Visit The University of Texas homepage

John Hemphill (1803-1862)

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas, 1840
Chief Justice, Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas, 1841-1845
Chief Justice, Texas Supreme Court, 1845-1858

John Hemphill, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was born December 18, 1803 in Blackstock, South Carolina. He graduated second in his class at Jefferson College (now Washington and Jefferson) in Carmonsburg, Pennsylvania in 1825. He taught school briefly before undertaking the study of law. In 1829 he began a private legal practice in Sumter County, South Carolina. In 1836 he fought in the Second Seminole War, earning the rank of second lieutenant.

Hemphill relocated to Texas in 1838, practicing law in Washington-on-the-Brazos. Two years later, he was elected judge of the Fourth Judicial District by the Congress of the Republic, automatically making him an associate justice of the supreme court. On December 5, 1840, he was elected the Republic's fourth chief justice. He would hold this position both in the Republic and under statehood, until 1858. He was a member of the Congress of 1845, a proponent of statehood, and a framer of the 1845 Texas constitution.

Hemphill was present at the Council House Fight in San Antonio, where Texan-Comanche tensions erupted violently on March 19, 1840. Sixty-five Comanches, including twelve war chiefs, had gathered to negotiate a peace treaty with Texas. But the chiefs, who had failed to bring with them thirteen Anglo prisoners, were taken hostage on the condition that they release them. A fight ensued when they tried to escape, and thirty-three Comanches including women and children were killed in a bloody massacre. Thirty-two others, many of them wounded, were taken prisoner. The Comanches answered the atrocity with revenge raids, and Hemphill went on to fight in several subsequent campaigns against the Comanches. His military activities also included serving as adjutant general of the Republic and taking part in the Somervell expedition of 1842 to invade Mexico.

Hemphill was known for the literary quality of his written opinions during his eighteen years on the bench. He was fluent in Spanish and extremely knowledgeable in Spanish and Mexican law. Marital rights, divorce, and homestead and other exemptions were among his chief judicial interests, and he was considered a champion of children's and women's rights. He is credited with shaping Texas community property and homestead laws.

In 1858 Hemphill left the bench to become a U.S. Senator, filling the seat vacated by Sam Houston. There he gave a speech advocating the legality of secession, was one of fourteen senators recommending secession of the Southern states, became a member of the Provisional Confederate Congress, and was terminated from his senate seat. Never married, Hemphill died in Richmond, Virginia, on January 4, 1862, and his body was returned to Texas for burial in the State Cemetery in Austin.

Notable opinions

Yates v. Houston, 3 Texas reports 450.

Mason v. Russel's Heirs, 1 Texas reports 720.


Cutrer, Thomas W. Hemphill, John, Handbook of Texas Online (visited June 5, 2006).

Ericson, Joe E. Judges of the Republic of Texas (1836-1846) 139 (Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1980).

Fehrenbach, T. R. Comanches: The Destruction of a People (1974).

Lynch, James Daniel. The Bench and Bar of Texas 69 (St. Louis, Missouri: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1885).

Presentation of Portrait of Justice Hemphill, 59 Texas reports vii (1883).

Extended bibliography

Baker, DeWitt Clinton. A Texas Scrap Book Made up of the History, Biography and Miscellany of Texas and Its People 300 (Austin, Texas: Steck Co., 1935).

Biographical Encyclopedia of Texas 151 (New York, New York: Southern Publishing Co., 1880).

Curtis, Rosalee Morris. John Hemphill, First Chief Justice of the State of Texas (Austin, Texas: Jenkins Publishing Co., 1971).

Fulmore, Zachary Taylor. The History and Geography of Texas as Told in County Names 200 (Austin, Texas: Steck, 1915).

Huson, Hobart. District Judges of Refugio County 53 (Refugio, Texas: Timely Remarks, 1941).

4 Great American Lawyers 3. William Draper Lewis, ed. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: John C. Winston Co., 1907).

Lynch, James Daniel. The Bench and Bar of Texas 13, 69, 533 (St. Louis, Missouri: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1885).

Speer, Ocie. Texas Jurists 28 (Austin, Texas: the author, 1936).

Thrall, Homer S. A Pictorial History of Texas 551 (St. Louis, Missouri: N. D. Thompson, 1885).

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

King, Valentine Overton. A Biographical Sketch of John Hemphill, 1(2) The Docket 1 (San Antonio, Texas: June 1896).

Additional information available in Southwestern Historical Quarterly as follow:
Volume 1, page 103
Volume 2, page 7
Volume 7, page 84
Volume 14, page 122
Volume 18, page 57, 194, 388
Volume 19, page 162
Volume 23, page 116, 133
Volume 28, page 310
Volume 33, page 118, 121
Volume 41, page 84n
Volume 43, page 521
Volume 44, page 369
Volume 49, page 98, 273, 543
Volume 51, page 166
Volume 52, page 80, 210
Volume 55, page 114
Volume 56, page 446
Volume 57, page 31, 222, 436
Volume 60, page 17, 291
Volume 61, page 456
Volume 62, page 216
Volume 67, page 123, 472
Volume 69, page 202
Volume 73, page 182
Volume 75, page 83
Volume 78, page 233, 240

Hart, James P. John Hemphill-Chief Justice of Texas, 3 Southwestern Law Journal 395.

Additional information available in Texas Bar Journal as follow:
Volume 9, page 40
Volume 24, page 937

Preface, 28 Texas reports vii, xiii (1883).

Presentation of Portrait of Justice Hemphill, 59 Texas reports vii (1883).

Brown, Frank. Annals of Travis County and of the City of Austins. Archives Division, Texas State Library (Austin, Texas).

2 Biographies of Leading Texans 289. Archives Division, Texas State Library (Austin, Texas).