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James Hall Bell (1825-1892)

Associate Justice, Texas Supreme Court, 1858-1864

James Hall Bell, the first native-born Texan to serve on the Texas Supreme Court, was born January 21, 1825 in Bell's Landing (now Columbia ) in Brazoria County. He was the son of Josiah Bell, a prominent member of the "Old Three Hundred," Stephen F. Austin's original colony of Anglo settlers in Texas. Josiah Bell established a sugar plantation in Brazoria County and developed the towns of East and West Columbia.

James Bell left home to attend St. Joseph's College at Bardstown, Kentucky in 1837. When his father died the following year, he returned to Texas. In 1839 he resumed his studies at Center College in Danville, Kentucky, but his education was again interrupted when he enlisted in the Texas army during the Mexican invasions of 1842. Following his military service, he studied law under William H. Jack until Jack's death from yellow fever in 1844. Bell entered Harvard University in 1846 and received his LL.B. the following year; he was the first Texas Supreme Court justice to be educated at Harvard Law School. In addition to studying law, he became fluent in Latin, French, and Spanish.

Upon completing his education, Bell returned to Texas, married, and began a law partnership in Brazoria with Robert J. Townes. He also ran his own plantation. From 1852 to 1856 he served as district judge of the First Judicial District. He was elected associate justice of the Texas Supreme Court in August 1858 and served until August 1864, when his term expired. He was an outspoken opponent of secession, believing that it would ultimately result in disaster for Texas; these sentiments cost him his reelection bid in 1864.

Following his supreme court service, Bell returned to private practice and served as Secretary of State under Provisional Governor A. J. Hamilton from August 1865 to August 1866. Bell subsequently undertook a successful mining operation in Mexico before returning to Austin, where he died after a lengthy illness on March 13, 1892.

Notable opinions

Bell was a "staunch defender of rights of the citizen against the exercise of undue powers of government." Example: ex parte Frank H. Coupland, on habeas corpus before Chief Justice Wheeler in 1863 regarding conscription.

De Blane v Hugh Lynch & Co., 23 Tex 25 (Tex. 1859) (holding an action against husband enforceable against community property of cotton grown on wife's land with labor of slaves owned separately by wife. Bell, J., initially relying on biblical exegesis, ultimately determines, "whatever is acquired, except by gift, devise or descent, or by the exchange of one kind of property for another kind, is acquired by their mutual industry," and "whatever is acquired by the joint efforts of the husband and wife, shall be their common property").

Withers v Patterson, 27 Tex 491 (Tex. 1864) (holding jury instructions that an estate was closed before executor sold land to plaintiff not erroneous because the County Court held no authority to appoint a subsequent administrator after the estate had been duly administered).


"Fragments", Be It Remembered, 2(1) newsletter of The Texas Supreme Court Historical Society 2 (March, 1997).

In Memoriam, 85 Texas reports xii (1893).

Lynch, James Daniel. The Bench and Bar of Texas 293 (St. Louis, Missouri: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1885).

Bell, James H, Handbook of Texas Online (last updated June 6, 2001).

Extended bibliography

Davenport, Jewette Harbert. The History of the Supreme Court of the State of Texas 55 (Austin, Texas: Southern Law Book Publishers, 1917).

Lotto, Frank. Fayette County, Her History and Her People 205 (Schulenburg, Texas: the author, 1902).

Lynch, James Daniel. The Bench and Bar of Texas 293 (St. Louis, Missouri: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1885).

McCormick, Andrew Phelps. Scotch-Irish in Ireland and in America 59, 111, 117, 118, 129, 159 (New Orleans, Louisiana: the author, 1897).

Speer, Ocie. Texas Jurists 36 (Austin, Texas: the author, 1936).

Weyand, Leonie and Houston Wade. An Early History of Fayette County 52 (La Grange, Texas: La Grange Journal, 1936).

Additional information available in Southwestern Historical Quarterly as follow:
Volume 1, page 248
Volume 2, page 8, 12
Volume 11, page 280
Volume 12, page 233, 235
Volume 14, page 120, 126
Volume 25, page 119
Volume 26, page 236
Volume 49, page 107, 560
Volume 55, page 449, 453
Volume 60, page 17
Volume 61, page 410
Volume 65, page 103
Volume 78, page 7, 10n

In Memoriam, 85 Texas reports xii (1893).

James H. Bell Papers. Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas (Austin, Texas).