Richmond Mumford Pearson

5th NC Supreme Court Chief Justice

Date Born: June 28, 1805

Date Died: January 5, 1878

Place Born: Statesville, NC
(Rowan County)

Place Buried: Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC


Chief Justice 1859-1878
Associate Justice 1849-1859

Richmond Mumford Pearson was born on June 28, 1805 in Rowan County (part that later became Davie County), NC, the son of Richmond Pearson and Elizabeth (Mumford) Pearson. He was with his older brother, Joseph, a U.S. Congressman, in Washington, DC for several years before and after his father's death in 1819. He completed his college preparation at the Statesville Academy under the stern tutelage of the Reverend John Mushat in Rowan County.

In 1820, Richmond Mumford Pearson entered the University of North Carolina, avidly studying the histories of Greece, Rome, and England, with special emphasis on the long, painful evolution of the law in both its philosophical and practical aspects. He graduated in 1823, and soon thereafter began studying law under Judge Leonard Henderson near Williamsborough in Granville County. He passed the NC bar in 1826 and launched his own law practice in Salisbury, NC.

In 1828, Richmond Mumford Pearson was first elected as one of two men to represent Rowan County in the NC House of Commons of the:
- 54th General Assembly that met from 1829 to 1830
- 55th General Assembly that met from 1830 to 1831
- 56th General Assembly that met from 1831 to 1832
- 57th General Assembly that met from 1832 to 1833

On June 12, 1832, Richmond Mumford Pearson married Margaret McClung Williams, daughter of U.S. Senator John Williams and Malinda (White) Williams of Tennessee; they had ten known children, but only three outlived their father. Margaret died in 1855.

In 1836, Richmond Mumford Pearson opened his own law school in Mocksville, the county seat of the newly-established Davie County. His school was moved some ten years later to Richmond Hill in present-day Yadkin County when Pearson acquired a sizable plantation on the Yadkin River. There the law school continued to operate with conspicuous success until his death more than three decades later, with spring and fall sessions alternating regularly with the terms of the NC Supreme Court.

Also in 1836, Richmond Mumford Pearson was elected as a Judge on the NC Superior Court, a position he retained until his election to the NC Supreme Court.

In 1848, the NC General Assembly elected Richmond Mumford Pearson as an Associate Justice on the NC Supreme Court, replacing William Horn Battle, who had been appointed by Gov. William Alexander Graham to fill the vacanty seat of Associate Justice Joseph John Daniel. Pearson remained an Associate Justice on the NC Supreme Court until his election as Chief Justice. Pearson took the oath of office on January 30, 1849.

On September 22, 1859, Richmond Mumford Pearson married a second time, to Mary Louisa McDowell Bynum, widow of General John Gray Bynum and daughter of Captain Charles McDowell of Quaker Meadows in Burke County.

On August 1, 1859, Richmond Mumford Pearson was elected as the next Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court, replacing Chief Justice Frederick Nash, who had died on December 4, 1858. He served as Chief Justice until his own death.

After the Civil War, all offices were vacated, however, Richmond Mumford Pearson was promptly re-elected to his judicial post. Early in 1866, he was apparently considered by President Andrew Johnson for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court but was not nominated. Deceived in his hopes of reaching the federal supreme court bench, Pearson continued to serve as Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court until 1868, when all offices were again vacated by Federal Reconstruction. Once more he was re-elected as Chief Justice, having secured the nominations of both the Republican and Conservative parties for the post.

On January 5, 1878, Richmond Mumford Pearson died in a buggy while on his way to the Winston train station to return to his duties in Raleigh. Following a period of confusion as to when and where the funeral and burial would be held, the remains of the chief justice were taken to Raleigh. Richmond Mumford Pearson lay in state in the rotunda of the state capitol prior to funeral services on the afternoon of January 9, 1878 at Christ Episcopal Church, conducted by the Right Reverend Theodore Lyman. Burial followed in Raleigh's Oakwood Cemetery.

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 of North Carolina 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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