John Ireland lost more political races than he won, but he had an important role in state history. He rose from an impoverished background to become a Civil War officer, judge and governor. Along the way, he helped create two icons of Texas: the University of Texas and the State Capitol.
John Ireland was born on New Years Day 1827 in rural central Kentucky. His parents were Irish immigrants and farmers. He grew up working hard but had little formal education, as very little education was available. He was seen as reliable and was appointed deputy sheriff of Hart County in 1845 at age 18.
He developed a fascination with the law and began studying it at age 24 by apprenticing himself to a local attorney. He was admitted to the bar later in 1851. The next year, he moved to Texas for a fresh start and an opportunity to establish his own law practice. He settled in the town of Seguin where he soon became an important figure in the community. Ireland served as mayor of Seguin briefly in 1858.
Ireland had fought for secession and participated in the 1861 secession convention. After Texas pulled out of the Union, Ireland immediately enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army. He saw little action during the Civil War as his assignments kept him within the state, patrolling the coast and the borders. Nevertheless, he dramatically rose through the ranks, ending the war as a lieutenant colonel.
The chaos of Reconstruction politics swept up Ireland. In 1866, he was part of the state constitutional convention. Shortly afterward, he was elected judge. However, Texas and many other southern states were placed under martial law in 1867 for failing to uphold the rights for freedmen and impeding Reconstruction. Ireland and many other politicians were thrust from office.
As Reconstruction was winding down, Ireland re-entered politics and was elected to the state legislature In 1872. While serving in the legislature, Ireland was the sponsor for the legislation that allowed the University of Texas to finally become a reality. The creation of the university was an effort shared by many over a long period of time. He lost a race for U. S. Senate in 1874, but in 1875 he was appointed to briefly serve as an appellate judge.
In 1878, Ireland challenged Congressman Gustav Schleicher for the Sixth District congressional seat, which then included the San Antonio area. Schleicher, a German immigrant and businessman, faced a formidable challenger in Ireland. He was able to win his second term, but he died just months after his victory in January 1879. Ireland chose not to run in the special election to fill the remainder of the term, a race ultimately won by attorney Christopher Upson.
In 1882, he won election easily to become the state’s eighteenth governor. As governor, he pushed for property taxes and faced the Fence Cutting Wars. With the 1874 invention of barbed wire, large ranchers started fencing in their properties, blocking in small farms and ranches. In response, fences began getting cut, and violence erupted on the frontier. Ireland sent in the Texas Rangers to maintain order and pushed legislation in 1884 to give the Rangers special powers in these cases.
The other major issue of his administration was construction of the new State Capitol. Fire destroyed the old Capitol in 1881. Money had been appropriated for a new building, and construction started after Ireland’s 1884 re-election. The distinctive pink granite look of the State Capitol is due in part to Ireland. He insisted on Texas limestone instead of importing limestone from Indiana. After using this stone to lay the foundation, iron particles in the stone rusted and discolored the stone. Learning of the problem, owners of Granite Mountain near Marble Falls in Burnet County approached Ireland with a solution. They owners donated the pink granite to complete the building, an offer Ireland happily accepted. The new State Capitol was formally dedicated in April 1888.
He chose not to run for a third term in 1886 and instead ran for the U. S. Senate. He challenged incumbent Sen. Samuel B. Maxey. At that time, the state legislature still elected Senators rather than the voters. Legislators rejected both Gov. Ireland and Sen. Maxey in favor of veteran Congressman John H. Reagan. Ireland never ran for election again.
After Ireland finished his terms as governor in January 1887, he quietly resumed his law practice in Seguin, where he remained a respected figure. He had made a tidy profit in the stock market over the years, but this was all wiped out in the Panic of 1893, a deep economic depression that crushed stocks and left millions unemployed nationally. John Ireland died deeply in debt in 1896 at the age of 69.