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Posted January 1, 2003
JOHN BROOKS HENDERSON
Author of The Thirteenth Amendment Abolishing
Slavery in the United States
introduced and transcribed by Kirby Ross
Introduction by Kirby Ross:
Contemporary historians of Civil War Missouri have long been generally preoccupied with telling the stories of the same individuals and events over and over again. Overlooked in the process have been key Missouri war-era figures, some of whom achieved greatness not only in the state, but also in the nation as a whole. One such person was Pike County’s John B. Henderson, whose actions in the 1860s continue to reverberate into the 21st century.
Born in 1826 and orphaned before he was ten years old, Henderson was “bound out” to a farmer until his eighteenth birthday. Enduring first-hand a life of involuntary servitude under a master, he overcame his circumstances and as he grew to maturity taught himself the law. By the time he was age 20 he was a practicing attorney and by age 22 a state legislator. In the course of the next dozen years Henderson served another term in the General Assembly, was appointed state court judge as well as inspector general and colonel of militia, and amassed a personal fortune, primarily in the speculation of land but also through banking and road construction interests. He played a major role on the side of the Union during the Rebellion and was credited by Thomas L. Snead, one Missouri’s foremost Confederates, as being “the most conspicuous opponent of Secession” that Missouri produced. Henderson’s actions in the final days of the conflict and the months immediately thereafter prompted one of his peers to admit “I envy him that fame which couples his name” regarding his most important achievement, and caused a politician by the name of John F. Kennedy to use words such as “high courage,” “sense of honor,” and “integrity,” in discussing him almost 100 years later.
Despite this, Henderson has been strangely forgotten, as has his role in authoring and shepherding through Congress the most important addition to the United States Constitution in the past 200 years.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as
a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have
been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States,
or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Prior to Henderson’s writing of these words Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which acted to free slaves in Confederate-held areas but left those in United States controlled areas in bondage. Not being enforceable where it was in effect, the intent of the Emancipation Proclamation was essentially moral. It was also intended to prepare the country for what was to come. That what was to come soon emerged from John Brooks Henderson of Pike County, Missouri. And while Lincoln’s profound words in his Proclamation electrified a nation, Henderson’s words did something that Lincoln’s did not.
Henderson’s words freed a race.
The following biographical profile of Henderson was written by Floyd C. Shoemaker (1886-1972) and first appeared in his 1918 book, Missouri’s Hall of Fame: Lives of Eminent Missourians. Shoemaker was the head of the State Historical Society of Missouri from 1915 through 1960. In the course of his tenure at that institution he oversaw the publishing of 45 volumes of the Missouri Historical Review, edited an ongoing series of newspaper articles entitled “This Week in Missouri History,” and wrote, edited, or supervised the creation of over 90 other historical publications.
JOHN BROOKS HENDERSON
Author of The Thirteenth Amendment Abolishing
Slavery in the United States
by Floyd C. Shoemaker
Transcribed and submitted by Kirby Ross
From Missouri’s Hall of Fame: Lives of Eminent Missourians, 1918
From orphan to statesman is the career of some of America’s greatest men. This country is the land of opportunity. To him who labors and studies with care, greater prospects of success are found in the United States than in any other nation. Here men are given a chance. If they fail it is usually their own fault. Among those who took advantage of their opportunity, is John Brooks Henderson—lawyer and statesman.
Born in Virginia on November 16, 1826, John Brooks Henderson came of southern parentage. His father and mother moved to Missouri in 1832 and both died before John was ten years old. They left him small means with which to educate himself. He attended the common schools of Lincoln county, Missouri, and was a good student. He earned his first money teaching school, but his ambition was to be a lawyer.
He was admitted to the bar in 1848 and began his practice of law in Louisiana, Missouri, the following year. He lived in Louisiana until 1861 and built up a fine law practice.
At the early age of twenty-one years he was elected to represent Pike county in the Missouri Legislature and was again elected in 1856. In 1860 he was a candidate for Congress but was defeated by the more experienced and older politician, James S. Rollins.
Up to this time John Brooks Henderson had been a Democrat. Altho born and reared in the South, he opposed slavery. At the outbreak of the Civil War he became a Republican and gave his services to the Union. He was elected to the Missouri State Convention in St. Louis in 1861 and was one of the leading Unionists in that body. The same year he was appointed brigadier-general in the Missouri Militia and labored for the Union cause in the five Northeast Missouri counties in his district. He was appointed United States Senator in 1862 and was elected to that body from Missouri in 1863. His term expired on March 4, 1869, when he was succeeded by that other well known and patriotic statesman, Carl Schurz.
On retiring from the Senate he made his home in St. Louis. In 1872 he was a candidate for Governor of Missouri, but being a Republican, was defeated. He was also defeated in 1872 for the office of United States Senator from Missouri. He served as Assistant United States District Attorney in 1875 by appointment of President Grant, and in 1884 was president of the National Republican Convention.
He retired from the practice of law in 1887 and the following year moved to Washington, D.C., where he lived until his death on April 12, 1913. While he lived in Washington he held several honorary positions and was a favorite in social circles in his advanced age.
As a lawyer, Senator Henderson was one of the ablest and most widely known members of the Missouri Bar. He was successful, able and honest. He always charged a client a high fee, having begun this practice as a young man. He regarded his services as valuable and he impressed this point on people by his charge. They were few, however, who criticized this practice, because his clients knew that they could rely upon him. Altho his opponents were frequently of the highest ability, he was their equal in the courts of the land. He always studied a case thoroly, read all the books and records bearing on it, and then usually obtained a verdict in his favor. He was not a good jury lawyer and did not enjoy trying to arouse sympathy or enthusiasm by appeals of oratory. He was not an orator but a cool logical speaker. He did not move men by humor and pathos but by facts. This is one reason why he confined his practice to the higher courts, where logic and not sympathy is supreme.
Successful as he was as a lawyer, Senator Henderson will live in history as a statesman. There is this similarity, however, between his career as a lawyer and as a statesman—he always influenced his fellow-men by statements of facts, and was always guided by principles of honesty. Altho his services to the state and nation as a statesman were performed during a period of only eleven years, they left a permanent impression on the laws of this country. He served two terms in the Legislature of Missouri and during these four years he was active in framing railroad and banking laws for the state, some of which are the foundations of our present system of laws on these subjects.
His career as a United States Senator, covering seven years, would fill a volume if all were written. He was one of the leaders in the United States Senate and was a member of a number of important committees. He was instrumental in having adopted the general policy of making peace treaties with the Indian tribes over the nation. He was also able to have the National Government reimburse the State of Missouri for war expenditures. His most conspicuous piece of legislation was the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery in this country. Senator Henderson wrote this amendment and introduced it in the United States Senate.
He was also one of the advocates of the clause in the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which stated that the right to vote should not be denied on account of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude.
Perhaps his most unpopular act as a statesman was when he voted for the acquittal of President Andrew Johnson on the impeachment charges which had been preferred against him. Henderson voted for his acquittal and Johnson was not convicted. This act of Henderson’s cost him re-election to the United States Senate and ended his public career in Missouri. History, however, has endorsed the unpopular stand that was taken by Missouri’s United States Senator.
John Brooks Henderson does not rank with the greatest men Missouri has produced. His career as a public man was short. His influence on political conditions in Missouri was short lived. Belonging to the opposite political party in control in Missouri, his opportunity for service was limited. His removal to Washington D.C., ended his public career. During these few years, however, he achieved much. As the author of the Thirteenth Amendment alone his name will be remembered. To this single distinction will be added his patriotic stand for the Union in 1861, his leadership in the United States Senate on many public questions, and his high position as a lawyer in Missouri.
Pike county, Missouri has been the home of many eminent men and not least of these is John Brooks Henderson.
©2003 Kirby Ross
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