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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Richard Ellis

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

His imagined likeness stands frozen in bronze outside the courthouse of the county bearing his name, but Richard Ellis is a long way from being one of the more-recognized figures in Texas history.

The Virginia-born (Valentine's Day, 1781) lawyer-planter served as President of the constitutional convention that met in March of 1836 to craft a declaration of independence from Mexico as well as the organic charter for a new Republic of Texas. Ellis wielded the gavel, presuming the 50-plus delegate gathered in a window-less frame structure at Washington-on-the-Brazos had been able to afford one, for the contentious fortnight it took to get their work done.

As a young man, Ellis had moved from the Old Dominion to Alabama. He served as a delegate to that state's constitutional convention and became a member of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Ellis' first service to Texas came on his initial visit in 1826. Though he had traveled to the Mexican province to collect money someone owed him, he ended up trying to stop a rebellion, not participate in one. Acting as an agent for colonizer Stephen F. Austin, he unsuccessfully tried to talk Haden Edwards out of his aspirations for an independent Texas.

Edwards fled to Louisiana and Ellis returned to his sweet home in Alabama. The aristocratic Southerner left Alabama for good in early 1834. He brought his family and established a plantation near the Red River in what is now Bowie County, land then claimed both by Arkansas and Mexico.

When another revolution loomed, Ellis got elected as a delegate to the constitutional convention. His colleagues quickly voted him their presiding officer.

Diarist William Fairfax Gray, another Virginia gentleman, watched it all unfold. "The President [Ellis] is losing ground," Gray wrote on March 11. "He made a good impression at first, but by his partiality and weakness and a great conceit he has forfeited the respect of the body, and a laxity of order begins to be apparent."

Five days later Gray wrote: "Great confusion and irregularity prevailed in the Convention today. The President has lost all dignity and all authority."

Gray continued to portray Ellis as too partisan, egotistical, argumentative and alarmist. Rather than wrapping up the business of the convention and leaving to join the fight, Ellis suggested moving the convention to the Nacogdoches area.

On March 17, aware that the Alamo had fallen and knowing the Mexican army now marched in their direction, the convention adjourned sine die "without any vote of thanks to the President. One member wittily said he thought the friends of the President ought to give him a vote of thanks for his partiality."

In fairness, Ellis presided over a cantankerous lot, men "with the bark on" as one historian later put it. They argued, they drank to excess or anything else, and they argued more. Three of their number had blood relatives in the Alamo. They worried about their families and their own necks. Too, by Gray's own admission, Ellis did have friends. Unfortunately for posterity, Gray is the only one who bothered to keep a diary during the convention. A good guess is that Gray and his acquaintances stood politically opposed to Ellis and that attitude colored his opinion of the man and the record he left us.

In further fairness, the convention under Ellis' control did manage to approve Texas' Declaration of Independence and a constitution. Their predecessors of 1776 in Philadelphia had been no less contentious.

After the revolution, no matter Gray's opinion of him, Ellis had no trouble getting elected to the new republic's first Congress. In fact, he presided as president pro tempore of the Senate. With Ellis hefting the gavel in the Senate, lawmakers passed 62 acts or joint resolutions in two months. Ellis continued as presiding officer of the higher chamber until Mirabeau B. Lamar took the oath of office as Vice President, but stayed on as a member of the Senate until 1840.

Ellis returned to his plantation, where he died on Dec. 20, 1846. The Clarksville Standard reported he burned to death after his clothing ignited, apparently from standing too close to an open fire.

His family buried him on the plantation about three miles north of present New Boston. With the passage of time, the location of his grave was forgotten. But on Sept. 26, 1929, the Dallas Morning News reported that Ellis' "long lost grave" had been found.

"A dense forest of huge pine trees grew up in the family cemetery and the tombstone placed on the grave was dislodged and fell," the newspaper reported. "Rep. R.M. Hubbard of New Boston…employed laborers to remove the surface of the earth in the old cemetery, resulting in the discovery of the footstone marked with the initials 'R.E.' The base of the headstone also was found intact."

Workers exhumed Ellis' remains for reburial in the State Cemetery in Austin that October.

In the spring of 1935, one year shy of a century since Ellis steered the Declaration of Independence and the republic's Constitution through the parliamentary process, the Legislature appropriated $15,000 for a statue in his honor.

The public artwork, fashioned by New York sculptor Attillio Piccirilli, was unveiled at the Ellis County Courthouse in Waxahachie on Nov. 12, 1936 by Ellis' great-granddaughter, Marie Ellis of Dallas.

Though no image had been found of Ellis, Piccirilli, with input from Centennial officials, chiseled the features of a youthful, high browed, clean shaven man perpetually demonstrating, as newspapers reported, an "attitude…of defiance to oppression."

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
April 3, 2007

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