Meigs (Meiggs) Family History and Genealogy


Return Jonathan Meigs 3rd

Return Jonathan Meigs, 3rd (#368) was born on April 14, 1801, the son of John (#194) and Parthenia (Clendinen) Meigs. As Meigs recalls himself, "I was born within a half mile, I think, of Winchester, the County town of Clark County, Kentucky, in a little cabin, a picture of which and some of its surroundings remains indelibly imprinted upon my memory; of this picture my father and mother were part, and but for this impression, I should have no recollection whatever of my father, excepting a parting scene. Some seven miles from this Clark County cabin, in the adjoining County of Bourbon, lived my Aunt Cynthia, who had married James Lamme. At his place my father came to take leave of my mother, my sister and myself. He carried my sister and myself alternately, across the yard, which was covered with a beautiful carpet of blue grass. That scene is on my memory, and I report with perfect confidence of its verity. That was the last of my father. He went to Ohio on a visit to his father(1) Col. R.J. Meigs, and there he died."(2)

After his father died in 1808, Meigs lived part of the time with his uncle, James Lamme, who had no children of his own. He obtained a common school education and then took special courses in the classics and mathematics, studied law and was admitted to the bar at Frankfort, Kentucky in 1822. He moved to Athens, Tennessee and began to practice law during 1823. At that time most of his work was in connection with the Cherokee treaties of 1817-1819. In the course of a few years he became known throughout the state as a lawyer of unusual ability.(3) On account of a general dislike for lawyers, he was defeated in 1834 for a seat in Tennessee's constitutional convention by only one vote. His reason for wanting to be elected was to vote for an amendment abolishing slavery. His opponent voted against the amendment, and it was lost by just this one vote, thus insuring slavery within Tennessee for twenty-eight more years.(4) Meigs soon moved to Nashville and formed a partnership with James Rucks and later with Judge John M. Lea.

In 1838 Meigs was appointed attorney-general and state reporter, but was defeated by West H. Humphreys, when he ran for a succeeding term. In 1841 he was appointed United States attorney for the Middle Tennessee district. As a Whig he served one term in the state Senate from 1847 to 1848 where he sponsored a free banking bill and was an advocate for public education. It was during 1848 that Meigs "began the preparation of his Tennessee Digest, which has been an invaluable book to the [Legal] profession in Tennessee, and which has never been equaled by any similar work in the state and probably never surpassed anywhere.... He was peculiarly adapted to the work by his habits of patient and scrupulous investigation, his extraordinary power of analysis and discrimination, and his gift of concise and clear statement. But the most remarkable fact about the Digest is that it shows a broad and thorough comprehension of the spirit of our jurisprudence as a whole. The author did not confine his attention to the particular subject or case on which he was working, but saw each subject in its various relations to cognate subjects. The book is therefore a harmonious work.... The parts are jointed and fitted together so as to give an adequate view of our system of jurisprudence. it is the work of a scholar and a philosopher, as well as a profoundly learned lawyer."(5)

On March 4, 1854, the state legislature appropriated $5,000 to purchase books for the new state library and also commissioned Meigs to make the purchases. He traveled to the bookshops of the east and north to make his first selections. Having spent the original appropriation, Meigs secured a new law providing $500 annually for the library. It also prescribed rules for its functioning and provided for Meigs' appointment as the first state librarian with an annual salary of $500. The eminent English scientist Thomas Huxley called it "a magnificent, well selected library."(6) Meigs held the position of State Librarian until the outbreak of the Civil War. On leaving office, he told the Legislature: "My instrumentality in founding this library. . has been, with me, a labor of love."(7)

During this time he took a prominent part in the encouragement of the educational, cultural, and humanitarian development. He was the first president of the Tennessee society for the diffusion of knowledge, a corresponding secretary of the Tennessee Historical Society, a member of the Nashville board of education, a trustee of the University of Nashville and of the state school for the education of the blind.

When the Civil War began and President Lincoln call for troops, the popular sentiment in Nashville was overwhelmingly in favor of joining forces with the seceded southern states. Meigs was one of the few prominent citizens of Nashville who remained loyal to the Union. But he was also one of a group which issued a public statement approving of Governor Harris' refusal to send troops to put down the rebellion. They concluded that "we unqualifiedly disapprove of secession both as a constitutional right and as a remedy for existing evils.... The present duty of Tennessee is to maintain a position of independence, taking sides with the Union and the peace of the country against all assailants, whether from the north or the front the south. Her position should be to maintain the sanctity of her soil against the hostile tread of either party."(8)

As a result of his pro-union position, Meigs and his family soon became the target of verbal abuse. So, on June 5, 1861, he moved the family to Clifton, Staten Island, New York. Meigs opened a law office on William Street, New York City. In 1863, Lincoln asked Meigs to come to Washington, D.C., to prepare a Digest of the laws of the District of Columbia, but he declined. On the same day that this offer was made to him, by special request of Mr. Lincoln, Meigs was appointed Clerk of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. He accepted the appointment and held the position until his death. On his 90th birthday "there was a family reunion and showers of pretty speeches of congratulation from old and young. But he was at the court room a part of the day, as usual, and the judges surprised [him] by presenting him with a costly gold-headed cane, very elaborately finished and adorned with an unusual quantity of real gold. It was handed to him after a neat little speech. In replying, Mr. Meigs, said he fully appreciated the valuable gift, but he did not know what to do with it, because he did not use a cane. 'Oh, well, Mr. Meigs,' replied the Judge, 'you may get old sometime and we wish you to have a cane ready for your declining years.'"(9)

"It is part of the unwritten history of the time that when a Senator was to be elected in 1865, the Legislature of Tennessee, seeking for a man of commanding ability and reputation, acting through certain of its members, offered the place to Meigs. The offer was made by telegraph. He replied that he was not then a citizen of Tennessee and did not wish the office. He was importuned to accept it, but peremptorily declined. There is good authority also for the statement that the President [Johnson] offered him the place upon the Supreme bench of the United States, made vacent by the death of Judge Catron, but he declined it."(10)

He married his wife, Sally Keys Love, daughter of John Love of Washington, Tennessee, on November 1, 1825.(11) She was born on April 13, 1804. Henry S. Foote writing in "The Bench and Bar of the South and Southwest" said, "In the year 1858 I was traveling on the railroad which connects Nashville with Chattanooga, when I was introduced to a gentleman whom I had never before seen. Having for many years heard him spoken of as a jurist of profound learning, a ripe and accurate scholar, a public-spirited and patriotic man.... Having much curiosity about this personage, it was but natural that I should seek to draw him into familiar converse. I found him polite and affable, but he was evidently at the time in low spirits, and there was something in his tone and aspect which made the impression upon my mind that he had recently been visited with serious misfortune of some kind, the remembrance of which was then sorrowfully preying upon his sensibilities. He left the car in which we were riding at some wayside station, and we were once more in motion. I learned on inquiry that this gentleman had, a few days before, lost an amiable and accomplished wife, whom he had loved with a devotion well-nigh romantic, and that his many friends were beginning to fear that his former cheerfulness and animation would never more return to him."(12) She died on June 11, 1858.

Meigs was tall and slender, and scrupulously neat in his dress.(13) On October 19, 1891, in his ninety-first year, he arose in the morning apparently as well as ever, took a bath and shaved himself, as was his daily custom, and was then attacked by a syncope, the weakness of extreme old age, and died that afternoon, an ideal death, no tedious or painful and wasting illness.(14) He was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.




No. 721

James Lamme



No. 722

Return Jonathan



No. 723




No. 724

Joe Vincent



No. 725

Fielding Pope




  1. In truth, John was on his way to visit his brother, Return Jonathan Meigs (#191). His father, Col. R.J. Meigs was at this time the U.S. Indian Agent to the Cherokees in Tennessee. John died on July 4, 1808, at Cincinnati, Ohio.

  2. Henry B. Meigs, page 224.

  3. Joshua W. Caldwell, "Sketches of the Bench & Bar of Tennessee," Knoxville, Tennessee, Ogden Brother & Co., 1898, page 92.

  4. Henry B. Meigs, page 248.

  5. Caldwell, page 93.

  6. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, "Tennessee State Library in the Capitol," Volume 12, Nashville, page 20.

  7. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Volume 12, page 12.

  8. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Volume 4, page 4.

  9. The Daily American, Nashville, Tennessee, Wednesday, October 21, 1891, page 4, col. 2.

  10. Caldwell, page 95 & 96.

  11. Marriages of Rhea County Tennessee (1808-1859)," Genealogical Pub. Co., Baltimore, 1983, page 14.

  12. Henry S. Foote, "The Bench & Bar of the South and Southwest," St. Louis, Soule, Thomas & Wentworth, 1876, page 173 & 174.

  13. John Hallum, "The Diary of an Old Lawyer," Southwestern Pub. House, Nashville, TN, 1895, page 64.

  14. Henry B. Meigs, page 250.


Copyright (c) by Rick Meigs