Thomas Lewis Nugent, populist leader, son of John Pratt and Anne Lavinia (Lewis) Nugent, was born at Opelousas, Louisiana, on July 16, 1841. His father was a native of Ireland, and his mother was the daughter of Seth Lewis, chief justice of Mississippi Territory and later a notable Louisiana judge. Nugent graduated with highest honors from Centenary College in Jackson, Louisiana, in 1861 and moved immediately to Texas for his health, which was delicate throughout his adulthood. He joined the Confederate Army in 1862 and served with distinction at the battle of Shiloh. He married Clara Hardeman in the early 1860s. They had three sons and two daughters before Mrs. Nugent died in 1880. Nugent then married a Miss Chamberlain, who survived only a short time, and afterward Catherine C. Earl, who survived him. Nugent's son Clarence became a leader of the Populist party in the late 1890s and the Socialist party in the early twentieth century. Nugent returned to Texas after the Civil War to teach school and study for the Methodist ministry. Although he remained pious, he became disillusioned with preaching and found his calling as a lawyer. He attended no church after 1873. He was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in 1870. He moved from Austin, where he taught, to Meridian in 1871 and then settled in 1873 in Stephenville, where he became a successful lawyer. He served in the Texas Constitutional Convention of 1875 and was notable in supporting provisions that would prevent the use of the public domain to subsidize railroads.
In 1879 Governor Oran M. Roberts appointed Nugent to the newly established Twenty-ninth District Court, to which he was reelected twice. He served on the central committee of prohibition forces for the unsuccessful statewide referendum of 1887. Democrats considered him for the Texas Court of Appeals during his last term on the bench, but he failed to receive the party's nomination. A nonpartisan convention of Farmers' Alliance men nominated Nugent for the state Supreme Court in 1888, and the fledgling Union Labor party endorsed their choice. Nugent retired from the bench in July 1888 and moved to El Paso for his health. He returned to Stephenville in 1890 and in 1891 moved to Fort Worth, where he practiced law the remainder of his life. Although the newly founded Populist party unanimously tendered Nugent its nomination for governor of Texas in 1892, he considered the 1892 canvass hopeless except for its educational value; the hotly contested Hogg-Clark fight made third-party threats negligible that year. This suited his character, as Nugent was neither ambitious nor combative.
His politics derived from his religious beliefs. He was a Swedenborgian who believed that God's kingdom would appear on earth through sustained human effort. Jesus had set the example for man to follow. Until the unbrotherly were regenerated, however, Nugent saw government as a valid tool for restraining avarice. According to him, "the spirit of capitalism . . . denies to the people the heritage which the Creator gave them . . . [and] substitute[s] the `rule of gold for the golden rule.'" Nugent saw the plutocrat as the high priest of greed and wished to apply Christian morality to the impersonal relationships that appeared with industrialization. Nugent appealed to the intellect rather than emotions in his speeches with a straightforward presentation of the facts. He both articulated and personified the moral principles permeating populism, and the high moral tone of his politics impressed society. In reviewing the convention that nominated Nugent for governor in 1892 the Dallas Morning News commented, "Their earnestness, bordering on religious fanaticism, has a touch of the kind of metal that made Cromwell's round heads so terrible a force. . . . It would be supreme folly to despise and belittle a movement that is leavened with such moral stuff as this."
Nugent came in third behind James Stephen Hogg and George Clark in 1892, when he polled 108,483 votes or 25 percent of the total. The People's party renominated him for governor by acclamation in 1894, and he lost to the Democratic candidate, Charles A. Culberson. His poll of 152,731 votes, or 36 percent of the ballots, made the People's party the major opponent to the Democratic party for the remainder of the 1890s. Nugent died in Fort Worth on December 14, 1895, and was buried in Stephenville. His selfless devotion to human betterment made the "Nugent Tradition" a rallying point for the People's party in Texas.