If, like me, you are dispirited by our national political climate, you may occasionally entertain the sense that you are witness to an era of unprecedented moral debasement. Creeping oligarchy, the re-emergence of an atavistic paleo-conservatism, the slow death-wheeze of the fourth estate, the rise of a relentlessly cheery techno-utopian Gatsby class—we’ve got a lot working against us. But if you think our era is defined by its high concentration of professional reprobates, or that the stakes for our republic are particularly high, you might find lukewarm comfort in the story of Judge David Smith Terry.
In the pantheon of salty, contemptuous bastards in American politics, not many can out-do Terry, a bowie-wielding, ardent-pro-slavery Texan with a volcanic temper, who rose to become Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court in the mid-nineteenth century. Like some shadow-character from Blood Meridian, Terry’s life mixed tragedy, vulgarity, absurdity, and spite in equal measure.
Terry was a nationally infamous figure in his own day—no mean feat, in a time when travel back East often meant a seaward departure via the Golden Gate, and an overland trip through the jungles of Panama. There was a wealth of contemporary writing about the judge during the nineteenth century, most of it highly tendentious, portraying Terry as either a rough-and-tumble all-American hero or Lucifer instantiated. (“Blood, blood, blood, seems to be the only substance in nature capable of slaking the thirst of this man-beast,” wrote the San Francisco Bulletin.) But there was a steep drop-off in interest in Terry after his death. In fact, the most recent book about him, a blithely sympathetic biography, David S. Terry of California: Dueling Judge, by Albert Russell Buchanan, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara, is itself sixty years old.
Born in Kentucky, and raised in Mississippi and Texas after his father abandoned the family, Terry fought in the Texas Revolution and, later, in the Mexican-American War. He studied law and headed, like so many other self-aggrandizers then and now, to California to make his fortune during the Gold Rush of 1849. It was there that he developed his reputation as a bit of a stabby hothead, inclined to settle legal or personal disputes with his giant knife, which he always kept sheathed at his side. (Once, in a fit of pique over an unflattering piece about him published anonymously in the Pacific Statesman, he reportedly broke a cane over an editor’s head, then waved his knife him, shouting, “Now, damn you, give me that name or I’ll take your life!”)
Read the Remainder at The AWL