In 1834, in the building that housed the law office of James Sidney Rollins, a young. self-taught artist, George Caleb Bingham, opened a studio in Columbia, Missouri. The two men quickly became friends.
On June 6, 1837, Rollins married Mary Elizabeth Hickman (1820 -1907). That same summer, he provided George Caleb Bingham with the financial help the artist needed to travel east to study art formally.
in 1838. although Missouri was predominantly a Democratic state, voters elected Major Rollins to the state legislature as a Whig. The Whig Party evolved from the American System developed by Henry Clay (1777-1852), a long-time friend of the Rollins family. His American System, based on the premise that all national interests are inter-twined, advocated a strong, centralized government that would promote economic growth through a coordinated infrastructure of public roads and dredged rivers, Whigs promoted a protective tariff, a national bank and credit system favorable to business. They abhorred political patronage and executive privilege and advocated for public education. On slavery. the national party officially deferred to the Constitution. which made the peculiar institution a states’ rights’ issue. Many northern Whigs. however. were abolitionists.
For his time, James Sidney Rollins was an enlightened man. Even though he believed people of color to be inferior, he hated slavery. Like many, he blamed the peculiar institution on the British, who foisted it on the colonies to solve a labor shortage. Two hundred years later, that short-term solution cursed Missouri and every other post-colonial state that had not had the foresight to prohibit slavery, with complex economic, social, and moral problems.
For Rollins, slavery was also an economic issue. He owned 34 slaves. Emancipation would cause him to lose between $20.000 and $40.000 ($250.000 – $500.000 in today’s dollars). And, like many slave owners. he worried for the safety of white families if slaves were freed. Eventually, he settled on gradual emancipation as the proper course of action.
His beliefs aligned enough with the voters of Boone County for them to return Rollins to the state legislature in 1840 and again in 1846. He wrote legislation for railroad construction, river improvement, and for the establishment of a state university. He corresponded with Dorothea Dix and introduced a bill to establish a state mental hospital.
In 1848, Rollins lost a bid for Missouri governor but was elected to the state senate. In the same election, voters elected his friend George Caleb Bingham to the state legislature. But in a matter of weeks, Bingham’s wife Elizabeth died of consumption and their nine-month-old son died a few days later. So grief-stricken was Bingham that he wanted to resign from public service. Rollins convinced the artist /politician that work would ease his sorrow. Bingham took his seat in the statehouse.
During the summer. when the legislature was in recess. Bingham, his three-year-old daughter, Clara, and his seven-year-old son, Horace. visited the Rollins home in Columbia. Missouri. James and Mary Elizabeth then had four children: James Jr.. 8. Laura. 5. and Mary. 3. and Sarah. an infant. Rollins took time to introduce his friend George to a cultured young woman. Eliza Thomas (1828-1876). the eldest daughter of a professor at Columbia College. Before the end of the year, and a year after the death of Elizabeth, Bingham married Eliza. One can presume James Sidney was best man.
Rollins ran again for governor in 1857. Again, he lost. But as the Civil War approached. the state’s voters found his moderation appealing. James Sidney Rollins ran successfully for a seat in the United States Congress as a Constitutional Unionist. He served throughout the Civil War years from March 4. 1861 – March 3. 1865.
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Winn. Kenneth. “James Sidney Rollins.” Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial: http://mocivilwar150.com/history/figure/194