James Madison “Jim” Townsen, farmer and legislator, son of James Garrett Townsen and Mary Agnes (Mitchell) Townsen, was born in Carroll County, Tennessee, on November 8, 1850. He was the eighth of eleven children. Townsen’s father was a farmer, a teacher, and a superintendent of the Carroll County poor farm.
Townsen’s uncle, Oliver Hazard Perry Townsen, moved to Texas in 1854 and settled in Lampasas County in 1855. He was soon joined by James Townsen’s three oldest brothers—Lafayette Jasper Townsen, Columbus Franklin Townsen, and Julius Rudolph Townsen. In Lampasas County, the growing Townsen clan variously ranched, operated a mill, and engaged in mercantile ventures and eventually became one of the county’s most prominent families.
In 1861, following James Garrett Townsen’s death the previous year, Columbus Townsen returned to Tennessee and moved his mother, sister, and seven younger brothers (including eleven-year-old Jim) to Texas. On October 16, 1869, Jim married Amanda Jane Holley. Near Grundyville, he bought a farm that in 1870 was valued at $750. Between 1870 and 1890 the couple had twelve children. A devout Christian, Townsen served as a ruling elder in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Over his lifetime Townsen bought and sold four farms, and he became a leader among the farmers of his county. At some point he became involved in the Farmers’ Alliance, which had been founded in Lampasas in the late 1870s. By the early 1890s he was president of the county Alliance and represented it at the annual meetings of the state Alliance.
When dissident Alliancemen left the Democratic Party in 1891 and founded the People’s party (also known as the Populist party), Townsen remained faithful to the progressive wing of the Democratic party led by Governor James S. Hogg. He supported Hogg protégé Horace Chilton for the United States Senate in 1892 but soon grew disillusioned with the Democrats, as Hogg refused to support major components of the Alliance’s demands, including the controversial subtreasury plan. By 1894 Townsen had joined the Populists and received the party’s nomination for the Texas House of Representatives for District 53, representing Lampasas and Burnet counties. In the fall general election he won his race against former Lampasas county judge and conservative Democrat Dewitt Clinton Thomas; Townsen lost by only six votes in Burnet County but won handily in Lampasas County. In January 1895 he took his place among the twenty-four newly-elected Populists in the Twenty-fourth Legislature. He received appointments to three committees: Roads, Bridges and Ferries; Public Health and Vital Statistics; and County Government and County Finances.
Although the 1895 session was the high tide for the People’s party in the Texas legislature, Populists were still badly outnumbered by Democrats and could hope to pass no legislation on their own. Moreover, coming at the low point of the worst depression to date in the nation’s history, the main item of business was the constitutionally-mandated requirement to close a large budget shortfall. During the four-month session, Townsen introduced only three bills of public significance—one cutting the pay of county commissioners, one reducing the salaries of railroad commissioners, and one providing adequate offices and office furniture for justices of the peace. None passed. Yet Townsen appears to have participated actively in partisan affairs as a member of the Populist caucus, enthusiastically nominating Populist standard-bearer Thomas L. Nugent for U.S. senator and supporting the unsuccessful effort of the party to establish a statewide newspaper in Austin.
In 1896 the Populists of the Fifty-third District did not renominate Townsen. Instead they gave the nomination to Samuel Holland, who went on to win the general election and become the second Populist to represent the district. Holland’s nomination may have simply been an expression of the tradition in Texas politics in that era that offices in multi-county districts be rotated among the district’s counties, and thus it was Holland’s turn, being from Burnet County. In any event, in 1898, with Populism in decline, the district’s Populists again nominated Townsen for his old seat. Like most Populists that year, he lost, although he still came within 100 votes of his Democratic opponent, David Phillips, in their home county of Lampasas.
By 1900 the People’s party lay in shambles, hopelessly divided between fusionists—those who favored coalition with the Democrats at the national level—and the so-called middle-of-the-road faction, which wanted to maintain the party as an independent entity. Writing in the February 22, 1900, issue of the Populist newspaper the Southern Mercury, Townsen criticized “the nefarious sechemes [sic] of the fusionists claiming to be Populists,” denouncing fusionist leaders as “interlopers.” But after the People’s party’s final demise in the early years of the twentieth century, he apparently retired from active participation in politics.
On May 30, 1916, following an illness of several months, Townsen died of pulmonary tuberculosis at his home. His obituary in the Lampasas Leader noted that during his final illness “he was patient, quiet and the same kind, considerate man which has characterized his entire life.” He was buried in the Townsen family cemetery in Adamsville in northern Lampasas County.
Austin Weekly Statesman, August 18, 1892; February 28, 1895. Coleman Democrat-Voice, June 9, 1916. Lampasas Leader, April 23, 1892; April 27, 1894. Lampasas Record, August 2, 1934. Legislative Reference Library of Texas: James M. Townsen (http://www.lrl.state.tx.us/legeLeaders/members/memberDisplay.cfm?memberID=3590&searchparams=chamber=~city=~countyID=0~RcountyID=~district=~first=~gender=~last=townsen~leaderNote=~leg=~party=~roleDesc=~Committee=), accessed January 13, 2016. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Townsen Family).
Politics and Government
Twenty-fourth Legislature (1895)
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
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