Early and Recent History and Genealogical Records
of Many of the Representative Citizens
HON. JOHN S. PHELPS. The grand old state of Connecticut has sent out thousands of her sons in the founding and upbuilding of new communities in the West. Many of these have served their adopted states long and well, and have left the imprint of their character and courage upon the history of their times, carving their names and fame upon the very foundation stones of many of the great commonwealths. But never did the old state make a better gift, never did she send out a better man, a brighter intellect, than when she gave John S. Phelps to Missouri. The prominence, both state and national, of this most distinguished citizen of Greene county of a past generation, may well serve as a reason why this sketch is given a conspicuous position in this volume.
Mr. Phelps was born in Simsbury, Hartford county, Connecticut, December 22, 1814. He was a son of Elisha Phelps, who was a lawyer of great prominence in the old Nutmeg state, who served his fellow citizens in the state Legislature, state offices and four terms in the national Congress. Noah Phelps, out subject's paternal grandfather, was first a captain, then a colonel in the Revolutionary war and a most successful scout and spy. He was one of the "committee of safety" that planned the capture of Ticonderoga. Like his son and, grandson he, too, served the people in legislative and other capacities of public trust.
John S. 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, graduating when seventeen years old. 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 a year and a half of practice in Hartford, he married there and determined to come West and seek a better and wider field for an ambitious young lawyer. Acting with that wisdom and foresight which 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 state 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 Judge Tompkins was some distance in the country at a sawmill, and there, sitting on a log in the woods in 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, the young lawyer started for the great Southwest, locating at Springfield, then a mere hamlet with but fourteen white families. He at once entered upon a good practice. When here less than a week he was retained to defend Charles S. Yancey, who afterwards became circuit judge. He rapidly rose to the head of his profession, practicing over a district 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.
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 was spent in retirement from that time until his death. In 1844 he was elected to Congress, and for eighteen consecutive years, served in the same high position of public trust. He was the father of the postage stamp. 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 coworkers in Congress. He 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 duties established in 1846. Mr. Phelps favored the measure granting bounty lands to soldiers. He favored the granting of lands by the general government to Missouri to aid in building a railroad 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 through the Indian country to Albuquerque, thence to San Francisco, on which route a road was later built.
During his last term in Congress, which was in Abraham Lincoln's first administration, he was part of the time in the field, the great Civil 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. In 1861 he raised a regiment, known as the "Phelps Regiment," which did valiant service for six months, and was commanded by Colonel Phelps in person at the memorable engagement at Pea Ridge, in which it suffered such heavy loss. Without solicitation on his part Colonel Phelps was appointed military governor of Arkansas, in 1862, which he accepted, but ill health soon necessitated his return to St. Louis. In 1864 he resumed the practice of law in Springfield, his Congressional career having closed in 1863. He was nominated for governor of Missouri in 1868 on the Democratic ticket, but he failed of election but he ran 12,000 ahead of his ticket, but eight years afterwards he was elected to this high office by a larger majority than any governor of this state ever received up to that time, and no man ever did greater honor to that highest office than he, and no lady ever did 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 doubt but that Mr. Phelps would have been reelected, had he been willing. In the convention of 1876, no less a personage than the Hon. George G. Vest--Missouri's greatest senator since Benton--was defeated by Governor Phelps for the Democratic nomination. After the expiration of his gubernatorial term Governor Phelps lived in partial retirement, only occasionally giving legal advice in some very important cases. He spent considerable time in travel, including northern Mexico and Oregon. President Grover Cleveland tendered him the position as American minister to any country in Europe, excepting the four great powers, but he declined the honor owing to failing health.
Few men had greater conversational powers or enjoyed more keenly the social intercourse of friends, than did Missouri's great governor, from Greene county. He enjoyed a large circle of distinguished acquaintances from various parts of the Union, and when he was summoned to his eternal rest in 1886 he was, mourned not only by the state but by the nation as well.
David R. Francis, mayor of St. Louis, afterwards governor of Missouri, declared a half-holiday in St. Louis and came in person to attend the funeral.
Great, genial, magnanimous, easy of approach, and yet dignified withal, scholarly, brilliant and a genteel gentleman in all the relations of life, Governor Phelps was just the style of a man that a whole people delighted to honor and revere, following his lead with the implicit confidence which is ever the surest criterion in pronouncing him a great man.
Springfield-Greene County Library