James Collinsworth, lawyer, jurist, and signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, was born in Davidson County, Tennessee, in 1806, the son of Edmund and Alice (Thompson) Collinsworth. He attended school in Tennessee, studied law, and was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1826. He was an ally of Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, and other leading Tennessee politicians. From April 30, 1829, until early 1834, Collinsworth served as United States district attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. By 1835 he had moved to Matagorda, in the Brazos Municipality, Texas, and begun the practice of law. Along with Asa Brigham, John S.D. Byrom, and Edwin Waller he represented Brazoria in the Convention of 1836.
At the convention Collinsworth signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, introduced and guided to adoption a resolution making his fellow Tennessean Sam Houston commander in chief of the Texas army, became chairman of the military affairs committee, and served on the committee appointed to draft a constitution for the new Republic of Texas. After the convention adjourned, Houston, on April 8, 1836, appointed Collinsworth his aide-de-camp with the rank of major. After the battle of San Jacinto Gen. Thomas J. Rusk commended him for his bravery and chivalry.
From April 29 to May 23, 1836, Collinsworth served as acting secretary of state in President David G. Burnet's cabinet. On May 26, 1836, because of his intimacy with President Andrew Jackson, he was designated a commissioner to the United States to seek assistance and possible annexation. The mission failed. Later in the year Collinsworth declined Houston's offer to make him attorney general of the Republic of Texas. Instead, on November 30, 1836, he was elected to a term in the Senate of the republic.
When the judiciary of the republic was organized, Collinsworth, on December 16, 1836, was appointed the first chief justice, a post he held until his death. Also in 1836 he helped organize the Texas Railroad, Navigation, and Banking Company, and the following year he helped found the city of Richmond. He was a charter member of the Philosophical Society of Texas, founded in 1837.
In 1838 Collinsworth was a candidate, along with Mirabeau B. Lamar and Peter W. Grayson, for the presidency of the republic. The first published report of his candidacy was on June 30, 1838. On July 11, however, after a week of drunkenness, he fell or jumped off a boat in Galveston Bay and drowned. Most assumed he committed suicide. His body was recovered and taken by boat up Buffalo Bayou to Houston, where it lay in state in the capitol (see CAPITALS). Chief Justice Collinsworth was buried in the City Cemetery, Houston, under the direction of Temple Lodge No.4; his was "the first Masonic funeral ever held in Texas." On August 21, 1876, Collingsworth County, its name misspelled in the act of the legislature establishing the county, was named in his honor. A state monument was placed at Collinsworth's grave in the old City Cemetery in Houston in 1931.