James Glover Tracy, editor, state legislator, and a controversial figure in Reconstruction Texas, was born in Illinois to unknown parents on December 13, 1835. He came to Texas in 1859, and the 1860 Harris County census lists him as a printer. During Reconstruction, Tracy became a Radical Republican and served as editor of the Houston Daily Union. He was known as “the power behind the throne” in the administration of Governor Edmund J. Davis. At various times in his career, Tracy served as state printer, state senator, Houston city recorder and councilman, justice of the peace, voter registrar, U.S. marshal, and Houston postmaster. He was long active in the Texas Republican party and served for many years as chairman of the Republican State Executive Committee.
Little is known of Tracy’s family or his early life. Prior to coming to Texas, he edited a Democratic Wisconsin newspaper—the Berlin Weekly Courant in 1854. He married Elizabeth Strong at Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1855 and had six children. James Tracy supposedly was a distant relative of Union General Benjamin Tracy. His brother, Thomas G. Tracy, was a war correspondent for the New York Tribune during the Civil War and became editor of the New Orleans Republican, a Radical Republican newspaper in Louisiana during Reconstruction.
Tracy’s character stirred dispute. Charles Ramsdell, in Reconstruction in Texas, stated that Tracy was a “most thorough-going spoilsman” who was “anxious only for power, place, and profits.” Others have stated that his “political principles were fluid,” Though he is often cited as an ex-Confederate, no records have been found to show Confederate army service, and he never filed a petition to remove his political disabilities. He worked on the conservative Houston Telegraph during the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction, and his writings there placed him firmly on the Democratic side. In 1865 he was one of the printers who formed the Mechanic’s Association, which had as one purpose preventing African Americans from settling in Houston and competing with white mechanics. However, he left the Telegraph in 1868, abruptly switched parties, and became editor of the Houston Daily Union, making it the voice of the Radical Republicans. The Union operated until 1873.
Increasingly active in Republican politics, Tracy supported Edmund J. Davis against Andrew J. Hamilton in the bitter governor’s race of 1869. Tracy led a faction that split the Republican party, and he became the chair of the Republican State Executive Committee in the Davis force, while the Hamilton supporters had another chairman. Also in 1869 Tracy became state grand president of the Union League, a secret society, originally formed in the North in 1863, to bolster the Republican party in large part by organizing African American voters. In that capacity he steered African American support away from Hamilton and towards Davis. He was instrumental in gaining the Grant administration’s support of Davis in the election.
With Davis’s election, Tracy, along with Secretary of State James P. Newcomb and, Superintendent of Schools Jacob DeGress, formed a “triumvirate” to serve the Davis administration. Tracy became state printer and, along with his partner August Siemering, began to receive lucrative state and federal printing contracts. Moreover, as Republican chair, he had an important voice in federal and state patronage. With Siemering, he expanded his newspaper business by establishing the Austin Daily State Journal, the official state organ of the Davis administration, and he installed Newcomb as editor.
Though a Radical, Tracy had a mixed record on African American civil rights. He most likely aided the career of ex-slave Richard Allen, one of Texas’s first African American state legislators. Their partnership allowed Tracy to count on votes from Houston’s African American community. By1871, however, the Davis administration had become increasingly unpopular among whites in Texas. In an example of Tracy’s fluidity of principles, he began that year to break up the Union League in an effort to gain white voters. Tracy’s conduct led to African Americans becoming disillusioned in the Republican party, and in 1873 they sought to block his election as a delegate to the Republican State Convention, though Allen finally found enough votes to elect him.
Tracy served a one-year term as a state senator, representing District 14 (Harris and Montgomery counties) in the Thirteenth Texas Legislature from 1873 to 1874. There, in matters of policy, Tracy favored railroads and internal improvements. He served on the Education, Enrolled Bills, Internal Improvements, and Printing committees. After the 1873 election, when Davis finally decided to concede the governorship to Richard Coke, Tracy, as Republican chair, negotiated the surrender of the executive office and the Governor’s Mansion to Coke’s representatives. Once the Redeemers gained power, Tracy’s influence began to wane. Still, he was elected to the Houston city council as a Republican in 1875. He continued to be powerful in the Republican party. By the late 1870s he, along with Davis, advocated fusion with the Greenback party. By 1880 he had returned to the regular party and was a delegate to the 1880 national convention. In 1884 he supported Chester Arthur’s nomination over James G. Blaine.
Beyond his political ventures, Tracy was involved in many early Houston businesses and sat on their boards. He was an early backer of a Houston Ship Channel and was involved in early railroad promotion. In 1870 he and Houston mayor T. H. Scanlan founded the Bayou City Bank. Yet controversy dogged Tracy here as well. He was accused of fraudulent practices in relation to his business activities. Tracy was involved in litigation concerning his business ventures.
Apparently Tracy had a penchant for feuds. While some of his political enemies regarded him as a “good fellow” though a “bitter partisan,” others despised him, and one man described him in the Austin Weekly Democratic Statesman as one of the “pimps of a corrupt administration.” In February1869, while Tracy served as Houston Daily Union editor, he felt insulted by comments published by Houston Times editor Somers Kinney, who had stated, among other things, that Tracy’s character was “black enough to make midnight darkness blush, were the two to meet face to face.” Upon reading these comments, Tracy sought out the editor and shot at him on a Houston street. His shot missed the editor but mortally wounded a passerby, thirteen-year-old Alfred Ballis Hinkle. Charged with murder, Tracy was fortunate that the prosecuting attorney was J. C. C. Winch, who Tracy regarded as a friend and who Tracy placed on the Harris County Republican Executive Committee. In October 1869 Tracy supported Winch’s bid to become U. S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. In November 1869, after a one-day trial prosecuted by Winch, Tracy was acquitted of murder. Tracy later turned against Winch when Winch received a federal judicial nomination over Tracy’s preferred candidate. In 1871 Tracy had a prolonged dispute with John Whitfield over Whitfield’s perceived insult at Governor Davis’s wife. Whitfield challenged Tracy to a duel which he declined. Tracy also exchanged verbal assaults with the editors of the Democratic newspapers the Austin Democratic Statesman and the Galveston Daily News. He even had a prolonged feud with Ferdinand Flake, moderate Republican editor of Flake’s Bulletin.
In April 1884 President Chester Arthur appointed Tracy United States marshal for the Eastern District of Texas. In that position Tracy was involved in a disastrous attempt to arrest Texas governor John Ireland for interfering with a writ of habeas corpus issued by United States district judge C. B. Sabin. The new Democratic Cleveland administration removed Tracy as marshal on July 17, 1885. Tracy then attempted to run for mayor of Houston in 1886 but withdrew his candidacy.
After his failed candidacy, Tracy moved to Washington D. C., where he began to suffer financial difficulty. There, in 1888 he shot at a banker who claimed Tracy owed him $300. Arrested for assault, this time Tracy was found guilty. Before he could be sentenced, he died on February 23, 1889. His body was returned to Houston, where he is buried in Glenwood Cemetery.