JUDGE WILEY P. HARRIS was born in the State ^ of Mississippi, on the 9th day of November, 1818. • His paternal grandfather, Buckner Harris, emigrated from Virginia into Georgia, and after many changes of location settled permanently on the Saint Mary's river, in Florida. That Territory was then a wild, unexplored region, frequently raided by the savages of the interior and adventurers from the neighboring borders. His grandmother was Nancy Early, of the distinguished Virginia family of that name; the present General Early and the late Bishop Early, are of the same lineage.
When the father of Judge Harris emigrated to Mississippi he was well-to-do, but through the vicissitudes of fortune, became completely impoverished before he died. He had been, very much against his will, forced to fight a duel, in which his adversary fell at the second fire, although Mr. Harris offered, after the first exchange of shots, to settle the quarrel amicably. He was also the principal in another fight, which resulted unfortunately ; and these deplorable events rendered him a most unhappy man; he became a prey to melancholy, and from the thrift and energy which characterized his nature, he settled into a condition of carelessness and utter indifference to his worldly affairs; died in the prime of his life, leaving his children absolutely destitute, his wife having been dead some years.
Judge Harris, then a mere boy, was adopted by his father's brother, for whom he had been named. The uncle, Wiley Harris, was poor but independent; he was a physician of excellent repute and a farmer as well; he was also quite a local politician, having represented his county several times in the Legislature.
Young Wiley was required to assist in the work of the farm and the chores around the house. He was sent to school half of the year and the other half remained at home and helped his uncle carry on the labor of the fields. When the boys left off work in those days at home, to go to the " Old field school," they took to learning with great zest, and when the time came to exchange arithmetic, grammar and reader, for the plow and axe, they laid down the books again with equal alacrity. There were no dime novels ; the " Scottish Chiefs," " Children of the Abbey " and " Thaddeus of Warsaw " served to cultivate the emotions; Elementary History prepared for the schools, and " Weem's Lives," filled the youth with admiration for their ancestors, and stimulated the growth of patriotism.
The great holiday, the crowning, glorious fete in those days in Pike county, was the Militia Muster. Judge Harris' uncle was the General of the Brigade, and the then Governor of the State, Brandon, with a portion of his Staff, were always the guests of his uncle, on these occasions of the review of the Militia of the county. The Governor and his Staff were arrayed most gorgeously, in blue and buff, and with plumes in their hats of surpassing richness, they were awe-inspiring magnates, particularly to a farmer's boy. The reviews amounted to very little, so far as any utility was concerned, but there was always much " fuss and feathers." There was, of course, a pretense of inspecting the squirrel guns and corn stalks. The men formed in two lines about fifty feet apart, through which the Governor and his Staff rode, their high mettled steeds prancing all the time, which completed the transcendent spectacle. The ranking officers consumed a great deal of whiskey and were voluble in their discussion of the battle of New Orleans.
The uncle of Judge Harris, about this time determined to move again, and with many of his neighbors and friends in Pike county, started for Copiah county, establishing themselves on the Pearl river, near the embryo village of Georgetown. They all took up their claims in the primitive forest, cleared the land, built their cabins and fenced their rich acres in an incredibly short space of time.
Recalling the past, to determine what part of it he would prefer to live over again, Judge Harris finds that his thoughts invariably dwell with most delight upon those days which he passed on the banks of the Pearl river at Georgetown. The swamps of the region in those days literally swarmed with deer, turkey, rabbit and other small game, while the lakes and streams attracted an abundance of duck and water-fowl in the winter, and the river was filled with fish. The Pearl, now turbid and shallow, was then rightly named, for it was beautifully clear and sparkled in the sunlight like a gem. The fish were killed at night with gig and spear, or trapped and caught with rod and line; they were halcyon days for a boy, and long after the Judge grew to manhood, and had fairly entered upon the practice of his profession, he always took time, once a year, to revisit the scenes of his early boyhood and engage in these sports, which dwelt so pleasantly in his memory.
From Georgetown, his uncle went to Columbus, Mississippi, where the nephew attended school for about two years, then took up his residence together with his sister at the home of his oldest brother, James R. Harris, who lived in Brandon, a successful merchant of that place, and who had married Adeline Brown, a beautiful and accomplished lady, the sister of Governor A. C« Brown. At Brandon, young Harris served as a clerk in his brother's store, where there was but one other boy, and he was thrown into the companionship of meii. Fortunately, those with whom he was necessarily brought into contact were gentlemen of refinement and cultivation ; some of them authors, and all great readers of the best literature. Brandon is now but a sleepy, dilapidated village, but in the days of Judge Harris' youth, was a place of importance and stirring life. Such famous men as S. S. Prentiss, Colonel McClung, Chancellor Buckner, Judge Trotter, H. S. Foote and Robert J. Walker, then resided there, all historic names in the Nation. Judge Harris was at that time about fourteen years old and became a general favorite with the gentlemen of Brandon, who talked with him, read with him, and above all, loaned him books of every character, such as a boy should read. So proficient did he become for a youth of his tender age, in the art of conversation, and the power of recalling what he had read, that he was regarded as a prodigy for that place and era, and when in a few years attended the celebrated University of Virginia, there were no students then of his age so well versed in English literature as himself.
To his elder brother with whom he lived while at Brandon, Judge Harris owes his literary and professional education ; it was he who provided the means for him to enter the University of Virginia, where he remained two years. At this time money matters in Mississippi were in a terribly confused condition ; to get " good " money for his use was almost impossible, and Judge Harris returned to his home in Brandon with few diplomas ; he was now about eighteen years old, and remained with his brother another twelve months, " nibbling " at the law, as he expressed it, when means were furnished him by his brother, and he entered the Law Department of the College at Lexington, Kentucky. He was reduced to great straits at times, but was at last graduated with -distinction in 1840.
Upon leaving Lexington and returning to Mississippi, he found the financial condition of affairs in that State much worse; his brother James was then a commission merchant at Memphis, Tennessee, but was pressed to maintain his credit; all the additional aid he could give to his younger brother was to pay off some small debts he had contracted while at the Law School, and fifty more in Union Bank Notes, with which to commence in the world.
It was resolved in a counsel of the family that the young advocate should start in professional life at Jackson, the capital of the State, for which place he at once set out by stage. Arriving at Raymond the next morning, he went into the hotel to get his breakfast, when to his dismay he saw a notice posted in a conspicuous place at the desk, that Union Bank Notes would not be received in payment; as he was possessed of no other money, this meant that he must go without his breakfast. Upon arriving at Jackson, he found that the legal profession seemed to embrace the whole community ; it was difficult to obtain an office at any price, and board was very high. Harris was without money, and receiving no encouragement to cast his professional lot in Jackson, he saw before him, if he remained there, years of pinching poverty, and had not the courage to face it. Some friends from his old county, Copiah, who happened to be at the hotel where he was stopping, strongly urged him to go to Gallatin, the county seat of Copiah. At this critical moment, his uncle Judge Buckner Harris arrived in Jackson, and threw the weight of his influence in the scales of the debate in favor of Gallatin, and to Gallatin he went, and upon his arrival entered into partner ship with Mr. Philip Catchings, a friend of his boyhood. The partnership did not last long, Catchings who was independent and with other tastes and inclinations soon retired. The partnership was, however, the means of giving Harris some practice; although only abont twentyfour he was as well prepared to practice as any man could be by reading and study alone.
He envied the ease and confidence of men who did not hesitate to take his opinion on a point of law doctrine. In speaking of this period of his career, he said: " It was my hard fortune to undergo many serious mortifications at starting, I lost a case by a blunder in the formal proof. Often I became so despondent that I regretted that I had ever taken it into my head to embrace the profession of law. This feeling however, gradually wore off."
It was the custom in those days, as it is now to some extent, for lawyers to attend all the courts in a circuit district. Then the lawyers and circuit judge traveled together from county to county and messed together, some on horseback and some in buggies, all amply provided with refreshments, cigars and pipes. There were well known places on the road where the party paused to take a strengthening glass, and a place where a fine spring of water or a clear running brook invited them to rest and refreshment at noon. Bar anecdotes and rare experiences were interchanged. It is impossible to describe adequately the reckless humor, the frolicsome wit and rampant merriment which reigned throughout the whole circuit ride. Whatever of jealousy or rivalry there might be between the gentlemen of the Bar these were dismissed on the journey. This freedom of intercourse with the older members of the Bar was calculated to relieve shyness and put a young man at ease.
On his first round on the circuit, Mr. Arthur Smith, the District Attorney for the Judicial Circuit, had, owing to the certainty of his attending every court in the circuit, acquired quite a large clientage. Out of a spirit of kindness during the term, he gave Judge Harris the privilege of appearing in a case of some importance. The question was one of difficulty, and although the case was decided adversely to Judge Harris, he conducted it with so much ability, and evinced such a thorough knowledge of the subject, that he acquired considerable reputation. Mr. Smith was so well pleased with his speech, that he at once proposed that Judge Harris should go with him to all the courts of the district and take charge of his civil business or assist him, offering him a liberal share of the fees. Judge Harris was thus ushered into notice. Notwithstanding the prosperous auspices under which he entered the practice, for months at a time he hadn't a cent. As was said, there was no money in the country at that time. This is as nearly true as it ever was of any country, Sparta not excepted. The State banks and " shinplaster " mills had collapsed all at once, after having driven the coin out of the country.
At his headquarters in Gallatin there was little lucrative business at the best, and Judge Buckner Harris having left the Bench and returned to the Bar, and there being other lawyers of prominence and ability who practiced there, it was with gre-at difficulty that our subject continued to make a support, and he re-established himself, this time at Jackson, intending to keep up his circuit practice. He found, however, that it took all his gains in the circuit to pay his office rent and board. He complained to an old and distinguished member of the Jackson Bar, that being conscious of his qualifications to conduct cases in the High Court of Errors and Appeals, yet he had no opportunity to prove it, that all the business of importance found its way into the hands of older lawyers. " Well, sir," replied the lawyer, "how would you have it? I have been twenty years working diligently to achieve the standing which gives me the business I get; do you expect to divide with me at the outset of your professional life. You must be something of a prodigy to expect to reach the top per saltum. " About this time a District Chancery Court was established at Monticello in Lawrence county, and that point being the center of the district in which his practice lay, Judge Harris left Jackson and made his headquarters at Monticello.
Shortly afterward the Circuit Judge, Thomas A. Willis, died, and Judge Harris was appointed to fill the vacancy. In regard to this circumstance, we quote here from a biography of Judge Harris, written some years ago:
" In 1847 Judge Thomas A. Willis, while holding Circuit Court in Hancock county, was stricken with yellow fever and soon afterward died. There were many old and eminent lawyers in the district who were willing to fill the vacancy. But Governor Brown, with his usual sagacity, selected W. P. Harris for the important position. Accustomed to older judges, many persons at first doubted the propriety of his appointment. He was quite young, twenty-nine years of age, and indeed appeared much younger. The first court he held, however, removed from the public mind all doubt about his capacity, and when soon after the election took place, he received a majority over his popular opponent, John T. Lamkin, a noble man and a first-rate lawyer, it may be said with truth that Harris was the ablest Circuit Judge that ever occupied the Bench in the State. Abstruse legal questions, which the arguments of opposing counsel would sometimes fail to elucidate when submitted for his decision, were in a few words rendered clear as the light of noonday. He adorned the Bench no less by his learning and ability than by his unquestioned integrity. As was said of another, when the spotless ermine of the judicial robe fell on Wiley P. Harris it touched nothing not as spotless as itself."
Judge Harris made a great reputation on the Bench. He had occasion to exchange districts with his brother judges on the east and west of him, and everywhere the impression was the same. The Bar of Natchez, then one of the ablest in the State, gave a public testimonial of his success while holding court there by exchange. He says, speaking of this circumstance, " I took the Bench in Natchez with fear and trembling. There was a body of great lawyers there. I soon learned that it was far easier for an inexperienced judge to get on with good lawyers than with inferior ones, and came out of the trial with greater confidence than I before possessed."
In 1850 Judge Harris married the daughter of Judge Daniel Mayes, who had shortly before moved from Kentucky to Mississippi.
He grew weary of the Bench, and was indeed averse to public life, and although he was persuaded that he might attain to the Bench of the Court of last resort in the State, when the opportunity to stand for the place presented itself, he declined to be a candidate. His idea then was that a life on the Bench was not suited to him. He had, he thought, taken office too young as it was. He wanted the active life and freedom which the practice would give, and determined to retire from the judgeship when his term expired, and did so. Circumstances, however, about this period, 1853, forced him again into public affairs. The slavery question was then beginning to overshadow every other. The mutterings of the coming storm were becoming more and more distinct. A convention was held in Mouticello to nominate candidates for Congress. There was much intense feeling and a dead-lock. We again quote from a former biography by G. S. McMillan, descriptive of the occurrence:
'i At this juncture Mr. Chrisman arose and addressed the convention in an eloquent and stirring strain, closing by nominating Judge Wiley P. Harris, of Monticello. Immediately H. F. Johnson, of Simpson, an able young lawyer, took the floor, and in a short, terse speech, endorsed the suggestion, and moved that the nomination be made by acclamation. With one voice the convention proclaimed Judge Harris the nominee, and the long contest was over. A committee proceeded to the modest little cottage of Judge Harris on the bluff of Pearl River, to notify him of his good fortune. They found him among his books. He was greatly surprised, and at first positively declined the proffered honor. He was not a politician, and did not desire a political office. He said he had no wish to enter politics, and that he could accept no office outside of his profession. The committee pressed the matter earnestly, said that his acceptance was absolutely necessary to the harmony of the partv He finally consented to appear before the convention after supper. At the time appointed he appeared, and made an appropriate speech, interlarded with characteristic wit. He accepted the nomination, and the convention adjourned.
" Judge Harris was elected without opposition. He took but little part in the debates of Congress. He however made one great effort during the discussion of Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska bill. It was probably one of the ablest of all the speeches made in that memorable debate. Many of the Senators left their seats and came over to the house, amongst these General Cass, the acknowledged leader of the Senate. He pronounced the speech the ablest that had been made in opposition to the bill. Judge Harris declined re-election to Congress, and went voluntarily back to the labors of the profession, to which his whole life has been devoted."
Of his service in Congress, Judge Harris says, " It was a real torture to me. I could not say that I had achieved anything for my country or for myself." He returned from Washington and resumed the practice of his profession in Jackson. He was born a lawyer, and the profession had for him a real charm. He established himself in Jackson, and for six years gave himself up to professional labor. His practice steadily increased, and he achieved high standing at the Bar.
He was, however, drawn into the secession movement of 1860-61. He was a member of the Secession Convention. He was for a withdrawal of the slave States from the Union. Believing firmly that a withdrawal would bring about a settlement; he did not then think the movement would result in war. He was a member of the Confederate Congress. He advocated the speedy formation of a Central Government. He contributed to the election of Jefferson Davis as the provisional President of the provisional Congress. He was on the committee which drafted the Constitution of the Confederate States, and also on the sub-Committee on Style. He did not become a soldier, owing to an infirmity in sight. He did join an artillery company, but without any agency on his part, was detailed for other duties which he could perform.
It will be seen that the career of Judge Harris as a public politician began and ended with the ill-fated measures of the slave States. Since the close of the war Judge Harris has devoted his time to his profession, and has had as little to do with politics, as was possible for a man occupying his position, in a State undergoing what Mississippi has undergone. Every man young and old, whatever his profession, whatever his calling, was of necessity drawn more or less into politics in Mississippi during that period. The questions were so vital, and affected so nearly all that people held most dear, touching directly every interest, that from the very nature of the case all were forced for self protection to take some part in public affairs. While Judge Harris could have had any office in the gift of the people he persistently declined to allow his name to be used in connection with any public office. Possessing as he did to the fullest extent the confidence of the people of the State, his recognized preclusion from any selfish motive, made his counsel and advice sought and prized in all great emergencies, and he never refused to contribute this or his time or labor when required.
He was a member of the late Constitutional Convention of Mississippi, and was chairman of the Judiciary Committee,and was on the Franchise Committee. He was chosen delegate from Hinds County. The Convention which nominated him, passed a resolution instructing its delegates to vote against any property or educational qualification; Judge Harris declined to go instructed. The Convention was re-assembled, and the instructions revoked.
Judge Harris is not an orator in the popular sense of that term, but he is a consummate master of the English language, and possesses an unsurpassed facility of expression and aptitude of illustration. He has no equal in his State, and no superior in the country in elucidating a legal proposition, and conveying in the clearest and most direct manner his exact meaning.
His life has been one of close study and earnest, intense, intellectual labor. He goes into a case with his whole soul, so to speak, and masters it in all its details. He " sounds all the shoals and depths " of every question. He is an omnivorous reader, and his memory is remarkable. He is the most conscientious of workers. He works even to this day on every case as if his all in life depended on the result of his labors. Now, in his seventy-fourth year, he still continues in active practice. Any one who will take the trouble to examine the reports of the decisions of the Supreme Court of his State for the last twenty-five or thirty years, can gain some idea of the extent and importance of his practice.
To trace the lineage of Judge Harris inspires the greatest interest, and we regret that space will not permit us to embrace it in this sketch. His paternal grandfather Buckner Harris, combining the profession of surveying with the chances of land speculation, was led into many perilous positions, and on one of his expeditions was murdered by some person in ambush, by whom was never known. He left a wife and seven children, all of whom, with the exception of a daughter who married Russell Jones, and who went with her husband to Texas, removed from Florida and settled in the then territory of Mississippi, Early Harris, the father of the subject of this sketch pioneering them. The journey was hazardous, the means of subsistence difficult to obtain and the trail beset by hostile Indians and lawless whites. Early Harris, this pioneer, married Mary Harrison, who was a descendant of the old Wade Hampton family, of South Carolina ; the sister of Isom Harrison, a prominent citizen of Lowndes county, Mississippi, and the aunt of James T. Harrison,, a distinguished lawyer of Columbus, in the same State.
Judge Harris' career has not been characterized by the dash or the startlingly brilliant achievements, which bring men somtimes into notoriety. His rise has been steadily upward from the start, until he has reached the highest place. If the infinite capacity for taking pains is genius, then Judge Harris possesses genius in a high degree. He is a fine conversationalist, and has a fine sense of humor, and a great reputation for wit. His striking sayings are repeated by his brother lawyers from one end of the State to the other. We cannot close this, sketch better than by quoting from a letter recently received by the author of this book from Senator E. C. Walthall, of Mississippi, relating to Judge Harris. He
says : " The Honorable W. P. Harris, of Jackson, Mississippi, has for many years been deservedly the acknowledged leader of the Bar of that State. He is beyond question one of the ablest lawyers in the Union, and is so considered by all who know him. His life has been devoted to his profession, and his fame, which is not limited to the State, is the pride of the people of Mississippi."