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Jno Rogers (John) Eakin, an editor, jurist, champion of women’s rights, and viniculturalist, made notable accomplishments in all four fields. During the Civil War, he edited the Washington Telegraph, making it the state’s only newspaper to remain in operation throughout the war. As a jurist, he served as chancellor from 1874 to 1878 and then as an associate justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court until his death in 1885. His vigorous repudiation of the common law’s entrenched hostility to women was reflected first in his work as chancellor and carried over into his well-crafted, but dissenting, opinions on the Supreme Court. His essay on grape culture was one of the earliest agricultural publications in the state.
John Eakin was born on February 14, 1822, to John Eakin and Lucretia Pearson Eakin in Bedford County, Tennessee. (He would later sign his name as “Jno,” a popular nineteenth-century abbreviation for John by which he became known.) His father, a successful merchant in Shelbyville, Tennessee, was part of a large family that settled in Bedford County after immigrating from Killarney, Ireland. The family always took great pains, however, to claim Scotland as their ancestral home. Eakin attended college at age eleven in Jackson, Tennessee, and transferred to the University of Nashville in 1838, graduating in 1840. He began studying law in 1841 and attended law classes at Yale University in 1842–43. After completing his legal education under Andrew Ewing—a Democratic congressman and later Confederate judge—in Nashville, he was admitted to the bar in 1844, practicing in Nashville until 1853.
Eakin married Elizabeth Erwin, a cousin of the wife of writer Edgar Allan Poe, on July 31, 1848. She was college-educated, and their four daughters received higher education as well. Eakin’s uncompromising support for women’s rights doubtless reflected his own home situation. One of his sons, Will, followed in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer and editor.
His father’s death in 1849 left Eakin wealthy, and in 1853, he moved to Wartrace, Tennessee, where he expended much of his inherited estate in agricultural and horticultural experiments. In 1857, he left behind his financial embarrassments by moving to Washington (Hempstead County). By 1869, his viniculture experiments came to consist of more than 1,000 vines representing forty varieties of grape.
A Whig, he served as an elector for the Constitutional Union Party in 1860. An opponent of secession until the firing on Fort Sumter, he took over the editorial helm of the Washington Telegraph, which he edited with great ability. Although called “a virtual one-man Creel Committee” because of his tendency to suppress bad news and promote the good, he believed the press should be “controlled by men of conscience,” and he refused to print forged documents or intentionally misleading stories. Because the Telegraph was Arkansas’s only newspaper to remain in publication throughout the war, his influence was considerable. He also helped organize the Arkansas Historical Society in 1863, a body that planned to save the records of the state’s participation in the war, and the Confederate Association, a patriotic support body.
After the war, he took the oath of allegiance and, in 1866, was elected to the General Assembly, where, after failing to win election as speaker of the House, he served as head of the Judiciary Committee. Although in greatly reduced financial circumstances after the war, he nevertheless made a gift of forty acres and a house to two of his former slaves. He remained out of office during the following Republican ascendancy (1868–1874) but was active in the councils of the opposition. Elisha Baxter, he declared, “might do for governor” but was not fit for the U.S. Senate.
Following the defeat of Joseph Brooks in the Brooks-Baxter War, voters on June 30, 1874, approved summoning a constitutional convention. Eakin represented Hempstead County in the convention. Voters ratified the Constitution of 1874 on October 13, 1874. In November, Eakin became the state’s sole chancery judge (until 1891, Arkansas had only one chancellor to deal with issues of equity). Four years later, he became an associate justice on the state Supreme Court, remaining there until his death and in spite of increasing physical deterioration.
Both his chancery and Supreme Court rulings were notable for his championing of women’s rights. Dan W. Jones, in a tribute to Eakin, spoke of “his thorough and consuming hatred and contempt for the rigid, unreasonable, and unworthy rules of the common law in relation to married women. He always hailed with delight every onslaught made by the legislature upon these relics of barbarism and was always willing to give the most liberal construction possible to the innovation made by the constitution upon this subject.” Unfortunately, he could not carry his judicial brethren along with him.
Eakin’s private, and to some extent his public, life was clouded by what John Hallum called his being “addicted to a social custom” (i.e., alcoholism). Hallum called his victory late in life over intemperance as his supreme accomplishment. Following the death of his wife in 1885, his own health began to decline. He died on September 3, 1885, while visiting a daughter in Marshall, Missouri. Both in his agricultural experiments and in his forward-thinking jurisprudence, Eakin exemplified important traits of the Southern aristocratic elite, while his work in sustaining the Washington Telegraph during the Civil War left behind an invaluable written legacy, especially for the last two years of the war.
For additional information:Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Southern Arkansas. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889.
Brown, C. Allan. “Horticulture in Early Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 43 (Summer 1984): 99–124.
Dougan, Michael B. “The Arkansas Married Woman’s Property Law.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 46 (Spring 1987): 3–27.
Eakin Family File. Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, Washington, Arkansas.
Eakin, John R. Rudiments of Grape Culture: Being Simple Directions for the Use of Those Who Have no Previous Knowledge of the Subject. Little Rock: Woodruff & Blocher, 1868.
“Hon. Dan W. Jones’ Eloquent Tribute Before the Supreme Court to the Late Judge John R. Eakin.” Arkansas Gazette. December 15, 1885, p. 3.
“Judge Eakin Dead.” Arkansas Gazette. December 5, 1885, p. 5.
Judge John R. Eakin Papers. Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, Washington, Arkansas.
Smith, Robert Freeman. “John R. Eakin: Confederate Propagandist.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 12 (Winter 1953): 316–326.
Michael B. DouganJonesboro, Arkansas
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