Daniel Ringo (1803–1873)
Daniel Ringo was the first chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and helped to develop the foundation for the state’s legal system.
Daniel Ringo was born on October 27, 1803, in Cross Plains, Kentucky, but little else is known about his life prior to his arrival in Arkansas. Ringo came to Arkansas in 1820, settling first in Batesville (Independence County) and then moving on to Clark County, where he served as a deputy clerk of the district court. He was elected clerk in 1825 and served most of three terms. He studied the law throughout this time and was admitted to the bar in 1830, at which time he moved to Hempstead County, where he established a partnership with Edward Cross, a former Territorial Superior Court judge who would later serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Three years later, Ringo moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he established a partnership with Chester Ashley, one of the territory’s most successful attorneys and politicians. This was a help to Ringo professionally, as Ashley helped Ringo widen his circle of political acquaintances.
The state constitution that went into effect when Arkansas became a state in 1836 called for the creation of a three-member Supreme Court to be elected by the joint houses of the Arkansas General Assembly. Each judge was to have a term of eight years. However, for the purpose of moving forward while still ensuring institutional continuity, the first three judges had seats with staggered terms, with one having a four-year term, one a six-year term, and one a full eight-year term. The legislature selected Ringo as well as Townsend Dickinson and Thomas J. Lacy as the initial judges. They, in turn, determined who would have which seat. In the end, Ringo got the eight-year term and, with it, the designation as chief justice, a determination agreed to by the legislature.
The bulk of the court’s early activity was dedicated to establishing an operational judicial branch for the state. This included addressing jurisdictional and procedural matters. There were few major cases, although Ringo himself was caught in the middle of a contentious battle involving the state’s new and developing banks, and the politics surrounding the controversy were, in the eyes of some observers, a contributing factor in the chief justice’s failure to be re-elected in 1844.
Ringo, called an “old German Whig” by one observer, was never known as a bold or creative thinker, but he was well respected for the prodigious research he put into his efforts. While his sometimes pedantic approach to the law had its critics, he was universally recognized for the meticulous way he applied the law, being especially dogged in observing the technicalities of the law. Typical was his work in the controversial case of Buzzard v. State, an 1842 concealed-weapons case in which all three of the Arkansas’s Supreme Court’s justices wrote opinions. Indeed, while Ringo ultimately concluded that the right of the people to bear arms was rooted in their ability to perform military-related activities, prior to reaching this conclusion, the chief justice gave an extensive consideration of the very nature of government itself, considering the fundamental reasons for its existence and in turn the roles and responsibilities it was established to fulfill. Determining that the protection and defense of the community were in the forefront of that role, he asserted that fulfilling that responsibility sometimes required regulating the actions of individual citizens. With its interpretation of a right to bear arms based in militia activity, it is an opinion that has continued to resonate with modern gun-control advocates.
After leaving the Supreme Court in 1844, Ringo established a law practice in Little Rock with his brother-in-law Frederick W. Trapnall. However, with political change came a new opportunity, and following the election of 1848, President Zachary Taylor gave Ringo a recess appointment to the U.S. District Court on November 5, 1849. On December 21, 1849, he was officially nominated, with Senate confirmation coming on June 10, 1850. While he was originally appointed to the District Court for the Arkansas District, with the state’s growth came a redrawing of districts, and on March 3, 1851, Judge Ringo was reassigned to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. With the onset of the Civil War, Ringo sided with the Confederacy, resigning his seat on the U.S. bench on May 6, 1861. While the Confederates continued his appointment under their government, there was little legal activity during the war.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Ringo avoided politics. In declining health and with his economic fortunes diminished by the war, he resumed the practice of law while living in Little Rock. He and his wife, Mary Ann Cocke Ringo, with whom he had four children, lived on what became Ringo Place, in a location around the corner from the site of the family home that had burned to the ground back in 1836.
In the summer of 1873, he became the vice president of a group called the “Old Settlers.” However, he died soon thereafter, on September 3, 1873. He is buried in Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.
For additional information:
“Death of Hon. Daniel Ringo.” Arkansas Gazette, September 4, 1873, p. 1.
Hallum, John. Biographical and Pictorial History of Arkansas, Vol. I. Albany, NY: Weed, Parson’s and Company, Printers, 1887. Online at http://files.usgwarchives.net/ar/state/bios/ringod.txt (accessed July 13, 2018).
Looney, J. W. “Daniel Ringo: First Chief Justice of Arkansas.” Arkansas Lawyer 48 (Fall 2013). Online at http://issuu.com/arkansas_bar_association/docs/the_arkansas_lawyer_fall_2013?mode=embed (accessed July 13, 2018).
———. Distinguishing the Righteous from the Roguish: The Arkansas Supreme Court, 1836–1874. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2016.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated: 02/10/2020