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John Pope was born on March 16, 1822, in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised in Kaskaskia, Illinois, where he grew up privileged and well-placed socially, enjoying the finest a half-settled prairie had to offer. His mother, Lucretia Backus Pope, had a college education and came from a New England family with roots in America reaching back two hundred years: one ancestor, the Reverend William Hyde, was cofounder of Hartford, Connecticut; a second, John Haynes, governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.
John Pope's paternal lineage was equally distinguished. His uncle, John Pope, for whom he was named, was a United States senator from Kentucky. His grandfather, William Pope (the family seems to have eschewed middle names for their male offspring), served in the colonial army and married the aunt of Ninian Edwards, a future governor of Illinois. Young John's first ancestor in America, Nathaniel Pope the elder, owned the land on which Robert E. Lee was later born and had a daughter who married George Washington's great-grandfather. John's father, the younger Nathaniel Pope, was one of the most illustrious men in Illinois.
Nathaniel Pope had come to Kaskaskia from Kentucky at the turn of the nineteenth century, having attended Transylvania University at Lexington for one year and read law in his brother John's office. Nathaniel moved easily in the pioneer community, and in 1809, when Congress authorized the organization of the Illinois Territory, he was appointed territorial secretary. That year also he married Lucretia Backus.
Although Nathaniel owed his appointment to the influence of his brother John and of Henry Clay, he proved worthy of the job. When the new governor, his cousin Ninian Edwards, was detained several months in Kentucky, it fell to Pope to organize the territory. He drew county lines, settled boundary disputes, and appointed territorial officials. Six years later, under the authority of the legislature, he revised the Laws of the Territory of Illinois, a massive two-volume work that became known simply as Pope's Digest.
Pope's popularity won him election as territorial delegate to Congress in the fall of 1816. In Washington, he became an aggressive champion of statehood for Illinois. When in 1818 the territory petitioned for admission to the Union, Pope was asked to draw up the necessary resolution. In doing so, he turned what might have been a prosaic parchment into a dynamic entreaty for Illinois's preeminence in the Northwest Territory.
The fifth article of the Ordinance of 1787 had stipulated that there should be formed from the Northwest Territory no fewer than three nor more than five states, and the ordinance proceeded to define the boundaries of the future states of Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana. Troublesome to Pope was a proviso that permitted Congress to "form one or two states in that part of said territory which lies north of an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend of Lake Michigan." As Wisconsin had applied for statehood north of that line, Pope realized Illinois would be deprived of access to Lake Michigan; specifically, it would lose control of the tiny settlement of Chicago. Enlisting the help of his brother John and of Henry Clay, and displaying what the distinguished early Illinois lawyer Thomas Hoyne called "the forecast of a truly great statesman," Pope induced both houses of Congress to agree that the ordinance of admission he had drawn should supersede the provisions of the Ordinance of 1787. Pope's ordinance drew the northern boundary of Illinois at its present 42°70' latitude. To the chagrin of Wisconsin's less-enterprising delegates, Illinois was admitted to the Union with Chicago snugly inside its boundaries. Thomas Hoyne summarized the debt Illinois owed Pope when he observed, "No prescience could have supposed that in sixty years the part of Illinois included by that change of boundary, would have given her the fourth largest city of the Union, and that in the fifteen counties, organized out of the territory then taken from Wisconsin, there would be a majority of the population of this state, by the census of 1880, while three-fourths or four-fifths of all the wealth of the state would be found north of the southern bend of Lake Michigan."
Impressive too were Pope's efforts on behalf of public education. Ordinarily, states carved from the Northwest Territory were granted 5 percent of the revenue from the sale of public lands to finance road building. But Pope won an exception. Certain that roads would be built with or without state aid, he convinced Congress to allow the state of Illinois to retain 3 percent of land-sale proceeds for the furtherance of learning. Pope also laid the foundation for an educational grant that gave the state government the thirty-sixth section of land in every township of Illinois, which might then be sold or rented for the benefit of a general school fund. For this too Thomas Hoyne paid tribute to Pope: "The organization and support of schools was with Judge Pope and the men of that day, one of the primal objects secured to the state, through their efforts, for posterity. The people of this generation owe them the acknowledgment of that service."
Unfortunately, the gratitude of Nathaniel Pope's own generation proved fleeting. A year after he had shepherded Illinois's application for statehood through Congress, the voters of his home county rejected Pope's bid to return to Washington as their representative, giving him only 175 of 775 ballots cast in the November 1818 election. Rejected by the plain folk, Pope allied himself with the aristocracy of learning. He and Ninian Edwards became Whig opponents of Andrew Jackson and vigorous champions of John Quincy Adams for president.
Aligning himself with the Whigs sealed his fate, insofar as elected office was concerned, as the overwhelming majority of voters in southern Illinois were Democrats. Pope defended his Whig politics in a distinctly Johnsonian manner. "Sir," he told a young Democrat lawyer of whom he was fond, "I despise a young man who is not a Democrat; but a man of forty who is not a Whig I also despise."
Cast aside by the electorate, Pope accepted an appointment as United States district judge in 1819. For the next nineteen years, Pope would be the only federal magistrate in Illinois. The entire state was his circuit, and he spent a good deal of his time on the road, traveling from one rough, log courthouse to another. His visits were big events. "The court-rooms in those days were always crowded. To go to court and listen to the witnesses and lawyers was among the chief amusements of the frontier settlements," explained the jurist Isaac N. Arnold. "The judges and lawyers were the stars; and wit and humor, pathos and eloquence, always had appreciative audiences." Relations between the bench and bar were free and easy, said Arnold. "The judge usually sat upon a raised platform, with a pine or white-wood board on which to write his notes. A small table on one side for the clerk, and a larger one, sometimes covered with green baize, around which were grouped the lawyers, too often I must admit, with their feet on top of it," recalled Arnold. "From one to another of these rude court-rooms the gentlemen of the Bar passed, following the judge in his circuit from county to county, traveling, generally on horseback, with saddle bags for a clean shirt or two, and perhaps one or two elementary law books."
Not surprisingly, given the hardships of travel in pioneer Illinois, Judge Pope preferred to leave the rambling, frame family home in Kaskaskia as seldom as possible. Nine children were born to Nathaniel and Lucretia Pope under its puritanical roof. John was the fourth child to enter the Pope household. Siblings William, Penelope, and Elizabeth preceded him; his sisters Lucretia and Cynthia came at close intervals thereafter. Three more daughters, all of whom died in childhood, were born to the Popes. When John was just seven, William left home to join the navy, and John became the principal object of attention of his mother, four sisters, and the black nursemaid who cared for him.
Although he professed antislavery sympathies, Judge Pope was never active in the cause, and he retained slaves until slavery was outlawed in Illinois. At heart a Kentucky aristocrat, Nathaniel Pope prided himself on his erudition and ancestry, and it most certainly had been this arrogance that cost him the 1818 congressional election. Although he founded Bible societies in Jackson County, donated land for the county courthouse, contributed money to the first Kaskaskia public school, and built the first bridge over the Kaskaskia River, frontier democracy passed Nathaniel Pope by, and his judgeship proved the zenith of his public career. In 1824, Pope tried unsuccessfully to obtain a vacant seat in the United States Senate, and he spent the winter of 1826 in Washington, vainly seeking a place on the United States Supreme Court.
The ingratitude of the electorate infuriated John Pope. Too young to understand the rough machinations of frontier politics, John nonetheless felt acutely his father's anguish. In a letter to his married sister, Penelope Pope Allen, fourteen-year-old John excoriated as satanic buffoons the garrulous, illiterate men who attacked Judge Pope. By contrast, their father was the Angel Gabriel come to earth.
John both admired and feared his father, and from the judge and his progenitors he inherited traits that helped both to make and ultimately to break him. The Pope men were a curious mix of erudition, ambition, and braggadocio. Born to command, learned but gruff, outgoing but bookish, more than a bit sloppy with the truth, a Pope male would exaggerate a story or a claim as much from enthusiasm as mendacity. Or, as a close friend of John Pope later put it, "Those who thought that, because he was so sanguine to florid in statement, he was not careful and accurate in determining what was essential, entire[ly] mistook the man." And a Pope male would roar, swagger, and posture-invariably more threatening in speech than deed.
All these qualities were bound up in the looming and turbulent presence that was John Pope's father. The judge cut a contradictory figure. Said his intimate friend, the attorney Usher F. Linder, "Judge Pope's physical form was not very remarkable; he was rather above than below the medium height, and rather corpulent, [but] a man could not look upon him without thinking that he was a man of considerable intellectual power." Stephen T. Logan, a law partner of Abraham Lincoln and one of the preeminent lawyers in the young state, shared Linder's high opinion of Nathaniel Pope's intellect, calling him "a man of the finest legal mind he ever knew." Judge Joseph Gillespie, who began his legal career practicing before Pope, carried Logan's estimate a step further; to him, Nathaniel Pope was simply "one of the ablest men of the nation."
Judge Pope's emotions were always close to the surface, and he was so blunt as to strike many as rude. In one case before his court, Judge Pope's reply to an argument of counsel was simply, "This is preposterous." An Illinois attorney said of Nathaniel Pope, "He had a head like a half-bushel, with brains enough for six men. He had a wonderful knowledge of human nature and was utterly without fear." Judge Pope's son, the attorney added, had many of the father's qualities.
Easily angered, Nathaniel Pope could also be gracious, even tender, with those of whom he was fond. Usher F. Linder was one upon whom he bestowed special favor. "I was a young man at the beginning of my acquaintance with Judge Pope, and a sort of pet of his," remembered Linder, "and he used to scold me for not coming to his room more often than I did." Abraham Lincoln was another favorite. Judge Pope knew Lincoln well and over the years developed a deep affection for him. Crusty in the courtroom, the judge softened when Lincoln argued a case. Lincoln, in turn, came to understand and appreciate Judge Pope, and later his son. "The judge was rough toward everyone, but his roughness toward Lincoln had a touch of tenderness in it," remembered a fellow circuit-riding lawyer. "He would sometimes rebuke him, but in a sort of fatherly way.... Many people wondered at the favor shown to John Pope by Mr. Lincoln during the war.... Lincoln understood the sort of roar in John Pope's proclamations which many people thought gasconade. That roar he got from his gruff old father; it was the roar of the lion and Lincoln had heard it a thousand times."
Besides bombast, John Pope inherited something of his father's genius and a good deal of his tendency toward overweight. Judge Pope also imparted to his son Republican ideals, a deepening abhorrence of slavery, a love of learning, and a splendid family library in which John might indulge his considerable intellectual curiosity. What he could not instruct his son in was the managing of money. He admonished John to practice economy and "always be ahead of your business," but he failed to benefit from his own teachings. Land speculation was the accepted way for early state officials to supplement their salaries, but while Ninian Edwards and others grew rich off their dealings, Nathaniel Pope's ventures not only refused to return a profit but also wiped out his savings. John had prepared for college, and his mother wanted him to attend school in the East, but there was no money for tuition. So Judge Pope traveled to Washington to ask a favor of his friends. Ninian Edwards, then a United States senator, agreed to champion John's appointment to West Point, as did Congressman William R. May. Pope also called on Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, both of whom pledged to help. On March 20, 1838, at the age of sixteen, John was accepted into the Military Academy, to graduate, if all went well, with the class of 1842.
At first, nothing seemed to go well. Cadet Pope arrived at West Point on July 1, 1838, and with the other plebes went into summer camp, where he was miserable. He got into some minor trouble, apparently with girls, and his father had to cancel a planned visit to the academy, which meant Pope would not see his parents for two years, when cadets were granted their first leave. Guard duty was interminable, the heat oppressive, and, Pope told his mother, the stiff, gray-wool uniform coat that cadets wore buttoned to the chin chafed his neck and spoiled his good looks.
Cadet Pope was under great pressure to succeed. Judge Pope expected his son to finish first in his class, nothing less. Six months before John was accepted at West Point, Nathaniel had admonished him "to do things right and in apt time.
Excerpted from General John Pope by Peter Cozzens Copyright © 2000 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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