dollars. April 19, 1886, his seventy-fourth birthday anniversary, he resigned his position as a member of the board of curator of which body he had been president for nearly a quarter of a century, and in hisletter of acceptance Governor John S. Marmaduke wrote: “It is a matter of history that to you, more than to anyone else, is due its (the University of Missouri) founda tion, its location, its organization and its growth and advance to its present position of extended usefulness; and its perpetuity, already assured, will transmit your name through the histories of countless future ages.”

He was a member of the Presbyterian church, active and generous in all its works. He was married June 6, 1837, to Miss Mary E. Hickman, of Columbia, who yet survives with the following of their children: Laura R., the wife of Irvine O. Hockaday; Captain James H.; Mrs. John H. Overall, of St. Louis; George Bingham; Curtis Burnam; Florence, the widow of the Rev. Joseph R. Gray; and Edward Tutt. A son, James Hickman, of the United States army, died February 5, 1898, at the Southern Hotel in St. Louis, where he was temporarily stopping for medical treatment.

Major Rollins was tall in stature, lithe of form and courteous and pleasing in address. He was cultured and highly educated, ready with fact and argument, yet without assumption of superiority. As an orator he was impressive and eloquent, his voice was musical, his gestures graceful, and withal so natural that art was not to be imputed. As a legislator for state and nation, he was honest and incorruptible; his love for his country and devotion to its highest interests was devoted, even passionate. His conception and conduct of public affairs marked him as a profound and sagacious statesman. In his personal life he was of kindly disposition, more ready to commend than to condemn; compassionate and tender-hearted, his benevolences were many, liberal and unostentatious. He was in all relations a model Christian gentleman.


Stevens, Walter B. Centennial History of Missouri (The Center State) One Hundred Years In The Union 1820-1921 Vol 6. St. Louis-Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company. 1921.

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