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James Kimbrough Jones served as a U.S. senator from Arkansas for three full terms after first serving two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. During his twenty-two years in Washington DC, he became a prominent leader in the Democratic Party and a national advocate for lower tariffs and for the use of silver to back American currency.
James Kimbrough Jones was born on September 29, 1839, in Marshall County, Mississippi, to Nat Jones and Caroline Jane Jones (whose maiden name was also Jones, although she was not related to Nat Jones). Jones had a younger brother who died in childhood, and his mother died when he was six. His father remarried after moving to Dallas County, Arkansas. Two daughters were born from this second marriage before Jones’s stepmother, Lucy Norment Jones, also died. Growing up on his father’s plantation, Jones attended a small school in Cachemasso—later renamed Dalark (Dallas County)—and then enrolled in the Arkansas Military Institute in Tulip (Dallas County). According to his memoirs, Jones also received private tutoring in classical education from Judge Hawes H. Coleman, a Clark County politician and lawyer.
When the Civil War began, Jones was assisting his father in a mercantile business in Arkadelphia (Clark County). He enlisted in Company A of the Third Arkansas Cavalry, seeing action in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri before falling ill from pneumonia. After recovering, he rejoined his unit and saw further action in Mississippi and Tennessee before becoming ill a second time. During this convalescence, Jones married Sue Rust Eaton on January 16, 1863. Two daughters were born to them before she died in 1866. Meanwhile, Jones returned once again to military duty, fighting at Marks’ Mills, Prairie d’Ane, and Poison Spring. He returned to the family plantation after the war ended and married Sue Somervell in June 1866. They had one daughter and two sons. During these years, he also studied law, being admitted to the bar in 1874 and opening practice in Washington (Hempstead County).
During Reconstruction, Jones was at first barred from voting or seeking elective office because he was a Confederate veteran. When that prohibition was lifted, Jones was chosen by Hempstead County Democratic leaders to challenge Republican John Brooker for a seat in the Arkansas state Senate. Jones, who had not sought the nomination, ran a successful campaign and first took his seat in the May 1874 extraordinary session. This body met during the Brooks-Baxter War, in which Jones supported the position of Elisha Baxter. Jones also served in the Constitutional Convention of 1874 and was reelected to the state Senate twice, being chosen by his fellow lawmakers as president of the Senate in 1877.
Jones first sought nomination to serve in Congress in 1878, but he was defeated in that election by William Slemmons of Monticello (Drew County). Running again in 1880, he was chosen by the voters of Arkansas’s Second Congressional District to represent them in the nation’s capital. During his two terms in the House, Jones served on both the Committee for Indian Affairs and the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Although he missed many sessions of Congress due to illness and to personal matters, Jones was sufficiently respected in Arkansas to be elected to a third term in Congress, which he resigned when the Arkansas General Assembly chose in January 1885 to place Jones in the U.S. Senate.
Jones was selected for the seat that had been held for one term by James Walker of Fayetteville (Washington County). The General Assembly required thirty-one rounds of voting to make this selection, as Congressman Poindexter Dunn of Forrest City (St. Francis County) and former governor James Berry were also nominated. Jones trailed both opponents in every balloting until the final count, when Berry withdrew from the contest. (Two months later, Berry was named senator by the legislature, replacing Augustus Garland, who resigned from the Senate to become attorney general in President Grover Cleveland’s cabinet.)
Jones’s early career in the Senate was unremarkable; the greatest achievement of his first term was winning approval for federal funding to build bridges across the Arkansas River at Little Rock (Pulaski County), Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), and Van Buren (Crawford County). Jones also wrote a bill asking that a federal military post be established near Little Rock; this eventually became Fort Logan H. Roots. The most important issue in which Jones became involved at this time was the question of tariffs used both to raise revenue for the federal government and to protect American products from foreign competition. Jones advocated reform to reduce tariffs, believing that free trade was harmed by protectionism. Speeches made by Jones on the Senate floor calling for tariff reform were printed and distributed nationally. Although the positions taken by Jones were unsuccessful in Congress at the time, he became an increasingly powerful influence in his party and in the nation.
Jones became a friend of William Jennings Bryan, who was famous for proposing and defending silver as a better standard than gold to support American currency. Jones and Berry both supported the silver standard, in spite of opposition from President Cleveland and from the Republican Party. Jones was made chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1896, leading the convention that nominated Bryan for the presidency. Four years later, both Jones and Bryan held the same positions. Although William McKinley defeated Bryan in both elections, Bryan easily carried Arkansas both times.
In spite of his national prominence, Jones was opposed by some Democratic leaders in Arkansas, including Governor James Paul Clarke, who sought his party’s support to replace Jones in the Senate. Although Jones prevailed in their first battle in 1896, Clarke won the rematch six years later, forcing Jones into retirement in 1902. At that time, no other official had represented Arkansas for so many years in Washington DC.
Jones chose to remain in the nation’s capital, opening a law practice there but returning frequently to Arkansas. He served as president of the first incarnation of the Arkansas Historical Association. Jones died in Washington DC on June 1, 1908, and is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in the District of Columbia.
For additional information:Newberry, Farrar. James K. Jones: The Plumed Knight of Arkansas. Marion, AR: Siftings-Herald Printing Company, 1913.
Niswanger, Richard L. “Arkansas and the Election of 1896.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 34 (Spring 1975): 41–78.
Steven TeskeEncyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 12/17/2013
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