James Nathan Browning, attorney and lieutenant governor of Texas, son of William F. and Mary L. (Burke) Browning, was born on a farm near Arkadelphia, Clark County, Arkansas, on March 13, 1850. His father died when James was four, and his mother later married J. F. Stegall. The Civil War ended early school advantages for Browning, but he educated himself during his spare time. In 1866 the family moved to Cooke County, Texas. After working as a cowboy in Stephens County for a year, Browning went into partnership with his brother Joe in the cattle business at Fort Griffin, a venture that often brought the partners in contact with Indian warfare.
While ranching at Fort Griffin, Browning studied law under C. K. Stribling. He was admitted to the bar at Albany in 1876 and served for a while as justice of the peace, then as Shackelford county attorney for two years. He turned reforming zeal against gambling and other frontier vices and taught a Sunday school class. He married Cornelia E. Beckham, who died in childbirth two years later. He subsequently married Virginia Bozeman, on March 9, 1879; they had five sons and four daughters. In 1881 Browning resigned as county attorney and moved to Mobeetie, where he was appointed attorney of the Thirty-fifth Judicial District by Governor Oran M. Roberts. He was elected to four terms as representative in the Texas legislature from the Forty-third District, in 1882, 1884, 1886, and 1890. As a legislator he led the "free grass" elements in opposition to the leasing of large tracts of school lands to big cattle raisers in Northwest Texas. He also served as a member of the committees on penitentiaries and irrigation and was chairman of the judiciary committee. Browning's honesty and fairness won the respect of his constituents, who bestowed upon him the nickname "Honest Jim."
In 1888 he declined to run again for the legislature and moved his law practice from Mobeetie to Clarendon. In February 1896 he moved to Amarillo and formed a law partnership with W. H. Madden, with whom he remained for the next sixteen years. In 1898, after nomination by the Texas Democratic convention, Browning was elected to his first term as lieutenant governor. Before he took office, his son Fred was fatally injured by a fall from a horse. Browning was reelected lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket with Governor Joseph D. Sayers. After leaving office in 1903 he was appointed to the University of Texas Board of Regents by Governor S. W. T. Lanham. In 1904 Browning opened his own law firm in Amarillo. He was elected district judge in 1906 and served for eight years. Throughout his later years he was active in his community as a Mason, a Shriner, and a member of the local Methodist church. He died at Amarillo on November 9, 1921, and was buried there in Llano Cemetery.