History Record View

Title: Judge James McCabe
File Attachment:
Attachment Type:

Standing out distinctly as one of the central figures of the judiciary of Indiana of the generations that are past is the name of the late Judge James McCabe, of WIlliamsport. Prominent in legal circles and equally so in public matters beyond the confines of Warren county, with a reputation in one of the most exacting of professions that won him a name for distinguished services second to that of none of his contemporaries, there was for many years no more prominent or honored man in western Indiana, which he long dignified with his citizenship. Achieving success in the courts at an age when most young men are just entering upon the formative period of their lives, wearing the judicial ermine with becoming dignity and bringing to


every case submitted to him a clearness of perception and ready power of analysis characteristic of the learned jurist, his name and work for decades were allied with the legal institutions, public enterprises and political interests of the state in such a way as to earn him recognition as one of the distinguished citizens in a community noted for the high order of its talent. A high purpose and an unconquerable will, vigorous mental powers, diligent study and devotion to duty were some of the means by which he made himself eminently useful, and every ambitious youth who fights the battle of life with the prospect of ultimate success may pursue with profit the biography herewith presented, for therein are embodied many lessons as well as incentive, and, although he "serenely sleeps in the windowless palaces of rest," his influence still pervades the lives of thousands, making them better and happier; thus, truly, with Shakespeare, "The good that men do lives after them."

Judge McCabe was born in Darke county, Ohio, July 4, 1834. A characteristic of the subject was that he usually had things go as he wished. This may have been an inherited trait; for about the year 1830, his father, James McCabe, Sr., eloped from Middletown, south of Terre Haute, Indiana, with Jane Lee, daughter of an old Virginia family. They went to Ohio, after they were married, and there the subject of this memoir was born, being one of five sons. While an infant his parents removed to Kosciusko county, Indiana. From there they went to Illinois and the boy that afterward became one of the supreme judges of Indiana plowed prairie sod with an ox team on the ground where Watseka now stands. Three of the sons of the stern Whig father ran away from home, coming to Indiana. James was one of the three. He went to Crawfordsville, attracted there by the presence of relatives of his mother, the Lees. At this time he was seventeen years old, and here it was that he first went to school, having had no learning whatever up to this time. His first schooling was at a night school taught by Judge Naylor, one of the well known members of the bar. So sensitive was he to the taunts of boys, who laughed at his painful efforts to learn, that it was only the earnest solicitations of Judge Naylor that kept him in school. He made his way in school by working on the Monon railroad as section hand. He boarded wherever handy, and at the age of eighteen married Serena, the daughter of M. M. VanCleve, with whom he boarded. The bride was only sixteen. This was March 24, 1853. Had the Judge lived one day longer he would have celebrated his fifty-eighth wedding anniversary. They began housekeeping on a farm seven miles from Crawfordsville. One day when work was slack, he went to Crawfordsville, and, impelled mainly by curiosity, attended a murder trial in which the prosecutor was the great criminal lawyer, Daniel W. Voorhees, and the defendant's attorney was Edward Hannegan. The splendid eloquence of these two distinguished orators was enough; then and there he kindled the ambition to be a lawyer. He never gave up that ideal. Days were dark many times after that and nothing but hope remained, but he lived to become one of the great attorneys of the state and a member of the supreme court of Indiana.

James McCabe taught school in winters and did what he could get to do in summers, living at Oxford and Pine Village in succession and finally being admitted to the bar and beoming a resident of Williamsport in 1861. Here indeed, for years, the days were dark. The young lawyer knew what it was to walk all the way to Walnut Grove to argue a cause before the squire, but his labors were lightened usually by the success that he had.

In politics Judge McCabe was a Democrat. His reason for being a Democrat was characteristic. He was a "Hard Shell" Baptist, and so were his wife's people. He believed absolutely in the literal interpretation of the Bible and considered that the bible sanctioned slavery. Therefore he allied himself with the Democratic party, although his father was a Whig of uncompromising type. Twice was he nominated for Congress, and in a strong Republican district defeated by only narrow margins. In 1829 he was elected to the state supreme court for a term of six years. Although nominated for a second term, he was defeated with the rest of the ticket.

Three very important opinions were handed down by Judge McCabe while on the bench. The most noted was that of Haggart vs. Stehlin, 137 Indiana, 43. This was one of the noted supreme court decisions that for many years have been gradually cutting down the privileges of the saloon, the most infamous institution that society sanctions. He took advanced ground in this decision, going far beyond any ideas that had ever been presented in any court in the world. The gist of the decision, which was redered in 1898, was that a saloon may become a nuisance, may be enjoined and may have judgment for damages rendered against it. So far-reaching was this decision that it was widely commented on, not only in America but in Europe as well. the Literary Digest gave it considerable space. An interesting fact is that John W. Kern, the present United States senator from Indiana, was the saloon man's attorney. Another famous case was that in which the decision of the lower court sentencing Hinshaw, the preacher who murdered his wife, to the state prison for life, was confirmed. The evidence was purely circumstantial, but the opinion of Judge McCabe reads like a fascinating detective story. And one more famous opinion was that in which he repelled an attack on Indiana law that might have reduced the state to anarchy. Some man had tried to enjoin the holding of an election on the grounds that a legislative apportionment had been illegal. Judge McCabe showed that if such could possibly be the case, then the very argument of the petitioner would be illegal for the same reason and he denied the right of the plaintiffs to be heard on the qustion. These three decisions, even if supported by none of the scores of others, would have marked Judge McCabe as an unusually strong lawyer.

As a public speaker, Judge McCabe had few equals, his oratory being of a style that entranced those who heard him. His diction was perfect, his logic irrestible, his illustrations well chosen, while his well modulated voice, graceful gestures, and charm of manner, all contributed to a most remarkable success in the legal and political forum. Some of his most pleasing and effective speeches were made extemporaneously, for his general knowledge was so broad and comprehensive, his grasp of a subject in all its aspects so quick, and his talent as a speaker so natural, that he could easily, without preparation, make addresses that would have been creditable to most men after careful preparation.

After his retirement from the bench Judge McCabe practiced law with his son, under the firm name of McCabe & McCabe. He enjoyed a wide and lucrative practice and served many times as special judge.

The death of Judge McCabe occurred on March 23, 1911, at his beautiful home in Williamsport, Indiana, after an illness of long duration.

Judge McCabe left, besides the faithful wife, three children, namely: Nancy Ellen, the wife to J. B. Gwin, of Indianapolis; Edwin F., a well known of Crawfordsville, of the firm name of Crane & McCabe. There are twelve grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Mrs. McCabe is the daughter of Mathias and Nancy (Nicholson) VanCleve and she was born in Ross county, Ohio. Mathias VanCleve was born near Shelbyville, Kentucky, in 1810, and he was educated mostly in his native state. He was a Baptist minister of considerable reputation, and he finally came to Indiana and established the family home near Crawfordsville, where they continued to reside for nearly a half century. He was primarily a self-made man, and most of his higher learning was obtained by home study. His family consisted of six children, Mrs. Serena McCabe having been the third in order of birth.

The bar of the Warren circuit court held a memorial service, at Williamsport on May 7, 1911, when the last tribute of respect and honor to his memory was paid by an immense crowd of neighbors and friends. Quite a number of prominent and distinguished jurists and state officers was present. The Judge's desk was massed with beautiful floral decorations and all the arrangements befitted the occasion, at which former Appellate Judge Joseph M. Rabb presided and he spoke at length concerning Judge McCabe as a friend and as a lawyer. Addresses were also made by others, the principal speaker being William J. Bryan, the great Nebraska Commoner having been a close personal friend of Judge McCabe and the two men had been active associates in national politics. Mr. Bryan's speech was an eloquent and complete tribute. He spoke of the late jurist's struggle with poverty to obtain education; of his indomitable energy in pursuing the law; of his industry and perseverance in preparing his cases for court, relating that he would sometimes sit up all night to get up the decisions bearing on the case and thoroughly inform himself upon the case. He said that Mr. McCabe was not deceitful, that he did not know what deceit was, his nature being so high and noble. He spoke of the Judge's rulings while on the supreme bench, said they had become national and had been copied in England. He spoke touchingly of his friendship for the Judge and of his love for him, his friendship being of fifteen years' standing and was one of the pleasantest things of his life. He never needed an invitation to the home at Five Points, for he always found a welcome there whenever he was able to stop and see the Judge. He built his remarks on the four cornerstones essential to form a character like that of Judge McCabe's. They were God, home, society and government. Had he been called upon to speak of a man who did not believe in God he would not know what to say, and could have said but little. Such a belief was necessary for the building of the pure, noble, philanthropic character of Judge McCabe. His next cornerstone was home. For fifty-eight years the Judge had enjoyed and loved his home and it had been a tower of strength to him. The world was richer for him having lived in it and for his children having lived in it. The next cornerstone was society. If you would go over the Great Divide and cross the Rocky Mountains in the place you would be most likely to come to them you would look down into the Grand Canyon eight miles across and almost perpendicularly down a mile and you would see the narrow river that through the ages had been cutting its way down through the massive rocks. Every stream and every rain drop helped to make this river and bring about this result. So every deed of a noble man had its influence on succeeding generations, on and on down the river of time. We owe much to those who were before us. Our society and our government we inherit from our fathers. No man has a right to draw from society without giving back measure for measure. Mr. McCabe knew the demands of society and gave back as much as he drew from it. He chose his champions among the highest and the best in society and society welcomed him. The last cornerstone of his character was government. He did not believe in a government of force, a government forced upon those who do not participate in the government, but a government gave the highest form of citizenship, and gave the greatest possibility of progress to those who stand by their convictions. Judge McCabe stood by his principles, although living in a community where he was in the minority. It must have taken a strong character to have stood alone in this community, and his stand showed him to be such a character. Truth is always alone. The man who first advances a truth is called a fanatic. After a few can see as he does he is called an enthusiast. When all believe as he does he is called a hero. Judge McCabe was a man of honest and independent conviction and he stood by his colors, though at times it appeared that he was fighting a lone battle. To recapitulate, Judge McCabe was not afraid of the people, but believed in them. He believed in popular government. He had a big heart and purity and goodness beamed from his countenance. He believed in the highest form of citizenship and a great government and he looked forward to a life beyond.

The following memorial was prepared by the local bar association, the committee drafting the resolutions being William H. Durborow, H. D. Billings, Victor H. Ringer and Chester G. rossiter; part of the memorial, bearing on the life of the decceased is omitted, to avoid repetition from foregoing paragraphs in this sketch:

"From 1861 until his elevation to the supreme bench of the state, Judge McCabe's career as a lawyer was one of unremitting labor, crowned with remarkable success. By his power of oratory, he could sway a jury as few lawyers could. When espousing a client's cause he never rested from his efforts in his behalf. He had a large, varied and widely extended practice, and could and did meet the most distinguished lawyers on equal terms. During his term of six years on the bench, the opinions prepared by him have become masterpieces of profound learning, many of them on public questions of lasting benefit to the people of the state at large. But his life work is finished. It was well and ably done. In summing up the profeesional career of this honored and honorable gentleman, it can be truthfully said, that:

As an advocate he possessed a remarkable power of clear statement and convincing logic. As a counselor he was exact, careful and carried his researches into the remotest sources of the law. As a public orator, he swayed men with force of argument, and molded their ideas to coincide with his own. As a judge, he was upright, masterful and added lust to the bench of a mighty state; therefore be it

"Resolved by the bar of Warren Circuit Court that in the death of Judge James McCabe our bar has lost the guidance of its oldest and wisest member; with reverence we will be guided by his precept and example. that his family has lost a devoted and loving husband and father and they have the sympathy of our bar. That the state has lost a wise and able jurist, the community a popular and distinguished citizen. Be it further

"Resolved, that the memorial and these resolutions be spread on record in the order book of the Warren circuit court, a copy thereof be furnished by the clerk, under his hand and the seal of the court, to the family of our deceased member, and that a copy be published in the county papers."

As a further insight into the characcter of Judge McCabe, the following letter from United States Senator John W. Kern, of Indianapolis, written to the son of the subject of this memoir, will be of interest:

"I had known James McCabe since the days of my early manhood, and my admiration for him increased as the years rolled by until it amounted to genuine affection. He was a man of sterling qualities. His convictions were positive and always expressed fearlessly, though he always manifested a rare spirit of charity towards those who honestly differed from him in opinion.

"He was a just judge, whose frist aim was the security of justice to the litigant, and to maintain at the same time the dignity of high judicial office which he so long honored.

"As a lawyer, he threw his whole soul into his work and to his great legal knowledge 'he added the saving grace of common sense' in such a degree as to make him a most formidable adversary.

"As a citizen, he stood for the highest ideals and his voice was always to be heard in behalf of temperance and morality. but it was as a friend, true, loyal, and devoted, that he won my personal affection, so that I now mourn with you as a kinsman."

[Page 705-711.]

Date: 1/1/1913
Origin: Past and Present of Fountain and Warren Counties Indiana
Author: Thomas A. Clifton, Editor
Record ID: 00001135
Type: Book
Source Archive: Williamsport-Washington Township Public Library
Date Entered: 8/10/2001
Collection: Williamsport-Washington Township Public Library
Entered By: Leslie J. Rice

Information in this record is provided for personal research purposes only and may not be reproduced for publication. If you have questions about copyright issues contact the archive source listed above.