His quarrel with the local newspaperman grew out of the violent debate over “nullification,” the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the Palmetto State and the national government. European trade was the lifeblood of the South Carolina economy, which had been hemorrhaging badly under the commercial restraints of the federal tariff of 1828.
The passage of a second and more restrictive tariff four years later provoked unprecedented defiance. In a dress rehearsal for secession, the South Carolina assembly adopted an ordinance declaring both acts “null and void.” Andrew Jackson responded with a presidential threat to send in the army to enforce the law of the land.
As an enthusiastic supporter of the nullification movement, Hemphill took personal offense at the pro-Jackson views expressed by editor M.M. Levy. The adversaries met two days later on the field of honor, and the journalist proved the better marksman by winging the challenger in the traditional exchange.
Less than two years after moving to Texas in the summer of 1838, Hemphill was appointed chief justice of the new nation’s highest court. He served the Republic and the Lone Star State in that important capacity for the next 14 years.
While widely respected for the impartial way he presided over the supreme court, Hemphill did have his detractors. One critic claimed that when the court was not in session the chief justice would “lie about the places appropriated for loafers in a perfect state of torpor like a lizard in the winter.”
Hemphill was a judicial activist in the truest sense of the modern-day term. He participated in the famous Council House Fight with the Comanches in 1840 and stabbed a chief to death in the wild me-lee. The following year, he left the bench to join the Somervell Expedition in pursuit of Mexican invaders, who temporarily terrorized San Antonio.
Legislators met on Nov. 9, 1857 to pick two new senators. James Pinckney Henderson, Texas’ first governor, was the nearly unanimous choice to succeed Thomas Rusk, who had committed suicide the previous July. But the selection of a replacement for Sam Houston took 10 hours of rancorous wrangling and behind-the-scenes bargaining until Chief Justice Hemphill finally won out over William Scurry on the 22nd ballot.
The sorest loser in the chamber was the past president of the Republic, who had prematurely booked passage for Washington, D.C. Anson Jones could not believe lawmakers gave his senate seat to Hemphill, a man he accused of having “the practices of a gamester, the habits of a drunkard with a life of licentiousness and incest and a 17-year pensionship upon Texas.”
In the U.S. Senate, Hemphill was an adamant and articulate advocate of southern sovereignty and the right to part company with the Union. In late 1860, he made such a persuasive case for secession that proponents of the pullout distributed 200,000 copies of the spellbinding senate speech in fence-straddling Virginia.
Hemphill and 13 southern colleagues issued a dramatic call for “immediate session” on Jan. 6, 1861. The next month he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to witness the birth of the Confederacy as the first six states – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana – to withdraw formed a separate government.
Even after Texas seceded in March and war began in April, Hemphill stubbornly refused to give up his seat in what had become the northern senate. He remained in the enemy capital until his inevitable expulsion that July.
John Hemphill did not live to see the tragic conclusion of the conflict and the punitive post-war occupation of his beloved Texas and South Carolina. After a four-day bout with pneumonia, he died at Richmond, Virginia in January 1862.
The former chief justice had company on his sad journey home. Col. Hugh McLeod succumbed to the same sickness the day before Hemphill, and their remains were transported together back to Austin for burial. The whole town turned out in a cold drizzle to pay their last respects to the fallen heroes.
During his 23-year absence from South Carolina, Hemphill visited his birthplace only once. He had hardly walked in the door, when a particularly pious sister asked if he believed God had forgiven him for fighting the long forgotten duel.
Hemphill would have none of it.
“I did not come here to be lectured,” he growled through clenched teeth. “Pack my clothes and I will return to Texas.”
And that was the last his family ever saw of him.