Townsend Dickinson (1795–1851)
Townsend Dickinson was elected to the territorial legislature and served as prosecuting attorney for his territorial district. He was appointed U.S. Land Office Registrar of Batesville (Independence County) in 1833. He served as a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1836. Following the convention, he was elected to the first Arkansas General Assembly, which soon made him one of three original members of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Little is known about Dickinson’s childhood, but it appears he was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1795. He was said to be a very polished and well-spoken scholar. In 1821, he moved from New York to Lawrence County, Arkansas. He then moved to Batesville, practicing law and dabbling in real estate. He resided in Batesville until early 1851, when he moved to Texas.
On February 27, 1825, Dickinson married Mariah Moore, the daughter of James Moore, a wealthy native of Ireland who settled in Batesville via Vermont. Mariah’s sister and her husband, Thomas Curran, who was from Ireland, both died young, leaving an orphan son named James Curran to be raised in the Dickinson household. Dickinson trained and educated him, and Curran became a well-respected lawyer. Mariah Dickinson died in Batesville on February 2, 1836.
Early in his career, Dickinson practiced law and was involved in real estate ventures, which likely led to his appointment as U.S. Land Office Registrar of Batesville in 1833. His real estate ventures included land near the present Arkansas State Capitol. Dickinson and other speculators moved the capitol to Little Rock (Pulaski County) from Arkansas Post.
In 1836, Dickinson was named one of the three original justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Daniel Ringo and Thomas J. Lacy also were elected, with Dickinson receiving the most votes.
As a justice, Dickinson was a master at deconstructing complex arguments and was a very clear and concise writer. He participated in several key cases, including State v. Buzzard. In this case, the defendant, a Mr. Buzzard, was charged with violating an Arkansas state law that prohibited the carrying of a concealed weapon. At trial, Buzzard argued that the law infringed upon his fundamental right to keep and bear arms, granted by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The trial court agreed and struck down the law. The state appealed the case to the Arkansas Supreme Court, where the justices reversed the trial court in a 2–1 decision.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Ringo found that the state was well within its power to make laws such as these to help “the preservation of peace and domestic tranquility.” Dickinson concurred and pointed out that the intent of the Second Amendment was for the states to have a militia to protect themselves against a national army. The majority of the justices felt that the original intent of the Second Amendment was never meant to apply as a right granted to individuals, as that might threaten citizens in a society.
Dickinson wrote the majority opinion in Ex parte Conway, which upheld the transfer of assets of the Real Estate Bank to trustees in the fight over control of the bank. This decision was a controversial pro-bank position, which led to him losing reelection when his term ended in 1842.
Many publications have erroneously recorded Townsend Dickinson’s death as around 1860, but several newspaper reports from 1851 reveal that Dickinson died in February 1851. At the time of his death, Dickinson was living in Harrison County, Texas. He was traveling from Brownsville, Texas, to Corpus Christi, Texas, and, in crossing a lake at night, his buggy missed the road and got into deep water. Dickinson and the two horses pulling his buggy drowned. His body was not recovered.
For additional information:
Hallum, John. Biographical and Pictorial History of Arkansas. Albany, NY: Weed, Parson’s and Company, 1887.
Looney, J. W. “Justice Townsend Dickinson—An Adventurer.” Arkansas Lawyer 49 (Spring 2014): 40.
Shinn, Josiah H. Pioneers and Makers of Arkansas. Chicago: Genealogical and Historical Publishing Company, 1908.
Stevenson, C. R. Arkansas Territory—State and its Highest Courts. Little Rock: Clerk of the Supreme Court, 1946.
“Texas.” New York Tribune, March 10, 1851, p. 6.
Marty E. Sullivan
Little Rock, Arkansas
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