James L. Darwin, state senator, farmer, banker, schoolteacher, and philanthropist, was born on February 10, 1853, near Rhea Springs in Rhea County, Tennessee. He was the son of Tennessee-born Eliza (Collins) Darwin and Thomas Clements Darwin, a large landowner and Grange member who served as a trustee of Rhea County during James’s youth and earlier had assisted in the removal of American Indians from Alabama. James Darwin was educated privately in Tennessee under attorney and Confederate Army veteran John R. Neal (who later became a Democratic U.S. Congressman, 1885–89).
As a young man, Darwin journeyed to Northeast Texas and settled near the Lake Creek community in Delta County around 1873. He began teaching school in the Delta County area shortly after his arrival, but, like his father, soon turned his attention to agricultural interests. Darwin married Martha Isabell Harper of Arkansas on February 3, 1876, and the couple had seven children: Thomas M., Roscoe C., Arthur J., Addie E., Henry Lewis, William M., and Viola Mae. Delta County then was one of the most fertile cotton-producing areas in the United States, but over-cultivation of the cash crop inspired Darwin and friend Peter W. Miller, Jr. (brother of Darwin’s brother-in-law), to introduce alfalfa farming to the area as a means of reconditioning the exhausted soil. Darwin resumed cotton farming as the soil recovered and eventually opened the Darwin Gin on his land and became known as a community leader due to “his energy, foresight and prudent management.”
In 1884 Darwin donated a portion of his land for a school house on the north side of Lake Creek, with the community furnishing the building material and labor free of charge. As each school year closed, Darwin entertained at his home and served candy and fruits to the children and engaged them in games such as “Texas Grunt.” Within a few years of the school’s opening, the unincorporated community of Darwin, located approximately between Lake Creek and Enloe, was named for the philanthropist.
A member of the Masonic fraternity throughout most of his adult life, Darwin took an active role in politics by the late 1880s and served as a county delegate for the Republican Party at the state convention in 1890—a convention divided over the endorsement of railroad magnate J. C. Gibbons of Lamar County as gubernatorial candidate. Already a member of the Farmers’ Alliance, Darwin’s political sensibilities turned increasingly toward the People’s Party of Texas after alliancemen founded the party in the early 1890s. As Delta County became a Populist stronghold, Darwin emerged as one of the movement’s local leaders and made a ritual of representing the county at People’s Party state conventions.
In 1894 he won the election to represent Senate District Two, encompassing parts of six Northeast Texas counties, and was sworn in as one of two Populists (along with W. L. Harrison of Bell County) in the state Senate when the Twenty-fourth Legislature convened on January 8, 1895. Darwin was appointed by Lieutenant Governor George Taylor Jester to serve on eleven committees in his inaugural term: Labor, Penitentiaries, Public Lands, Internal Improvements, Treasurer and Comptroller’s Departments, Agricultural Affairs, Claims and Accounts, Contingent Expenses, Privileges and Elections, Public Health, and Towns and City Corporations. Though noted as absent on at least eight occasions at roll call, Darwin proved to be an active senator during the 113-day regular session and proposed a number of amendments to various appropriations bills and issued minority reports on behalf of the Populists on several occasions. However, Darwin attended only the final day of a week-long special session in October 1895.
Darwin kept his seat on seven of the eleven committees on which he previously had served—as well as gaining a new appointment to Roads, Bridges and Ferries—when the Twenty-fifth Legislature convened in January 1897. Darwin was even more active in the second half of his term than in the previous and personally introduced five bills of his authorship on the Senate floor. His legislative successes include the passage of a bill to “validate the incorporation of cities or towns of 1000 inhabitants or over,” and a resolution to initiate a survey for a railway from the Gulf of Mexico to the Red River. Though his rhetoric often was based on a philosophy of strictly adhering to the letter of the Texas Constitution and advocating limited government while rejecting special interests, Darwin’s dissenting votes (often in tandem with Harrison) sometimes betrayed a legislator who advocated public solutions to problems within the state. Darwin emphatically rejected a bill that would have allowed farmers greater latitude to mortgage their lands and claimed the legislation rewarded fiscal irresponsibility; he decried setting up a special account to cover liabilities of the state comptroller’s office as constitutionally unsound; his objection to an ultimately successful bill loosening restrictions on game poaching in rural Texas counties stated, “our constituents do not want this measure in its present shape, except a few members of the gun clubs of our towns, at whose instance this measure is passed.”
The Populist power structure in Northeast Texas had begun to wane by the 1898 election cycle, and straight Populist Darwin lost his bid for a second Senate term that November. A staunch opponent of the “fusion” movement that sought to align the Populists with the 1896 and 1900 Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan around the issue of free coinage of silver, Darwin wrote an impassioned invective on behalf of his district to the national People’s Party convention in Cincinnati in March 1900, declaring, “…I will not affiliate with the Bryan wing under any circumstances. I am of the opinion that the fusion bolters will yet go to Kansas City and have it out…by going boldly into the Democratic party, where they belong.” A 1900 campaign to represent his region in the U.S. Congress also proved unsuccessful, but Darwin remained an outspoken Populist in the years following his exit from public office and continued to champion the causes of the People’s Party on the state committee as late as 1904.
Once retired from politics, Darwin continued to serve the community during his twilight years with a two-decade stint as president of the Delta National Bank in Cooper (1904–27) and left a political legacy in Texas with the election of his son, Henry Lewis Darwin, to his old District Two state Senate seat (as a Democrat) in 1912. Darwin died of “apoplexy” complicated by age on August 18, 1928, at age seventy-five, in Cooper, Texas. He was preceded in death by his wife and was interred in Cooper.