REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
JOHN R. McCONNELL
BY WILLIAM H. RHODES.
JOHN R. McCONNELL, the leading lawyer of Northern California, was born in Kentucky in the year 1826. He is descended from Scotch-Irish stock, and his ancestors originally settled in the State of Pennsylvania. At an early day, one branch of the family removed to the wilds of Kentucky. On the mother’s side, Mr. McConnell is lineally descended from the family of the Clarksons, who are of English origin, and originally settled in the county of Albemarle, in old Virginia. He was the twelfth child in a family of thirteen.
As early as 1833, his father removed to the State of Illinois, and soon settled on a farm, near the town of Jacksonville, the county seat of Morgan county. The next year his father died, and two years afterwards, his mother. In 1841, he returned to Kentucky, and resided in the family of a brother-in-law, in Bourbon county, until 1846.
He attended several respectable institutions of learning, both in Illinois and Kentucky; but his education was chiefly derived from the private tutorship of Professor Vaughn, now of the city of Cincinnati. This gentleman now stands at the head of the mathematicians of the West. Under his tutor, McConnell made rapid strides in classical studies, but became eminent in mathematical and metaphysical lore. In the higher mathematics especially, he excelled, and to this day nothing seems to afford him more pleasure than a dash into the mysteries of curvilinear and conic sections.
In the year 1844, abandoning, on account of ill health, the original design of a military education at West Point, he commenced the study of law, under the tuition of John Martin, Esq., at that time a leading member of the bar of Bourbon county. But from him he derived only a slight assistance, and has been always self-reliant in the acquisition of that profound knowledge of law to which he has attained. Some assistance, however, he did derive from a short matriculation at Transylvania University, where his studies were, for a time, directed by such masters of the profession as Judges Wooley, Robertson, and Thomas A. Marshall. Ill health, however, soon compelled him to quit the law school, and he was again, thrown upon his own resources.
In 1846, removing again to Illinois, he commenced the practice of law at the early age of twenty-one years. Two years after this, we again find him moving—for early in 1848 he was located at Natchez, in the State of Mississippi.
It was during his residence in Mississippi, that young McConnell commenced laying in that fund of useful information on some branches of the law which afterwards contributed so largely to his benefit, and to that of his adopted State. In Natchez, we find him applying himself to the study of Justinian’s Institutes, and that splendid body of civil law which has come down to us from the age of Tribonian. Before he had time to avail himself of any of the knowledge thus acquired, the news of the discovery of gold in California reached his place of residence, and early in 1849, in company with his friend Col. E. J. Saunders, (afterwards so well known in Nicaragua and during the Confederate war) he started across the plains to California. He arrived here early in October, 1849, and settled as a miner in the vicinity of Placerville. It was bruited abroad that he was, by profession, a lawyer, and he soon engaged warmly in the disputes before the various Alcaldes’ courts in the vicinity. Here he met Judge John Heard, now of Sacramento, and the Hon. Frank M. Pixley, of San Francisco. There not being a single law book in the whole district, the discussions, and the decisions equally must have been rather crude and ill digested; but we have reason to believe that the germ of the entire mining jurisprudence of California sprang from those early deliberations. Finally induced to abandon mining by the growing wants of the community for legal knowledge, as well as by the reputation he had already acquired as a jurist, he took up his residence early in 1851 at Nevada City, and devoted himself thenceforth to the practice of his profession.
In the opening of this sketch, we have characterized McConnell as the leading lawyer of Northern California. To those who have met him oftenest at the bar, and know him best in the higher walks of the profession, we need adduce no proof other than such encounters have furnished. But proof is not wanting of a more reliable and a less perishable character.
The records of the Supreme Court of California, for many years, as preserved in the reports, afford ample testimony upon this point. It is not going too far to assert, that the briefs and arguments of John R. McConnell, before that tribunal, have done more towards building up the mining law of this State than the labors of any other counselor upon this coast. To an inexhaustible fund of learning, he added indomitable industry, and a perception quick, sure, and intuitive; methodical almost to formality, he drilled his arguments into the forms of logical sequence, that in most cases amounted to mathematical demonstration. But his memory is, perhaps, the most remarkable trait of a most remarkable mind. It seems to be absolutely infallible. Piled up in the deep reservoirs of his capacious intellect, he calls forth these argosies of wealth at a moment’s notice, and launches them upon the title of learning with an abandon that produces amazement.
No point of law bearing upon the subject under discussion seems ever to be overlooked or hidden; and very often his adversary finds that he is more thoroughly versed in his own case than he is himself. Nor is there any other branch of learning that Mr. McConnell has neglected. Dr. Johnson said of Gibson, that “no man could casually meet him under an awning, during a shower, and hear him speak five minutes, without saying at once, ‘Here is the most remarkable genius in Great Britain.’” This great praise can also be applied almost as faithfully to the subject of this sketch. He appears to be like Macaulay, almost omniscient—all science, art, and philosophy are equally at his command. He has studied almost every branch of human learning—and when at leisure, seated at the fireside amongst his friends, he pours forth such prolific streams of information, that his mind appears inexhaustible. He is withal an acute observer of nature, as well as a profound student of man; and in political ethics, including the history of party in the United States, he has no superior. Nicholas Biddle’s panegyrie on the true lawyer, applies with great force to McConnell, “who, not content with the ordinary routine of litigation, seeks in all liberal arts, in all sciences, and throughout the whole domain of learning, whatsoever may dignify and adorn his noble occupation.”
As a teacher of law, McDonnell deserves more than a passing notice. His office has been commonly filled with young men in pursuit of a knowledge of that science, “whose seat,” Old Hooker declares, “is the bosom of God, and whose voice is the harmony of the world.” Amongst those who sought the instruction of McConnell, were Edward Craig, Esq., of Placer county, and the Hon. Wm. M. Stewart, at present Senator of the United States from the State of Nevada. Both these gentlemen are able lawyers, as well as renowned politicians; and Stewart owes all his dialectic skill, ingenuity, and eloquence to the early training of McConnell. It would of course be expected that a man gifted with such talents as McConnell’s, should at some period of life be lifted up into public station. As early as 1853, he was elected Attorney General of California, and held that position until 1856. Twice he has been unsuccessful in his political aspirations. In 1861, he was the Democratic candidate for Governor of California, on a peace platform, but was defeated by Gov. Stanford; and again in 1864, he ran for the Supreme Judgeship, in the neighboring State of Nevada, but failed in securing his election.
In political opinion, McConnell may be classed as an old school strict constructionist. He gravitates toward Calhoun rather than toward Stanton or Seward. It is true, that in 1860 he endorsed Judge Douglas for the Presidency instead of Breckinridge; but the preference seems to have been more the result of personal friendship than of party affinity.
Mr. McConnell has been thrice married. His first wife was Rebecca Cross, of Nevada City; his second, Ann Eliza Moore, of Fayette county, Kentucky; and his third, Sallie B. Darby, eldest daughter of Dr. J. Curtis an eminent physician of Lexington, Kentucky. With this lady he is still living at his old home in Nevada city, the centre of a large band of friends and clients.
In person, Mr. McConnell is of medium height, and rather spare build. His complexion is sallow, but relieved by one of the blackest and brightest eyes that ever shot forth fiery eloquence, rapid thought, and stern denunciation upon an opponent. Few men can meet that glance without quailing. It is of that intense magnetic flame that dazzles and consumes. Of late, Mr. McConnell’s health has not been robust, but we trust that he will live long to illustrate the annals of California.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 529-533.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
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