West H. Humphreys

West Humphreys was a jurist whose sympathy for and relationship with the Confederacy led to impeachment. He was born in Montgomery County on August 5, 1806. His father, Parry W. Humphreys, was a state judge and a representative to the Thirteenth Congress before turning to banking and moving to Missouri.

Humphreys studied law in his father's office. He then entered Transylvania University at Lexington, Kentucky, to complete his training but returned home when his health failed. He was licensed to practice law in 1828. Humphreys moved to Somerville in newly established Fayette County and represented the Western District at the constitutional convention of 1834. His service as the chairman of the committee on legislation earned him attention as an able legal mind. In 1835 he was the first West Tennessean to seek the office of governor, but, according to historian Paul Bergeron, Humphreys's “purpose in seeking the state's highest office remains a mystery.” (1)

From 1835 to 1838 Humphreys served in the lower house of the general assembly. In 1839 he became attorney general of Tennessee and reporter of the state supreme court. He served in both capacities for eleven years and distinguished himself by editing the eleven-volume Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of Tennessee, 1839-1851. He was a delegate to the Nashville Convention of 1850. After returning to private practice, Humphreys was appointed a U.S. district judge by President Franklin Pierce in 1853.

Humphreys supported secession, and after Tennessee broke with the Union, he accepted an appointment for the Confederate district judgeship of Tennessee. In 1862 the U.S. Senate tried Humphreys on seven articles of impeachment, including the charges that he had publicly called for secession, given aid for the armed rebellion, conspired with Jefferson Davis, served as a judge for the Confederacy and, acting in that capacity, ruled for the confiscation of the property of Military Governor Andrew Johnson and U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Catron. Humphreys was found guilty of high treason. On June 26, 1862, Humphreys was impeached and forbidden to hold any office under the federal government. He held his Confederate position until the end of the war.

Humphreys never returned to active practice after the war. He argued for prohibition of alcohol and returned to his writing. His publications included Suggestions on the Subject of Bank Charters (1859), Some Suggestions on the Subject of Monopolies and Special Charters (1859), and An Address on the Use of Alcoholic Liquors and the Consequences (1879). He died at the age of seventy-six at the residence of his son-in-law near Nashville on October 16, 1882.

Suggested Reading

Richard L. Aynes, “The Impeachment and Removal of Tennessee Judge West Humphreys,” Georgia Journal of Southern Legal History 2 (1993): 71-98; Kermit L. Hall, “West H. Humphreys and the Crisis of the Union,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 34 (1975): 48-69

Citation Information

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  • Article Title West H. Humphreys
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 22, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018