The Immortal Pleasant Miller: The State’s Greatest Antebellum Lawyer and the Father of Tennessee Pro Bono

Andrew Jackson jumped to his feet from the midst of the spectators’ section in a crowded Tennessee courtroom, and in a booming voice shouted: “Bring me my pistols! I wish to kill Miller at once; for he has just immortalized himself, and it is better he should die at once than to live and do aught to destroy the glory he just acquired.”[1]

Pleasant Miller had finished one of his breathtaking closing arguments. Many concluded that his trial skills were the greatest in Tennessee, and lawyers packed courtrooms to see him in action. Through wit, wisdom and wiles, Miller, over and over again, won the unwinnable. Judges were bedazzled, adverse witnesses obliterated, opposing counsel shattered, and juries turned to putty in his hands. No cause seemed too hopeless as he took on countless clients regardless of their ability to pay. By the height of his career, Miller had, in effect, become Tennessee’s original pro bono program, albeit staffed by this one energetic and eloquent attorney. His payment was righting an injustice, the fun of oratorical battle and the joy of winning. These three forms of recompense he received in abundance as he crisscrossed the length and breadth of Tennessee, from Knoxville to Jackson, from Greeneville to Brownsville, winning trial after trial, both civil and criminal. All geographic and subject areas were his domain.[2]

A Young Lawyer in Knoxville

Born to humble origins the son of a Lynchburg, Virginia, tavern owner and a Quaker mother in 1773, Pleasant Moorman Miller studied law under Judge Archibald Stuart of Staunton, Virginia, before relocating to Rogersville, Tenn., in 1796, the year the state was granted statehood. He moved to Knoxville in 1800 and was admitted to the bar,[3] entering into partnership with Thomas Emmerson.[4] Emmerson would serve as the first mayor of Knoxville and on the Tennessee Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals.[5]

Soon Miller became politically allied with the powerful William Blount, signer of the U.S. Constitution, friend of George Washington, former governor of the Southwest Territory, former U.S. senator, and wealthy land speculator. This alliance grew stronger when Miller married Blount’s daughter, Mary Louisa, in 1801.[6] It was during this period that he became close to Andrew Jackson, another young lawyer in the Blount camp, a political organization continually battling the faction commanded by the ever-popular Gov. John Sevier.

Accordingly, within the short span of a year’s time, the young Miller had risen like a meteor into the highest circles of Tennessee politics, society and law. He must have been impressive, indeed. And, because of his marriage, expanding law practice and shrewd investments in land, he also swiftly became a man of considerable wealth. Yet with all his political and financial interests, the law remained his chief activity and source of growing fame. And this courtroom renown came so early, his success could not have been based on experience, but on innate legal talent. For whatever reason, by most accounts, he very simply became the best.

Congressman, War and the General Assembly

In 1801, Miller was elected a commissioner of Knoxville and was chosen chairman at its first meeting.[7] By 1809, despite his busy practice, he was elected to Congress representing central East Tennessee with more than 77 percent of the vote,[8] serving until 1811 as a Jeffersonian Republican[9] and a strong supporter of incoming President James Madison. Once in Washington, Miller became a spokesman for the Southwest and an ardent expansionist as a member of a group of young congressmen known as the “War Hawks.” In furtherance of the War Hawks’ agenda, he won national attention with publication of the so-called “Miller Letter.” This letter disclosed Madison’s conference with the Tennessee congressional delegation in which the president discussed the need to acquire West Florida and control of the Mobile River, thus further fanning the flames of war and expansion.[10] After one term in Congress, Miller won election to the Tennessee House of Representatives[11] where he achieved creation of the Bank of the State of Tennessee.[12] He then resigned from the General Assembly in 1812 to fight in the First Seminole War and re-enlisted in 1814 to serve in the Creek Indian War. In these bloody campaigns, Miller secured the reputation of a fierce Indian fighter as a member of the East Tennessee Mounted Gunmen.[13]

Miller returned to the Tennessee House from 1817 to 1823 representing Knox County at the state capital in Murfreesboro, where he was the leader of the East Tennessee delegation and, going against the interests of his own large landholding class, emerged as the champion of the poor, who were chiefly small-scale farmers trying to survive by “squatting” on property without title along the frontier. In titanic debates with his great rival Felix Grundy, Miller advocated “squatter rights,” defeated efforts to pass inflationary measures, won passage of laws stabilizing Tennessee banks and currency during the Depression of 1819, and sponsored important judicial reforms and ethical standards for office holders.[14] In 1822, he convinced the legislature to nominate Andrew Jackson for the presidency.[15]

A Move to Jackson

In 1823, Miller left the General Assembly to devote full-time to the law and the management of his extensive landholdings. The following year he purchased Blount Mansion in Knoxville, once the grand home of his father-in-law, but soon sold it,[16] for as was reported in the Jackson Gazette, he had decided to move to West Tennessee.[17] It is not known why he moved west. It may have been to oversee his vast lands. Also, his political faction was losing strength in East Tennessee yet gaining power in West Tennessee. By the spring, traveling most of the way by boat on the Tennessee River, he arrived in Jackson with his large family, opened a law office, and began construction of a great house named “Holly Hill” eight miles north of town.

Before long he was appearing in all the courts of West Tennessee with a heavy caseload of land cases and criminal matters, regularly representing the poor pro bono.[18] In 1826, he severed more ties with East Tennessee when he sold his 40-acre tract in Knoxville called “Barbara’s Hill” to the trustees of East Tennessee College for $600. Today, the college is the University of Tennessee and the imposing hill is the site of UT’s main campus.[19]

Campaign Against Davy Crockett in West Tennessee

Andrew Jackson was sent to the White House in 1828. But all was not calm on the home front. Colorful Congressman David Crockett of West Tennessee broke with Jackson over administration policies, and by 1829 the president determined that he had to be defeated in the congressional election to be held the following year. Jackson turned to Pleasant Miller as the only person able to rid him of the troublesome Congressman. Miller was persuaded to run[20] and, after meeting with political leaders in Memphis,[21] he began campaigning across West Tennessee in earnest in 1829. Crockett soon realized he was being overwhelmed by Miller’s oratorical skills, statesmanlike image, and popularity with poor frontier families appreciative of his advocacy of squatters’ rights in the legislature. In desperation, Crockett hastily patched together a bill to give 160 acres of federal land to West Tennessee squatters.[22] Nevertheless, what saved Crockett was unexpected division in Jackson’s ranks. Due to outrage in Tennessee over the perceived ill treatment of fellow Tennessean Hugh Lawson White, whom many felt should have been appointed to the cabinet, and concern with the influence of the men around Jackson, many broke with Jackson, including Pleasant Miller. He dramatically withdrew from the race against Crockett and publically attacked the president’s cabinet appointments. Crockett was re-elected and Miller’s old friendship with Jackson was destroyed.[23]

An Impeachment Trial in Nashville

Pleasant Miller was not out of the press for long. In December of 1829, the State Senate convened in Nashville as a court of impeachment to hear charges against Circuit Court Judge Joshua Haskell of West Tennessee. The allegations centered on neglect of office. For example, it was alleged that during a number of trials, Judge Haskell left the courtroom to speak with friends, without adjourning the proceedings. He even abandoned a trial while closing argument was being made to the jury so he could eat a watermelon on the courthouse lawn with the locals. One witness testified that during one of his absences, the issue of the admissibility of testimony arose. Since the judge had not heard it, he ordered an attorney, who was a spectator, to rule on the issue.[24] Yet despite his judicial shortcomings, Haskell was popular with the people of West Tennessee and strong feelings for and against his removal were aroused. Considering the evidence, however, Haskell’s cause seemed doomed. Nevertheless, Pleasant Miller appeared as counsel for the defense. He not only brought his immense trial and oratorical skills, but also his knowledge of the legislature and reputation as a judicial reformer. And, as usual, he used his piercing dry wit to undercut the seriousness of the charges. When the great trial was over, Miller won the day with a tie vote in the Senate: nine to nine.[25] And because of Miller’s spellbinding oratory, various legislators ended the day by thanking Judge Haskell for his service.

First Chancellor of West Tennessee

One of Gov. William Carroll’s greatest achievements was the adoption of the Constitution of 1835.[26] Under its provisions, the General Assembly was required to elect a new judiciary. Formerly, two chancellors served “during good behavior,” which, barring misconduct, was a life appointment. Terms of office would now be for eight years, with the legislature, in joint session, selecting state judges. Also, an additional chancellorship was created by an act approved on Dec. 22, 1835. Therefore, there would be one chancellor for each of the three Grand Divisions. However, the General Assembly made clear that “the Chancellors shall be Chancellors for the State;” thus, their “power and jurisdiction” were expressly statewide.[27]

When the legislature met to elect 11 Circuit Court judges and three Chancery Court chancellors, one of the few contested races was for the chancellorship of West Tennessee. The final vote tally was Andrew McCampbell, 18; Perry Humphreys, 27; and Pleasant Miller, 54.[28] Hence Miller would be the first chancellor to reside in West Tennessee, for both chancellors who served West and Middle Tennessee under the old Constitution, William E. Anderson and William A. Cook, were Middle Tennesseans. Under the old Chancery statute, first Chancellor Anderson and later Chancellor Cook would periodically cross the Tennessee River to hold court at Jackson and Paris.[29] But even though there were now three Tennessee chancellors, the chancellorship of West Tennessee was a difficult assignment. It required riding circuit and holding court at Dresden, Trenton, Huntington, Lexington, Jackson, Brownsville, Paris, Bolivar and Somerville.[30]

Miller brought to Chancery his vast experience as a lawyer and lawmaker. Furthermore, Chancery handled much land litigation, and Miller was a master of that subject. As for his judicial demeanor, it was said that he was “a most civil and affable gentlemen, easy and unaffected in conversation, and a great lover of wit. He is consequently a general favorite with other members of the bar, as well as with the public.”[31]

Whig Party Organizer and Retirement at Trenton

Miller did not serve on the Chancery bench for long. In March of 1937, he resigned as chancellor of West Tennessee,[32] returned to a booming private practice, and enthusiastically entered into partisan politics as a tireless organizer of the new Whig Party. West and East Tennessee would become Whig strongholds with Miller serving as a critical link between party leaders in both sections. He would also take part in heated newspaper debates, become a close advisor to Whig Gov. Newton Cannon, and stump the state at the age of 67 for Whig presidential nominee William Henry Harrison in 1840.[33]

Even with all his travels for the Whigs, Miller’s Jackson-based law practice thrived and he found time to train and mentor the young entering the profession. Gov. Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, who met him at Savannah, Tenn., provides this description of Miller during this period:

He was then far advanced in life, but still actively concerned in the business of his profession. I found him to be a most civil and affable gentleman, easy and unaffected in converse, and full of the lively sallies of good-natured raillery. He seemed to be very much respected by his brother attorneys, and to receive in his intercourse with them many tokens of deferential regard of a most flattering nature.[34]

Miller’s wife died in 1847 and was buried in Jackson. The same year, Miller sold the great estate of Holly Hill and retired to a farm six miles northeast of Trenton in Gibson County.[35] There, at the age of 76, he died on April 26, 1849. He was interred at Trenton.[36] The bar of West Tennessee published the following tribute:

As a member of congress and a member of the State Legislature, and as chancellor of the Western Division, his name stands intimately connected with the legislative, judicial, and political history of Tennessee, demonstrating the confidence his fellow-citizens had in his capacity, ability, and personal honor, proving that he served faithfully his day and generation, and leaving a monument to his memory of which his friends may well be proud. During his long life, his capacity was always admitted, and his integrity never doubted.[37]

Conclusion

Although Pleasant Miller’s gravesite in Gibson County has been lost, he should not be forgotten. He was a major figure of early Tennessee history, at the center of many of the critical events and issues of his day, and he influenced the state’s political, economic and legal development as it exploded westward, a westward expansion he joined. He was unsurpassed as a legislator, debater and political organizer, and was instrumental in making Tennessee a two-party state and securing the rights of pioneer families on the frontier. Throughout his long career, he had the courage to say no to power.

Furthermore, Miller was peerless at his profession, a true lawyer’s lawyer. He loved the practice of law and the great good it could accomplish, and treated all his cases, paid and pro bono, like a joyous holy cause. He believed that being a lawyer is not only a privilege but an obligation, an obligation of keeping the courthouse doors open to all. Wherever he lived in Tennessee, when almost all hope was lost, the poor knew they could turn to Pleasant Miller to even the scales of justice. Although probably not the first Tennessee lawyer to volunteer to take cases without payment, he was the first do so on such a regular and wide-scale basis. Hence he can rightly be called “the Father of Tennessee Pro Bono.” Yet of all his achievements, perhaps the greatest was helping to lay the foundation of service, civility and integrity of Tennessee’s bar in its infancy, an immortal legacy.

Notes

  1. Henry S. Foote, The Bench and Bar of the South and Southwest 170 (1870).
  2. See Generally Russell Fowler, “Pleasant M. Miller, 1773-1849: The Last of the Titans of Tennessee’s Founding Age” in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers XLIX 23-45 (1995).
  3. See Will T. Hale and Dixon L. Merritt, 3 A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans 726 (1913); Joshua W. Caldwell, Sketches of the Bench and Bar of Tennessee 63 (1898); Mary V. Rothrock, ed. The French Broad-Holston Country 456 (1946); Robert M. McBride, ed. 1 Biographical Dictionary of the Tennessee General Assembly, 520 (1975); Russell Fowler, “Pleasant M. Miller, 1773-1849: The Last of the Titans of Tennessee’s Founding Age” in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers XLIX 23-45 (1995).
  4. Mary V. Rothrock, ed. The French Broad-Holston Country 457 (1946).
  5. Id. at 423-14.
  6. See Russell Fowler, “Pleasant M. Miller, 1773-1849: The Last of the Titans of Tennessee’s Founding Age” in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers XLIX 24-5 (1995); Will T. Hale and Dixon L. Merritt, 3 A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans 726 (1913); Robert M. McBride, ed., 1 Biographical Dictionary of the Tennessee General Assembly, 520 (1975); Robert E. Corlew, Tennessee, A Short History 160 (2d ed. 1981).
  7. Robert M. McBride, ed., 1 Biographical Dictionary of the Tennessee General Assembly 520 (1975); Will T. Hale and Dixon L. Merritt, 3 A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans 726 (1913).
  8. Robert M. McBride, ed., 1 Biographical Dictionary of the Tennessee General Assembly 520 (1975); Will T. Hale and Dixon L. Merritt, 3 A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans 726 (1913).
  9. Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress 1774-1989 1504 (1989).
  10. See Irving Brant, James Madison: The President 174 (1956); Russell Fowler, “Pleasant M. Miller, 1773-1849: The Last of the Titans of Tennessee’s Founding Age” in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers XLIX 27 (1995).
  11. Robert M. McBride, ed., 1 Biographical Dictionary of the Tennessee General Assembly 519 (1975).
  12. Eric Russell Lacy, Vanquished Volunteers, East Tennessee Sectionalism from Statehood to Succession 47-8 (1965); Russell Fowler, “Pleasant M. Miller, 1773-1849: The Last of the Titans of Tennessee’s Founding Age” in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers XLIX 29 (1995).
  13. Robert M. McBride, ed., 1 Biographical Dictionary of the Tennessee General Assembly 520 (1975); Russell Fowler, “Pleasant M. Miller, 1773-1849: The Last of the Titans of Tennessee’s Founding Age” in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers XLIX 29-30 (1995).
  14. Id. at 30-6.
  15. Marguis James, The Life of Andrew Jackson 352 (1938).
  16. Stanley J. Folmsbee and Susan Hill Dillion, “The Blunt Mansion, Tennessee’s Territorial Capitol” in Tennessee Historical Quarterly XXII, 114 (1963).
  17. Emma Inman William, Historic Madison 64 (1946).
  18. Id. at 64
  19. Robert E. Corlew, I40 (2d ed. 1981).
  20. Stanley J. Folmsbee, “David Crockett and West Tennessee” in The West Tennessee Historical Society Papers XXVII, 14 (1974).
  21. James Roper, “Marcus Winchester and the Earliest Years of Memphis” in Tennessee Historical Quarterly XXI 350 (1963).
  22. J. M. Keating, 1 History of the City of Memphis 175-76 (1988).
  23. Stanley J. Folmsbee, et al., 1 History of Tennessee 312-13 (1960); Russell Fowler, “Pleasant M. Miller, 1773-1849: The Last of the Titans of Tennessee’s Founding Age” in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers XLIX 40-1 (1995).
  24. Will T. Hale and Dixon L. Merritt, 2 A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans 389-90 (1913); Samuel Cole Williams, Beginning of West Tennessee 221-22 (1930).
  25. See Samuel Cole Williams, Beginning of West Tennessee 222 (1930).
  26. Robert E. Corlew, Tennessee, A Short History 164 (2d ed. 1981).
  27. 1835 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Ch. IV.
  28. Herbert Weaver, ed. 3 Correspondence of James K. Polk 469 (1975).
  29. Samuel Cole Williams, Beginning of West Tennessee 218 (1930).
  30. 1835 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Ch. IV.
  31. Editors of History of Tennessee 385 (1887).
  32. Robert H. White, 2 Messages of the Governors of Tennessee, 1796-1821 177-78 (1952).
  33. See Herbert Weaver, ed. 3 Correspondence of James K. Polk 310, 579, 617 (1975).
  34. Henry S. Foote, The Bench and Bar of the South and Southwest 169 (1870).
  35. Emma Inman William, Historic Madison 64 (1946).
  36. Robert M. McBride, ed., 1 Biographical Dictionary of the Tennessee General Assembly 520 (1975); Russell Fowler, “Pleasant M. Miller, 1773-1849: The Last of the Titans of Tennessee’s Founding Age” in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers XLIX 44 (1995).
  37. Obituary, 29 Tenn. (10 Humph) 369-70 (1850).

Russell Fowler RUSSELL FOWLER is associate director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and since 1999 has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has more than 40 publications on law and legal history, including works for the American Bar Association, the Smithsonian Institution, The New England Law Review, The Journal of Supreme Court History, The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, and the Tennessee Bar Journal. He dedicates this article to the memory of Chancellor Neal Small, who he says demonstrated the same great joy in the law as Pleasant Miller.