Jacob McGavock Dickinson: Jurist and Statesman

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

President William Howard Taft, seated left; Judge Howard H. Lurton, whom Taft appointed to the Supreme Court, standing center; and Jacob McGavock Dickinson, seated right. (photo courtesy of Peggy Dickinson Fleming)

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.

7 Sobel.

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.

17 Sobel.

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.

How Nashville Dishonored a President and Altered American History

Musings by Mike Slate.

The maintenance of our metropolitan humility requires us occasionally to confess and recount our sins against historic preservation. The current Nashville building spree may lull us into forgetting that during the twentieth century we destroyed probably the finest of Tennessee’s public squares (along with Francis Strickland’s courthouse), countless other downtown buildings (flirting, even, with razing Union Station and Ryman Auditorium), and several historic mansions (including two gubernatorial residences). Topping any catalog of questionable annihilations should be Polk Place, erased from our national heritage in 1901.

Postcard image of President James K. Polk from NHN collection.

Having expanded the nation’s borders to the Pacific Ocean, James K. Polk retired to Nashville a very weary man. A workaholic, he had served as a Tennessee state legislator and governor, U.S. Representative and Speaker of the House, and president of the United States from 1845-1849. In 1847 he had purchased the home of one of his mentors, the distinguished Felix Grundy, and refurbished it to his and First Lady Sarah Polk‘s desires. He lived there, however, for less than two months, dying on June 15, 1849. Sarah Polk lived on at Polk Place as the grande dame of Nashville for more than four decades, passing away in 1891.

President Polk’s will (which itself has had an incredible lost-found-lost again-found-again existence) expressed his wish that Polk Place be tendered to the State of Tennessee after Sarah’s death. Polk’s heirs wrangled and the State balked. The upshot of the imbroglio was that Polk Place was sold in a Chancery Court sale to another of Nashville’s preeminent citizens, Jacob McGavock Dickinson, Grundy’s great-grandson. In turn, Dickinson sold the columned mansion and its hallowed grounds – which until 1893 had included President and Mrs. Polk’s tomb, classically designed by William Strickland – to J.C. McLanahan, a Philadelphian. McClanahan proceeded to tear down Polk Place and build an apartment complex, the Polk Flats.

Polk Place was situated near the heart of Nashville between 7th and 8th avenues. Today’s Polk Avenue was once the lane that led from Church Street to the mansion on the rise at Union Street. The house certainly had a fortuitous location, leading us to wonder how the city fathers could have been so shortsighted as not to have seen the patriotic and economic benefits of a president’s residence in downtown Nashville. And just as the Ladies’ Hermitage Association rose up in 1889 to save Andrew Jackson’s estate, why did no such organization successfully lobby for the salvation of Polk Place? I suppose that the truism of the real estate business – that value is determined by “location, location, location” – ironically facilitated the home’s demise.

The Polk tomb (on the right above) once graced the lawn of the former president’s mansion. It was later moved to the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol. (Photograph of the Polk home by Calvert Brothers Studio. Used by permission of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.)

What if the Polks’ retirement house were here today, surrounded by beautiful, well-kept grounds of even modest size? Literally millions of visitors would by now have toured the home, and James Knox Polk, rather than being relatively obscure in the presidential pantheon, would be far better known and interpreted. However, instead of enjoying a national landmark, we must confess to having spilled the milk of American history.

In a detailed article about Polk Place written for The Tennessean (“Learn Nashville,” 7-10-02), columnist George Zepp mentioned Mayor Richard Fulton‘s 1979 plan to acquire the original site and replicate the mansion. Evidently this magnanimous idea was not feasible at the time, but it seems worth revisiting today. At the least, an enterprising builder could duplicate the house – perhaps in an upscale development such as the Governors Club – using the elevations and floor plans published in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly in 1966 (pages 280-286). Perhaps such a replica already exists at some location.

Blessed with geographic significance, Nashville has expanded impressively over the years. We are justifiably proud of the landmark structures we have built and are building, yet we must be vigilant in remembering that the counterbalance of growth is destruction – and we have been excellent at that, too. In the twenty-first century a healthy respect for history will save us from more hard-to-swallow humble pie.