Downs, James Tickell (1841–1928)


By: Leigh Welder

Type: Biography

Published: June 20, 2022

Updated: June 22, 2022


James Tickell Downs, soldier, attorney, and state legislator, son of John Lewis Downs and Sarah (Tickell) Downs, was born in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, on October 9, 1841. He had four siblings: Emily L., Susan Ann, Rebecca H., and John Stephen.

Downs grew up on a prosperous plantation; in 1860 his father owned twenty-five slaves. Downs enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army in May 1861 and joined Company D of the Twenty-first Mississippi Infantry, a regiment in the Army of Northern Virginia. In June 1862 he suffered wounds in both shoulders at the battle of Savage’s Station, part of the Seven Days battles near Richmond, but apparently recovered. His unit saw action at the battles of Malvern Hill, Antietam, and Fredericksburg in the second half of 1862, and in May 1863 Downs suffered a wound at the second battle of Fredericksburg that led to his capture and the loss of his right leg. He was part of a prisoner exchange in November 1864 and furloughed.

After the Civil War Downs went into business with his father in Fort Adams, Mississippi, and sold dry goods, groceries, clothing, and plantation supplies. In 1867 he held the position of justice of the peace in Wilkinson County. Downs attended the University of Mississippi where he studied law and graduated in 1869.

In January 1870 Downs arrived in Dallas. He took a steamboat down the Mississippi River and up the Red River to Shreveport and then traveled by rail to Longview and by stage to Dallas. His father joined him in Dallas, and they operated a general store together. Downs was admitted to the Texas bar, established a law practice, and soon immersed himself in local politics. A lifelong conservative Democrat, by mid-1873 he was secretary of the Dallas County Democratic Executive Committee. In 1874 he ran for district attorney for Dallas, Tarrant, and Ellis counties, but finished a distant fifth.

In 1876 he ran for state representative for District 46, which was contiguous with Dallas County. Downs, finishing second in the field of four, was elected as one of the district’s two representatives. He later recalled that that particular legislature, the Fifteenth, “was known as the Granger Legislature, so called because it was largely made up of farmers. Whether we looked and acted more like rubes than solons is not for me to say, but the fact remains that the public and the newspapers poked a great deal of fun at us and invented no end of extravagant jokes at our expense.”

In the House, Downs served on the committees on State Affairs, Privileges and Elections, Judiciary No. 2, and Contingent Expenses. He was a particularly active legislator and proposed bills on such diverse subjects as the disposal of dead animals, defining and punishing vagrancy, prescribing the manner in which cotton should be baled, and rents and liens. Perhaps his most important bill established a state usury law, with an 8 percent legal interest rate and a 12 percent cap on interest rates. These rates were set by the Constitution of 1876, whereas the Constitution of 1869 had prohibited the legislature from limiting interest rates. This bill passed and was signed into law. Downs also took an active part in the acrimonious discussions concerning state subsidies to railroads. He sought to reduce the generous grants of public lands that many Democrats favored as an incentive to lure railroads to the state. His status as a small-government, anti-Reconstruction Democrat was also on display in his opposition to efforts to provide a new state police force. The former State Police had been established by Republican governor Edmund J. Davis and subsequently abolished by Democrats in 1873. Downs argued that a bill then under consideration that would enhance the powers of sheriffs would be sufficient to protect the lives and property of citizens. Downs and his fellow Dallas Democratic legislators, John H. Cochran and Robert Smythe Guy, seem to have satisfied at least the Dallas Herald editor, who, near the end of the session, declared that Downs and his colleagues had been “mindful of the interests of their constituency” and had “stood by Dallas through thick and thin . . . .”

On November 6, 1877, Downs married Matilda Jane Collings at Mexia, Texas. Downs was not renominated for his House seat in 1878 but remained politically active. In 1880 multiple Texas newspapers touted him as a potential candidate for commissioner of the General Land Office, but nothing came of this push. In 1882 he ran for Dallas County treasurer and won a plurality over eight other candidates. Seeking reelection in 1884, Downs was defeated by Henry H. Smith. Shortly after the election, Downs experienced a “severe financial blow” when Dallas’s oldest banking firm, Adams & Leonard, suddenly collapsed, resulting in the loss of $6,000 in county funds. As the treasurer who had deposited the county funds in the bank, Downs was accountable for the loss, and the county was reimbursed through a surety bond that had been established upon his election. Downs personally paid for the loss through his bondsmen, so that, as the Dallas Morning News later noted, “the matter was satisfactorily arranged . . . with loss to no one except himself.”

In 1896 Downs sought public office again and ran for judge of Texas’s Fourteenth Judicial District. He lost by more than 2,500 votes to W. J. J. Smith out of 4,565 votes cast. He remained active in local Democratic politics and supported the conservative, “sound money” wing of the party in the 1890s, although he did support the free-silver presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896, after Bryan had gained the party’s nomination.

As a lawyer, Downs worked on the Hayden libel case (1898–1904), a famous Texas lawsuit brought by Samuel Augustus Hayden, editor of the Texas Baptist and Herald, against James Britton Cranfill and other members of the Texas Baptist Executive Board. Downs retired from his law practice around 1914.

Downs was active in Dallas civic affairs. He served on the board of directors of the Dallas Library Association and was secretary of the Dallas City Railroad Company, Dallas’s first streetcar line. In 1883 he was listed as a member of a committee that organized a charity ball given by a local chapter of the Free Sons of Israel, a fraternal Jewish organization. James and his wife Matilda attended the All Saints Episcopal Church.. Both James and Matilda were active in Confederate heritage groups.

James and Matilda Downs had at least three children: John Henry Downs, Robert Collings Downs, and James T. Downs, Jr. The two older sons both died before reaching adulthood, but James Jr. (1888–1974) became a prominent Dallas physician. James T. Downs, Sr., died of pneumonia on March 5, 1928. He was buried in Dallas’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Mississippi, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C. Dallas Daily Herald, February 20, 1876; July 22, 1876; November 25, 1882; November 13, 1884. Dallas Morning News, July 18, 1892; April 14, 1896; May 20, 1896; August 30, 1896; May 2, 1926; March 6, 1928. Dallas Weekly Herald, March 28, 1874; November 23, 1882. Ellis A. Davis and Edwin H. Grobe, eds., The Encyclopedia of Texas: Volume 2 (Dallas: Texas Development Bureau, 1920). Denison Daily News, May 23, 1880. Galveston Daily News, July 5, 1876. Legislative Reference Library of Texas: James T. Downs (https://lrl.texas.gov/legeleaders/members/memberdisplay.cfm?memberID=4518), accessed June 8, 2022. Woodville (Mississippi) Republican, May 18, 1867.

Categories:
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
  • Military
  • Confederate Military
  • Soldiers
  • Politics and Government
  • Government Officials
  • House
  • State Legislators
  • Fifteenth Legislature (1876)
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Leigh Welder, “Downs, James Tickell,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 05, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/downs-james-tickell.

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June 20, 2022
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