by Kathy B. Lauder.
Jacob McGavock Dickinson was a distinguished attorney, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice, Assistant U.S. Attorney General, and U. S. Secretary of War. A grandson of Jacob McGavock and great-grandson of Felix Grundy, Dickinson was born January 30, 1851, in Mississippi. He enlisted at fourteen in the Confederate cavalry,1 just as the Civil War ended, and soon thereafter earned A.B. and M.A. degrees from the University of Nashville. He studied law at Columbia University and in Europe2 before being admitted to the Tennessee Bar (1874).3 He and his wife, née Martha Overton, reared three sons.4
Dickinson, an early law partner of Judge Claude Waller,5 accepted four temporary appointments to the Tennessee Supreme Court (1891-1893) 6 before becoming Assistant U.S. Attorney General (1895-1897), as well as General Attorney for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad7 and law professor at Vanderbilt University (1897-1899).8
He moved to Chicago to serve as Solicitor General (1899-1901) and General Counsel (1901-1909) for the Illinois Central Railroad.9 One of three attorneys representing the United States before the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal (1903),10 Dickinson delivered the successful closing argument in an emotionally charged case.11 He helped organize the American Society of International Law (1906) and became president of the American Bar Association a year later.12 Between 1905 and 1909 he received honorary doctorates from Columbia,13 Yale,14 and the University of Illinois.15
In March 1909, President William H. Taft, a long-time friend,16 appointed him Secretary of War, a post he occupied until May 1911.17 Secretary Dickinson proposed two pieces of legislation: providing an annuity retirement system for civil service employees and admitting foreign students to West Point.18
Much in demand as a dinner guest, Dickinson preferred the company of friends and family to the Washington social scene. Once, having refused a persistent hostess’s dinner invitations for each night from Monday through the weekend, he finally growled, “Dammit, madam, I’ll just come Monday!”19
Before 1890 Dickinson owned several large estates, including the Henry Hayes mansion, Ensworth, which he sold in 1898 to the Sisters of Charity as the future site of St. Thomas Hospital.20 Around the same time, he infuriated Nashville residents with his decision to sell another historic property, Polk Place (the former residence of not only U.S. Congressman, Senator, and Attorney General Felix Grundy, but also President James K. Polk) to a developer, who razed the presidential home (1900) to build apartments.21 Dickinson bought Belle Meade in 1906 as a place to entertain guests22; his son Overton lived there year-round with his family.23 When Overton died of heart disease in 1910, a year after his wife’s death, Jacob Dickinson sold Belle Meade and never returned.24
From 1913-1917 he served as Special Assistant U.S. Attorney General in the federal prosecution of the U.S. Steel Corporation, acting also as receiver for the Rock Island Line, which he restored to solvency.25 In later years Dickinson was president of the Izaak Walton League, an early conservation group.26
After his death on December 13, 1928, his body lay in state in the Tennessee Capitol27 before being transported to Mt. Olivet Cemetery for burial.28
The Dickinson papers at the Tennessee State Library and Archives include his correspondence with, among others, William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, George W. Goethals, and presidents Cleveland, Coolidge, Hoover, Taft, Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt.29 (2015)
1 Nashville Families and Homes: Selected Paragraphs from Nashville History. Nashville: Nashville Room, Nashville Public Library, 1983, 33.
2 Nashville, A Family Town: 1975-76 Paragraphs from Nashville History. Nashville: The Nashville Room, Nashville Public Library, 1978, 85.
3 Dickinson, Jacob McGavock (1851-1928) Family Papers, 1812-1946. Microfilm #836. Tennessee State Library and Archives (finding aid).
4 Sobel, Robert. Biographical Directory of the United States Executive Branch, 1774-1989. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group (ABC-CLIO), 1990.
5 Nashville, A Family Town, 85. Waller was the first judge appointed to the Second Circuit Court after its creation in 1895.
6 Nashville Families and Homes, 35.
8 Dickinson Family Papers (finding aid).
9 U.S. Army Center of Military History. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. http://www.history.army.mil/books/Sw-SA/Dickinson.htm (Accessed 3-23-2015)
10 Nashville, A Family Town, 87.
11 Dickinson Family Papers (finding aid).
12 U.S. Army Center of Military History.
13 Columbia University Quarterly, Volume 7. New York: Columbia University Press, 1905.
14 Office of the Secretary and Vice President for Student Life. New Haven: Yale University. http://secretary.yale.edu/programs-services/honorary-degrees/since-1702?field_degrees_value=All&field_year_value=All&keys=&page=13&order=title&sort=asc (Accessed 3-24-2015)
15 Commencement at Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Campus: Honorary Degrees 1891-Present. http://commencement.illinois.edu/ceremonies/honors_awards.html (Accessed 3-24-2015)
16 Nashville Families and Homes, 37.
18 U.S. Army Center of Military History.
19 Fleming, Peggy Dickinson. “Jacob McGavock Dickinson, Sr.” Nashville Historical Newsletter, https://nashvillehistoricalnewsletter.com/2021/10/17/jacob-mcgavock-dickinson-sr/ (Accessed 3-15-2015)
20 Nashville, A Family Town, 90.
21 Nashville, A Family Town, 90.
22 Fleming, Peggy Dickinson.
23 “Later Residents of Belle Meade.” Belle Meade Plantation website. http://bellemeadeplantation.com/later-residents/ (Accessed 3-24-2015)
24 Fleming, Peggy Dickinson.
25 Nashville Families and Homes, 35.
26 U.S. Army Center of Military History.
27 Nashville Families and Homes, 44.
28 Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=8004817 (Accessed 3-24-2015)
29 Dickinson Family Papers (finding aid).
Nashville, A Family Town: 1975-76 Paragraphs from Nashville History. Nashville: The Nashville Room, Nashville Public Library, 1978.
Nashville Families and Homes: Selected Paragraphs from Nashville History. Nashville: The Nashville Room, Nashville Public Library, 1983.
Hodgins, Thomas. The Alaska-Canada Boundary Dispute. Franklin Classics, 2018.
2 thoughts on “Jacob McGavock Dickinson: Jurist and Statesman”
Enjoying these Newsletters very much. Keep them going.
Thanks! I still have about 30 more to post from the old newsletter. I’m hoping people will start submitting new essays — that can only make it better!