President James Buchanan signed the 1861 legislation creating Dakota Territory, but it was left to the next president, Abraham Lincoln, to appoint territorial leaders. For the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Dakota Territory, President Lincoln appointed an abolitionist congressman from Ohio, Philemon Bliss.
Born in Canton, Connecticut in 1813, Philemon Bliss studied law at Hamilton College in New York. Admitted to the bar in 1840, over the following two decades Bliss set up practice at Elyria, Ohio, served as presiding judge of the fourteenth judicial circuit of Ohio and was elected to the Thirty-fourth and Thirty-fifth US Congress as a Republican.
When Lincoln sought out a judicial appointee for the new Dakota Territory in 1861, Bliss attracted attention not only on his professional qualifications and close friendship with Lincoln’s Secretary of Treasury, Salmon P. Chase. Bliss was also a long-time ardent opponent of slavery, as evidenced by an event involving John Mercer Langston in 1853. Langston, the son of a Virginia plantation owner and an emancipated slave, had ambitions to become a lawyer. But because of his skin color, Langston’s applications to law school had been rejected. Rather than give up, Langston turned to the sympathetic Philemon Bliss, who agreed to tutor him in 1853. With Bliss’ assistance, John Mercer Langston became the first black lawyer in Ohio, passing the bar in 1854.
Following Philemon Bliss’ appointment as Chief Justice in Dakota Territory in 1861, he found the Supreme Court had little appellate business. But he was hardly idle as the three Supreme Court justices also served as the only trial judges for the territory.
The chief justice pursued other political aspirations as well. When William Jayne resigned his governorship of Dakota Territory in March of 1863, Bliss threw his hat into the ring against Newton Edmunds. But President Lincoln appointed Edmunds as the second territorial governor.
Not one easily discouraged, Bliss next set his sights on a territorial seat in Congress against fellow Republican Dr. Walter A. Burleigh. With no Democratic candidate on the horizon, Bliss assumed he would easily capture the votes of the territorial Democrats. But just as his campaign got underway, the incumbent delegate to Congress, a Democrat, John B. Todd announced his candidacy. In the interest of maintaining party unity and knowing that he would loss his Democratic supporters to Todd, Bliss withdrew his nomination.
With this defeat, in 1864, Philemon Bliss and his family left Dakota Territory to serve in the Supreme Court of Missouri and eventually as dean of the law division of the State University of Missouri before his death on this day, August 25, 1889.
"Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: Philemon Bliss ", http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=B000560
Kingsbury, George W. History of Dakota Territory. Vol. 1. Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1915.
Reid, Bill. "Dakota Territory." In Lincoln and the Western Territories, ed. Calvin N. Smith Ralph Y. McGinnis: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.
Smith, J. Clay. Emancipation: The Making of a Black Lawyer, 1844-1944: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.