Biography of Hon. John S. Phelps

The prominence, both State and national, of this most distinguished citizen of Greene county, may well serve as a reason why this sketch is given at greater length than that of other citizens mentioned; however, even this is but the merest outline of a life whose long public service makes up a history which would require a volume in itself, if given in a matter anything like that merited by the distinguished subject. John S. Phelps is the son of Elisha Phelps, and was born in Simsbury, Hartford county, Connecticut, December 22, 1814. The father, Elisha, was a lawyer of great prominence in that State, who served his fellow citizens in the Legislature, in State offices, and three terms in the national Congress. Noah Phelps, father of Elisha and grandfather of John S., was a captain in the Revolution and a most successful scout and spy. He was one of the “committee of safety” that planed the capture of Ticondero. Like his son and grandson, he, too, served the people in legislative and other capacities of public trust. Mr. Phelps was reared in his birthplace, receiving his education in the public schools and in Washington (now Trinity) college at Hartford, completing his course there in 1832. Subsequently, he studied law under his father for three years, and was admitted to the bar on the twenty-first anniversary of his birth. After two years of practice in Hartford, he determined to come West and seek a better and wider field for an ambitious young lawyer. Acting with that wisdom and foresight which has ever characterized him in both public and private life, he chose the newly admitted State of Missouri, and in 1837, set foot upon her soil. It was necessary to be re-examined, before being enrolled as a member of the Missouri bar, and young Phelps went to Boonville, where Judge Tompkins of the Supreme Court had agreed to meet and examine him; the judge, however, failed to come, and Mr. Phelps mounted a horse and proceeded to Jefferson City, where the judge resided. Here again was a disappointment, for he of the gown and peruke was some distance in the country at a saw mill where the seeker finally found him; but “all is well that ends well,” and there, sitting on a log in the woods of Cole county, Missouri’s future Governor was examined and licensed to practice in all courts of record, the license being written on a leaf torn from an old blue ledger, that being the only paper in the mill camp. Armed with this document, with his heart full of enthusiasm, this youth of twenty-three started for the great Southwest, locating at Springfield, then a mere hamlet, but rapidly becoming the trade center of a vast scope of country. He at once entered upon a lucrative practice, and rapidly rose to the head of the profession, practicing over a district of country extending from Warsaw on the north to Forsyth on the south, and from Waynesville on the east to Neosho on the west. He was soon recognized as the leading member of the bar in that section, for young as he was, his great legal attainments enabled him to cope successfully with the most experienced lawyers; and during the whole course of his professional career, never once did he violate the courtesies that should always exist between members of the legal fraternity. His public life began at an early age. In 1840 he was chosen to represent Greene county in the General Assembly of Missouri, and but little of his life has been spent in retirement since then. In 1844, he was elected to Congress, that being the last election under the then existing system of a general ticket; and for eighteen consecutive years, served in the same high position of public trust. Any attempt at a full statement of his acts comprised in those years—his many valuable services—would far transcend the limits of this work; but the bare fact, that for twelve years he was a member of the committee on ways and means—always the most important committee of a legislative body—and part of the time its chairman, is, in itself, the best evidence of the esteem and confidence reposed in him on the part of his co-workers in Congress. A brief summary may here be given of some of the great questions of public interest then agitating the country, in each of which Mr. Phelps actively participated, always guided by those principles of unswerving Democracy which had been his from early boyhood: The Oregon Question; Establishment of an Independent Treasury System; Revenue Tariff Question; Mexican War, and territorial acquisition consequent thereon; Admission of California; Postage Reduction; Establishment of an Overland Mail Route (by coach) to California; Land Grants to Missouri for Rail Road Purposes; Kansas-Nebraska Bill; The Civil War, and a long series of other questions of greater or less interest, those enumerated being the most important. Only the briefest outline can here be given of Mr. Phelps’ position on the weightiest of these grave questions; but those desiring to post themselves more fully are referred to the Congressional Record extending over those periods of time. The acquisition of California and other territory west of the Rio Grande, led to an active discussion of the slavery question, when the proposition to admit California and establish territorial governments in other districts came up in Congress. Mr. Phelps favored the admission of California, for which Congress had provided no territorial government, and which had so rapidly filled up after the discovery of gold there in 1848. The thousands of people who flocked to that Eldorado, finding themselves without any law for protection, and having the spirit of self-government strong within them, proceeded to organize as a State government, adopting a constitution and sending Gwinn and Fremont as Senators. Her admission was strongly resisted in Congress, but Mr. Phelps made a powerful speech in favor thereof, and with the able assistance of others who favored it, succeeded in passing the bill admitting California. When the slavery phase of the question was broached, he urged the non-intervention policy, preferring to leave it to the people themselves to speak their will in this regard. He advocated postage reduction, and voted for the bill reducing it to three cents on prepaid and five cents on unpaid letters. Any further reduction he thinks unwise, as the system is now on a good, self-sustaining basis. Mr. Phelps believed in a tariff for revenue only, and voted for the tariff of 1846, a measure denounced by the protectionists as one fraught with destruction to the manufacturing interests of the country. In about ten years thereafter, when a further reduction of duties was advocated and carried, the leading manufacturers of the country besought Congress not to interfere with the rates of duties established in 1846. Mr. Phelps favored the measure granting bounty lands to soldiers and extending preemption privileges to actual settlers. He also favored the granting of lands by the general government to Missouri to aid in building a railroad from Hannibal to St. Joseph, and from St. Louis to the southwest corner of the State. In 1853, when Congress was discussing, the building of a trans-continental railway, Mr. Phelps favored the construction of a road on or near the thirty-fifth parallel of north latitude, through the Indian country via Albuquerque to San Francisco, on which route the Atlantic and Pacific is now in part constructed. He was always opposed to national banks, and lost no opportunity to fight any and all measures favoring those vampire-like institutions. During his last term in Congress, which was in Mr. Lincoln’s first administration, he was part of the time in the field, the war being then in progress; and he was appointed on the committee of ways and means before he had been sworn in as a member, a compliment never before tendered to any other citizen. While he advocated measures raising men and money to prosecute the war, he opposed the confiscation act as unconstitutional, and strongly opposed the practice of military arrests of private citizens and confining them without due process of law. He was still a member of Congress, as we have seen, when the war came on, and was opposed, both on principle and policy, to secession, and did all in his power under the constitution, to aid in suppressing rebellion. In 1861, he raised a regiment, known as the “Phelps Regiment,” which did valiant service for six months, and was commanded by Col. Phelps in person at the memorable engagement at Pea Ridge, in which it suffered such heavy loss. Without solicitation on his part, Col. Phelps was appointed military governor of Arkansas, in 1862, which be accepted at the earliest request of his friends. Ill health, however, soon necessitated his return to St. Louis. In 1864 be resumed the law practice at Springfield, his congressional career having closed in 1863. His party, the great Missouri Democracy, nominated him as their candidate, in 1868, for the office of Governor. Having been a Union soldier, he could the more safely make the canvass as the Democratic candidate. He went into the campaign claiming his constitutional right to discuss any and all political questions and he fearlessly did so. But the hated “Drake Constitution,” to which Phelps was always opposed, had disfranchised so many citizens of the State that the Democrats—though greatly in the majority—failed to elect their man; and a Governor, whom only a minority of the people favored, was declared elected. The Phelps canvass, however, had an inspiring and salutary effect on the party, and eight years afterwards he was nominated and elected Governor of Missouri by a larger majority than any preceding Governor had ever received. He was the centennial (1876) candidate, and was the first to warm the gubernatorial chair under the long term—four years—provision of the the new constitution of 1875. No man has ever done greater honor to that highest State office than John S. Phelps, and no lady has ever done the honors of the Governor’s mansion with more becoming grace than did his daughter, Mrs. Mary Montgomery. Had not the constitution fixed the one term limit on the Governor’s office, there is no manner of question but that Gov. Phelps (had he been willing) would have again been called to that great civil trust. In the convention of 1876, no less a person than the Hon. George G. Vest—Missouri’s greatest Senator since the days of Benton—was defeated by Governor Phelps for the Democratic nomination. It may here be said of Gov. Phelps, that notwithstanding the many positions of official trust he has filled, yet, aside from the military, he has never held any office except by the votes of the people. Since the expiration of his gubernatorial term, Gov. Phelps has lived in greater retirement than for years previous, only occasionally giving legal advice in some very important cases. He has spent considerable time in travel, and in 1882, made a trip for leisure and recreation to New Mexico, Arizona, and Chihuahua, Mexico. He also gave much of his time and attention to his invalid sister, Mrs. Eno, who never recovered from the illness with which she was taken down soon after her return from Europe. Few men have greater conversational powers, or enjoy more keenly the social intercourse of friends, than does Missouri’s ex-Governor, when in company of same of those that constitute his large circle of distinguished acquaintances from various parts of this broad land. Great, genial, magnanimous, as easy of approach as a child, and yet dignified withal, Gov. Phelps is just that style of a man that a whole people would love While they revere him, following his lead with that implicit confidence which is the surest criterion in pronouncing him the noble man as well as a great statesman.



Holcombe, Return I. History of Greene County Missouri. Western Historical Company, St. Louis. 1883.

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