Richmond M. Pearson

5th Supreme Court Chief Justice

Date Born: June 1805

Date Died: January 5, 1878

Place Born: Statesville, NC
(Rowan County)

Place Buried: Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC

From (County): Yadkin

Party: Whig / Republican


Chief Justice 1859-1878
Associate Justice 1848-1859

Elected as Chief Justice on August 1, 1859.

Richmond M. Pearson was educated by John Mushat, and graduated from the University of Chapel Hill in June of 1823. He studied law under Judge Henderson and was licensed in 1826.

He entered public life in 1829 as a member of the House of Commons from Rowan County and continued until 1832. He was elected a Judge of the NC Superior Courts of Law and Equity in 1836 and "transferred" to the NC Supreme Court in 1848.

Richmond Mumford Pearson (1805-1878) was an American jurist who served as Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1859 to 1878. He was the father of Congressman Richmond Pearson and the father-in-law of North Carolina Governor Daniel Gould Fowle.

Pearson lived much of his life in what is now Yadkin County, North Carolina and was a lawyer, state legislator, and Superior Court judge before being named by the state legislature as a Supreme Court associate judge in 1848. He was a prominent pro-Union Whig Party politician before the American Civil War and eventually became a Republican after the war.

As Chief Justice, the "domineering" Pearson helped the Court survive the Civil War and saw it through the 1868 constitutional change that made the Court justices elected by popular vote, rather than by the General Assembly. Pearson had been serving for ten years as Chief Justice by 1868 and was elected that year (as a Republican) as the first popularly-elected Chief Justice.

Pearson almost faced impeachment in 1870, after he was perceived by Democrats as acquiescing to Gov. William W. Holden's actions against the Ku Klux Klan. But the presence of many of Pearson's former students in the legislature is believed to have prevented him from being impeached. Instead, Pearson presided over Holden's impeachment trial, the only one in North Carolina history.

Pearson also started a law school in 1848 that lasted until 1878 in his Yadkin County estate called "Richmond Hill." The present day community of Richmond Hill in Yadkin County is named for the law school. Many of Pearson's students lived or worked across the Yadkin River in the village of Rockford in Surry County.

Richmond Munford Pearson was born in June, 1805, in Davie County, the fourth son of Colonel Richmond Pearson. His older brother was the Honorable Joseph Pearson, a member of the state congress from North Carolina. When his father’s mercantile business fell on hard times and there was no money for Richmond’s education, brother Joseph stepped in to ensure that Richmond received quality schooling. He received his early education under the instruction of John Mushat, a most successful teacher of his day residing in the Brentwood area of Washington, D.C.

In 1815, Richmond Pearson entered the University of North Carolina, graduating with the highest honors as the head of his class in 1823. Choosing law as his profession he studied under Judge Leonard Henderson (later Chief Justice of North Carolina) for several years, attaining his license in 1826. He began his practice in Salisbury, North Carolina, and in 1829 he was elected to the State Legislature, serving three terms.

In 1837, he was elected a judge of the Superior Court, a position he held for 12 years. In 1849, he was elected a member of the States’s Supreme Court.

In the mid-1850s, Justice Richmond Pearson’s home, northwest of Boonville, near the Yadkin River and the community of Richmond Hill, was the site of a law school he conducted. His students stayed in small log cabins on the homestead with most lectures held out of doors. A few of the students stayed at Rockford across the Yadkin River and “rowed the river” to attend the judge’s school. In 1858, upon the death of Chief Justice Nash, Richmond was chosen Chief Justice and he closed his home school and moved to Raleigh.

As the Civil War approached, Pearson, although a slave-owner himself, firmly believed in the constitutional supremacy of the central government and opposed succession. During the war he became much more widely known throughout the state and the south because of his highly controversial rulings affecting the conscription of men into the Confederate Army. In 1863 Pearson ruled that the Governor of North Carolina had no authority to use the states militia to enforce the Confederate conscription laws. His decision was denounced by Confederate civil and military authorities but was upheld by Governor Zebulon Vance. Pearson was famous for his use of the writ of habeas corpus to free men who believed themselves unjustly conscripted. One famous case was about a man who hired a substitute to fulfill his military obligation. When a change in the laws made the substitute himself subject to conscription, the man who hired him was taken into the army. Pearson’s controversial decisions during the Civil War were founded not in any personal doubts about the legitimacy of the Confederacy, but rather in his firm belief in the rule of law and in the freedom of the individual. As the conclusion of the Civil War, Pearson was appointed provisional Chief Justice by military authority in 1865 and when full civilian authority was restored during reconstruction, he was elected to retain his position, which he held until his death in 1878.

Elected a judge when he was 30 years old, Judge Pearson presided over the courts of North Carolina for more than forty years. So impressive was Judge Pearson’s record that upon the death of United States Supreme Court Justice Chase, President Grant signed the commission for Pearson to become Chase’s replacement. However, upon learning that Pearson was 68 years old, Grant decided not to make the appointment, instead appointing Justice Waite, already serving on the U.S. Supreme Court as the Chief Justice. Waite, at the time, was a youthful 61 of age.

As a man he was distinguished for his honesty of purpose, unbending integrity, inflexible idea of justice, and conscientious devotion to what he considered to be his duty. While to the eyes of the world he seemed somewhat cold and austere, to those that knew him intimately he was a genial, generous, warm-hearted man.

He was married twice: first on June 12, 1832, to Margaret McClung Williams, daughter of United States Senator John Williams of Tennessee, and niece of Hugh L. White, also United States Senator from Tennessee and unsuccessful candidate for president in 1836; and second in 1859 to the widow of General John Gray Bynum, Mary McDowell Bynum. Judge Pearson and Margaret had one son, Richmond Pearson, born in 1852.

Richmond M. Pearson was born in June of 1805 in Rowan County; he graduated at the University in 1823. He studied law under Chief Justice Leonard Henderson and was licensed in 1826. For four years he represented Rowan County in the House of Commons, and in 1835 was defeated for Congress.

In 1835, he was elected to the NC Superior Court.

In 1848, he was elected to the NC Supreme Court. He was elected Chief Justice in 1858 and was re-elected Chief Justice by the people in 1868.

His judicial career covered forty-one years of unbroken service - twelve years on the Superior Court bench and twenty-nine years on the Supreme Court, nineteen of them as Chief Justice.

As Chief Justice he presided at the impeachment of Governor William W. Holden in 1871. In January of 1878, on his way to Raleigh to open the Spring term of court, while crossing the Yadkin River in a buggy, he was stricken by paralysis and died at Winston on January 5, 1878, in the 73rd year of his age.

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